I fell in love with hip-hop in the 1980s. I remember sneaking up to my older sister’s room, blasting the Sugar Hill Gang and Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Flash. There were also the nights—cousins standing guard at the door—that we giggled and gasped our way through 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be.
Hip-hop, as misogynist and problematic as it was even then, was also empowering. It provided black American youth with a language to describe feelings of discontent, invisibility and marginalization. And later, through artists such as Salt-N-Pepa and MC Lyte, it gave black girls permission to recognize and become familiar with our sexuality. These female artists gave us a narrative in a genre that often muted our mics and zoomed in on our hips and thighs.
More generally, hip-hop gave us room to be unapologetically black and to take joy in that blackness in a country that has always been vested in telling us that we’re not good enough.
Hip-hop has always been a part of my life, and I had always planned on its being central to my children’s musical and sociocultural existence. Somewhere along the way, though, it became a corporate enterprise. Wealthy executives figured out how to get richer on black poverty and pathology, mass-marketing the ills that persist in black America and selling them back to us at discount prices.
This is not to say that hip-hop stopped being the life of the party or that it stopped being “the CNN of black America,” as hip-hop pioneer Chuck D called it. It simply became more difficult to sift through the hatred of black women, the worshipping of capitalism and the pervasive glorification of crime that gripped the minds of young black men like a diamond-encrusted noose.
This is why, when my now-10-year-old son, about 8 at the time, came home from school reciting Drake and Kanye West lyrics, my husband almost had to pick me up off the floor after I clasped my hand over my heart like Fred G. Sanford. It was just like that time he diddy-bopped past me singing “ … pounding with desire” before I realized that he was singing the R&B classic “Pretty Brown Eyes.” I almost didn’t make it, people.
These rap songs have “bad words” in them, I said at the time, and I didn’t want him listening to this crap. Yes, I had fallen victim to get-off-my-lawn syndrome and forgotten that I was singing about “rolling down the street smokin’ Indo, sippin’ on gin and juice” before I even knew what either of them was.
But I came to my senses and remembered that there is a difference between what is accessible and what is authentic. My husband and I may not have complete control over what our three sons consume musically, but what we can do is place more focus on the analysis of bad things for which hip-hop often provides a platform rather than on the bad words used to describe them. It is our job to take the reins and steer them away from toxic, cookie-cutter radio rap and into the housing project of Queensbridge (Nas) in Queens, N.Y., and through the streets of Compton, Calif. (Kendrick Lamar), and Atlanta (Outkast).
When Talib Kweli raps in “Just to Get By”:
We keeping it gangster say “fo shizzle,” “fo sheezy” and “stayin crunk”
It’s easy to pull a breezy, smoke trees, and we stay drunk
Yo, our activism attackin’ the system, the blacks and latins in prison
Numbers of prison they victim black in the vision
S—t and all they got is rappin’ to listen to
I let them know we missin’ you, the love is unconditional
Even when the condition is critical, when the livin’ is miserable
Your position is pivotal, I ain’t bulls—ttin’ you
Now, why would I lie? Just to get by?
When J. Cole spits in “Be Free”:
Can you tell me why every time I step outside
I see my niggas die,
Ooh, I’m letting you know
That it ain’t no gun they make that can kill my soul
When Kendrick Lamar raps in “HiiiPower”:
This is physical and mental, I won’t sugarcoat it
You’d die from diabetes if these other niggas wrote it
And everything on TV just a figment of imagination
I don’t want plastic nation, dread that like a Haitian
While you muthaf—ks waiting, I be off the slave ship
Building pyramids, writing my own hieroglyphs
Curse words be damned. I’d rather my sons hear some “bad words” if it means they learn about white supremacy, systems of oppression and the insidious ways that racism affects our daily lives. Life is often profane. The things that happen to black people on a daily basis are profane. And I would much rather we delved into these teachable moments with our sons than ban them because of profanity.
It is also extremely imperative that my sons understand the value of a SpottieOttieDopalicious angel.
I know, I know. But didn’t I say it was complicated?