The Senior Individualized Project is by far the most grueling yet intimate task students are asked to complete at Kalamazoo College, according to many students. The reward is that it can be almost anything a student wants it to be. However, at the beginning of any creative process, it can be difficult to know where or how to begin. This past summer, Justin Danzy K’16 started with two very broad interests: English and music.
“I just decided to get in the car, drive around, and listen to my CDs,” he shares. He also expanded upon poems he wrote in a creative writing workshop and a paper he wrote in African American Literature during the spring quarter of his junior year.
After months of intense critical thinking, researching, and writing, he submitted his two-unit SIP to the English Department last Friday, January 15th. The final product ended up being around 105 pages.
His SIP is divided into three distinct, but related, parts. Part one is a research paper, part two is an autobiographical narrative inspired by James Baldwin’s writing style, and part three is a creative writing collection of poems. The research paper makes up the bulk of his project, in which he analyzes the relationship between “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin and J. Cole’s album “2014 Forest Hills Drive”.
“I’m talking about James Baldwin; I’m talking about rappers; I’m talking about identity for black men, really,” he explains. “I’m interested in the way authenticity has been codified and constructed through hip hop culture and how that applies to culture more generally, because hip hop culture is black culture, especially commercially.”
During his research, Danzy relied heavily on the article, “Authenticity Within Hip‐Hop and Other Cultures Threatened with Assimilation,” by Kembrew McLeod.
“It looks at how authenticity is a rigid structure that depends on a lot of binaries. Either you’re real or you’re not,” he says. McLeod gives examples of typical binaries that are attributed to authenticity, such as hard vs. soft, tough vs. weak, urban vs. suburban, and ultimately black vs. white. According to Danzy, black culture is constantly being threatened by assimilation and co-optation, so these standards are sort of like a defense mechanism. The problem is that the framework, or criteria of authenticity, ends up excluding people, particularly black men, whose identities don’t fit the mold.
“It doesn’t really matter what you actually are, it just matters how convincingly you perform yourself,” he explains. “People’s acceptance is often tied to a specifically black coded location or association. For example, Drake used to be this actor on “Degrassi”, and his hometown is Toronto, Ontario. Neither of those are a black coded show or space, [respectively], so under most circumstances, Drake wouldn’t have succeeded as an authentic, mainstream hip-hop artist. In order for Drake to be accepted, he had to associate himself with Lil Wayne’s record label, Young Money Entertainment; nobody is going to question Lil Wayne’s authenticity as a rapper.”
From Danzy’s perspective, James Baldwin and J. Cole are two artists whose work does not subscribe to but actually contradicts these common ways that authenticity is narrowly “defined” and imposed on black men. Although their careers are separated by decades, they employ common themes of community and brotherly love throughout their storytelling. Danzy says, “Both of them show the necessity of validating those homosocial relationships between black men that allow us to share our experiences and be fully immersed in our community.” His poetry collection greatly reflected these themes as well.
“[The poems] dealt with me, of course. If I’m talking about the importance of storytelling as a means of strengthening community, I have to participate.”
He reminisced about how much perspective he gained when first wrote about Sonny’s Blues last spring in African American Literature.
“In [Baldwin’s] time, in the 1950s, the only way of finding freedom in a society that had relegated you to segregated institutions and ghettos was within your community. He emphasizes the need to be able to make connections, especially across generations, because our stories are all linked. They might exist in different ways for different people, but the struggles that we experience are all intertwined. Sometimes the intergenerational weight can be put on an individual when they’re disconnected and isolated from the community. They can break under the weight or feel like they have to scream– let it out in some way.”
Furthermore, Danzy noticed Baldwin’s ability to decenter the white gaze—the lens of white supremacy—in his writing.
“[Sonny’s Blues] is about two brothers finding a way to have a relationship despite their differences; it had nothing to do with white people. That was important to me, because [Baldwin] was able to show a vastly more complex depiction of the black community.”
Danzy has deeply analyzed and appreciated “2014 Forest Hills Drive”, and he believes that J. Cole says something similar in his album. He describes the narrative arc throughout the songs, each one taking you through a story about growing up without privilege as opposed to growing up with it, going to Hollywood and feeling lost, and returning to his community and learning to, literally, Love Yourz.
“He’s saying it’s important to love your family, love your brothers and sisters, and love your community. His message has a lot in common with James Baldwin’s. In a way, Baldwin validates J. Cole, because he is placed in the lineage of black writers. J. Cole’s album decenters the narrative of white supremacy just as much as Baldwin’s short story. In fact, a lot of rappers are able to do it, but “2014 Forest Hills Drive” was particularly significant because of the time period during which it was released. J. Cole had just visited Ferguson, and he had written and released this album in the aftermath of Mike Brown’s death and in the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Moreover, Danzy chose J. Cole because he represents a multitude of experiences. He embodies the lower class and the middle class; he knows what it is like to live in both the trailer parks and the suburbs of Fayetteville, NC.
“He’s always changing the narrative, so it’s not a singular experience. It’s hard to find another rapper who is doing that but is also reaching such a wide and mainstream audience. When we think about authenticity, J. Cole is still performing himself at a certain level that has helped him become iconic yet relatable to a lot of people, not just in the black community. He has a certain level of control over the culture.”
Knowing that some students conclude their SIPs and never want to think about them or look at them again, I asked Danzy if that was how he felt about his project.
“I can’t just put this away. How I came to write this had a lot to do with my experience at K, how I was challenged here, and how I grew. I was really just writing about myself in a more theoretical and analytical way. So much of it is tied to me—not just the research paper, but the autobiographical work and the poetry—I don’t think I have a choice but to continue working on it. It’s like a life work.”
Part of the reason why Danzy views this project as a work that is still unfinished is because it is still propelling him forward.
“It was a goal of mine when I first started college to do well enough to get published, and I wanted it to be something to put on a resume and help me in the future. Not only do SIPs look great on Grad school and job applications, but this is also a published conference paper that I get to present.”
May 26 through 28, Danzy will be presenting his thesis at the International James Baldwin Conference in Paris, France.
“It is an opportunity that people don’t usually get when they are 22 years old. I’m very thankful. Actually, the most fun part about my SIP was writing the acknowledgments. It was super long. I mean, my SIP is about community, so I wanted to give credit to everyone.”
This included his SIP advisor Bruce Mills, Professor of English.
“I’m just a culmination of what everyone else has put into me, and I’m very thankful for them.”