I make my living with words, and that’s what rap is—words—but I can’t freestyle. I nerd out on the linguistic intricacies, the staggering poetry and ironclad rhetoric, the references-within-references-within-references of billy woods and Jean Grae and Quelle Chris and Open Mike Eagle; of Q-Tip and GZA and MF Doom and Andre 3000. But I can’t freestyle. If I tried, I’d be like Jemaine Clement in Flight of the Conchords, spitting exactly two lines (“I am the hip-hop-opotamus / my lyrics are bottomless”) and then staring dumbly, mouth hanging open, completely out of ideas as the beat moves on without me. Rapping is hard, and rapping well is even harder.

I can’t freestyle, but I know how to improvise.

I started trumpet in the sixth grade, but it never spoke to me like guitar did. I got a Fender acoustic the next year and stumbled around the fretboard until I got comfortable. I grew my hair long. I wore flannel and Chuck Taylors. I knew entirely too much about Pearl Jam.

Hey, it was the ’90s.

Even before I knew what I was doing as an instrumentalist, I was completely comfortable improvising with others. At first, I was my version of flashy. I wanted to show off the oddball techniques I’d been tinkering with, and I had accepted the mainstream idea of the guitar as the lead instrument doing the loudest things; doing the most things. By its nature, though, this kind of playing limits the creative freedom of everyone else in the room. It’s very More me; less you.

I was in the middle of my twenties in 2006 when I moved with my now-wife to Greenville, North Carolina, where she attended grad school and I received an informal artistic education by night. Through the wildly inventive (and wildly wild) musicians I met in that town’s underground music scene, I learned to improvise as one part of a whole.

I started collaborating with more hip-hop artists— specifically, a Greenville rap crew I became friends with—and while some of my rapper friends tried to teach me to freestyle, it never took. I was thrilled, though, to back my friends up instrumentally, which was an important lesson in collaborative tact. I remember one house party in particular when a drummer and I backed up three freestyling emcees. I listened carefully to their verses as I played, changing my guitar’s voicing and phrasing to fit each rapper’s style, or killing my volume and laying out when that’s what served the music.

Improvising, as I’ve learned through the musicians I’ve been fortunate enough to play with, isn’t about showing off and soloing, but is about collectively creating a new and interesting sonic world. It’s inherently Less me; more us. And you can only do that by listening, by knowing how to leave space for others to develop and present ideas.

Listen: As a hetero white male, I was born with a microphone. By thinking I should learn to freestyle, I was asking for the mic while I was already holding one. Women and minorities in the U.S. have to work a lot harder to be heard, since our society is structured so that the hetero white male voice carries a lot further, whether the person speaking means for it to or not. Historically and culturally, the hip-hop I adore developed to amplify the voices of people without this advantage, without white privilege.

But I don’t need amplifying. What I need is to turn in my mic when I can—to shut up, to listen, to step back when that’s what serves society best. Learning to listen by playing improvised music with my friends has taught me a great deal about recognizing my own white privilege and how even its passive influence affects others. An equitable sharing of the figurative microphone takes massive structural change, which I want to believe is happening, but which I also know happens one person at a time.

I’m not saying I occupy some moral high ground or that I’m even any good at this—I’m saying that I see the problem. I’m saying that I’m trying.

I’m saying that I can’t freestyle.

I’m saying that’s okay.

Hill is the magazine’s staff writer.

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