Hip hop artist Macklemore raised some eyebrows when he spoke to MTV about his six nominations for the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, including Video of the Year for the mega-popular track "Thrift Shop."
Macklemore said he was particularly excited about potentially winning Video of the Year. It would, he said, be a story to tell the grandkids.
The line caught some observers off guard, but he was tapping into one of the great thematic wellsprings of hip hop – the motif of family, something that goes back to the genre's roots. Since the beginning of the art form, references to parents and siblings were used as a way to connect to the all-important theme of where you're from and what that means.
Here's Jay Z rapping on "December 4th":
"I was conceived by Gloria Carter and Adnes Reeves
Who made love under the sycamore tree
Which makes me
A more sicker M.C. and my momma would claim
At 10 pounds, when I was born I didn't give her no pain
Although through the years I gave her her fair share...."
Contrary to public perceptions that the genre is a collection of throw-away references to drugs and guns, rap has a rich connection not just to family, but to questions of social justice, the apparently arbitrary nature of life and death, and the ongoing struggle between the haves and the have-nots.
If you're a parent and you don't know rap, you're missing out – not just on a way to connect with your kids, but on one of the world's most vibrant, relevant, and powerful art forms.
Disclosure: a child of the early 80s, I grew up listening to Run-D.M.C. (particularly "Raising Hell") and the Beastie Boys. Their shared penchant for sharp, wry, blunt, New York City-centric music has guided my listening choices ever since.
I'm no rap scholar (and yes, they exist), but I know enough to observe that the popular perception of rap is tethered to the darkest stuff available –nihilistic so-called "gangsta" rap that glorifies violence, drugs, and sex ... which is to say, three of the most potent and perennial topics in popular music since the Rolling Stones wrote "Let’s Spend the Night Together" and the Beatles penned "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer."
That perception, which puts many parents at direct odds with rap, is wrong on two levels.
The first is that if it's rap, then the setting is "the streets," the values are 100 percent materialistic and nihilistic, and language is universally foul and aggressive. All it takes is a cursory scan of the current hip-hop catalog to pick up on the fact that there are artists hitting the genre from all angles: light, bubble gum party rap; thoughtful, philosophical conscious rap; crunk, G-Funk, nerdcore, reggaeton; and many, many others.
The second level is the idea that if hip hop is set in the streets and contains aggressive, foul-mouthed content, it's morally degenerate stuff that corrupts the youth of today.
Not even vaguely.
There's hardcore gangsta rap that's as smart and well-grounded as anything ever written by Bob Dylan or the Beatles – and then there's stuff produced for shock value alone, often by outsiders who know as much about hard life on the street as I do. (Which is to say, very, very little.) And neither of those attributes speak to the musical quality of the songs in question – the artists' flow, vocabulary, and storytellers' instinct are deeply personal and vary wildly from artist to artist and even album to album.
Rap isn't a mood or place, it's a medium – commercially and artistically relevant, modern, spoken-word poetry. And "poetry" is a key word here.
Once upon a time, young people used the words of the philandering Yeats, the opium-addicted Coleridge, or the profoundly scandalous Lord Byron to cast their most profound thoughts or feelings out into the world, using the writers' words as both an extension of their souls and a shield behind which to hide.
Love, defiant pride, anxiety about finding a place in society, anger against the old generation, all there, writ large and with words that stun when contemplated.
Ultimately, though, the question boils down to this: What context is your child bringing to the music?
If rap is the poetry that inspires, reaffirms, grounds, and revives, then the precise lyrical content isn't going to make or break its listener.
I have high school friends who were listening seriously to hardcore rap and are now doctors, teachers, chefs and so forth – the music didn't ruin their sense of self or morality, it provided entertainment, and emotional fuel, and more grist for the mill of understanding the world in all its complexity and contradictions.
With that, I'll leave you with some lyrics from Jurassic 5's "Concrete Schoolyard," as a solid a track as has ever been written:
"I'm on some old and forgotten
Sun up to sun down / Like picking cotton
The nutty professor / science droppin'
Rockin' Robin's hood / From New York to Compton
Me and my three sons / Jabari, Shakir, and Kahsum"