You ever hear of “the impostor syndrome?”
I don’t know the full definition, but from what I understand, it’s the feeling someone gets when they feel like they don’t belong doing the thing they’re trying to do.
OK. So I looked it up. Pretty close. Wikipedia says: “Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
I think I have a smidgeon of that. Though it’s balanced by a bit of cockiness about the way I’ve approached life — not always giving a fu*k, self-teaching, finding a way, going against the grain… So in some regards, I embrace being an “imposter.”
I’m not really supposed to be here doing these things.
I was supposed to be a more “typical” privileged guy from suburban Long Island. Probably go to a halfway decent college, get a job in… I dunno… I never really got far in the “real world”… I had my first kid as a senior in high school, barely graduated, went to community college for about 20 minutes, got a job, and have been hustling ever since.
My dad (who left mom and me about a year and a half earlier, so that should tell you something) was a college professor. A good man overall. But he bounced, and things got… troubled.
The full story is for another day, but you can imagine the cliche of a young man growing up in the shadow of a really well respected, brilliant, published, towering sociologist, and being a bit of an angst-ridden, rap-loving, weed-smoking derelict in comparison.
Now, over the years, we worked it out, and, for those who know me now, I somehow weaseled my way into his oversized footprints, into the world of independent hip-hop scholarship. It’s not sociology, but it’s definitely got a sprinkle of it. In the past few years, I’ve spoken and presented at more than a dozen colleges and universities, speaking in-depth about hip-hop as an intellect-slash-practitioner-slash-journalist-slash-every-day-guy. I’ve even co-published a research study (shouts to Dr. Joy Sever, who also took me seriously).
It means a LOT to be welcomed in those spaces — in part because my work is being respected on an academic level even though there aren’t a bunch of letters after my name, but also because I know it would really, really, really make my dad proud.
He’s been gone about eight years now. I was just starting the work I do now when he was still around, so he got a little taste. But I really wish he was here to see me now. Plus, I could really use some advice from him, as I navigate the tricky worlds of academia and research, places I hadn’t had much experience with, but that he had in abundance.
Because sometimes, looking at all his credentials, and those of the folks I sometimes share a panel or stage or presentation with, I do get nervous, and question:
Am I’m really supposed to be here?
Today, I listened to a brilliant recording done by a broadcaster and DJ known as Macedonia. His show, Radio BSOTS (Both Sides Of The Surface), airs on Bondfire Radio, an equally brilliant internet radio platform based in Brooklyn, New York.
He released a mix, “Fading Into Obscurity: As On Your Way You Go…” which was dedicated to his father, who passed away last year. Macedonia selects the most eclectic mix of music you might ever hear on a podcast or radio show, sprinkling in narration fueled by his near-angelic-smooth voice. Normally, he is informative and entertaining, but in this episode he was all that plus a master storyteller, weaving in memories of his own relationship with his father.
It really spoke to me.
Listening, I took a walk around Downtown Newark — I moved here a year an a half ago, it’s the city where my father grew up — and all of these feelings swelled through me. My dad’s mental presence looming, my upcoming schedule, the gall I have to attempt to walk the same halls at Ohio State University on March 29th, to present on hip-hop and social justice, the same halls he walked as an associate professor of sociology back in 1968, a few years before moving back to East Orange, New Jersey to teach at Rutgers, New Brunswick, where my parents would welcome me into their life.
I laugh. I’m really not supposed to be there. But hip-hop is more than music. It is a culture. An ethos. A heritage. And you know what? Who better to advocate for those who live within this lifestyle, who are constantly demeaned and degraded and diminished, misunderstood and misrepresented, than the son of a distinguished professor of sociology who taught urban studies, sociology of minorities, was director of student affairs, ran for school board, and taught me, even when I wasn’t listening, about the injustices of the world, through facts and stats and theories, all while bumping jazz, doo-wop, and blues at all hours of the night, all which directly influenced my attraction to hip-hop music and culture in the early 1980s and has laid at the foundation of most aspects of my life ever since?
Maybe I am supposed to be here?
There was an extremely profound point in Macedonia’s masterful episode when he relayed the words of his mother, who made him understand that his father had “left behind everything that he no longer needed when he died and just deposited those sides of himself into me…”
That stopped me in my tracks. Is that a thing? Because that’s what I’ve felt has happened with me since my dad died, I just never could put it into words.
Through my life, I have done a lot of things. A few really bad ones, that I still feel guilty about. But a whole lot of good. A few that you might even consider great. I have learned things, some through school, but mostly, through life. I can kick it in the park, break it down in the boardroom, or inject you with knowledge in the classroom.
I don’t know how all that happened. But I do know that I’m the son of former shoeshine boy Dr. Joseph M. Conforti, Ph.D., and so it is is probably not entirely a coincidence.
But today, as I look forward (for good reason) to these next few weeks as an exceptionally pivotal time in my life, I had about an hour of clarity, where I shook off all my guilt, fears, doubts, and trepidations thanks to the music and words supplied by a fellow DJ, and in particular, through the elegant, exhilarating, and triumphant crescendos of “I Can Be Better (For Myuran Sukumaran)” by Ross McHenry Trio, I thought, as if an epiphany:
“I can be better.”
Not as in, I could reach a level higher… perform with more alacrity… be a better person… Blah, blah…
But as in, I’m ALLOWED to be better.
I’ve EARNED my place.
I’m no impostor.
I’m supposed to be here.