She anticipates it. The intro knocks from the speakers and into her body. Her smile grows, and that adorable crinkle forms between her eyebrows. My daughter is a vision of pure expectant joy. When the bass and drums come in, she’s gone. Throwing her hands in the air and waving them like she hasn’t a care in the world has become a ritual for her several times per week. Introducing her to my favorite songs is mine.
Music is an important piece of our lives; it takes priority over television and film. Reading and talking with each other are the only other things more important. Out of all the music my wife and I have introduced to our daughter, hip-hop and ska are her favorites. This makes me happy, as those two music and cultural forms shaped who I am today—even my parenting.
I don’t want to fall into the falsehood of hip-hop being a youth culture. We never put age constraints on any other types of musical expression, so it is wrong to do it with hip-hop. I still consider myself to be a B-boy/rude boy, and at close to 41, I find it age-appropriate, if a little nostalgic. My daughter is the direct recipient of this nostalgia.
De La Soul, Mos Def, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, MC Lyte, Ladybug Mecca, Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, the Jungle Brothers, MF Doom (the instrumentals), Freestyle Fellowship, the Roots (when they rocked “Lovely Family” on Yo Gabba Gabba, our household went bananas)—all these and much more live in heavy rotation on her iPod. Yes, she’s a 5-year-old with an iPod, diligent about getting me to add new songs. While the music is great, it’s what it represented (to me) that is most important.
I remember the pride/sadness I felt in junior high when “Self Destruction” dropped. There was a Stop the Violence Movement. Brothers and sister wore Africa medallions and were able to dream past the ’hood, violence, crack and economic terrorism. Hip-hop was a vehicle for aspiration. This optimism that the “golden age” of hip-hop (and the things it gave birth to) instilled in me directly influences how I raise my daughter.
From a young age, we were insistent that she knew her artistic lineage—broadly cultural and familial. She is the heir to hip-hop, jazz, blues, reggae, ska, and her grandfather’s guitar, harmonica and drums. We inculcated in her that art was important, and that her life was a continuous work of art. When she was old enough, and I began to really introduce her to hip-hop, some of my parenting became easier. By using the four original elements of hip-hop culture, I’ve been able to paint her world with a much wider brush.
Graf writing: This was how I introduced her to the visual arts. Her mother is much better versed than I am, so she took my introduction and amplified it to museum attendance and artistic production. It was a trip to see aimless scribbles turn into things that I could actually identify.
Deejaying: Music has power, I tell her. It can amp you up before dealing with a challenge, or it can be a friend to you when you’re feeing sad. It can move crowds to ecstasy, or it can signal war. It can be a biography of your life. I gave her a copy of her birth playlist (the list of songs I wanted my daughter to be born to, the first music I wanted her to hear). We’ve had long conversations about why I chose the songs I did.
B-boying/girling: I emphasize to her that her body is her body, and it can do amazing things. You can defy gravity for seconds at a time, or you can root yourself to the ground. She dances every single day, and her favorite movie is The Freshest Kids.
Emceeing: Language is powerful. We are teaching her that her word is bond, and if she gives her word, she should follow through with it. We also teach her not to privilege words all the time. Sometimes the story is in the silences.
As I review these words, I’m powerfully aware that the entire notion of hip-hop being a frame for parenting can come across as corny, or reaching, or “doin’ too much.” But all parents borrow from their cultural influences to make this journey more manageable and interesting. Hip-hop is as much a part of who I am as my tattoos. Its influence is permanent.
Recently talking to my homeboy (whom I look up to as a veteran parent), he admitted to watching all eight seasons of The Cosby Show, taking notes, and emulating the Cos while raising his twins.
We do what we gotta do. Word.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.