“So do you, like, know him for real, for real?” “Are you guys close?” “Are he and Will still close?” “What’s up with Will and Jada?” I’ve often said that I’ve lived the past 20+ years of my life well versed in the arts and teachings of public relations, knowing what to say and not say about family business.
I had a very different childhood than most Black boys from Southwest Philadelphia in the early ’90s. My mother worked as an elementary school teacher at Philadelphia’s oldest African-American-owned and -operated private school. And my father was a musician, who was also an actor. My father could be seen every Monday on primetime TV with his best friend.
My father is “DJ Jazzy Jeff” Townes.
Growing up in Philly as my father and Will ascended to new heights with their musical and (later acting) careers had its ups, downs and all-arounds. My parents weren’t together, and for a long while, even wandering into my teenage years, I never understood why. But they tried their hardest and did a great job of making things work for me.
Good grades in school pending, my Christmas tree would be stocked. I never had a need, but I was groomed to work for my wants. My mother never let me get into child acting (thank you, Ma). If I wanted to try hockey and football, let’s do it. If karate was next, sign Cory up. (Although I thought there was a fast track between novice and 3 Ninjas and was quickly humbled.)
But it came with a cost. I rarely saw my father and I never could understand why, no matter how many times it was “explained.” What was even more confusing was, as many times as I would ask my mother where he was or why I couldn’t see him, there he was: every Monday night, just like clockwork, making the people laugh and having jokes. Every Tuesday, kids in school would tell me how funny he was the night before and would often tell me how much they wished they were me.
And to a kid who always wanted the simple things, a game of hoops with my father meant more to me than the latest Sega video games or the envy of classmates. I remember a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episode where my father got married to his on-show girlfriend, and I completely lost it. I can laugh at it now and I imagine my mother got her chuckles in while trying to console me, but in my childhood anger, I never felt so betrayed.
In my eyes, Dad was on TV with his new wife, new kids and new family, and was going to forget all about me. I was livid as a 10-year-old could be. But after having so many talks of understanding, I learned to separate Jeff Townes (or Pops as I’ve called him for as long as I can remember) from the character Jazz. I remember going to the Fresh Prince set as a child and meeting the cast. The late James Avery’s billowing presence and famously deep voice turned to sheer terror as he channeled his inner Shredder from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon (one of the best shows of all time). I remember meeting Daphne Maxwell Reid, and how nice she was, doing The Carlton with Alfonso Ribeiro, and the first time I met Tatyana Ali. Man. At age 9, I learned about the willingness and dedication of “risking it all.”
But as I grew up, the desire of having a father around clashed more with the understanding of putting food on the table and providing for me. By middle school and high school, my mother had a new boyfriend (and later husband), and I had a baby sister on the way. Tensions built between my stepfather and I, as I irrationally saw him trying to replace the father, MY father, who wasn’t there, but was still there in my eyes.
Focusing more on music after the show’s ending in ’96, my father helped create some of the biggest musical acts of the early 2000s with his patented "A Touch of Jazz" sound. And while it was a crazy experience to be around artists such as Jill Scott, Floetry, Raheem DeVaughn, and Floetry among others who would later strike big in their early stages, I just simply wanted to hang with my dad. Whenever my mother told me I’d be going to see him, I was excited to just be in his presence. I saw myself in Jeff Townes, his calm demeanor, his captivating presence when he was talking or telling a story, the way he’d phrase things, his hand motions. He was my biggest idol and I looked up to him. But it was frustrating and saddening to have to be canceled on when work came up, or if he had to bail out on seeing me, or if he had to work with someone during the precious times we had together. I became resentful. Angry. Cold.
I’d never disassociate with my father, I’d never shy away from being his son. If someone asked if he was really my dad, I’d say yes and be prepared to answer the same 32,000 questions that would normally follow. Even if there were times I hadn’t seen or spoken to my father in months, I’d act like everything was okay, as I was always taught, “family business isn’t for anyone else to know.”
But that anger caused me to rift with both my father and my step-father. I failed to understand then that he was trying to come into a situation of raising another man’s son in a city and time period rare for that. Slowly but surely, I started to give my stepfather a chance and let him into my life to become the mentor he is today. But issues with my father were left un-settled. This is the first time I’ve ever written about this, and as fingers hit computer keys, I realize I’ve carried this anger around by myself for a long, long time. “When you get older, you’ll understand.” That was a phrase I’ve heard many times from my father as a kid. I always wondered when that time would come, when I'd finally understand how and why our relationship wasn't the perfect story I always wanted. After some of the darkest moments of our relationship throughout my college years, we’d all but given up on each other. We didn’t talk, check in with each other, anything. I’d check in on social media every once in a while to see what he’s up to and where he is in the world. (And knowing him now as I do, he probably did the same.) But that was the extent of our communication.
As I’ve said before, I’ve grown to accept that my father and I share a lot of traits, ego-driven pride among them. We both internalize things, and I never knew why my father would never open up to me on a lot of things. I’d always want to ask the hard questions and would psyche myself up to ask them. But the moment I’d see him, I’d get so happy that I wouldn’t want to damper the mood.
I think as I’ve gotten older, my father started to realize he could talk to me, could tell me things and fill in so many holes in my life’s story. He would tell me of my grandfather, who passed away when my father was a teenager; what it was like to be the youngest and instantly thrust into the patriarchal role of the family; what it was like to be a 22-year-old international superstar. These stories and experiences helped me understand who Jeffrey Allen Townes was, and how that impacted the man I was becoming. It offered an inside look as to who exactly my hero was.
I’ve been asked to write about what it’s like to have a famous father for years. My editor recently asked if there was a particular reason why I never did it, and frankly, I didn’t have one. Maybe I didn’t know what to say. Maybe “family business isn’t for anyone else to know” subconsciously rang in my head. But I never got around to it.
My father recently invited me to join him on a West Coast show run as he performed in Los Angeles at a private event, and later, the Electronic Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas. I thought the opportunity provided the perfect stage to finally write something I’ve wanted to do my entire life: show my father how far his son has come. That trip was nothing short of amazing. It allowed my father and I to look at each other through the eyes of two grown men, equally proud of what the other is doing and has already accomplished.The trip also shed light on the relationship between brother and brother, as I’ve found out my younger brother Amir has established himself as the popular character Zay Babineaux on the Disney Channel’s hit sitcom, Girl Meets World. Tears came to my eyes as pride filled my heart seeing what my family has become and how we're all attaining success in our respective fields. Adulthood has been kind to the relationship of this father and son, and our connections with pop culture allowed for us to reestablish our bond like never before.
As we parted ways in Vegas—me heading back to New York, him heading to France for a Facebook party in Cannes—we embraced each other. “If I’ve never told you before, I love you and I’m proud of you, man,” he said. And in 28 years, no words have ever sounded better.
Cory Townes was born and raised in Philadelphia, and currently lives in Brooklyn. A devout Philly sports fan, Townes is the Social Media Manager for EBONY.com. When he’s not saluting the plug or bringing headbands back in the 2015, you can reach him on Twitter @CoryTownes.