I might catch some flack for this (especially from my wife), so I'm just gonna come clean, then jump out in front of it: I love hip hop. Specifically, 90's hip hop.
One of the things I think a lot about is my legacy as a parent. When my kids are grown, what things will they say I brought to their life and that they valued? That they valued so much, in fact, that they would weave these very things into the fabric of their day-to-day lives, their own value system and share with their own families. As a family, we're one week into a month-long pause, where we're spending some time thinking and talking about race, class, the foster care system, trauma, attachment parenting and the dynamics of our own family; the one my wife and I are building. What a super opportunity to talk about my relationship with Hip Hop.
One of the things I hope my kids get from me is an appreciation for music. I don't have some amazing tale of musical prodigy. I can't sing or hum and play simultaneously. I can't even sing. I can rap a little (def not like this kid, tho). I love to dance (click here to drool). I strum the guitar and bang on the drums, but it's all haphazard (here's my hero in this department). I may have played the tenor sax to Janet Jackson hits in high school, but it's hazy. I beatbox (basically taught him everything he knows). But only when I'm alone. Seriously, though. And as much as I love mixing music genres, if I wanted to DJ, I shoulda started when this kid did. You can love music without being gifted, amiiright? More than that thought, though, I feel music and rhythm running through my systems; nervous, muscular, skeletal, cardiovascular. And I believe that one of the more pervasive subtexts to life on this earth is an underlying rhythm that connects us all. Like, when I'm at the store or in line somewhere, with a song stuck in my head, someone else nearby will belt out a line from that song. And not just any line, it'll be the actual line stuck in my head. At the exact same moment the lyrics are running through my brain. Crazy talk. All this to say. I love music. And I love bass. Like 12" subwoofer bass with a Rockford Fozgate crossover. In a small car. With tinted windows. 1997 was a good year, friends.
The moment my dad missed and will never understand why
My car was a 1993 Chrysler LeBaron and I was a junior in high school. I paid for it with my own, hard earned cash and I could change its oil. Kinda huge for a Michigan girl, growing up in a 1990's blue collar neighborhood not quite urban, not quite suburban. A mixed-race community and a neighborhood so committed to working class values that we actually, hold on to your chairs mamas, protested Target because they were anti-union. I know.
On the cusp of a mid-1990's digital shift, it was critical that my high school ride played both CD's and mixtapes. This was also the pre-cellphone & pre-napster era, which meant I loved my music so much, I figured out how to pay for it. Full price. But I was an anomaly in my family in many ways (also referred to as Black Sheep) and I have this distinct memory of my dad. It's one of those memories so poignant, you promise your young self to not repeat that same type of moment with your kids when the time comes. One of those moments, instead, that you blog about, because it left that kinda impression. The memory is this: I'm up late on a school night, unable to sleep. My dad returns from the bar, passes through the living room on his way to bed, stopping only to turn off the TV while I was watching Yo! MTV Raps. He keeps walking and semi-disgustedly remarks, "Why do you listen to that 2-pack shacker shit, anyway?" He kept walking and disappeared before I could answer, though I suspect it was more of a rhetorical question than a get-to-know-you one. In my mind, I corrected him for slaughtering his name.
Eventually, I would joke about this with my dad, but not in a let-me-tell-you-more-about-me kinda way. Not in a let-me-let-you-into-my-teenage-world kinda way. More, a you-fucked-up-a-celebrity's-name-and-sounded-ridiculous-and-my-adolescence-attitude-mocks-you kinda way. Of course, neither of us ever rose victoriously from this dynamic, that in the end shaped and complicated our relationship and has deeply motivated me to be the kind of parent who does different than he did. If we could swing a do-over two decades later, here's what I would want to tell him:
Why do I listen to Tupac?
Because I'm an artist. And, because 2pac. The 2pac of my teens. Pre-Makaveli. He was a package deal. A lyrical genius. The son of a single, Black Panther Mother living in Harlem. He was a persuasive powerhouse; an effective public speaker. Talent so big he just felt extraordinary. Transparent about his struggle as a black man, a son, a young father and husband, a leader in his neighborhood. In his music and recorded interviews, you can feel his conviction. You can see how complicated he was, and bear witness as his internal battles played out. The way he carries on throughout the early 90's, in and out of prison, as the way he relates to the world unravels, gets complicated and messy, then tightens up as he negotiates the differences between what he's been given and what he wants. You can feel his anger and focus shift when he moves to the West Coast, under the shadow of father-like figure Suge Knight's smoke and mirror/cloak and dagger mission (the most offensive language on a wikipedia page helps outline the East Coast West Coast feud here).
Even if you glaze over all that, can we talk about 2 things? A) the halogram. B) Juice? Him and Omar Epps? That hair? My first real crushes and the only men I would've really considered dating (didn't know I was gay until college, although looking back I'm unsure if I wanted to date or become these dudes. ANYWAY. Brad Pitt also on that list). TuPac was primal. I mean, was he even acting in that movie, or was he calling up an extension of himself?
I was surrounded by the typical teenage drama and superficiality that comes from the period in your life where you are tasked to develop into who you are going to be, but have no idea how to do that yet. Yeah, there was diversity, and I mean diversity, not a school with a few kids of color. There was a mix of all kinds of kids, first generation, low income, middle income, all different ethnic backgrounds. But there were also few things I held close to my chest that spoke to the woman I was becoming. There was a reason I could instantly memorize and spit back lyrics to songs but not The Gettysburg Address or Canterbury Tales. It wasn't limited to 2pac. And I'm not talkin about Mariah Carey or P. Diddy. I'm talkin Naz, Foxy Brown, Busta, DMX, Onyx, Naughty by Nature, A Tribe Called Quest, Lil Kim, Dre, Snoop, Ice Cube. I'm talkin Boyz 'n the Hood, Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam, In Living Colour, Martin, Eddie Murphy Raw and Beverly Hills Cop and Richard Prior stand-up. Of course, I also very much loved Arrested Development, Erykah Badu, Blackstreet, LSG and so many others. There was truth with a capital T in those songs, and my white, low, low, low income background taught me a few things about how the world works. I saw everywhere that not everyone gets an equal chance at life. Money, power (the life of a West side...jkjk) connections, social capital- these are what creates a life that's easier to walk. Part of what I found so deeply resonate in Hip Hop was the voice of the struggle, to get out of where you came from, to worry about whether you got enough of what it takes to do different than what's all around you.
I'm a grown woman, now. And mother, to boot. I get it. And I know I totally over-romanticized him both then and now. But. I love(d) how he strung words together to simplify really complex social realities and reflection. And I still appreciate learning new things about him that reaffirm my love for him. Back when I needed to feel anything but teenage angst and depression, his lyrics offered a rhythm and narrative that gave me focus and flow on the basketball court; I was the tall girl who could dance my way to the free throw line. More than anything, though, I loved the way the bass hit hard in my high school speakers. The way it hung in the air on a humid summer day of driving nowhere, for no good reason, other than to just feel it.
There is rhythm and song to just about everything I do with my kids. "Clean it up" has a hip hop beat. Getting in and out of the car has rhythm. Books like "Little Blue Truck" and "Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site" have made-up melodies with a hip hop hook that pitter patter my Mr. Toddler into a sleepy slumber. Rituals are permeated with song and rhythm that have woven their way into the soundtrack of our day-to-day lives. Even when I beatbox gently on their cheeks just to hold them close, mellow out together and sneak a kiss. I suppose this is my love letter to Hip Hop. Maybe you didn't see that coming from me, or expect it after we've met. But my love runs deep. Viva la Tupac.
Foster Mom (the artist)
4 hours of non-stop 2pac. You're welcome.