An otherwise ordinary weekend went awry when my daughter parroted a Lil Wayne song. Her 7-year-old arms doubled over, cutting the air as she swayed back and forth imitating hip-hop swagger in music videos.
Then she repeated the chorus aloud: wife beater. The two-word phrase shot through her little mouth and burned the insides of my ears.
I’d heard the song maybe a dozen times but didn’t find it objectionable until I heard my daughter sing it. Am I a hypocrite? It’s complicated: I grew up at a time when hip-hop exploded into a global phenomenon.
I’d be dishonest if I said I didn’t feel a special allegiance to the music that articulates not all, but some, of what it means to be young and black in America. But, with hesitation, being a parent trumps whatever loyalties I have to the hip-hop mafia that might revoke my membership.
In a significant way, hip-hop provides an uncensored conversation that rarely happens among black men except maybe in a barbershop. MCs relate autobiographical stories over hypnotizing beats about navigating life in a way that’s often honest and profane. In other contexts, these conversations are filtered so as not to offend.
For example, in his song “Hold You Down,”Childish Gambino critiques the limits society places on his blackness.
The black experience is serious
my experience is no one’s hearing us
white kids get to wear whatever hat they want
when it comes to black kids one size fits all
As an adult, I have the facility to find a deep moment in an otherwise profane song. And I realize that many songs lack “deep moments” such as Lil Wayne’s “Wife Beater” song. However, for the impressionable young people who listen to hip-hop the “deep moments” are probably lost on them.
This small episode underscored how unbalanced and menacing pop culture has become for young people (and parents). Not only does it have undue influence on our language and how young people process imagery like a white tank top popularized by television, it threw a boomerang into my weekend with my daughter.
The fact that my daughter didn’t make a connection between calling a T-shirt a “wife beater” and violence points to a larger problem. By popularizing misogynist terms like “wife beater,” we’ve divorced the term from the ugly reality that millions of women are victims of domestic violence each year.
This incident forced me to imagine my daughter at 17, transitioning to young womanhood. How will this episode be remembered? Did I prepare her to negotiate a world of male chauvinism? Is it a contradiction to embrace hip-hop and be critical of its (sometimes) misogynist lyrics?
A moving blog post on “Siditty Black Girl” offered an appropriate response to the use of wife beater. “Popularizing Misogyny, Policing Masculinity in Two Words” was written in protest to a college campus using “wife beater” in a campus-wide memo.
Kimberly, the political-minded blogger, wrote that “using a sexist, misogynistic slang term like “‘wife beater’ in a school-wide email not only shows disregard for students who may be victims of domestic abuse, but normalizes domestic abuse as a culture.”
It’s the latter point that troubles me the most. According to the Domestic Violence Resource Center, one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Continuing to conflate undershirts as
“wife beaters” reflects societal jadedness.
As much as I’d like to distance myself from the term and the songs that contain them, sexism is entrenched in our language. Looking the other way is a cop out. Progress is made through confrontation.
Whenever questionable hip-hop songs come across the airwaves, on the spot, I initiate a conversation deconstructing the lyrics for their content and hidden politics. By having the conversations, I hope to encourage a nascent political consciousness in my 7-year-old.
As a card-carrying member of the hip-hop generation who supports rap music, I think the task for parents like me isn’t to hide hip-hop’s sexism but instead call it out to our children.One of the most radical stances might be admitting to our children that we have complex and often conflicted relationship with pop culture. We love its fearless ability to be honest and critique society yet we detest its blind eye to sexism, homophobia and hedonistic consumerism.
In this instance, talk isn’t cheap. Having a conversation about chart-topping songs may have more resonance than leaving it to your child’s peers to figure out what these songs mean.
Engaging your children even in something seemingly trivial like staging their own music video is important. Who says hip-hop can’t be educational?
Abdul Ali writes about culture and lives in Washington, D.C. You can follow him on Twitter.
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