Just after midnight on Tuesday morning, the celebration began at FedExForum. The final whistle blew ending the game after five additional minutes of overtime play. The gold and blue streamers fell from the rafters.
The difference in this victory celebration verses the previous 36 that have taken place this season at The Grindhouse was the music that filled the arena. In place of the standard All I Do is Win, track typically played (albeit a version specifically dubbed for Memphis by the city’s own FreeSol), another song played – one fans have adopted as an anthem of sorts for the 2013 playoff run. The song: Whoop That Trick, a soundtrack gem from the indie darling Hustle & Flow directed by Memphis native Craig Brewer.
To the rest of the world, Brewer’s tale of a pimp struggling to reinvent himself may seem like a well-told story about a stereotype. DJay’s the bad guy, the hustler, who wants to take the route many impoverished urban men see as their way to the top. He wants to become a rapper.
To the rest of the world, the song might seem totally inappropriate.
To Memphis, Brewer’s tale is another underdog story. DJay’s anthem is about beating the odds, starting from the bottom and clawing your way to the top. To this city, the song is about us.
In the Oklahoma/Memphis series, the chorus of the pimp-turned-rapper anthem engulfed Game 3 of the Western Conference Semi-finals and swept the crowd into a unified Whoop That Trick chant lead by none other than native son Al Kapone. The crowd went nuts.
In that moment, an attitude adjustment a decade in the making was on full display.
When I moved to this city a decade ago, there was a culture of embarrassment. We apologized for ourselves, hid behind excuses for why we weren’t Nashville or Birmingham and tried to sweep our racial tensions, our somewhat embarrassing political leaders and our general messiness under the rug.
In 2005, Memphis rappers Three Six Mafia won an Academy Award for their song Hard Out Here for a Pimp (ironically from the same Brewer film as the song Whoop That Trick). I remember the water cooler conversation the next day at the office. There was a bit of collective embarrassment about how this made Memphis look to the rest of the world. Here we were in the spotlight for a song about pimps. Sigh.
Early Tuesday morning in Memphis, it was clear that something has certainly changed and it’s more than just the winning record of a once counted-out sports franchise.
Somewhere along the way we went beyond just embracing our status as underdogs and we collectively turned our civic shame into a pride that’s beginning to rival cities like Brooklyn and Boston.
Perhaps it started three years ago when Believe Memphis became a defacto slogan for a city that was a bit downtrodden. But it didn’t happen just because the Grizzlies put it on a yellow towel or a tshirt. What made it stick was a moment when, organically, 18,000+ on their feet in FedExForum stood up with the towels, which were intended to be waved overhead, and instead held them up, facing the court, slogan on full display like 18,000 small signals to the world that Memphis was not going to give up. Not on its team, and for the first time in a long time, not on itself. Memphis, for all it is, was a point of pride.
Local sportswriter Chris Herrington dubbed it Memphis’ Norma Rae moment, a reference to a scene from the movie of the same name in which Sally Field’s character stands up defiantly in a lunchroom full of her co-workers and holds up a Union sign. As Herrington later pointed out in an article recapping the season, that moment came to symbolize something larger – encapsulating other big things happening at the time including a visit from the president and our city’s survival of the over-hyped ‘great flood of 2011’.
Since that time, a major shift has taken place, one that may have gone unnoticed until now.
We’ve gone from just starting to believe to believing that we belong. Be it on the national stage in basketball or at the Oscars.
This playoff run isn’t the first time Al Kapone’s anthem (which for the record is about beating the odds and “shaking the haters off,” not beating women) has been chanted in unison at a large Memphis event.
What may surprise you is that it wasn’t the second or even third time a diverse group of Memphians have had a shout-out sing along with Kapone. Two years ago it happened on Beale Street at the New Daisy Theater. During a performance by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. (Yes, you read that correctly. The Symphony.)
What’s happening here is about more than basketball or music.
A Memphis-loving subculture has taken deep root in this city.
For so long our civic discourse has been centered on figuring out how we can be the next Portland or Austin. We’ve spent so much time (and SO MUCH MONEY) comparing ourselves to “peer cities” like Louisville, Nashville or St. Louis in an effort to attract and retain the ever-elusive creative class. The hipsters. The Yupsters, whatever term-of-the-moment you choose.
All this time we should have been focused on being the one thing only we can be: Memphis.
We finally stopped waiting for other cities to define us, to tell us what we should be, and we started being exactly who we are.
Yes, ‘who we are’ can be a little dirty. It can be a little gritty. It can be a little loud or off-color or crazy or eccentric. And that’s absolutely okay.
We can celebrate the story of the pimp-turned-rapper DJay because we can see past his flaws and appreciate his hustle. We can love the spirit of his chant about defeating the odds, fighting his way out and never letting those who want to bring him down get in his way.
We don’t have to insist on being weird (like Austin) or put a bird on it (like Portland). By being authentic and straight-forward, quirky but still warm, we attracted those who appreciate those things. Just being ourselves seems to work pretty well in capturing the hearts, minds and imaginations of that illusive group of young folks we so desperately wanted to have fall in love with us.
Today we are embracing what makes Memphis…well Memphis, in a way that even native Memphians of another generation (and perhaps more importantly of another mindset), never did.
The city’s authenticity is what makes it shine. It’s what’s attracted more young professionals back to the city’s core (more on that soon). Embracing that authenticity and the spirit that compliments it is what started the attitude shift. Our ability to capitalize on it is what will determine our city’s future.
My friend Kerry Hayes said to me once, “If you can’t be yourself in Memphis, you can’t be yourself.”
Keep being yourself, Memphis. The world will learn to love you just the way you are.
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