"Colorless Sneer": Behind the Lyrics

Back in September I posted “Colorless Sneer”, an original rap song over a sampled backtrack. I’ve written raps or rap segments before, so I can’t claim it’s my first rap song, but nevertheless there was something different about it.

“Colorless Sneer” was essentially a response to North Carolina’s HB2, which directly attacked the LGBT community in North Carolina and trans people in particular. I can’t say it was a direct response since it happened five months later; rather, it was HB2 and other lines of discrimination that had me angry and frustrated when I decided to write a rap on top of the Umineko song「金色の嘲笑」(“Golden Sneer”). I had been casting around for topics for a while, thinking about what I’d read and heard friends say about rap—about being honest to the genre and its roots. Picking something I was actually intensely angry about seemed appropriate.

“Colorless Sneer” was written over the course of a few weeks, mostly from the third verse backwards. This came out of a few very deliberate choices in the structure of the song:

  • The verses are each targeted at different audiences. The first verse has to set up the topic, and briefly outlines the “enemy”. But the song as a whole isn’t set up to convince anyone who doesn’t already think trans people are people, and so the second verse starts going after the sideliners, people who aren’t involved. The third verse, especially at the end, is really a form of kicking myself and people like me into action—the people who do see the problem but maybe aren’t doing much about it. Or not as much as I’d like, at least.

  • The rhythms get more interesting and more complicated as the piece goes on. I know I neither look nor sound like a “real” rapper, and most of my past raps haven’t broken out of the fairly mundane rhythms I can put together thanks to poetry. This time around I wanted people to start off with low expectations and be more and more subconsciously impressed by the structure of the lyrics. I can’t say if I pulled it off, but it was deliberate. (It helped that the backtrack naturally made each verse one stanza longer than the previous one.)

    As far as I can tell, some secrets to writing “good” rap—from a structural perspective anyway—are to cram more syllables into a line than really fit (and prune down later if necessary), to include internal rhymes in addition to end-of-line rhymes, and to make the rhythm of the lyrics not consistently match up with the rhythm of the backtrack (while still not losing it completely).

  • The song itself does not include the word “trans”, but has enough references in it to be unambiguous. In fact, the first verse is completely generic; it’s not until the second verse that you start getting hints. At the same time, though, one of the goals (spelled out somewhat clunkily in the first verse) is to link the anger and the hardships trans people go through to other “familiar stories”—a pattern we’ve seen before and recognize we need to fight. I’ll admit that it also felt “clever”, which is a self-indulgent reason to do it.

The name “Colorless Sneer” comes from the backtrack being called “Golden Sneer”, and doesn’t exactly fit the final song; the idea came from when I was thinking of making it about racial tensions rather than transphobia. It still sounds good, though, and I could retcon it to say it’s capturing a particular kind of dismissal and superiority that’s more an act than born from any real emotion.

So tell me what someone like me can do with this feeling
As eyes open wider getting bloodshot and bleeding
Once you know what’s going on there’s no un-seeing, retreating, being
Horrified is hard can I go back to believing

In the original post I cited spoken word artist Fong Tran’s “Don’t Be An Activist” as inspiration. This is the section where that specifically applies—the section where I’m reminding myself to start moving and do something.

The first line was originally “And I’m understanding now how ‘woke’ is a feeling”. I changed it for several reasons, the primary one being that declaring oneself woke seems wrong. There’s also still a sense that this isn’t really my word to use, as someone with heaps of privilege and only tenuous connections to the African-American communities where the term was coined. Nevertheless, the word’s connected to this image I’ve had in my mind of what it’s like becoming aware of various issues: eyes starting closed and opening up to what’s really going on, but then continuing to open until they are, well, “bloodshot and bleeding”. It hurts just to understand, even when I’m not the one suffering from it all—even when I’m barely doing anything to help. Subconsciously willful ignorance is bliss, and yet I continue to do it as a defense mechanism.

But I can’t keep it up, is it cause it isn’t mine?
Watch me throw some helping money and just step into line

I’ve told a few friends that “Colorless Sneer” is one of those rare pieces that came out pretty much exactly how I imagined it, which is very rare for a creator to say. Frustratingly, that makes it hard for me to write anything I’d want to perform with it, and a one-song set isn’t much. My rapper friend LEX suggested that I may just have to wait for inspiration to strike again, which is interesting since I’ve long been able to write fairly good poetry on demand (well, mostly-not-awful poetry, anyway). I guess she’s right for now; in any case, I’m still very proud of this piece separate from the feelings embodied by it.

With the election of Donald Trump, a Republican Congress, and more and more hateful people coming out of the woodwork, there’s more need than ever to do something, to get involved, to support and stand with people who are being attacked, who don’t have the privilege I do…and who are “people like all of my other friends”. “Colorless Sneer” was and is a very small part of that for me, but I can and will do more. I suppose you can call this a New Year’s resolution.

For those of you who are also standing with them—not with me, with them—thank you. Take care of yourself, but do what you can. Do.

See you in 2017.