It Was Only Yesterday L.A. Went Up in Flames

It literally rained on their parade for a bit, but that didn’t stop the show. Those of us without umbrellas scurried inside the stadium for cover, while the high school class of 2010 remained on the field, confined to their seats as a brief shower all but laid waste to those commencement hairdos. Fortunately, the rain stopped in time for school administrators to call the roll and hand out the diplomas, and I got to see my daughter stride triumphantly across the field to cap her high school career. When the event was complete and the skies finally sunny, the field was a happy hodgepodge of celebrating seniors, overjoyed families, and impromptu photo shoots.

Mom cried, as moms do. Dad beamed, as dads do. Moments like this naturally prompt a lot of looking back, and I’ve spent much of the last year remembering some of the major events and minor-key moments I’ve shared with my daughter over the years. Wince I also regularly consider the breadth and depth of black pop culture, taking in everything from James Welson Johnson to Zane, I couldn’t help wondering how many great moments in black pop history she’d lived through since she came to us in the spring of 1992. To hopeless old farts like me, for whom events like the debut of the TV show Good Times (1974) feel like they happened not too long ago, reflecting on 1992 is nothing. For my daughter, though, that’s already waaay back, back in the day.

Actually, she wasn’t officially around for the first Seminal Black Pop Event of Her Lifetime Thus Far. Los Angeles erupted in racial discord shortly before she was born, in the wake of rioting after a jury found cops not guilty of the beating they were videotaped giving Rodney King (back when videos had to show more than a dancing cat to go worldwide). I had a planned day off work that ended up falling about a week after the worst of the riots.

I remember walking through a mall that day, not shopping but just trying to puzzle things out. Here was the dark and nasty conflagration rappers, N.W.A. in particular, had been warning us about, seemingly come to life. Powerless people of color pitted against each other, lashing out as best they could against a system designed to keep them that way: Langston Hughes’ proverbial California raisin in the sun, exploding to a funky beat. I stared blankly past the familiar storefronts, into a world I could barely grasp. How civil a society was it, indeed, that my daughter was about to join?

Of course, the riots came and went. Some speeches were given (King’s “Can’t we all just get along?” lament is the only one remembered), some storefronts were repaired, some fences were mended, and some things between the police and the policed never much changed. Ironically, the N.W.A. collective that foretold of the trouble brewing was no longer a force by the time that trouble went down: Ice Cube and Dr. Dre had become solo hip-hop brands; and many of the others would eventually be fodder for a where-are-they-now story in the local alt-rag (“Whatever Happened to N.W.A.’s Posse?,” Martin Cizmar, LA Weekly, 6 May 2010). My daughter soon came into the world, in the middle of: another championship run by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls; Jay Leno’s attempt to return jazz to late-night television by hiring Branford Marsalis as Tonight Show bandleader; and the windup of Bill Clinton’s triumphant presidential primary campaign.

My daughter was only two when O.J. Simpson surrendered, eventually, on murder charges in 1994; she was asleep during the infamous low-speed chase. I was glued to a TV one October afternoon the next year, watching the not-guilty verdict come down; she was glued to a different TV, watching some long-forgotten kids’ show on Nick Jr. In the years since, O.J. has come to register as little more than a standup comic’s punchline for her and her peers, who were all toddlers then, with little recognition of the dialogue the case sparked about race in America. The even surely reflected the world she’d grow up in, though, and she’s lived through more than enough examples of the ways race, media and criminal justice collide to make up for missing the O.J. episode.

There have been several black pop supernovas who’ve been part of our cultural mix her whole life: Oprah, Prince, Michael Jordan, and Halle Berry, to name but a few. The superstar whose work she’s most enjoyed over the years, however, might be Bill Cosby – not for his ‘60s comedy records or his ‘00s rants about black family values, but for his ‘80s The Cosby Show sitcom. I lived through the show’s network run, but never did I imagine that through the magic of syndication (and the explosion of cable TV), that years later my kid would become a Cos-aholic, watching just about all 201 episodes at least two or three times. We all knew the program was groundbreaking in its day, but it took our kids and grandkids to show us that Cosby’s humorous, loving depictions of a stable black family would turn out to be timeless, too. Remind me to ask her who her favorite Cosby kid is.

The overarching tone-setter of her cultural world these last 18 years has been hip-hop. My daughter’s relationship with hip-hop wasn’t the same that those of us engaged with the music from its formative years had. By the time she showed up, hip-hop had established itself as part of America’s (and increasingly the world’s) pop lingua franca. There was no shock-of-the-new rush that we experienced when we heard Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force or LL Cool J or Queen Latifah for the first time. For us, hip-hop was a departure for the norm. For my daughter’s generation, hip-hop was the norm.

Let’s look back at what that norm was. Among the iconic hip hop jams released in ’92 were Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s Mecca and the Soul Brother, Arrested Development’s 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of…, and Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411?. The Beastie Boys broke new ground for themselves with Check Your Head, and Eric B. and Rakim called it a day. A thousand flowers were still blooming within the hip-hop world, still rocking what we’ve since branded as its “golden age”, but that would change by the end of the year.

That’s when Dr. Dre released The Chronic, an amazingly successful and influential work. Dre put a pop sheen on old funk samples, taking West Coast gangsta in a brand new direction. The album’s lyrics weren’t about positive uplift or social commentary, but everyday life in the ‘hood as lived by the archetypical “G”. It also introduced the world to Snoop Doggy Dogg, whose laconic baritone proved the perfect counterpart to Dre’s sinewy beats (especially on his debut Doggystyle, released in 1993).

The Chronic established the West Coast, or at least Dre’s SoCal circle of friends and associates, as a regional force within rap music, counterbalancing East Coast hegemony dating back to the New York City parties Kool Herc deejayed in the mid-‘70s. Within a few years, the bi-coastal musical rivalry became something else, and then it became deadly, with the murders of Tupac Shakur in 1996 and The Notorious B.I.G. in 1997. Puff Daddy stepped into the resultant emotional chasm to bring the music into its “bling” era of celebrating excess – excess all the more abundant now that rappers were selling records by the truckload. By this time, Southern-based hip-hop had started blowing up, first with the self-made rise of Master P, then with the success of performers and loosely knit collectives in Atlanta, New Orleans (it was B.G.’s hit “Bling Bling” that gave the era its name) and Memphis.

Rap had indeed become ubiquitous big business — except in our household, where my daughter was not exposed to most of the current stuff. Being the dutiful, responsible, and conscious rap-loving father, concerned about the effect that media and culture might have on my daughter’s self-esteem, I carefully calibrated the rap music I played within her earshot, avoiding the stuff that glamorized violence or denigrated women (which I didn’t much care for anyway).

I played it safe (while keeping her connected to the black pop world) by defaulting to the local R&B radio station, which by the late ‘90s started priding itself on not playing any rap music at all (in an attempt to secure the loyalty of middle-aged audiences, including my demographic peers, who started recoiling from rap’s new directions). When my daughter, all of four-years-old, started singing along with Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” from her car seat (“I like the way you work it / no diggity / got to back it up”), I knew it was time for a change.

That’s when we discovered Radio Disney, the presumably-safe-for-kids-in-the-car alternative to pop radio. This was, most definitely, a rap-free environment. For parents concerned about cultural values, though, it was hardly a neutral one. We got there around the same time that Britney Spears did, as Radio Disney became the on-air home of sexualized mallpop targeted to 12-year-old-and-younger girls.

I had problems with that imagery too, but at least I didn’t have to worry about hearing of guns and ‘hos while running errands with daughter in tow, so we put up with it for few years, learning to love *NSYNC in the process (and reveling in the odd moment I caught them playing the Ramones’ “Surfin’ Bird”). Eventually, my daughter discovered her own musical tastes as a ‘tween and we could safely switch the channel, which was a good thing because I’d had more than enough sugary Disney-fied playlists to last a lifetime by then.

Those tastes would become rather eclectic, taking in everything from goth to show tunes. Hip-hop, though, was always in her mix, mostly in the form of pop hits by the likes of Ludacris. It was also part of her environment, and when the discussion of that environment became heated and highly charged, even by hip-hop’s standards, I turned to my own in-house focus group to get an on-the-ground perspective.

It’s Just a Beat

In the early ‘00s, the hip-hop controversy du jour was the latest iteration of the debate over its representation of women. This time around, it centered on videos, and the use of scantily clad, curvaceous dancers gyrating about the screen as little more than eye candy and accoutrements for male rappers. There was nothing particularly new about that, but the practice reached a crescendo (or nadir, depending on your outlook) with the premiere of BET Uncut, a video show airing in the middle of the night on the cable network (safe, it was thought, from impressionable young minds who didn’t have access to Tivo or a VCR) featuring nothing but the raunchiest of the raunchy. At all-girl Spelman College, the target was Nelly’s infamous “Tip Drill” video, featuring the rapper swiping a credit card between an anonymous pair of female butt cheeks.

The year my daughter was born really isn’t all that long ago, but even then, as I held her for the very first time, I never imagined that we’d have a President of color before she was old enough to vote.

The fear held by many, including social service professionals who regularly worked with young black women, was that these videos, aside from their unflattering depictions of women (and it’s not like there were a lot of videos at the time showing women in all that much better a light), would be creating a dangerous mindset in the young people who watched them. Both boys and girls, the thinking went, would take away from a steady diet of such fare, the message that women were nothing more than ever-available sexual playthings. The effect of that notion on the self-esteem of young black girls, and how they would be perceived one day as adult women, was seen as especially deleterious.

As a critic I had written about Melyssa Ford, one of the most famous “video vixens”, and this chapter in the ongoing whither-black-female-representation saga. As the father of a young black girl, by now a teenager, I had to wonder if there was anything to the fears of the videos’ critics. Did she and her peers internalize these images? Did it skew how boys perceived them? Did all these raunchy lyrics and videos make her feel any less worthy a human being?

So I asked her. Her answer surprised me: “It’s just a beat,” she said.

I didn’t know what to make of that at first. Was she somehow unaware of the broader societal dimensions at play in this issue? Had I failed to instill a proper sense of rage against the corporate black pop media machine? Had my precious daughter, the apple of my eye, somehow come to believe the anti-woman hype?

Then I calmed down. Maybe she said that because there really wasn’t some sort of Pavlovian connection between a bouncing butt on the screen and how she was supposed to act upon seeing it. Maybe she said that because she could separate what was useful and enjoyable for her – namely, the music itself – from its sexist trappings. Maybe she said that because the grownups decrying these images aren’t seeing them from the perspective of their target audience, growing up in a world radically different from that of the grownups’ youth (whenever that youth was, be it the ‘40s, the ’60s or even the ‘80s). Or maybe she was of strong enough substance and character not to let her world be defined by the degrading images and messages a bunch of (almost all) male record industry decision makers, recording artists, and video directors thought would help sell product.

In other words, maybe I’d done my job as a parent, after all.

Given all those possible meanings encoded in my daughter’s matter-of-fact response, I did what any conscious rap-loving parent would have done: I thanked my lucky stars I had a kid who wasn’t likely to end up in one of those videos, and went on with life.

So did my daughter. She would go on to become a huge fan of both Tyler Perry’s Madea plays and movies, and The Boondocks. In 2009, I discovered that she’d been a Michael Jackson fan for years, despite the fact that none of his classic music was made while she’d been alive, and that for most of her life he’d been known as an accused child molester who looked like a white woman (she’d downloaded the MJ jams and whatever other music she wanted, not having bothered to peruse my CD library for it, or much of anything else, for that matter). When he died, she wanted to go see Michael Jackson’s This Is It, and the movie poster still occupies pride of place on her door.

On a magical night in November 2008, we gathered in the living room to watch history unfold a short drive away from our home, as the first black President-elect and his family took the stage in downtown Chicago’s Grant Park. The year 1992 really isn’t all that long ago, but even then, as I held my daughter for the very first time, I never imagined that we’d have a President of color before she was old enough to vote.

I also never imagined that Ice Cube would go from incendiary rapper to sitcom exec-producer, or that Dr. Dre would take forever (and counting) to issue the now-mythical Detox CD. Similarly, the Williams sisters, Tavis Smiley and Edwidge Danticat were nowhere on my horizon. Throughout, my daughter has been a constant source of laughter, purpose and joy for me from the moment she joined our world.

Black pop happenings have come and gone at a dizzying rate these last 18 years, but through them all she’s remained in my heart, and there she shall remain for the next 18 years and beyond. No matter what wonder and magic our stars might conjure, it’ll forever pale next to daddy’s little girl.