A New York Observation — 4: How to try and make it in America.
“I hate that I love living in New York. New York is your abusive boyfriend that you can’t leave, but you start to love the stripes you get and you start to grow because of it.” — Victor.
“How the hell did you do it?” — Everyone.
I grew up favoring exported American culture, rather than what was on my own doorstep. An elder brother who had an array of mix cd’s purchased from Shepherds Bush Market, gave me my introduction to rap music. A product of the MTV Base era, I remember watching the Cam’ron Oh Boy video on repeat. Enthralled by this new planet he was in, and trying to find the exact location of Harlem World. Writing down the shop names in the video, looking closely at what they were wearing on their feet, I wanted to be that aesthetic so much, that when my mum visited New York for the first time in the late 90’s, her shopping list from me was a long list of clothing brands: Sean John, Enyce, Vokal, Marithe Francois Girbaud and early Ecko. America had made an impression on me long before I moved here. Choosing American Studies at Undergraduate and Masters level introduced me to the theory, culture and ideology, as well as the aesthetic of this nation too.
I was further introduced to the idea of America being a ground for making new, when I watched the HBO tv drama “How To Make It In America.” Cancelled way before its time, the show showed the fictitious lives of Ben and his mate Cam, who try to create an authentic cut and sew denim brand in the city. Two guys hustling and trying to grab their piece of the “American pie and dream.” Their story was built on an element of truth and one that still resonates today. I focused intently on Americans who were creative, who hustled, who operated from a place of passion first and thus spent the early years of my AOL internet connection at home looking at content made by Philip T Anand of The Award Tour, Levi Maestro of Maestro Knows and Jeff Staple. We’re now living in a society where we view ourselves as brands. Where we are pushed further and further to know our worth and monetize our skills. Although, some of us our products without producing, the ethos of passion and the hustle is ever present and we exist as people who want to try and make it anyway. A whole community of mavens, mavericks, makers, thinkers, doers, creators who are constantly striving to be.
America to me, has always understood itself as a greater project. Its own ideals of itself often stretch beyond the geographical lines which control it and to some America is the centre of the world. America, is a country built on ideologies, on false promises, on the backs of others and the ruined lands of locals and while I’m under no illusion to the darker side of its beauty, there is something about this city which fosters a continual hustle. It possesses a kinetic energy, it beats in rhythm creating a steady pulse which you can feel. A friend who recently visited the city noted the beat and tangibility of New York, how for her it was something she felt through everything and every interaction had.
New York (for me at least) was a place that offered me something new. Here was a place you could and should try to make “it” — whatever that “it” may be. “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” is the unofficial national anthem of America, let alone New York. However, a mentality idolised through song only reveals so much. It entices you to a certain extent but, living here — living in New York City reveals to you an understanding more than lyrics and movies can, of what it means to be a part of the hustle, what it means to “try” and make it. Since moving here some people I know have commented that “I’ve made it” and it’s an assumption I don’t accept because the answers don’t seem clear yet, I don’t feel settled enough. There is a reality that underpins my everyday which doesn’t take away completely the allure of where I am, but keeps me grounded in actuality and not a permanent daydream. The actuality is that I haven’t made it. The actuality is I’m really just “trying a ting.” The definition of trying is “an attempt to accomplish something.” One word imbued with so much it seems weak in comparison to the full weight of its meaning. But what I’ve learnt or am learning is that, trying is so challenging, trying is where you exert most of your effort and that trying is the hardest fucking thing to do.
In different variations we are all trying. Trying despite our growing fears, trying despite our present insecurities of not being good enough, of not having made it yet or not doing the right thing and trying with the time and opportunities we have in front of us. But, we try because we know that there is better. Better in us, better in the situation or better than the location we’re in. Trying to simply be in one of the most frenetic, hustling cities in the world is hard and I’d be amiss to thinking that by moving here all my past issues were absolved. New York as described above, is akin to your “abusive boyfriend who you can’t leave” but to me it is a beast by a different name. Living in New York so far has been a slow acquiring of those aforementioned stripes. It’s revealed a new struggle of battling with clarity, of finding motivation, understanding self, gaining independence and figuring shit out. All of them in their own way, I’ve slowly learnt to embrace for what it eventually reveals. But to try in a city, new or old is another layer to the beautiful struggle. Trying against a city that it seems doesn’t want you to “live” is hard. Trying to live in a city which doesn’t want to support you or present you with any opportunity is even harder.
I’d be missing out a huge part of my story if I didn’t mention how London was a catalyst for me moving. It’s not an unknown fact that London has changed and is changing rapidly. Time-lapses of our skyline show the physical change being done to London, but more closer to home and in our ends, our corner shops have become Sainsbury’s locals. Our new neighbours clutch their bags and grip the waist of their partners tighter when you walk past and into the house you’ve lived in for years (true story) and the names of ends now have a silver spoon in mouth ring to them. They call it gentrification, I call it gut-wrenching. We talk of the soulless community being created in wake of all of this change however, the greatest theft of your city is your inability to want to create there and to give back. To live in a city you need to feel able, you need to be awakened to your everyday. Living is a real feeling and for me New York awakened my senses after not doing that in London for so long. My thoughts on London are probably a separate piece, I want to detail my love and loathing for my home but I’m often asked why I moved here, a question to which I replied recently “because London is dead” and it received two separate responses — one of shock and one of understanding.
However, I recognise this falling out of love with home as a universal problem and relocating for trying sake is a solve for many. Last weekend Brooklyn held its annual African Bazaar. I’ve written before about the affirming nature that swathes of blackness can do, and that afternoon was no different. I find myself blending in here unlike home, only revealing my identity through my accent. I stopped at the stall of a young brother with a laid back drawl, who was selling soaps in a make shift cardboard box stand — the hustle. He recognised my accent and I is — he was from Louisiana, Baton Rouge to be exact and he repeated to me how to say it properly and not with the curt and “proper” manner I sometimes have when speaking to Americans. He was as laid back as his accent, as I asked him how long he had been making soaps and if he was just here for the day. It’s known that casual conversation reveals so much more. He told me that in Louisiana “there’s nothing but black and white people but since living here I met my first Italian person” and “now look, someone from London.” He’d been making soaps for years for family members and they had nudged him before to do something bigger with his skill and he resisted until one day he “had an epiphany” and moved to New York, because “if I should try do this anywhere it should be here.”
Trying to make it is not a distinctly American thing. A great friend of mine runs a dope non-profit organisation in Ethiopia. She’s trying to make things happen in a city where she recognises her own privilege for many reasons and she has tremendous passion, belief, knowledge and commitment to make the program what it is and more. We communicate weekly through text message, our exchanges always revealing our motivations of “trying to hustle and make shit happen” or “trying to figure it out” — her words, not mine. Our challenges of how we sometimes want to reject the process in favour of the end product, of constant ambiguity in direction and also a praise for the gradual clarity and praise for when everything starts to move forward and we feel good. These are the many layers of what trying is. The tussle no matter the location, a sign of our age and our ambition, a universal moment for all. We comfort each other through words and an array of emojis — her price as a friend is more than that of a therapist. Two transplants trying to live in new cities.
Maybe then, there is nothing indistinguishable about making it in America, maybe it’s all just a fact of modern city life of the hustle, of globalization, of being in your twenty’s or older and trying to figure it all out. And if that’s the case than the underlying message is that trying is about experience gained. There is no formula, there is no advice I can give except to try and embrace the uncomfortable journey ahead but to me and for the sake of a summary trying is:
pushing yourself to do new things
seeking new experiences
not knowing the answers always
letting go of comfort and fear
embracing where you are
the hardest fucking thing to do