One of the things that makes hip-hop so special is the knowledge that is dropped upon us in the rhymes and lyrics, with most of the focus of the musical genre’s teachings in the hands of the listener. In “Facts Not Fiction,” rapper E-40 informed us of Black achievements in science and business. On “Brenda’s Got A Baby,” Tupac Shakur unveiled the plight of teenage mothers. And, in “Ten Crack Commandments,” Notorious B.I.G. gave folks the blueprint for drug dealing—proving not all lessons taught are positive.
One of the most interesting themes inside rap is how it looks at fatherhood. In 1991, Boston’s own Ed O.G and Da Bulldogs released “Be A Father to Your Child,” a jazz-tinged ditty promoting responsible parenting—with its accompanying video receiving heavy rotation. In ’94, the hoop-star-turned-rapper Shaquille O’Neal dropped “Biological Didn’t Bother,” a powerful piece highlighting the profound impact his stepfather made in his life.
The author Juan Vidal’s Rap Dad covered the ways in which rappers are influenced by absent paternal figureheads. In it, Vidal mused that the counterculture took the place of a father he could no longer touch. “Since things like school and church couldn’t get through to me, I was being trained up outside of organized institutions,” he wrote. “What I gravitated to were these movements that not only felt redeeming, but also freeing. They were almost everything I needed.”
In the tome Be A Father To Your Child: Real Talk from Black Men on Family, Love, and Fatherhood, edited by April R. Silver—an anthology on Black fathers who were inspired through hip-hop, including notables such as the the cultural writer Jelani Cobb, activist and thought leader Kevin Powell, and the conscious rapper Talib Kweli—Kweli noted that hip-hop music provided his generation with a code that allowed them to correct some of the mistakes of their predecessors. “My personal experience tells me that the statistics lie about how Black fathers participate in the lives of their children,” said the rapper. “One of my best friends told me that he didn’t know his father, so his morals and values were learned from hip-hop records. That was a direct first-person testimony and it is very true. Hip-hop is male dominated and teaches you how to appear like a man.”
Given the social and political pressures in today’s world of broken systems, the fight to ”appear” like a man is constant. At the same time how we define manhood itself is changing. Sometimes, in the fight to be the men we want to be, we tuck away aspects of ourselves from fear of judgement. As most are young men coming from broken homes themselves, it can be hard to escape the world after reaching a certain level of stardom. Kanye West, Will Smith and Drake are perfect examples of how hard managing that can be.
The world learned of Drake’s son, Adonis, with the former French porn star Sophie Brussaux, through a personal battle between the Canadian rap icon and his rival Pusha T. The G.O.O.D Music rapper’s diss track “The Story of Adidon,” made it seem as if @champagnepapi was ashamed of his illegitimate heir. In his rebuttal “Emotionless,” the Certified Lover Boy artist explained, “I wasn’t hiding my kid from the world/ I was hiding the world from my kid/ From empty souls who just wake up and looked to debate/ Until you starin’ at your seed, you can never relate.” After the media flurry died down, we could catch pictures of Toronto melodist and his young scion floating across the social media landscape. With paparazzi hungry for images that could go viral, it’s rightful that so many famous Black men keep their progeny as far away from the spotlight as possible.
Rapper J Cole, who is the father of two boys with his wife and college sweetheart Melissa Heholt, has been much better at keeping his family life away from the public eye. The Off-Season artist shared that through being a father he “learned the delicate art of balance between parenthood and career.” On “She’s Mine Pt. 2,” a violin and piano play as a baby softly cries in the backdrop as he flows, “Reminisce when you came out the womb/Tears of joy I think filled up the room/You are now the reason that I fight/I ain’t never did nothing this right in my whole life/Got me thinking.”
Kendrick Lamar, like J Cole, is also great at keeping his kids away from the lens of the paparazzi .When asked about conflicting ideas between fatherhood and his art, the hip-hop phenom told the New York Times, “One day, I may have a little girl … And she’s gonna say things or do things that you may not condone, but it’s the reality of it … Learning how to accept it, and not run away from it, that’s how I want this album to feel.”
Hence, maybe the best lesson we can all walk away with from these enlightened MCs is to quietly spend the best times we can with our kids. And, may the beauty of those moments drive our joy.
Adisa Banjoko is an author, curator and journalist based between The Bay Area and London. He also hosts the @BishopChronicles podcast.