Listening To Gangsta Rap With Your Kids

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Pops and me.jpg

The post below got me to thinking about one of my more embarrassing childhood moments. It's funny because this is one of my most enduring memories of my Dad, but I don't think I wrote about it in the book. My Dad is from Philly, and from time to time we'd take a drive up to see family. One time, I rode with him with NWA's 100 Miles And Running (among other things) in my walkman. Pops listened to whatever he liked on the car radio, and I played my own music. On the way back, he told me to put my tape into the tape-deck.

I looked at him and basically said, "Dude, you don't want to hear this." He was insistent, however. So I put it in. My hesitation wasn't so much based on the notion that Dad wouldn't like what I was playing, as the fact I knew I couldn't really defend what I was playing. There's a song 100 Miles And Running called "Just Don't Bite It," in NWA describes all manner of blowjobs they've gotten, and basically talk about women like shit. I must have been 15 or so, and by then, I knew that songs like that were wrong. Not wrong like "My parents don't want me listening to this," but wrong by my own independent sense of right and wrong.

When it was all done, my Dad just casually--and very analytically--went through all the reasons NWA was on some bullshit. He spent most of his time on "Just Don't Bite It," and offered the kind of nuanced criticism that I've been trying to duplicate with my own son. The problem wasn't that they were talking about oral sex. People have been having sex orally for thousands of years, and a lot of people do it, he explained. The problem was the women, and how NWA described them. I probably should quote from the song, here, but I think I'd rather not.

Anyway, the line that stuck with me was, "Would you want someone talking about your mother like that?" Now that's a kind of cliche response to hip-hop's bitch/ho complex, and often extends from a kind of sexual puritanism that's no more mature than misogyny it's critiquing. But Dad had cleared out the puritan angle with his talk about oral sex. What I was left with was not a desire to imagine myself as the product of a virgin birth, but, at 15, to think of someone discussing the only woman you've ever loved as a slave. That was good. But what was better was what came next--he popped the tape out the deck, and handed it back to me.

Headline aside, I don't know if this would work in every family. Like I said, on the music-side, my folks had built up a lot of credibility. They generally liked It Takes A Nation Of Millions and Death Certificate. (The both thought "Giving Up The Nappy Dugout" was hilarious. My Dad thinks Trapped In The Closet is great.) Plus, sexual morality, as it was taught to me, was very practical and grounded. Given that I had six brothers and sisters, all by a tangle of mothers, and also given that we were essentially, agnostic, there just wasn't much room for abstract explanations for why sex was "bad." But that gave my parents a lot of credibility to talk about sex. We never had  "The Talk." They talked about it for as long as I could remember. And so if my Dad is telling me, "Yo, you need to think about this," then by all means, I need to think about it.

I went on to listen to my share of effed-up gansta rap. But I don't own 100 Miles And Running. And I really can't even listen to Straight Outta Compton. These days, I'm all about the D.O.C.

*The picture is me and my Pops, circa 1976. We're sitting on the porch of our house in the West Baltimore's Park Heights.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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