Ise Lyfe - "My Best Friend"

Apr 17, 2015
Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT LIVE!, the "Encore" special. Next in our lineup, a modern day renaissance man - poet, rapper, actor, activist, one of the very first people I tried to get on the show. Please note - this story does use a word that is never cool for polite company or really most company at all. SNAP JUDGMENT.

Please put your hands together for Mr. Ise Lyfe.

(APPLAUSE)

ISE LYFE: I remember when I didn't know I was black. I didn't know better. I mean, I had no sense of one group of people being better than or greater than another. At best, I knew that certain people belonged in certain places. For example, the orange people that spoke something my mama called Spanish, they lived in the Fruitvale, and they sold fruit in bags. The people who were the same color as my grandma, they were on TV, you know, like the news, and also, they were cartoons - Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam. Daffy Duck was a duck, but somehow I knew he was the same color as my grandma, too. The kids I went to school with, with sleepy eyes, they were from far away. And they always had rice in their lunch bags. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Capri Suns went in mine.

My grandma was born Billie Matzka in 1933 to a family of poor Irish farmworkers - yes, me, revolutionary black power rapper man, me. My first best friend was an old, white lady - my grandma. And I loved her very much. I guess because she grew up poor on a farm she knew how to make fun out of absolutely nothing. Well, I'd say nothin', grandma say nothing. For example, she'd take the peaches that came in cans and she'd dump them in the sink, you know? And then she'd put the cans on the ground and she'd tap holes in the cans. And then she'd run string through the cans up to the height of my hands. In her groggy voice she'd go, stand on the cans, Isaac. And I'd get on the cans, and she'd put the string in my hands like reins. They were stilts - ah (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

LYFE: I'd walk around the yard 6 inches taller than I really was - clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank. I felt like a giant. The kids I went to school with, they made a big deal out of me having a white grandma. Most of us never got to see white people up close unless it was the police.

(LAUGHTER)

LYFE: So me having a white grandma meant I got to see Bigfoot up close.

(LAUGHTER)

LYFE: She'd pull up to the school to pick me up, they'd go, that's your grandma? And I'd go, yep and I'd run off to the car. Grandma had this long, old, gold Ford. It didn't have a tape deck. It didn't even have an FM radio, but grandma didn't care. AM radio provided a soundtrack for old, white lady daily life.

(LAUGHTER)

LYFE: The songs always had this real kind of, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

LYFE: (Singing) ...Slow, boring and redundant, easy to dance to...

(LAUGHTER)

LYFE: (Singing) ...Reminiscent of Jim Crow, but sounds like music to you.

(LAUGHTER)

LYFE: But I didn't know they were old, white lady songs. I just knew they were songs that my grandma liked. I'd be right next to her singing along (imitates singing).

(LAUGHTER)

LYFE: As I got older, I stop getting picked up by grandma and I started catching the bus to her house by myself. I graduated from my peach-can stilts to bouts of Scrabble with my grandma. Me and my grandma, we played Scrabble. It's when I first fell in love with the concept of tying words together, you know? Not only did I graduate from my peach-can stilts, I also graduated from my naive view on race.

By the time I was 12 years old, I was quite clear that in this country, white meant better. Not only did I graduate from naive view on race, so did my homies at school. They went from thinking it was cool that I had a white grandma to teasing me for it. That didn't bother me. What did bother me, though, was commentary from two homies in my hood, Kevin (ph) and Brandon (ph). Brandon joined the Nation of Islam. And he was 19 when I was 12, so we all thought he was, like, a super grown-up, you know? He'd stand booming from the corner like he was a poet - all white people are devils. They're all racist. They enslaved black people. They enslaved the whole world. It would drive me crazy. I'd argue with them, going on and on about how that wasn't true. My grandmother was proof. She was a white woman married to a black man and had black children. How could she be racist? Here came cool Kev - blood, just 'cause she be around black people don't mean she ain't racist. Black people don't like black people. So you know white folks don't.

(LAUGHTER)

LYFE: I felt defeated on the issue, but not about my grandma. I knew she wasn't racist and she loved me very much. The summer that I was 14 years old, I went and spent the summer with my brother in Fresno. And my sisters, they flew down to San Diego to spend time with our uncle. When I got back home, I landed at the airport. My mama said, Ise, where you want to go? What did I say? Grandma's house - off we went. We got there and right away grandma started setting up the Scrabble board. She started asking me all the questions that grandmas ask, you know, how was your trip? How's your brother? Did you eat? Like, I'm not going to eat.

(LAUGHTER)

LYFE: Did you talk to your sisters while you were gone? No, but Connie (ph) wrote me a letter. She said they're getting dark tans down there from all the sun. And then my world changed forever. My grandmother reached across the table and touched my hand. She said, oh, no, they're going to come back looking like little [expletive]. I fell down inside. Then I died a little. I can't tell you what happened next. I don't know if it was nighttime or daytime when we left. I regained consciousness in my bed, weeping, mourning, the way it feels to mourn something you hold tight against the fabric of your being.

The thing I was holding onto with all of my young might, the part of me that didn't want to live in a world where anyone and surely not my grandmother saw me as a [expletive], useless, a dumb - for the years that grew into my teenager years, I imagine I saw my grandmother no more than a dozen times. We never talked about it. And I just used it as another layer on the callous to weather day-to-day life. Recently though, I started writing my grandmother a letter. I wrote about what I felt like she took away from me that day in the kitchen, how it made me feel. From a space of growth, I also wrote about my travels and everywhere I've been 'cause I knew she'd enjoy that. And for a moment, I felt a certain nostalgia and it was good to feel her close to me again. My grandmother died before I could deliver my letter. And with her death also went the opportunity for us to confront this issue and maybe put it behind us. Love conquers hate, but where was the love? Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

WASHINGTON: That was Ise Lyfe from his Oakland, Calif., performance. And please know that amazing video of each performance that you're hearing right now is available at snapjudgment.org. Share this story with someone you love. And next up, from the same night, a dear friend of mine. She's blowing up on various venues around the country, but listen to her first on SNAP JUDGMENT. I know you're going to dig it - enjoy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.