Look, fuck all that happy to be here shit that y’all want me on. -Drake
Just Happy to Be Here. It’s what I call a line of thinking that can emerge in the mind of someone from an oppressed group who manages to nab a seat at “the table.” JHBH can creep up in a variety of contexts- “the table” might be a movement, a conference, an institution of higher education, or any number of entryways to opportunities, access, knowledge, and power. Maybe it’s a nonprofit that hired you, impressed by your knowledge of and lived experience with the issue it works to address. Maybe it’s an organization that is working to recruit people from a group that you identify with, and financed your membership and your attendance at national events. Maybe it’s a liberal arts college to which you were able to be admitted, despite the consequences of structural racism, thanks to affirmative action. Whatever it is, it has issues- but you don’t feel completely free to point out areas of improvements because you feel silenced, you want to fly under the radar, or you are genuinely happy that it got its shit together at least a little bit or you wouldn’t be there to speak to the problems at all.
I’ve been to conferences with panels about privilege where half of the people in the organization who needed to be there sharing their stories weren’t able to attend because they couldn’t afford it. When the few people present from working class backgrounds were asked to speak about the issue, they would feel to need to say “Well I’m… Just Happy to Be Here!” with the most hopeful possible facial expression. Later on they would share their fuller feelings, and even brilliant ideas for solutions, in private to avoid seeming ungrateful or angry.
On the track Paris Morton from last year’s album, Drake isn’t referencing exactly the same Just Happy to Be Here that I am:
Look, fuck all that “Happy to be here” shit that y’all want me on…
Like I should fall in line… like I should be dressing different
Like I should be less aggressive and pessimistic
Like I should be way more nervous and less dismissive
Like I should be on my best behavior and not talk my shit
He’s saying that even though he came into the rap game under the mentor-ship of someone older and more experienced, he is now a highly accomplished artist in his own right and wants to be respected as such. Still, Drake’s lyrics are insightful. He is referring to the common refrain (just happy to be here!) we hear from guests right after they are introduced on a talk show, or maybe from an upcoming starlet who just won her first Academy Award. What I get from Drake’s lyrics is that he’s grateful for the help he got from folks who helped him rise up when he was an underdog only known for playing Jimmy on Degrassi, but that he’s not obligated to preface everything he says with that gratitude, to continually perform it with everything from his words to submissive body language and clothing.
Existing in a space under such expectations is tiring. And it’s frustrating in the context of social movements and institutions, when as a person from an oppressed group you really should have been there in the first damn place, you just weren’t because, oppression. Additionally, having to constantly perform JHBH can inhibit your ability to push for answers to the hard questions and create systemic change that will help more people from oppressed groups follow in your footsteps.
Students of color, working class activists, women workers, etc – we aren’t breakthrough actors and the movements and institutions we contribute to aren’t The Oscars or a talk show. We aren’t happy to be here- people need us to be here. Our presence, and more importantly our contributions, are crucial for the success of any activist community, any non-profit, any university. It is natural to feel thankful for opportunities, but we can do that and push to change the status quo of our institutions, organizations, and movements at the same time. It’s a shame to stop at Just Happy to Be Here and never get around to the important questions- like “What factors created a situation where I wasn’t here before?”, “How are we going to ensure that people like me are always here in the future?” and “I’m here. How are things going to change now that I am?”