Words by Dave Bry Photos by Shadi
Sorry for squeezing your hand so tightly at the Gravediggaz concert.
This would have been fall 1997. I was working at Vibe magazine. You had looked me up and given me a call after reading something I wrote — and I was flattered. We hadn’t spoken in a couple years, I don’t think. Not since we’d graduated college. We hadn’t spoken in any substantial way, really, since you’d broken up with me at the end of junior year. Which was okay. We’d only been together for a few months. A nice, easy-going relationship; never very emotional, never a huge big deal. But I was freshly single again when you called, and (I hope it won’t make you uncomfortable to note) you were the most beautiful woman I’d ever gone out with. So I was more than just flattered. I was totally psyched. I would have very much liked to be going out with you again. As you know, you are Black and I am White. I mention this because the fact came into play that night. At least for me, it did.
I had gotten us on the guest list for a Gravediggaz concert. Gravediggaz were a sort of rap supergroup formed by RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan and Prince Paul, who produced the first three De La Soul albums, and two lesser known MCs named Frukwan and Poetic. They had just released, or were just about to release, their second album, The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel, which I had reviewed for Vibe. (Here, I have to pause and extend a side apology to anyone who read that review. Because it started with a line that I liked very much when I wrote, but have come to regard as embarrassingly self-indulgent. I said, I think in the very first sentence, that the Gravediggaz sound was “heavier than seven lead weathervanes.” It was fun, sure, to write about rap music in rhyme, and I’m not opposed to the practice in principle. But clearly, I’d gotten drunk on the sound of the syntax, and forgotten the importance of the meanings of words. Do they even make weathervanes out of lead? I mean, I’m sure it’s been done. But it can’t be the standard, can it? I mean, are weathervanes particularly known for being heavy? They shouldn’t be, right? They are designed to be pushed by the wind, after all. That’s their purpose.)
Anyway, the Gravediggaz: They were exploring this new style, “horrorcore,” pushing the violence and gore of gangsta rap over the top, in a winking way, and setting it to beats of an appropriate mood. Good Halloween music, spooky, psychedelic funk. They had a strong Black-power bent, too — RZA being deep into the beliefs of the Five Percent Nation of Islam. White people are sometimes referred to as “devils” in their lyrics.
I really liked them. You did, too, and said yes when I invited you to come see them. We met at my place first, to smoke pot, which was something we’d always enjoyed doing together, before heading up to the show, which was at the old Supper Club, I think, off Times Square.
Whatever the venue, it was a dark, smoky scene when we arrived. A little like a basement party, though the ceiling was very high. Gravediggaz drew an audience from the grimier, grittier side of hip-hop. Poetic is holding a knife up to his eye on the cover to their first album. There’s a picture of a foot with a mortuary tag hanging from its toes on the back. There were not many women at the concert, and not many White people. I remember seeing only one other white person all night; in fact, a big, burly, bearded guy who I took to be a bouncer.
My awareness of these demographics was heightened by the fact that you and I were getting a lot of attention. Some of this attention took the form of guys looking at me hard. Some of it took the form of them approaching you, and whispering in your ear. This was somewhat uncomfortable. I don’t know what any of them said to you, but a part of me wanted to tell them, “Come on, man. She’s with me.” Of course, I didn’t actually know if that was the case in the way I wanted it to be. We were on a date, technically, but we weren’t in fact, dating. And also, is that ever really a good thing to say? People are allowed to talk to other people. Even to whisper to them. Women can speak for themselves, as you were doing quite well, politely declining offer af- ter offer. Part of me wondered whether I was cramping your style. Maybe you would have liked to let one of these guys buy you a drink? Maybe you would have given one of them your phone number if I hadn’t been there? I didn’t, of course, say anything about any of this. I nodded a lot. The music was loud. For which I was thankful.
So as dark as it was, and as thick with the crowd, I felt a bit like there was a white spotlight shining on us. (As stoned as I was, and as generally self-conscious and absorbed…) This feeling intensified when, about halfway through the concert, the music stopped and, to introduce the next song, the group rolled out this giant stage prop, a twenty-foot tall guillotine, with a large dummy White person — a plastic mannequin, or maybe paper-mache? — lying at the bottom. Then RZA took the microphone and went into a long diatribe against the White man. Like a mock trial, listing all the offenses the White man had committed against the Black man throughout history. The middle passage, slavery, Jim Crow laws, teaching false knowledge, etc. “And for these crimes against the Black man,” he shouted at the end, “I pronounce you GUILTY!!!” Then the guillotine’s blade dropped and chopped off the white dummy’s head and the crowd erupted in a roar of approval.
“Fear” is a strong word. I never felt directly threatened. I guess the thought that someone might punch me in the face crossed my mind, but I’d been more legitimately concerned with my physical safety at rock concerts — caught in stampede surges toward the stage, or as a mosh pit spun out of control. That said, I’d reached out and found your hand during RZA’s speech. And after the blade came down, as the crowd was cheering and hollering and throwing fists in the air, as the massive thump of the next song’s opening beats shook the floor,
I remember weaving my fingers through yours, and squeezing in a way so as to assert that we were there together, in this together. And to say, “Don’t go anywhere, okay?” And a little bit to ask, “Everything’s going to be all right, right?” There was a lot that I was communicating with that squeeze. I hope I didn’t hurt your hand.
Things calmed down after a minute, the music again the focus of the show. And soon enough I was laughing — somewhat at relief from nervousness, mostly to myself, at myself, about the ridiculousness of the situation. How must have I looked? The expression on my face, as I was standing there, imagining everyone was looking at me, when probably no one was. I leaned into your ear and shouted over the music, “That was crazy!”
“Yeah,” you said. And gave a sort of inscrutable smile back.
How crazy was it for you? I don’t know. We didn’t talk about it much more after that. Did you feel like everyone was looking at us, too? Did you wish you could disappear? Or that I would? Were you happy to be holding my hand, comforted as I was? Or was that weird for you? Did you wish you weren’t standing next to me? Or were you fine with it all?
We went back to my place afterwards and I kissed you and you kissed me back for a little while, but then you told me you weren’t interested in taking things further. You were sort of seeing someone else, apparently. I was a little disappointed. But it was okay.
Dave Bry is a writer and editor living in New York. His memoir, Public Apology, from which this essay is adapted, is available here.
This story appears in Mass Appeal Issue 52. Read more stories from the issue here.