When you become a parent, your ability to operate through sheer force of habit is heightened to almost superhuman levels. You don’t consider what it is you’re doing, you just get it done. Habit, ritual, routine—whatever it is that you call it, most of us would not be able to survive raising our children without this ability. But moving through life this way does have its drawbacks.
For me, I realize just how much I don’t pay attention to when I’m in habit mode. Sometimes I lose myself so much in the act of parenting (not to mention being a husband and an employee) that I sometimes forget who I am. The activity becomes more important than me as a person, and I willfully lose myself in it. Not too long ago, I wrote “Daddy” on a check. I’d forgotten my name. This forced me to really try to become more engaged and deliberate in any- and every thing I do. I haven’t been very good at this.
Case in point: on the day before Easter Sunday, I was in the car with the iPod on shuffle. M.O.P’s “Ante Up” came on. No matter what mood you’re in, this joint will get you amped. I was having a ball. Rocking back and forth, throwing my hands up, and rhyming along with one of the most ignorant songs in hip-hop history… I won’t front, it felt good. I was releasing the stress of about 60+ hours of continuous work.
From the back seat I heard: “Daddy?” After putting her in her booster seat, I’d completely forgotten my daughter was in the car.
After a very long sigh, “Do you have any music that doesn’t have bad words in it?”
“You don’t know the Lord.”
Where in the hell did she get that? If you think yours is the only influence on your child, let me be the first to destroy that quaint illusion. But she got me thinking. She knew that the majority of the words in the song were “bad”—well, words that we do not use around her and she is not allowed to say. But over the course of her six years of life, how many “bitches,” “ni**as,” “hoes,” robberies and murders has she been exposed to? Going even further beyond the idea of mere exposure, should I be concerned of the effects of the music I’ve played in front of her?
Intentionally exposing a child to pornography is a form a child abuse. Couldn’t the same standard be applied to the music we share in front of our kids? As parents, we’re concerned about protecting our children from the ills of society. As Black parents, the ills of society are increased exponentially, and we go to great lengths to erect barriers and shields to guard them.
But many of us bring some of society’s illnesses into our homes, amplify them through speakers, sing along with them, and act them out in (what we believe are) stress relieving pantomimes. Music is powerful. There isn’t a culture on the planet that doesn’t have a musical tradition. So when we dismiss something as “just music”—especially in the context of offensive/violent lyrics—we’re purposefully diminishing the impact.
One of the more hilarious rebuttals I’ve heard is, “I like the beat. I don’t even listen to the words.” If this is (improbably) true, you may not be listening to the words, but your child is. Looking at it developmentally, your child is concurrently building an identity and a vocabulary. If they see their caregiver singing along and dance-affirming music with “bad words” in it, they are going to copy.
Wow. They sure look like they are having a good time. I want to have a good time. What did she just say? I’ll say it too.
When they repeat what they have heard, many parents get mad and decide to scold or discipline their child. What else do we expect? We are our children’s living, breathing, walking, talking instruction manuals. “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work. You do/say it, they’re going to follow suit. And language (especially when set to music) is practically viral. It infects us to the point where sometimes we catch ourselves lip-synching without making the choice to do so. It’s part of who we are.
So the next time we make the choice to dismiss the affects of music, we should reflect on this scenario: Grandma comes over and your child waves and says, “What up, b!tch! Shake it like a red nose!” How well will this go over?
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.