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The Soundtrack of My Life
Pop, hard rock, hip-hop, and metal reflect my changes
Otis Hampton
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Teachers, subjects, classrooms, schoolbooks, friends: They’re always there as you move through school, but they’re always changing. For me, music is like that—a constant presence that changes as I change. At first, music connected me to other people, but then it separated me from others and even, for a time, from myself.

In the 3rd grade, most of us liked the same type of music: pop. Pop music gives listeners a chance to release the real singer inside of them, and that’s what it did for my friends Darrel, Stephen, Samuel, Glenn, and me.

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The five of us especially enjoyed The Backstreet Boys, ‘NSYNC, and 98 Degrees, boy bands that were wildly popular at the time. We thought it was funny that they sang like a bunch of girls, and we also liked the beats and the clever dance moves. We started our own cover band and called ourselves “Black Kids,” since all of us were African-American.

We started singing the songs that everyone knew and dancing the way the boys in the videos did. We pretended to have solo records, arguments, and resignations from the group. Other kids at school played along by pretending to be interviewers, talk-show hosts, and even kindergarten “paparazzi.” We would hold group meetings to discuss boy band problems.

Stephen would demand, “How come you and Darrel get all the solos while we’re the back-up dancers?” Glenn stomped out once after shouting, “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer … as soon as I find out where I can get one.”

Eventually the five of us quit the group and went back to just being fans. It was the last time being a music fan was simple for me, and it would be a long time before I’d be popular at school again.

On to Harder Stuff

One day I was sitting at home and felt the floor in my room start to vibrate. I knew for a fact that nobody in the house had a foot that big. My adoptive mom called to me from her room, “Tell Brian to turn that music down. I’m on the phone.” I made my way downstairs cautiously.

Brian is my mom’s biological child, and much older than me—in his 30s. I’ve known Brian since I was 5, when I came to their home from foster care. They adopted me a few years later, and around that time Brian’s (our) father died. I was 7. I had loved my new father very much, and I reacted to his death by getting into a lot of fights and other trouble.

Since then, Brian had taken on a stern father role with me. If I got into trouble at school, there was no explaining my side of the story. All I would get out of Brian was, “I don’t care who started it—if the teacher says ‘sit down,’ you sit down,” or “I don’t want to hear it,” or my personal favorite, “You are such a liar.”

image by Rafael Figueroa

It was hard standing up to Brian. Nevertheless, I had to do what my mom told me. I yelled out: “Brian! Mom said to turn the stereo down!” Usually, I would flee as quickly as possible from him, but this time I pressed my ear to his door.

The guitars, bass, and drums made me think of an action movie starring Vin Diesel. A voice that sounded like it came from an insane asylum screamed out: “Everything you say to me/ Takes me one step closer to the edge—and I’m about to break!” This was hardcore aggression and anger—this was Linkin Park.

It spoke to me more than the heartbreak in pop music. It sounded like the singer was going through a rough time. I guess I related that to the tough time I had trying to communicate with my family—among other things that made me angry.

Messages in the Music

Pretty soon, I was watching music videos with my brother, from bands like Mudvayne, Tool, and Stone Temple Pilots. We both liked screaming along with the songs and nodding our heads rhythmically. We’d also discuss what we liked or disliked about each track, and soon we started talking about other things, too. Brian even commended me on my achievements in school. I was very happy with our new relationship, and hard rock music seemed to have started it.

I started asking my mom for CDs from Linkin Park and other bands like P.O.D. (Payable On Death) and Disturbed. Lyrics like P.O.D.’s “I feel so alive for the very first time” or Linkin Park’s “If I could change, I would / Take back the pain, I would / Retrace every wrong move that I made, I would” fit with what I was feeling at that age. Listening to these songs made me feel I wasn’t the only one who was distressed.

In a way, I had grown up at a young age. Right after my dad died, I let out my anger in fighting, but since then I’d taken control of myself. What I was angry at now was the disobedience I saw everywhere I turned: little kids disrespecting their parents and defacing their schools; teenagers stealing junk food and sneakers; and everyone cursing in every sentence. I felt isolated from those kids.

Brian told me time and time again about the consequences of disrespect for others and myself. Having spent several years in foster care, I knew better than most kids that you could end up alone and unprotected. The song “World So Cold” by Mudvayne confirmed what I already knew about how harsh this world can be as a result of things like neglect and ignorance.

Changing Faces

As I moved on to middle school, I became the target of students who characterized themselves as “gang members.” They picked on me because I seemed different. Maybe it was because my pants weren’t sagged down below my underwear, or maybe because I speak without slurring my speech. Whatever the reason was, these wannabe thugs put me through my own personal hell.

image by Rafael Figueroa

This “gang” regularly beat me up and stuffed me into lockers. As the school year wore on, I tried not to care. I ignored them as much as I could. Some people say that rock music only talks about loneliness and sadness, but that worked for me. Music helped me survive this time because I figured out a way to cancel out all the crap I’d been taking: put on my headphones and keep on walking.

All my old friends, including my former bandmates, had become young thugs themselves—stealing, cursing, flipping the ever-popular middle finger, and my least favorite, instigating fights. Their speech was filled with nonsense like “What up?” and “Yo!” and they all loved musicians with names like Snoop Dogg or Warren G.

Yes, hip-hop had arrived at my middle school.

The funny thing about hip-hop was I liked it! The beats, the clever rhymes, the fashion sense: It was dumb, but fun. Maybe being like everyone else wasn’t a crime. I started thinking if the world had already gone to the “dawgs,” then I might as well join them. I thought that if I listened to this music enough to memorize it, then I wouldn’t get beat up or rejected from the different cliques.

Entering the O-Zone

As confused and scared as I was, I decided to act stupid (or “stoopid”) like everyone else. I started using “street” language, cursing in every sentence, lacing my talk with double negatives, wearing flags in my back pocket, and “flipping the bird” at everyone.

I didn’t have to fake the hip-hop limp to the side, because I have cerebral palsy. My new hip-hop friends didn’t know that was the real way I walked, and they gave me respect for being a thug. I knew it was stupid, but after the abuse I’d taken, I was greedy for the attention and popularity.

The Otis that everyone remembered as a well-educated young man was replaced by a character called “O-Zone,” a boy who liked nothing but rap. Looking back, I’m surprised that I never beat myself up for being like everyone else. I kept thinking, “Am I me or am I them?”

The truth is, rap music never spoke to me on a deep level. Nothing about the aggression of rap made me feel tough, because it all seemed to be about acting like everyone else. And the lyrics are idiotic: “My chain is so shiny,” or “I got mad money.”

There was one artist I did identify with, who went beyond the rap clichés: Eminem. When you listen to this guy, it’s as if you’re actually feeling his pain when he talks about his mother or his girlfriend. I knew he raised controversy, but at the time most of what he was saying made sense to me, and that’s more than you could say about other famous rappers.

image by Rafael Figueroa

Blood Is Metal

After three shameful years of junior high, I successfully moved on to high school. None of my old friends went there, so once again I had a chance to reinvent myself—and leave hip-hop behind. I went back to rock music and once again everyone picked on me because I wasn’t like them.

I turned to one song in particular after I’d get beaten up—“Happy?” by Mudvayne. The sound was heavy enough to make you feel as though you were in a mosh pit and everyone was free to go as crazy as they wanted to. The singer, Chad Gray (or Kud), screams out lyrics about ripping wounds and tearing bones and then asks, “Are you feeling happy now?” That’s the track I’d blare through my headphones after getting my ass handed to me.

Eventually, Mudvayne brought me more than lonely comfort. During lunch, I would hang out in the art room with my 9th grade art teacher, Ms. Fletcher, and write down the lyrics of rock songs in a notebook I carried. Four other 10th grade boys hung out there, too, and I’d listen to them talk. One day, the guy named Yusef said to one of his friends, Frankie: “Hey, did you hear Mudvayne’s new album? They took the face paint off.”

I interrupted, with a bit of hesitation, “I had no idea they made a new album—but they took the face paint off before, in their video for ‘World So Cold.’”

The Uses of Music

I joined the conversation and soon I was part of the group. Yusef and the other guys turned my attention to metal bands like Celtic Frost, Slayer, Metallica, All That Remains, and Into Eternity. Songs like “Severe Emotional Distress” by Into Eternity capture a feeling of emptiness that I find comforting.

Hard rock and metal help me control my anger by entering into it. The sound pulses through my veins and I picture myself in a music video for that particular song. In that video, nobody bothers me. The isolation doesn’t feel lonely but great, like I have time to myself, and I’m as happy as I’ve ever been in my life.

As for Yusef and the rest of the guys, music brought us together as a group. We like discussing the musicians and the music, and it helps us talk about the personal stuff we go through.

Music can describe my mood, give me hope, and set me free from my encounters with bullies and thugs or even parents and siblings. It lets me share in someone else’s emotions without revealing myself.

(FCYU-2009-09-04b)