I love hip-hop music. I have every CD by Notorious B.I.G. and Kanye West and most of Jay-Z’s, along music with many other hip-hop artists. No matter where I’ve lived, the first station programmed in my car radio is the one that plays the most hip hop. I love listening to old-school hip hop from the 80s and 90s and I also like listening to the new stuff artists at least a decade younger than me are putting out. As I get older, my taste in hip hop becomes more selective and discriminating, but I still like to keep up with the industry’s latest music and newest happenings.
Unfortunately, my love of hip hop is difficult to share with the person I care about the most.
When my 19-month-old daughter is in the car, my Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G. CDs stay in the CD holder attached to my sun visor. I’ll listen to the hip-hop station from time to time, but it generally doesn’t take long before I find myself turning to another station because a song comes on that I don’t want my daughter hearing. I have an iTunes playlist that was designed with my daughter in mind and it includes very few hip-hop songs. Fortunately, my taste in music is diverse; I also listen to artists like Billy Joel, Anita Baker and Metallica, just to name a few. It’s important to me that my daughter grows up hearing – and appreciating – music from a variety of genres, just like I did. However, it pains me that it may be years before I’m able to fully share my love of hip hop with my daughter.
I’m not a prude; I don’t object to my daughter listening to music with occasional curse words or the occasional cleverly veiled sexual references every now and then and I’m fundamentally opposed to buying censored music. But, while I think Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance (Remix)” is one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time, I don’t want my daughter listening to B.I.G. as he goes into explicit detail about his sexual conquests. I still remember where I was the first time I heard “Gold Digger”, one of my favorites by Kanye West, but I find its repeated use of “nigger” unsuitable for my daughter’s ears; I don’t want her growing up thinking it’s okay to refer to herself, or others, by an ethnic slur.
Both my parents are music lovers – my dad even worked in the music business for several years – and I spent a good chunk of my childhood listening to their favorite songs and artists. My mom is a huge James Brown fan and I do remember wondering what exactly the Godfather of Soul was referring to when he sang about a “sex machine,” but that was about as blatant as the off-color references got in my parents’ music. The issue of exposing children to risqué content in music we grew up with is something unique to my generation – but not unique to hip hop. And, considering music continues to move away from the subtle and toward the overt, this isn’t an issue that will disappear for future generations of parents.
Even though music was a constant presence in my life, I didn’t develop my own musical tastes until I was a teenager. By then, I was old enough to understand most of the lyrics I was listening to, even if I hadn’t personally experienced what the author was talking about. When hip hop began in the late 70s and early 80s, songs were usually about how great the artist was in relation to other artists and about escaping the poverty, crime and drugs in the neighborhoods where many hip-hop artists grew up. However, my adolescence in the 1990s paralleled the rise of “gangsta rap” and increased realism in hip hop; instead of longing to escape their downtrodden neighborhoods and upbringings, artists were romanticizing their less-than-ideal roots and the name of the game in hip hop became authenticity and realism. Did you grow up a truant and petty thief? Then rap about snatching gold chains off the necks of old ladies. Did you sell drugs? Rap about it. Did you do drugs? Rap about that, too. Heck, even if you didn’t do those things, rap about them anyway. Hip hop became less about cleaning up your act – and your language – so that it would be presentable to the rest of the world and more about telling it like it is and not sparing a single detail, no matter how vulgar, violent, misogynistic or racist.
Meanwhile, I was growing up in a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx that had more than its fair share of drugs, crime and poverty. However, I was raised by parents who were gainfully employed and who valued education – including my mom, who works as an elementary school guidance counselor and has two master’s degrees – so I was a solid student who knew a college degree was in my future and I rarely went without something I needed or wanted. I didn’t do drugs, was never part of a gang and had no desire to turn to a life of crime. However, growing up where I did, I knew people who did – or aspired to do – all of those things. So, I could relate to the realism and portraits of ghetto life that were pervasive in 1990s hip hop even though my reality and the expectations I had for my life were different.
I was also drawn to hip hop by the vivid word pictures painted by many of its best artists; even though I’ve never stolen from anyone, listening to “Gimme The Loot” by Notorious B.I.G. makes me feel like I have; Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” makes me feel like I was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles even though I’ve never even been to California. The detail-oriented approach of the best hip-hop artists also helped inform my approach to sports play-by-play; in “Player’s Anthem”, Notorious B.I.G. doesn’t just say he robbed a preacher, but that he left him “coughing up blood and his pockets like rabbit ears”, so I shouldn’t just say a ground ball was hit to second base, but also that the second baseman had to move three steps to his right to field the ball before throwing the runner out at first base.
As my daughter grows up, I want to impress upon her that it isn’t enough to listen to music; she needs to try to understand what it’s about, an understanding that becomes even more important when dealing with hip hop’s adult subject matter. I want my daughter to have a desire to learn the meaning behind the lyrics of various songs and to understand the artist’s point of view and his or her frame of reference. I hope that, once my daughter’s a teenager, we can discuss the music I grew up listening to and what it’s about, just as I did with my parents. Even if she doesn’t like hip hop, I want her to know why that genre is important to me and how it has shaped my view of the world. I want her to know that even though many of my favorite hip-hop songs use off-color language, I choose not to and that just because you listen to hip hop doesn’t mean you have to talk, act or dress a certain way or have certain expectations for your life or others around you. More than anything, I want my daughter to understand that music in general, and hip hop in particular, is a way to relate to your own experiences and also a way to understand and/or vicariously experience things that aren’t necessarily part of your reality. Hopefully, my daughter will know that all music, regardless of the form it takes, can be beautiful and powerful poetry.
A true appreciation of hip-hop music is one of the many things my daughter and I will discuss when she’s older.Follow @raford3