“Nah man, forget that. You on some bullshit.”
“You heard me.”
“Man, I ain’t with all this woofing, so why don’t you do something?”
“You don’t want none of this.”
“Yeah, sounds good. Just step to me, and we’ll see who’s the vic.”
“I ain’t no vic!”
The machismo was palpable in the room’s claustrophobic atmosphere. The potential for violence felt like a change in barometric pressure before a tornado touches down—the air becomes electric with dread and impending destruction. Devon and YoYo were both just twenty, scrawny, with the immature and uneducated mindsets of much younger men. This mentality was bred by the poverty and hardships of life in a big city. It was so common in the lives of the men around me that it was practically stamped on their features. To me it was a shame, all this ignorance and untapped potential, but many wore it like a badge of honor.
Membership in a street gang has great appeal for guys like these, most of whom were born into a broken home, had no father or father figure to speak of, were exposed to violence and drugs at a young age, and regularly partook in narcotics by age 13. A lot of men have told me that when they were shorties in their hood, their only choices were to join a gang or be killed. I’ve met hundreds of young men whose lives exactly mirrored this sad set of circumstances. With little or no formal education, their experiences are limited to their minuscule worldview—almost none of them have ever been outside the massive metropolitan area into which they were born. Many have barely stepped foot beyond the few city blocks of territory directly controlled by their gang.
Instead, one’s reputation for being hard becomes a premium, and anything that might threaten that perception must necessarily be met with severe opposition. The vast majority of these inner-city gangbangers are African Americans raised on rap music filled with lyrics endorsing drugs, violence, misogyny, and the objectification of women. Devon and YoYo were no exception—or so I thought. Based on my years of experience in the microcosm of prison, I was sure I was about to see yet another fight. Never in a million years could I have guessed what happened next.
Their initial exchange had been a verbal barrage machine-gunned back and forth without a breath or pause between threats, all of it escalating in menace and volume until climaxing in “I ain’t no vic!” It was screamed and seemed to reverberate through the immediate area, sending out shockwaves of certainty that a flurry of fists was about to fly. Devon was the guy who screamed. YoYo bit his bottom lip and twisted his features into some kind of counterfeit approximation of a mean mug, to telegraph that he was serious about fighting. His next statement pushed itself out through that malicious sneer.
“You know what? I knew you were trouble. Right when you walked in, I knew it.” It came out with a kind of finality, as if this would be the last word before the talking was done and the fighting would begin. Instead, Devon’s expression morphed from anger to one of utter befuddlement.
“What did you just say?” Devon asked, the query sounding like an accusation.
“I said I don’t like you, goofy ma,” YoYo quipped back.
“No, no, that’s not what you said.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You said you knew I was trouble.”
“Yeah,” YoYo agreed. “So? What?” He was completely confused as to the significance of this exchange.
Devon’s seriously dour visage split into a smile, and a laugh escaped his throat. YoYo’s face pinched itself even tighter and his fingers curled into fists. Before he could respond to the slight he believed Devon’s laughter to be, Devon began to sing. “I knew you were trouble when you walked in…”
Now it was YoYo’s turn to be confused, but it didn’t last long. The look on his face transformed from angry to bewildered to one of recognition before a joyous grin erupted, followed by a yelp of excitement. All of this happened within seconds. Then YoYo joined in the chorus.
“‘So shame on me now. Flew me to places I’d never been’ Hell no! You know Taylor Swift?” YoYo asked with a certain degree of skepticism and restrained exuberance.
“Man, I love her. She’s the shit!” Devon exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear.
I stood there, disbelief plastered on my face. These two hardcore gangbangers from the mean streets of the inner city, who just moments before were about to trade punches, were now exchanging laughter and lyrics with one another. It was an improvised a cappella showdown, with one of them singing out a lyric, only to have the other complete it before they both began giggling together followed by a quick discussion of the merits of the particular song before the next new lyric was thrown out.
“Our song is a slammin’ screen door…” YoYo began.
“…sneakin’ out late, tappin’ on your window…” Devon continued. Devon sang out, “Marry me, Juliet, you’ll never have to be alone, I love you and that’s all I really know…”
“…I talked to your dad, go pick out a white dress, it’s a love story, baby just say ‘yes,’” YoYo finished easily.
This shared love of all things Taylor Swift lasted through more than a dozen songs. Not a single lyric was fumbled or misspoken as far as I could tell. There was something not only surreal, but eerie about these two hardened criminals espousing not only the merits of her music, but discussing her as a vibrant young woman and wonderful role model rather than discoursing at length about her sex appeal. Not that objectifying her would be a good thing, but it would be closer to the usual discussions in prison.
It all ended amiably with hugs, laughs, and fist bumps as YoYo defended “Back to December” as his favorite Taylor song. Devon stood his ground, citing “You Belong with Me” as his favorite. I was left flabbergasted by the scene. I also felt guilty for having adhered to such an outdated and offensive stereotype—one that says a young black man who has known mostly violence and hardship in his life can’t be swayed by the sheer spunkiness, positivity, and power of Taylor Swift and her music. Shame on me.