My 12-year-old daughter, Sydney, and I were in the car not long ago when she turned the radio to a popular urban contemporary station. An unapproved station. A station that might play rap music. "No way, Syd, you know better," I said, so Sydney changed the station, then pouted.
"Mommy, can I just say something?" she asked. "You think every time you hear a black guy's voice it's automatically going to be something bad. Are you against hip-hop?"
Her words slapped me in the face. In a sense, she was right. I haven't listened to radio hip-hop for years. I have no clue who is topping the charts and I can't name a single rap song in play.
But I swear it hasn't always been that way.
My daughter can't know that hip-hop and I have loved harder and fallen out further than I have with any man I've ever known.
That my decision to end our love affair had come only after years of disappointment and punishing abuse. After I could no longer nod my head to the misogyny or keep time to the vapid materialism of another rap song. After I could no longer sacrifice my self-esteem or that of my two daughters on an altar of dope beats and tight rhymes.
No, darling, I'm not anti-hip-hop, I told her. And it's true, I still love hip-hop. It's just that our relationship has gotten very complicated.
When those of us who grew up with rap saw signs that it was turning ugly, we turned away. We premised our denial on a sort of good-black-girl exceptionalism: They came for the skeezers but I didn't speak up because I'm no skeezer, they came for the freaks, but I said nothing because I'm not a freak. They came for the bitches and the hos and the tricks. And by the time we realized they were talking about bitches from 8 to 80, our daughters and our mommas and their own damn mommas, rap music had earned the imprimatur of MTV and Martha Stewart and even the Pillsbury Doughboy.
And sometimes it can seem like now, there is nobody left who is willing to speak up.
I remember the day hip-hop found me. The year was 1979 and although "Rapper's Delight" wasn't the first rap song, it was the first rap song to make it all the way from the South Bronx to Hazel Crest, Ill.
I was 12, the same age my oldest daughter is now, when hip-hop began to shape my politics and perceptions and aesthetics. It gave me a meter for my thoughts and bent my mind toward metaphor and rhyme. I couldn't sing a lick, but didn't hip-hop give me the beginnings of a voice. About the time that rap music hit Hazel Crest, all the black kids sat in the front of my school bus, all the white kids sat in back, and the loudest of each often argued about what we were going to listen to on the bus radio or boombox. Music was code for turf and race in the middle-class, mostly-white-but-heading-black suburbs south of Chicago.
One day, our bus driver tried to defuse tensions by disallowing both. Left without music, some of the black kids started singing "Rapper's Delight." Within a couple of lines, we all joined in:
Now what you hear is not a test
I'm rappin' to the beat.
Then the white kids started chanting: Dis-co sucks, dis-co sucks, dis-co sucks, dis-co sucks, repeating the white-backlash, anti-rap mantra of the era.
The white kids got louder: DIS-CO SUCKS, DIS-CO SUCKS, DIS-CO SUCKS, DIS-CO SUCKS.
So we got louder, too:
YA SEE, I AM WONDER MIKE AND I LIKE TO SAY HELLO
TO THE BLACK, TO THE WHITE, THE RED AND THE BROWN
THE PURPLE AND YELLOW.
Then the white kids started yelling until their faces suffused with color.
And so we started yelling rhymes that I still know to this day, some of which my kids know and, I bet, so do some of the kids of those white kids who screamed at us from the back of my junior high school bus, raging against change, raging against black people, or, who knows, maybe just not appreciating our musical stylings.
SO I RAPPED TO THE BEAT LIKE I NEVER DID BEFORE.
We rhymed and the white kids disappeared before our eyes because we were in another world -- transported by the collective sound of our own raised voices, transfixed by our newfound ability to drown out their nullification.
We felt ourselves united, with the power of a language we didn't begin to understand. "Rap at its best can refashion the world -- or at least the way we see it -- and shape it in our own image," said Adam Bradley, a literature professor at Claremont McKenna College who is working on a book about hip-hop poetics. It has the capacity "to give a voice that's distinctively our own and to do it with the kind of confidence and force we might not otherwise have."
I grew older, and my love affair with the music, swagger and semiotics of hip-hop continued. There was Kurtis Blow, Melle Mel and the seminal Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five:
Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge
I'm tryin' not to lose my head.
I learned all the rhymes played on black radio, because do you remember when MTV wouldn't touch black music at all? I got to college and started getting my beats underground, which is where I stayed to find my hip-hop treasures. Public Enemy rapped "Fight the Power" and it could have been the soundtrack to CNN footage of Tiananmen Square or the fall of the Berlin Wall:
Got to give us what we want
Gotta give us what we need
Our freedom of speech is freedom or death
We got to fight the powers that be.
I was young and hungry and hip-hop was smart, and like Neneh Cherry said, we were raw like sushi back then, sensing we were onto something big, not realizing how easily it could get away from us.
* * *
Of course, the rhymes were sexy, too, part of a long black tradition starting with the post-emancipation blues. It was music that borrowed empathy and passion from exultations of the sacred, to try to score a bit of heaven in secular places.
It was college, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the post-civil rights, post-sexual revolution, newly grown hip-hop generation imagined that we had shed our momma's chastity-equals-black-uplift strictures anyway. So when MC Lyte rapped, "I ain't afraid of the sweat," well, you know, we waved our hands in the air. Besides, it was underground music, adult music, part of a wide range of expression, and it's not like we worried that it could ever show up on the radio.
Hip-hop was still largely about the break-beat and dance moves and brothers who battled solely on wax. It was Whodini, Eric B. & Rakim, Dana Dane, EPMD, A Tribe Called Quest. And always and forever, Lonnae Loves Cool James. I knew all LL Cool J's b-sides and used to sleep under a poster of him that hung on my wall. I still have a picture of the two of us that was taken one Howard homecoming weekend.
And if, gradually, we noticed a trend, more violence, more misogyny, more materialism, more hostile sexual stereotyping, a general constricting of subject matter, for a very long time we let it slide.
In 1988, EPMD rapped about a woman named Jane:
So PMD (Yo?) Why don't you do me a favor?
Chill with the bitch and I'll hook you up later
She's fly, haircut like Anita Baker
Looked up and down and said "Hmm, I'll take her."
But by last spring, it was Atlanta-based rapper T.I.:
I ain't hangin' with my niggaz
Pullin' no triggaz
I'll be back to the trap, but for now
I'm chillin' with my bitch today, I'm chillin' with my bitch today.
Nearly 20 years later and T.I. can't even be bothered to give his "bitch" a name.
We were so happy black men were speaking their truth, "we've gone too long without challenging them," as Danyel Smith, former editor of Vibe magazine, put it. And now, perhaps, hip-hop is too far gone.
* * *
At the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, rappers Snoop Doggy Dog and 50 Cent embellished their performance of the song "P.I.M.P." by featuring black women on leashes being walked onstage. This past August, MTV2 aired an episode of the cartoon "Where My Dogs At," which had Snoop again leading two black bikini-clad women around on leashes. They squatted on their hands and knees, scratched themselves and defecated.
The president of the network, a black woman, defended this as satire.
Hip-hop had long since gone mainstream and commercial. It was Diddy, white linen suits and Cristal champagne in the Hamptons. And it was for white suburban boys as well as black club kids. And it now promoted a sexual aesthetic, a certain body type, a certain look. Southern rappers had even popularized a kind of strip-club rap making black women indistinguishable from strippers.
I don't know the day things changed for me. When the music began to seem so obviously divorced from any truth and, just as unforgivably, devoid of most creativity. I don't know when my love turned to contempt and my contempt to fury. Maybe it happened as my children got older and I longed for music that would speak to them the way hip-hop had once spoken to me.
Maybe as the coolest black boys kept getting shot on the streets while the coolest rappers droned: AK-47 now nigga, stop that.
Maybe as the madness made me want to holler back: "Niggas" can't stop AK-47s , and damn you for saying so.
Last year, talk show host Kelly Ripa gushed to 50 Cent, a former drug dealer turned rapper, about how important his movie "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " was while black women around the country were left to explain to their own black sons, " Sometimes, darling, black boys get shot nine times and they don't live to brag about it on the mike . "
And a few weeks ago, watching the Disney Channel cartoon short "Fabulizer," I seethed when the little white character lamented that his "thug pose" wasn't working.
While the mainstream culture celebrates the pimped-out, thugged-up, cool-by-proxy mirage of commercial rap, those of us who just love black people have to be a little more discriminating. "Sometimes," writes sociologist Mary Pattillo-McCoy, "when you dress like a gangsta, talk like a gangsta and rap like a gangsta often enough, you are a gangsta."
My husband, Ralph, and I try to tell Sydney that rap music used to be fun. It used to call girls by prettier names. We were ladies and cuties, honeys and hotties, and we all just felt like one nation under the groove. Sydney, I tell her, I want you to have all the creativity, all the bite, all the rhythms of black rhyme, but I can't let you internalize toxic messages, no matter how cool some millionaire black rappers tell you they are.
Sydney nods, but I don't know if she fully understands.
* * *
I was born to be the Lyte
To give the spark in the dark
Spread the truth to the youth
The ghetto Joan of Arc
-- MC Lyte
Last spring, I got together with some other moms from the first generation of hip-hop. We decided to distribute free T-shirts with words that counter some of the most violent, anti-intellectual and degrading cultural messages: You look better without the bullet holes. Put the guns down. Or my favorite: You want this? Graduate! We called it the Hip-Hop Love Project.
Others are trying their own versions of taking back the music. In Baltimore, spoken-word poet Tonya Maria Matthews, aka JaHipster, is launching her own "Groove Squad." The idea is to get together a couple dozen women to go to clubs prepared to walk off the dance floor en masse if the music is openly offensive or derogatory. "There's no party without sisters on the dance floor," she told me. In New York, hip-hop DJ and former model Beverly Bond formed Black Girls Rock! to try to change the portrayal of black women in the music and influence the women who are complicit in it. "We don't want to be hypersexualized," said Joan Morgan, a hip-hop writer and part of the group, but we don't want to be erased, either.
Finally, it feels like we've gotten back to what black women are supposed to have always known: that it is better to fight than to lie down.
My daughter says I don't like black voices and I could weep that it's come to this. But instead I listen to the most conscious hip-hop that comes my way: Common, Talib Kweli, the Roots, KOS, Kanye West, who blends the commercial with commentary. I close my eyes to listen as Mos Def says:
My Umi said shine your light on the world.
And still, always and forever, Lonnae Loves Cool James.
I keep my CD player filled with old-school tracks and I fill my kids' heads with the coolest, most conscious, most bang-bang the boogie say up jump the boogie songs from when hip-hop and I were young. Sydney says I don't like black voices and I say: Ax Butta how I zone/ Man, Cleopatra Jones .
I make Sydney listen to songs from when rap said something, but my daughter is 12 and she laughs at me. Rap says something now, Mommy, she says.
Lean wit' it
Rock wit' it
Lean wit' it
Rock wit' it
She snaps her fingers and I just nod. Change is gonna come. Meanwhile, her song is catchy. And there are no bitches!
At least not in the chorus.
Previously published in http://www.washingtonpost.com/