A “New Day” for Hip-Hop Fatherhood?

So, being an avid Hip-Hop [and music] fan (which might come to a surprise for some of y’all), I could not resist investing (yes, I actually bought the CD on Amazon and I only do that for selective products) into the latest Jay-Z and Kanye album entitled “Watch the Throne.”

I know what you probably think right, ahh just another one of those white girls diggin’ some beats – but my love for the “ghetto” music actually dates way back to my “unruly” teenager days (I hope my sarcasm is somewhat apparent here). And I owe Hip Hop a lot – believe it or not it helped me, for example, to “master” English (yes, and add a great repertoire of all these derogatory terms and cuss words to my vocabulary). And because I love it so much and have a totally irrational (?) relationship to it, I made one promise – I would never academically approach and write about it.

Well, I’m somewhat breaking this rule today because I was really “intrigued” by one particular song on “Watch the Throne” called “New Day,” which has Jay and Kanye talking and passing on values to their future children (if you’re a follower of the tabloids then you know that Miss Ivy Blue Carter has made it into this world shortly after New Year’s, although she shut down half the birth unit of the New York Hospital much to the dismay of other parents).

Now “New Day” is not of extraordinary lyrical mastery but the beat (produced by WuTang’s own RZA) is great and the song speaks to the important issue of African American fatherhood – the construction of (hegemonic) masculinities as academia would call it. So here are some of my thoughts on this song with a bit of theory back drop.

First off, to fulfill my academic duty here, let’s briefly reconsider African American fatherhood from a Critical Media Studies perspective.  I don’t think anyone would disagree that images of Blacks in the media historically have remained largely invisible, marginalized to the point of insignificance, or been limited to specific stereotypes. Oftentimes powerful media images, if interpreted within the preferred reading, work to strengthen the justification of a general societal fear of Black men and portray African American females as angry, raging “welfare queens.” Hence, what was/is strikingly absent are any substantial images that signify Black masculinity in a positive, healthy, or productive manner. Now, admittedly Hip Hop hasn’t done much either to actively try to “change” this negative image.

However, leaving the Cosby days behind, in recent years two Black families on reality television shows appeared, which similar to Jay and Kanye’s “New Day” may provide us with another platform for examining constructions of Black fatherhood. In Run’s House, we can see Joseph Simmons (Rev. Run) of Run.DMC presiding over discussions about education, empty nesting and child anger management together with his wife Justine and their five children. Here’s a trailer from Season 4.

Snoop Dogg’s (Calvin Broadus) Father Hood presents the West Coast rapper literally as a “father from the hood.” His show clearly is a somewhat antitypical representation of family life, given that  obscene language, references to illegal drugs, and memories of confrontations with the law are all very much present.

Interestingly, both Simmons and Broadus state that their portrayals are stimulated by wanting to show a positive familial side of rap music. Depicting Run and Snoop as black fathers present in the home and engaging with their children, can clearly be seen as an attempt to remediate some White stereotypes of absent African American fathers. What is strikingly absent, however, is any discussion of racism, economic distress, or other societal barriers. Instead, both build their plots around family success, humor, and harmony.

But back to “New Day,” which is a little more outspoken here as Kanye touches on what it means to be black in America and have an “ego” (some of you might remember his Katrina-rant: “George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people” ) and humorously with a lot of truth raps that “I mean I might even make him be Republican, so everybody know he love white people.” What a great verse if you consider current GOP primaries …

Much like Run and Snoop, Kanye  goes on to give his son some good advice on finding that special girl by never letting him “leave his college girlfriend” and not getting “caught up with the groupies in the whirlwind” and never ever “let him hit a strip club, I learned the hard way, that ain’t the place to get love” – sounds like he’s speaking from experience here …  Kanye also seems well aware of the pressures African American females are facing referring that “And I’ll never let his mom move to LA; Knowin’ she couldn’t take the pressure now we all pray.”

Similarly, Jay-Z takes a moment to reflect on his own father’s absence throughout his childhood and how he plans on being a better parent even

If the day comes I only see him on the weekend
I just pray we was in love on the night that we conceived him
Promise to never leave him even if his mama tweakin’
Cause my dad left me and I promise never repeat him

Super prevalent in this song is also an upward mobility theme, as both Jay and Kanye emphasize how important it is for them to make sure that their children “have an easy life, not like Yeezy life; Just want him to be someone people like; Don’t want him to be hated all the time, judged; Don’t be like your daddy that would never budge.”

Snoop, Run, Jay and Kanye clearly enjoy profitable careers confirming Jhally and Lewis’ (1992) concept of “enlightened racism” – reinforcing the notion of social mobility by achieving “the upper echelons of the middle class.” One of the core elements of enlightened racism is acceptance of the desirability and accessibility of the (myth) of the American Dream, which rests within the assumption of equal opportunity; what is left un-interrogated though is how opportunity is largely negotiated through socioeconomic status. After all, we’re dealing with the Black 1% (I highly recommend a great post from Mark Anthony Neal on “What’s the Deal with Russell Simmons? Deconstructing the Black 1%”)

Jay also reflects on the issues of celebrity stardom: “Sorry junior, I already ruined ya; Cause you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya; Sins of a father make your life ten times harder.” It’s really interesting to me to hear how both are very determined to pass on values to their kids to lead them on a “righteous” path:

Teach ya good values so you cherish it
Took me 26 years to find my path
My only job is cut the time in half
So at 13 we’ll have our first drink together
Black bar mitzvahs, mazel tov, mogul talk
Look a man dead in his eyes so he know you talk truth
When you speak it, give your word, keep it

Now lastly, one thing that sticks out though, of course is a very gendered discourse here since they are only talking about their future sons – where them girls at?! – which brings up back to accusations that Hip-Hop is chauvinistic, misogynist, and perpetuating patriarchal structures … and it sure is.

However, I think the value from this particular song stems more from these artists critically reflecting on their own absent fathers and how they picture themselves to raise their children.  I’m sure Ivy Blue probably has Papa Jay already totally (w)rap(p)ed around her finger …  nonetheless, what is undoubtedly gained from these “alternative” and “different” depictions are different insights into the construction of African American masculinities and fatherhood.

A nice live version from Montreal in November may be accessed here.

If you want to read an “academic” piece African American/Hip-Hop fatherhood, I’d recommend Smith’s “Critiquing reality-based televisual Black fatherhood: A critical analysis of Run’s House and Snoop Dogg’s Father Hood.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 25(4), 393-412. doi:10.1080/15295030802328020

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