Hip-Hop Father Figures?

It's more than just music for a generation of men who grew up without strong paternal figures. For one writer, rap was like a surrogate father.

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Jay-Z; Chuck D of Public Enemy; Tupac Shakur

A two-parent, mother-father, husband-wife model household is not necessary to raise healthy children. More than a "nuclear" family, children need the love and care of individuals dedicated to providing them with the best this world has to offer. Whether you refer to those people as mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle or any other familial nomenclature is irrelevant.

But I, along with scores of others, was raised to believe -- as a black boy charged with growing up to become a strong black man -- that having a relationship with a man I called "father" was of the utmost importance. There were things, we were told, that only another man could teach us. The concern society had for us was admirable but raised an equally pertinent question: Where were those of us who had physically absent or emotionally distant fathers expected to learn these vital lessons about manhood that supposedly could be passed only from father to son?

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, the answer for many of us was hip-hop. Nowhere was there a more ready supply of black men with something to say and the ability to articulate it in a way that allowed others to relate and learn than in the booming hip-hop culture. For young black men in search of guidance from someone with a face that looked like their own, rappers became the surrogate fathers.

Critics will find this problematic and say there's nothing to be learned from listening to rappers except how to become a low-level drug dealer who disrespects women and kills with reckless abandon. Point taken. Much of the imagery in the so-called gangsta rap that dominated this period was violent and sexist and tended toward glorification of deplorable behavior. However, it's wrong to assume that is all there was to be gained.

For instance, as a kid who grew up with a strained, distant relationship with my dad, I learned the value of self-confidence by listening to Jay-Z records. Hearing him assert himself as the "best rapper alive" and reveling in his supreme ability not only to rip mics but also to make a couple boatloads of money in the process taught me to fight back against the self-doubt that often plagued me.

At the same time, I got my first lessons in modern-day black radical politics and a love of history from Chuck D and Public Enemy, while Ice Cube gave me the language with which to articulate the anger and rage I felt inside but wasn't quite sure how to express. I learned about jazz by listening to Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest and the Roots and was introduced to various forms of music to which I wouldn't otherwise have had access. As a bonus, my summer reading lists swelled, trying to keep up with the metaphors and passing references that my favorite emcees made to books like Pimp by Iceberg Slim and The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois.

More seriously, hip-hop let me know I wasn't alone. Every emotion I kept hidden from the rest of the world to protect myself from those who would never understand me, I found expressed in 16-bar verses recited over old soul samples. When I heard Scarface lament, "At night I can't sleep/I toss and turn/candlesticks in the dark/visions of bodies being burned," or Tupac say, "I smoke a blunt to take the pain out/And if I wasn't high I'd probably try to blow my brains out," it was like they had crawled inside my head and unearthed my paranoia, fear, depression and anxiety. Though they weren't there to hear me say anything back, I finally felt like someone was there to listen.

Then, in those moments when I needed it, hip-hop was there to lift me up and encourage. Most of the time, all it took was the subtle and quiet nudge of "Hold On, Be Strong" from Outkast to remind me to keep going through whatever obstacles were thrown in my way.

I've learned a great deal from hip-hop in its role as a surrogate father. It has its faults, particularly around issues of gender, homophobia, materialism and violence. As much as I've learned, I've also had to unlearn a great deal, but the same could be said for any parent. Ultimately, it was worth it.

All the affection, care, wisdom, advice and love I didn't get from my father, I found in hip-hop. I know I'm not alone. When the attacks come from the elders and those who don't understand the culture, we rush to its defense because it's personal. This isn't just music for us; these are our heroes.