Listening to the City

"Sometimes I feel like my only friend is the city I live in"

This week I came across the new Patrick Stump joint, with a cameo by Lupe Fiasco, titled “This City.” As I listened to it and read about how it’s supposed to be a love song to Chicago, it made me want to revisit my “City Tunes” playlist.

I collect songs about cities. In particular, I collect songs that talk about cities as homes. If the dissertation is a complex, critical endeavor, the playlist is the fun, light part of my research. It’s also the part I have my heart set on. That collection is the part that, I think, speaks to a broader audience the way my dissertation will never do.

My dissertation topic (cities and/as home) came from a very special place in my heart. I am not sure how other people decide upon their topics, but for me when I decided to write on home and Puerto Ricans in the united states, all i could think was “of course!” As I look back I don’t see any other topic I would rather write my dissertation on. But the topic wasn’t something I was thinking about for years. it kind of hit me over the head one day.

My last year of graduate school coursework I took an undergraduate class for independent study credit; the course was titled “African American Realism and the City” and it was taught by a new professor in the English Department. I was at a point where I was sick and tired of taking classes; on top of that, there was a dearth of courses I cared about or that related to my areas of interest. This undergraduate course caught my eye particularly because it spoke to all of my research interests. A light at the end of the tunnel! During the semester I thought continually about urban space and migrants, topics I had already thought about for other papers. But it wasn’t until I listened carefully to Kanye Wests’ Late Registration on one of our drives up from New York City that things clicked for me. Kanye’s song, “My Way Home” seemed right out of the novels we were reading for the class. I could see the dark Chicago streets that Bigger Thomas ran in Native Son. I felt Lutie Johnson’s fear for her son in that song. I knew I was on to something. That was over three years ago.

Ever since that course (where I wrote a paper that brought Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Kanye and Common, and Mos Def together under one roof), I’ve been thinking about home on the daily. I think about my relationship to my different homes (New York City, San Juan, Sabana Grande, Kansas City, Upstate College Town). I think about cliches regarding home. I think about how people make homes (what I call “acts of homemaking”). And now that I have a daughter and that we’re miles away from what I used to call home, it’s something that’s constantly on my mind. (I’ll be writing in the upcoming weeks about how we’re making Kansas City our home. Stay tuned!)

This is where the “city tunes” playlist comes in. I started it when I was working on my paper for that independent study. It used to contain only hip hop artists because at the time I was only looking at hip hop artists for that paper. But over time I’ve added a broad spectrum of genres. I didn’t have enough post-its for all of the songs I came across (and all of the songs others pointed out to me), so I started collecting them in a playlist.

Here are five of my favorite tunes in my “City Tunes” playlist. Enjoy!

1) “Philly Philly” by Eve (every time I’d drive down to Philadelphia to visit my dear friend, this song would be stuck in my head for days.)

2) “Homecoming” by Kanye West (ten times better than Patrick Stump’s ode to Chi-town)

3) “Fuego en el barrio” by Willie Colon (From Colón’s demo with Tony Vazquez. The song came out in the mid-sixties, but it drew attention to the arson attacks in minority neighborhoods that would later sweep New York City in the 1970s.)

4) “New York Shit (Freestyle)” by Jean Grae and Talib Kweli (I love that it’s a female spin on Busta Rhymes’s “New York Shit”)

6) “Under the Bridge” Red Hot Chili Peppers (About Los Angeles. It’s a beautiful song. No Top Ten list of songs about cities can be complete without this one.)

And since I collect songs, I’m eager to know, dear readers, what songs about cities really hit close to home for you? (You get bonus points if they’re about Kansas City. I don’t have any Kansas City songs on my playlist yet!)

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  1. Some old friends of mine made this song called ‘Clappin They Hands’ about Detroit. It’s a few yrs old but it’s still such a great song and so different from what you hear coming out of the city. We’re a really proud group (Detroiters that is), so I could give you a long list of city/home songs.

    Here’s the song:

    Another fav is by Stryfe called How We Grew Up (
    second track on this link … No, really, you should go listen to it lol)

    Your work sounds so interesting. The sense of home in places like Detroit or New Orleans where people rarely leave is so thick.

  2. I’m an LA girl in exile, so my mix includes:

    – Wax, Southern California

    – Tom Petty, Free Fallin’

    – Freddy Martin, Pico and Sepulveda

    – 2Pac, California Love

    – Jurassic Five, Contact/LAUSD

    – The Runaways, Hollywood

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