Talking Adoption, Identity and Independence with Darryl McDaniels, DMC of RUN DMC

07/01/2017 10:06 pm ET

It’s July and that means summertime, kicking back and turning up the volume on summer anthems. That also means the fourth of July is upon us — a holiday that signifies a meaningful moment in U.S. history. A date that marks our official independence as a nation. Over time, freedom and independence have come to take on very deep meaning for me as a transracially adopted person. Over the years, along my adoption journey, I have come to discover that exploring my authentic identity is critical to understanding who I am and my place in the world.

DMC and April recording at Mercy Sound Studio
Narrow Moat
DMC and April recording at Mercy Sound Studio

For my latest Born in June, Raised in April podcast, I had the honor of sitting down with a kindred spirit, Darryl McDaniels, DMC of RunD.M.C. Darryl is a true icon of music and culture and even with all of the awards, platinum and gold records and the induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I don’t think his impact can truly ever be measured. For me, being born in the ‘70s and growing up in the ‘80s, DMC’s imprint is palpable and conjures a feeling of heartfelt love and appreciation for the gifts he, Run and Jam Master Jay give to all of us.

Growing up brown in a very white world, my connection to music — especially hip-hop — was deep. Little April could never have imagined that DMC of Run-D.M.C. shared a connection with me. And that our unique journeys would intertwine. Darryl is a late-discovery adoptee who found out he was adopted when he was 35. This revelation well into adulthood would forever change him.

We talked about adoption, identity, family, holidays, independence, superheroes and so much more. Our conversation started with a reflection on the power of names. I created my podcast to offer a safe harbor for the extended family adoption to have conversations about our shared experiences. I named it “Born in June, Raised in April” to honor my true identity as an adopted person. When I was born (in October), my biological mother named me June. When I was adopted, my parents gave me the name April. I found great meaning in knowing I had been named at birth and that the name June had connections to my extended family — my biological grandmother was named June and my biological mother had the middle name June.

This ironic tangle of months and my adoption experience overall inspired me to take a close look at the calendar. As a transracially adopted person, the calendar and the holidays that fall on it, take on deeper meaning and complexity. Everything from my birthday, to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day to Christmas and Thanksgiving, and even special events like weddings and baby showers, can be a swirl of both goodness and sadness with sprinkles of confusion. What I have come to realize is that our identities and the calendar are not always as simple and straightforward as they may seem or how some wish them to be.

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I AM

Darryl and I had a very poignant exchange about names and claiming identity. He explained that throughout his career, even before he knew he was adopted, he was always saying, “I AM,” and deep down in his spirit he was boldly making proclamations about his identity and place in the world. Darryl shared how he came to claim “DMC” and how he named himself the “Devastating Mic Controlling DMC” and how he leveraged his talent for hip-hop to overcome the trauma of being bullied to come to a place of empowerment. For a middle-class black boy in Queens, wearing glasses and going to a private Catholic school where he had to wear a uniform was fair game and he was not spared. No matter what, throughout his young life, Darryl always had his name.

Upon discovering he was adopted and through his search for his biological family, Darryl realized that his birth mother did in fact name him Darryl at birth — something that was very meaningful to him. Darryl said: “When I found out that I was adopted, I thought I probably had this whole different name.” He continued, “A lot of people thought it was cool that my adoptive parents kept the name that I was given by my birth mother.” Knowing that he was Darryl from the beginning of his life was an anchor for him during what was a very difficult time of processing the fact that he was adopted. Knowing that he was not “Timothy” or “Richard” reinforced that Darryl indeed had a purpose and a destiny.

Christmas Everyday

I had read about how Darryl describes every day in his house feeling like Christmas so I wanted to dig in a little bit and talk about holidays and the calendar and how that can be complicated for adopted people. He talks about how holidays and significant days on the calendar had newfound impact once he was told he was adopted. “Since the revelation of being adopted, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and my birthday, it’s really confusing.” Darryl explains that before he found out he was adopted and when he was young everything was normal on these special holidays. I could just imagine little Darryl crafting the perfect card and gift for his parents. Then he shares how retching it can be now with the added layers of adoption because he can “be torn between these two worlds of existence.”

He speaks of rhyming about his parents Byford and Banna, his brother and his family tree before knowing he was adopted and once he knew it was like there was a whole new existence. An existence that required new ways of thinking and being connected to the calendar and the world. For Darryl, it was having to manage new layers to what he considered a perfect existence and integrating the energy for the new milestones that now dotted the calendar like his birth mother’s birthday.

Darryl very beautifully reminds me that adopted people were all involved in transactions that we had no say in. It reminded of the piece I wrote after seeing the latest Steve Jobs film where I was struck when Michael Fassbender, playing Steve Jobs was asked why adopted people can feel rejected versus selected and Steve responds that it is about having “no control” and that “you find out you were out of the loop when the most crucial events of your life were set in motion.” I think this is something that many adopted people can identify with. At the same time, Darryl speaks of “the only power that we have is how to navigate this journey.”

For Darryl, navigating this journey at this stage of life meant embracing professional therapeutic support. He mentions all of the transformational support he received from his therapist and how critical it was to have that outlet as he moved through his adoption experience. He shares how as a little kid he would hold so much in and how he remembers keeping the things in his room stacked and prepared — always being ready to be on the move. “It was always like I had a bag packed, but I did not know why.” He would arrange his prized possessions (comic books and records) as if he was ready to be moved at any time.

Spidey Sense

Talking about comic books naturally led to talking about superheroes. I asked Darryl if his “spidey” sense was tuned in early in life before he was told he was adopted and what things he remembered now as he thought about growing up. “Because I had the best parents ever, all of those thoughts of ‘something ain’t right here’ would immediately go out the door — immediately.” While Darryl and I did not share the same exact adoption experience, we can both relate to our families being a center of gravity and the place where everyone gathered on holidays and everyday days that felt like holidays. For both of us, these days were filled with precious time with family. For me, even in the midst of what was indeed my amazing family, I did not have a mirror of myself and those missing connections to biological relatives hung on the edges.

For Darryl, even with his “spidey sense” in full effect and realizing that family resemblances were not really there for him, they would immediately be shut down. He talks of friends coming over and saying “D, why don’t you look like anyone in your family?” Darryl would constantly be looking for himself in his relatives and working to make those all-important visible biological connections with extended family members. Around 9th grade, Darryl’s friend “Kool T” started to make the connection and he would say… “Yo D, I am going to tell you again, your ass is adopted, ‘cuz you do not look like anyone in your family.” While Darryl would remember feeling that there was some truth to this, he also thought about all of the family resemblances he thought he saw and this feeling would melt away.

Through his music, Darryl continued to boldly proclaim, “I am the King of Rock, I’m the microphone master, I am the devastating mic controller, I am the son of…”. All of Darryl’s songs began with “I am, I am…” even as all of that became harder and harder for him to believe and as he slipped into depression. There was an empty void showing up that was a “mystery piece.” The mystery piece is familiar to me. Even though I always knew I was adopted, there was a mystery piece and I was in my own way always looking to proclaim “I am, I am, I am…” but did not always have the tools and connections to actually do so. Looking around a big beautiful room of family and loved ones but not seeing myself in them and while loving them, needing to fill the space the mystery pieces created.

Sheila Jaffe, Jacquin & DMC
April Dinwoodie
Sheila Jaffe, Jacquin & DMC

Community and Claiming Independence

For those of us who don’t have all of the pieces of our identity or access to answers, it can be incredibly challenging to fully claim our existence and identity because there are missing parts and pieces. Through our conversation, it was clear that Darryl has made it his mission to realize his purpose and destiny, and along the way coming to a place of true independence, has been about seeking support from professionals and the profound connections he shares with other adopted people. “What I have learned over the past couple of years is that every part of your existence, everything that is relevant to you, every experience, every revelation, every piece of your life story — fortunate or unfortunate, horrible or terrible — is part of your story.” Darryl talks about important advice he received from a fellow adoptee who said, “You never start a book from Chapter 2.” This was all-important and a reminder to Darryl that it was important to have the courage to begin to explore his life from the first chapter.

Darryl remembers feeling so alone and discarded when he found out he was adopted and then he speaks of connecting with other adopted people like his dear friend and co-creator of The Felix Organization, Sheila Jaffe and what a powerful impact that connection has had. “I realized that even though I felt alone… I was part of a bigger family than I can imagine.” Darryl and Sheila’s work via The Felix Organization focuses on providing inspiring opportunities and new experiences to enrich the lives of children who are growing up in the foster care system. Today, Darryl says: “What keeps me grounded is my truth. Whether I like it or not, it is part of me… and I can use my story not only to make my life better but I can help so many other people who are in the same situation as me to understand their lives better.”

April, Sheila, Darryl at The Felix Organization Thanksgiving Event
April, Sheila, Darryl at The Felix Organization Thanksgiving Event

I always say that my life began when I was born and not when I was adopted. This is the reality of my life. This is a reality of so many adopted people’s lives including Darryl who thought that his life began in Hollis, Queens with Byford and Banna and finding out later in life that was Chapter 2 and there was indeed a Chapter 1. Darryl bravely and boldly sought to read his Chapter 1 and he was blessed to make life-affirming connections with other adopted people that enriched his life and made him stronger and extended his family of adoption.

Our conversation came to a close on an extremely inspirational note around an empowering concept that I have been thinking about for a long time — adopted people have an awful lot to teach the world. We can talk deeply about identity, family, relationships, pain, healing, complexity and love. “The kids we work with at Felix, all of our fellow adoptees and our fellow foster kids, independently, we are on these journeys ourselves but that independence makes us so strong that automatically whoever we come in contact with can feel there is a special power there to fill our voids.”

Darryl shares some sage words as we ended our time together:

“Our whole lives we have been on this independent journey — adopted or not. What is unique about us is that we have been forced to reckon with this independence and look it straight in the face. Some of us jump on board and know how to ride the waves and some of us struggle with it. The struggle is a human struggle. We have some strength that we need to share. Regardless of what is going on in our life, there is a purpose and a meaning that is so deep and positive that will bring a lot of us independent spirits together!”

I could not agree more D! What an honor to have spent such rich time with icon, angel and superhero Darryl McDaniels, DMC of Run–D.M.C. Listen to this July episode of Born in June, Raised in April on iTunes.

Click here to learn more The Felix Organization.

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