During the early stages of her singular solo recording career, former Supremes lead singer Diana Ross gave birth to her daughters Rhonda (1971) and Tracie (1972). To pay tribute to her little girls, Ross conceived of the album To the Baby, which included covers of Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” Michael Jackson’s “Got to Be There”, Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “Brown Baby”, John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Marvin Gaye’s “Save the Children.”
The album was eventually scrapped. Though Motown’s official reason was that the project didn’t have a solid lead single, I suspect that the label wasn’t quite ready to have their flagship artist give in to the desires of motherhood. Decades later, no one would give second thought if a vocalist of Ross’s stature—say Beyonce Knowles—chose to pay tribute to motherhood in song. Yet, many were surprised when Knowles’s husband, Shawn Carter, released “Glory” shortly after the birth of their first child.
In many circles, the birth of Beyonce and Jay Z’s daughter might seem like a bit of fate; what better punishment for a rapper, who many believe has contributed to the objectification of women in popular culture, to now be faced with the challenge of raising a daughter in the context of the very culture he helped to create. Nevertheless the birth of his little girl also represents the opportunity for a powerful transformative moment—as it has been for so many fathers, who find themselves faced with helping their daughters navigate a world that is often hostile and dismissive of them.
To be sure, writing a song about your daughter is the easy part. Fathers are often lauded for the more celebrated aspects of parenting: playing on the floor, piggyback rides, the warm embraces after a long day at the job. Mothers, on the other hand, are often faced with the drudgery of parenting, like changing soiled diapers, nursing, giving up their careers to be stay-at-home moms, and the criticism that comes if they don’t live up to societal notions of what “good” mothering is. Rest assured, Knowles and Carter will have more than amble support staff in this regard, though ultimately Knowles will be held to a higher standard.
As Carter continuously reminds listeners that he is now wearing his “grown man” clothes, long done with the throwback jerseys that he made famous more than a decade ago, the question is whether his influence can be translated in ways that are accessible to the corner cats, like the sentiment he expressed on “New Day” from the recent Watch the Throne, about simply wanting to take a son to the barbershop. Indeed, Carter has been honest in his career about his own father’s failure in this regard; there’s no reason to belief he will repeat his father’s mistakes.
There are of course other examples of rappers who do take parenting seriously; LL Cool J has highlighted his role as a family man for nearly twenty years. Though Snoop Dogg’s professional persona remains troubling in some aspects (like his weed smoking), he has offered glimpses of the substantive father he is off stage with his E! Television series Fatherhood, where he is more Cliff Huxtable than Bill Cosby. Even Ice Cube, who remains the most recognizable survivor of the early 1990s Gangsta Rap era, transitioned into a career of family friendly filmmaking. These men are great examples of the ways many rap artists have been savvy enough to established brands that are separate and distinct from their lives as husbands and fathers. Keepin’ it real is what Snoop does, not what Calvin Broadus has to do.
Given how successfully Carter and Knowles have often guarded their private lives, we’ll perhaps never really know what kind of parent Carter will become, yet it is incumbent on him to use his position as one of the singular taste makers in popular culture, to do more than hawk Maybachs and the Zino Platinum Cigars that served as props in so many of his music videos. Yet given the high profile of his marriage to Knowles and the birth of their daughter, Carter may be in a unique position to make responsible fatherhood part of his brand. Whether he is brave enough to do so, remains to be seen.
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: Legible Black Masculinities. He is professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke University and host of the weekly video webcast Left of Black. Follow him on Twitter @NewBlackMan.