So lately I’ve been thinking a lot about role models.
Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how it’s probably important to have a concrete idea of a generally “good” person you’d like to emulate, even if you’d like to be better than them or different than them in some way. The kind of role model that you can use as your baseline to compare yourself against, basically.
I’ve been thinking about that partly because I’m not sure I ever really had one. Growing up, I mainly recall thinking about all the things I didn’t want to be, all the people I didn’t want to be like. If you asked me who I actually wanted to be in a constructive sense, I’m not sure I could’ve told you.
That ended up being kind of a problem for me specifically because it fed into my tendency to think of myself as vaguely worthless, I think. Therapists and such will tell you that these thoughts are common in, say, the children of alcoholics, and I think I definitely got burned by a lack of perspective on my mistakes and struggles without any positive baseline to compare myself against. When you only know all these people you don’t want to be like, you just sort of end up living in fear that you’re slowly becoming them despite your best efforts.
I don’t think I ever had a proper role model. Deo Kujirabwindja (who I named the American Leadership Foundation’s first scholarship after) might be the closest, but the parallels are generally tough to draw. Starting in about high school, though, I did start to slowly build a certain sense of identity, and that can be something to lean on in a similar way. Even when times are hard, you can just focus on being true to yourself and your own identity.
There’s actually an exact moment I can remember when it really felt like that sense of self was crystallizing for me. It was in the fall of 2011, my senior year of high school: my girlfriend and I had a date to listen to Watch the Throne together. I downloaded it on my old desktop, and she came over with a big jigsaw puzzle that we put together on the floor of my bedroom, starting from track 1 and just playing the whole thing through.
The timeline in my head is a little fuzzy here, and so while I’m sure my step-father was home from prison by then, I'm only half-confident her dad was still serving out the end of his sentence in Cumberland. It had been a weird, difficult road for us up to that point, and it was actually going to be much harder from there. But there was this really nice moment there, where we were just present in my room, putting this puzzle together, listening to a rare kind of project for either Jay-Z or Kanye that was pretty much unabashed fun. It was just... nice.
I remember hitting track 11, “Made in America”, and it just immediately struck a chord with me. Even on that first listen, I knew it was kind of cheesy, but it felt like there was this hole in me the song was helping me fill. I actually got up when it was over to back up a track and hear it again.
The thing that really hit me was just this overarching idea that an important part of the American experience is not feeling like you belong in the American experience, that the struggle was an important part of life and that we celebrate the people who rise up to meet it, not those who never had to. I had sort of been walking around with this chip on my shoulder and this feeling of abandonment, but hearing this song there at that time in that almost singular space really made me feel like I was going to be able to work things out.
We don’t ask to be born, or get to choose where or when we grow up. But when I look at my life now, I’m mainly struck by how utterly improbable it all seems. I didn’t have any kind of track or discernible trajectory for most of it; I mainly got by stitching together a lot of random acts of kindness and small moments like this one, putting together that puzzle. It might’ve happened anywhere—though truthfully, I’m not sure it could’ve been anywhere else—but for me, at least, it did happen here in the U.S, built largely on what I consider to be American values.
Because I never had a real role model or a single dominating influence in my life, I’m left with this more general sense that somehow it was the country itself that raised me. And so I love this country for that, even when all the contradictions in it have probably never been more apparent. Because to me, you don’t just love someone or something for all they are; you love them for all you can see they will one day be.
It’s the 4th of July, a day where people show their patriotism in various ways and sometimes people have complicated feelings on the topic; I wanted to lay out my personal flavor in the hope that it might be useful, especially to anyone a bit younger who might be reading this. I was made in America, I made it in America, and now I’m forever committed to making America a better place, just as I strive everyday to better myself.
That’s something we can be about, too.
I still think WtT is underrated as a collection of tracks, even if the collaboration meant it never could have been a more focused concept-y album that Jay and Kanye are each known for. ↩︎