“H to the Izzo
V to the Izza!”
For years my children rapped themselves to sleep to this rhyme of hip-hop legend Jay Z. It was a sort of modern lullaby. I had absolutely no idea what it meant. I wasn’t listening. Then, one rainy Sunday afternoon, my son translated it for me. “Mom, the verse spells H O V A, as in Jehovah.” And I started listening… to the rhythms, the beats, the poetry of a man who would radically change my life.
The first time I saw Jay Z (aka Shawn Carter) at New York’s Madison Square Garden, I was 54 years old. I was alone. I was also alone because my children were mortified at the thought of their mother howling “HOVA, HOVA!” And who could blame them? Hardly age-appropriate behavior. But from the moment I saw him, he had me. This shadowy figure hovering huge in what looked like heaven’s gate — a black tunnel flooded with light. Swaggering into the spotlight, he leaned into “Where I’m From,” his Brooklyn anthem. “Throw me the diamond, Neew Yooork ,” he yelled as 15,000 delirious fans touched thumbs to index fingers. “That’s right. That’s right! Yes!” he cried, hands cupped to the mic, head bowed.
It was a contact high (and not just from the weed). For three hours I screamed like a teenager. Oh , how I loved the language: the spittin’, bouncin’, breezin’ frontin, chillin’. No, I didn’t understand it. But it didn’t matter. It was ‘the flow,’ Jay called it.
It Gets Heavy
For the next eight years, I stalked Craigslist and StubHub for concert tickets. I studied Jay Z the same way I once studied Yeats. Picking apart his verses, his rhymes, his backstory in Bed-Stuy projects. “My life is all in the leaps and the links,” he wrote in his autobiography, Decoded. “Same for me,” I whispered back.
I winced when I heard people claim that Jay was no hero, that he was a terrible role model — a man who glorified gangs, guns and the ghetto. Because it was words, not guns, that got him out of the ghetto — millions and millions of words. His lyrical ability and marketing savvy turned what could have been another tale of lousy luck into legend and light.
Then came the night of September 28, 2012: Jay Z’s baptismal concert at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Halfway through “H to the Izzo,” (my kids’ favorite lullaby), I collapsed beneath this sudden explosion of impossibly heavy weight. A 250-pound drunk had fallen from two rows above and crushed me. I thought I was dying. Strapped onto a gurney and racing down corridors to an ambulance, all I could see was Jay. His face suspended over me, like some vision of the afterlife, on 12-foot monitors. Eight hours of poking, prodding and X-rays at the hospital revealed that I had two broken vertebrae. I could barely move.
Jay Z and I Travel the World
But from that hellish nightmare of immobility and pain, from the contortions of muscle, bone and breath that left me so utterly helpless, something inside was shaken loose.
And I began to write. Sure I had written for decades: a memoir, a novel, speeches, advertising copy. Words were my lifeline. But a one-woman show? Performing in front of an audience? The idea of it was absurd, inconceivable. And yet, two months after my 62nd birthday, Jay Z & Me opened at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.
We traveled on to Amsterdam and home to New York for 10 more shows. Sure, I hoped that maybe Jay would appear mysteriously backstage for an artist chat. But it was my children’s raucous laughter, their standing ovation, that mattered the most and launched me into a new, wildly unpredictable career as a performer and stand-up comic. “I’d rather die enormous than live dormant,” Jay spits on his album Reasonable Doubt. “I just wanna live life colossal!” That’s from the song “Picasso Baby.” Well, me too, Mr. Carter. Me too.
Brenda Cullerton is a writer and performer in New York.