The smell of cigarette smoke and sweat spilled over into our cell block. From a distance, the sounds of young men shouting at each other and tussling and laughing filled the atmosphere with a certain sense of restlessness. Donald Williams wiped his forehead with the back of his hand then stared down at the tattered pages of an old Bible.
“I remember asking my Mom what she did to make pops hate us so much. I couldn’t have been much older than eleven at the time, but I can still remember the anger I felt. Mom broke down into tears and tried to explain it to me, but I couldn’t understand why other kids had their fathers taking them to ball games and stuff, but mine didn’t even take the time to wish me well on my birthday.”
Donald paused a moment to reflect. His expression was a mask of bewilderment and pain. “I used to think that if I could become a good enough kid, it would make my pops want to spend time with me. But the only time my pops really talked to me was when I got into trouble at school. Mom would threaten to send me away to a training school and pops would come over and beat me and lecture me on why I should stop cutting up in class. Many times I would get in trouble just so I could see him and ask him, after he beat me up, if he would come to my basketball game and watch me play. I just wanted him to be proud of me, to love me, but I ended up hating him and everyone around me because he couldn’t.”
When I first heard Donald Williams‘ story, I made a vow to one day tell it to the world. It was a painful tale of a young man attempting to somehow deal with the absence of a responsible father. Donald’s words were filled with rage and interlaced with a venomous sense of hatred. Yet, underneath the anger, there seemed to be a hint of tears. He was in pain, he was hurting, and the man responsible for this devastation didn’t seem to care.
“When I got sentenced to prison, he came here to visit me a few times. He tried to preach to me and counsel me and tell me how wrong I was for selling drugs and living the criminal lifestyle. Man, he even sent me a bible and tried to tell me to give my life to Jesus. But it was too late. After all these years without him, what made this fool feel like he had the right to step into my life now and give out fatherly advice. I would’ve worshiped Satan before I listened to a thing he had to offer. Whenever I looked at him I wanted to just grab his neck and squeeze it and squeeze it and squeeze it until every ounce of his miserable life oozed out of him. I hated that man more than I have ever hated anyone in my life.”
Donald took his father off the visitation list and swore that he never wanted to see the man again. In my presence, Donald never allowed a tear to trail down his chocolate face. But I can imagine those tears came, often, in the middle of the night while contemplating the hate that a father’s neglect created.
Horrific stories of men who refuse to play an important role in the lives of their children are well known. It is an issue that must be dealt with firmly; with serious consequences handed down to offenders. But I am writing this article because I know of another story of blatant child abuse that may hit closer to home than you realize.
It is the story of a child named Hip-Hop.
It was born out of raw sense of expression that led many black kids to turn basements and dormitories and bedrooms into impromptu studios. Inner-city geniuses began experimenting with an art form that had the promise of becoming a powerful force in the community. It was fun and competitive. Street corners became the breeding ground for aspiring emcee’s to get their first taste at moving a crowd. With pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, along with many others leading the way, rap music exploded into the hearts of young black kids across America.
Along with the birth of Hip-Hop came the emergence of annoyed critics within the older black generation. They wrote Hip-Hop off as a fad that would die out in two or three years. They were far more concerned with stepping across the railroad tracks into the American Dream than paying much attention to the silly Hip-Hop kids with high-top hair cuts who used their mouths to beat-box. (The current Hip-Hop critics who claim to only be against “gangsta rap” are no more than intellectual hypocrites. Vocal members of the older generation disowned rap music even in its infancy – well before it became a vehicle for some artists to disrespect females and illustrate the horrors of street life.)
As a result of the older generation’s neglect, many of Hip-Hop’s leading pioneers ended up signing horrible contracts that gave opportunistic new labels total control over their lives and careers. Instead of influential black leaders using their experience and wisdom to reach back and help Hip-Hop grow into a positive, more focused force in the black community, far too many of these leaders (and rap critics) made the decision to disassociate themselves from the music. Hip-Hop didn’t seem to fit into the cultured, intelligent, and civilized image that they were trying to project to White America.
Still, Hip-Hop grew. Talented poets from all over the country were eager to contribute their vision to the music. Run DMC, LL Cool J, Kool Moe Dee, KRS One, Ice-T, Rakim, and a host of others continued to build upon the foundation of Hip-Hop. Mistakes were made, egos clashed, but rap music followed the beat of it’s own drummer and continued to make huge strides forward. Soon, rap music began reaching the ears of white suburban kids. As a result, Hip-Hop entered the radar screens of white corporate entities as a marketable (and exploitable) commodity. Money was offered, deals were made, and contracts were signed.
Nowhere in this equation did black intellectuals step in to offer guidance and “fatherly” advice. White lawyers in fancy suits shuffled tons of paperwork in front of new artists, enticing them to sign over all their publishing rights for a few pennies. Had more brothers with insight and experience stepped up to the plate to defend the rights of these early artists instead of criticizing them, maybe less rappers would have been raped financially. Tales of bankruptcy and poverty amongst the early innovators of rap music will forever be a footnote in the history of Hip-Hop.
Still, Hip-Hop grew; new artists contributed new things. Biz Markie and Slick Rick made kids laugh, and Ice-T explained the gangster’s plight with tracks like “Colors.” Hip-Hop expanded into new territory, and even newer, fresher voices filled the airwaves. Two heartbeats later, a group named N.W.A. stole away the imagination of fans by introducing a raw, no-holds-barred form of expression that graphically detailed the lives of gangsters. White kids in Alabama started screaming “F— Tha Police,” and politicians all over America began targeting Hip-Hop as a scapegoat for social woes. Most black leaders remained quiet during this onslaught, leaving their Hip-Hop children to be sacrificed by an angry white political lynch mob.
Still, Hip-Hop survived. Though battle-weary and bruised, the music produced prophets who attempted to fill the void left by the older generation. Groups like X-Clan, Public Enemy, and KRS One tried to teach the masses about black power and unity. “Self-Destruction” became an anthem for change as artists from across the spectrum joined together to promote positive interaction. This would have been the perfect time for the intellectual critics of Hip-Hop to reach back and steer rap music onto the Yellow Brick Road to redemption. Instead, these critics turned their backs on Hip-Hop and settled down into their little house on the prairie, beside the Waltons.
Now, in the wake of Tupac and Biggie‘s death, as Hip-Hop struggles to redefine its identity and purpose, there seems to be a resurgence of black critics banging down the door to CNN’s studios hoping to spit out a few intellectual sound bites that will impress their colleagues. Sideline opinions from people who have never even listened to rap music seem to be becoming the norm. More and more black leaders are claiming to be upset that the white corporate structure is exploiting the talents of young black males, and that most artists are too blind to recognize this.
My understanding of history is based more on facts. The truth is, it took white media outlets to embrace Hip-Hop before black-owned media outlets realized that it was “okay” to feature rap groups (the only exception being Soul Train, Ebony, and Jet). It was only after Nike and Reebok and Mountain Dew and Sprite used Hip-Hop artists in high-profile commercials did black-owned companies accept the idea. Quick research will show anyone who is interested that Forbes and Time Magazine had cover stories detailing the economical power of Hip-Hop moguls years before Black Enterprise had the courage to tackle the issue.
Donald Williams wasn’t perfect. Neither is Hip-Hop. They both traveled down a lonely road filled with foolish mistakes and very bad choices. But I understand their anger when, after years of neglect and disappointment, irresponsible father figures tap-dance their way back into the spotlight with two-cent opinions on what the young should and shouldn’t do. The words that Donald said to me, seven years ago, seem to be the same words that many Hip-Hop fans are screaming out today. “After all these years without him, what [makes] this fool feel like he [has] the right to step into my life now and give out fatherly advice.”
Marlon leTerrance is a regular contributer at BlackElectorate.com. As a product of the Hip-Hop Generation’s maverick disregard for conventional thought, Mr. leTerrance writes from the perspective of the “disenfranchised street dwellers, disillusioned by the Struggle”. He can be contacted via e-mail at MarlonLeterrance@aol.com