(The Root) — "Daddy, do you know what happened last night? Well, I saw Santa, and he looked a lot like you. He was handsome, he had an Afro, he was really out of sight. Now I'm going to go tell everybody that I saw Santa."
That's the tiny voice of then-5-year-old Akim Vann, starring in her songwriter-producer father Teddy Vann's take on "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." When "Santa Claus Is a Black Man" was released in 1973, it became a cult classic, merging African-American empowerment with the spirit of the holiday.
Thirty-nine years later, it's still heard on black radio stations, and many consider it an essential piece of seasonal nostalgia. But for the Grammy Award-winning Vann (he co-wrote Luther Vandross' hit "Power of Love/Love Power"), who is also remembered for hosting some of New York's first Kwanzaa celebrations, mentoring children and producing The Adventures of Colored Man, the song was more than just a cute remake or a chance to put his little girl in the spotlight.
In fact, Akim, whose mother is Chinese, told The Root that she remembers going to the drugstore with her father to buy makeup so she could be a "little browner for the album cover."
"I don't think he wanted anyone to look at it and for me to be questionable," she said.
We spoke to her about more of her adult perspective on the song that made her famous, her late father's commitment to promoting positive imagery for African Americans and how she carries on his legacy by delivering the message that what's "fun and good and happy" can also be black.
The Root: You were 5 years old when you recorded the song. Do you remember it?
Akim Vann: I do. My dad was a music producer, a songwriter … he just did many things, and the song was one of those. It was definitely his brainchild, and he just recruited me to sing it. So I was just going with the flow. I do remember some late nights in the studio. And there were some other songs on the album where he brought in other children, so it was definitely fun, but I didn't get how powerful it would be.
TR: How do you look at it differently now?
AV: As a child, it was not a big deal. When you're that young, you're not like, "Oh, wow, I'm on the radio." I would hear it on this station called WURL. They would play it every Christmas, and it was kind of just normal to me. But there were a lot of other things about my family that, to a lot of people, probably seemed out of the ordinary, too. For example, my mom is Chinese and my dad is black, and I think at that time that was a really rare combination …
Now, looking back [at the song], especially because my dad passed away three years ago around the holidays, I realize what a gift it was. It's a gift I really treasure and appreciate so much because he did this album which, for all intents and purposes, could be here until the end of time. So it's just a great memory that I have with me and my dad.
He was definitely an advocate of learning as much as you could about yourself. He was promoting self-love and self-awareness. The whole thing about Santa Claus being a black man was that my father was black, and at the end of the day, you find out that Santa is your parents, and he thought that was important for that imagery to be supported. I also remember having all black dolls, or all dolls of color. It's really powerful to be able to look at an image and identify with it.
TR: How do you pass some of your dad's lessons on to your children?
AV: I have four children now, and I just see how important it is to be able to relate to images with regard to skin color and hair. It's super important for you to be comfortable with what you look like and who you are. Even though things have changed over time and we see a greater variety of images … it's still worse for people of color or black people, especially if you look a certain way. And I think my dad understood really early on about how powerful black images really are. They're just really important. The media controls so much, and this was his effort to take some control of what we see. So, having kids now, I really appreciate him reinforcing that pride.
TR: How else do you try to honor your dad's legacy and the message he wanted to send with the song?
AV: My dad was a genius. He really was. He was ahead of his time for sure. If you met him once, you would feel a bond with him. He mentored a lot of young people through music, sports and education. He was very well-read, and he didn't go to college, but he was the smartest person you'll ever meet. He touched everyone's life who came in his path.
I actually do private tutoring, in all subjects besides foreign language, and in math up to calculus. So I feel like I have at least some of my dad in me because I touch young people's lives. Just in terms of teaching them to read in between the lines. Even though math appears to be an objective discipline, there is a lot of subjectivity to it.
What I meant by that is, we often talk about a multicultural curriculum — how Africans and Asians have contributed to subjects at large. We don't look for these pockets of "diversity" like that in subjects like math, but they do exist …
We discovered things, too. If you're in school and you see all these pictures in the books, and everything that's great is associated with white males, that does something to you. You may not realize it, but that, [combined] with all the other images we have in the media, is just a reinforcement of the idea that you don't come from greatness. And we do come from greatness.
So I speak up about that with my students. It's the proverbial reading between the lines. I emphasize that you shouldn't just take what's presented to you.
It's what my dad was challenging with the song. It's like, everything that's fun and good and happy is in the white image. Everything that's magical and special is always in these images that don't look like us. We've gotta have images that look like us, too, that do great things. And it starts in childhood.
TR: Do you play the song for your children around the holidays?
AV: I do. They think it's hilarious. Every year I have this idea that I'm going to get my daughter to remake it. But when you do something as a parent, they don't think it's as cool as everyone else does.