GHOSTFACE KILLAH feat. MARY J. BLIGE / “All That I Got Is You”
What I think happened was our generation was frightened into panic. And I believe that we spent a lot of time lying to our young people, hiding the things that we are responsible for. And blaming our young people for what we have done. That's what I think about my generation. Where that led me, personally, was to a crack pipe. And I am forever grateful to God that I was on that crack, because it made me completely broken so that I could examine my life. Today, what I know is that we are responsible for these young people. And if there's a disconnect, it's our fault, because we stopped talking to them honestly. And when we didn't understand what they were saying to us, we started to point our fingers at them. We forgot that they were our children and that's because the disconnect exists. The confusion that we see in our children is the result of lies that couldn't hold up. If we had spoken honestly and logically, our children would hear us, understand us, and not run from us. … These young people are called so many names, and vilified, as my son was. To me, every generation is responsible for the next. —Afeni Shakur, from “Ex-Black Panther On Love And Tupac”*There’s a line in Gil Scott-Heron’s classic ballad “Pieces Of A Man” where he says, “Jagged jigsaw pieces thrown across the room / I saw Grandma sweeping with her old straw broom.” ‘Pieces’ refers to the ripped-up layoff letter that the woman’s son just received. But the ‘pieces’ also refers to what’s left of her son after he explodes, or implodes, in the shame and anger of losing his gig. The song never says what exactly the laid-off son does, but given that the blue lights come to take him away, we can bet it wasn’t anything good. The lasting image as the song ends is of a little boy watching the authorities drive his father away. But, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice another part of the image. That is, behind the boy, the woman is still there, still sweeping up the pieces. It’s Mother’s Day. I’m not trying to bring anybody down. I’ve already mailed cards to the women in my family—sisters, mother, grandmother, even my ex-wife…maybe I did that last one with clenched teeth, but I did it. Right now though, my head is in a different place. I’m thinking about the fathers, actually. I’m thinking about what happens once the fathers are dead, strung out, in jail, or just gone. (You know all the statistics…I won’t repeat them.) I’m thinking about what happens when the children ask the inevitable question—“Where’s Daddy?” It is the women who have to make up something that at least sounds believable. I’m thinking about what happens after the men disappear into the junkie twilight. It is the women who are left to face the glare of the sober daylight. I’m thinking about the men who do stay, but do so kicking, sweating and crying out through nightmare sleep. It is the women who lay beside them, awake, afraid and alone. As Gil said, when the men fall apart, it is the women who have to take out the old straw broom and do their best to sweep up the pieces. There are hip-hop songs about fathers. Some are songs of praise. Far more are songs of hate, although it hurts me to even type something like that. But when rappers write about their mothers, they tend to write about neither praise nor hate. What they write about most is pain. And love. The love is always there. Still, the predominate feeling one is left with is the pain. More than anything else, the sons seem to be trying to tell their mothers that they (the sons) feel their mother’s pain. They don’t/can’t know the hell their mothers went through, but they acknowledge it. And they appreciate it. They want their mothers to know that all their suffering wasn’t in vain. As in Goodie MOb's “Guess Who” (from Soul Food– LaFace, 1995). Khujo talks about a woman who “improvised with baking soda when there wasn’t no toothpaste.” T-Mo remembers his mother “standing in front of that two-inch glass, a woman waiting to hand over the cash for her son.” Cee-Lo begins his verse by explaining that “she was barely even grown and became my Mama.” Which is the reason, he says, that “even when the times got bad, I was glad.” Because, of course, “I never knew my Dad.” In other words, if it wasn’t for the little girl who took on the adult responsibility of motherhood—whether she wanted to or not—Cee-Lo would’ve had nothing. Or as he puts it, “Everything I got, I owe to my Mama.” Perhaps the quintessential hip-hop song about mothers is Tupac’s “Dear Mama” (from Me Against The World– Interscope, 1995), a tear-jerker to end all tear-jerkers. I don’t know what it was like in the studio that day, but Tupac’s voice sounds even thicker and heavier than it normally does. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some tears being shed right there in the vocal booth. The entire song is strong—the bit where Tupac audaciously rhymes ‘crack fiend’ with ‘Black queen’ is unforgettable—but my favorite lines comes at the end of verse two:
When I was low you was there for me And never left me alone because you cared for me And I could see you coming home after work late You're in the kitchen trying to fix us a hot plate You’re just working with the scraps you was given And Mama made miracles every Thanksgiving But now the road got rough, you're alone You're trying to raise two bad kids on your own And there's no way I can pay you back But my plan is to show you that I understand You are appreciatedOne of the reasons Tupac’s song has so much impact is because we know his and Afeni’s story. We know his words are true. We know about her years of poverty and crack addiction. We know about his years of wilding out in the streets, shooting and getting shot at, trying to be a man without having any real model of manhood to follow. And of course, years later, we know how Tupac’s story ends. Like so many other young black men, he went down in a hail of bullets. Now, Tupac is gone. But his mother Afeni is still here…and despite it all, she’s still going strong. Of the many hip-hop songs about mothers, Ghostface Killah’s “All That I Got Is You” (from Ghostface Killah– Razor Sharp/Epic Street, 1996) is the one that hits me the hardest. Maybe it’s his hyper-descriptive style: in a single, densely-detailed verse, the litany of horrors piles up and up until “All I Got” becomes not just one rapper’s description of his childhood, but also an entire generation’s indictment of a system that allows this kind of poverty to exist. While I won’t pretend that my situation growing up was as bad as the situation Ghostface describes, there is enough in the song that rings true on a personal level that I always get a little choked up listening to it. As my sister Kiini put it in a piece about the Lower 9th Ward (the Katrina-ravished neighborhood in which we grew up), “We weren’t hanging on by a thread, but we weren’t redecorating either.” If even some of Ghost’s description is accurate—and personally, I’d bet that all of it is—his family was hanging on by a thread. That thread was, of course, his mother and grandmother. It’s a wonder they didn’t break. Last up is “Hate It Or Love It” (from The Documentary– Aftermath, 2005), a collaboration between 50 Cent and his protégé-turned-enemy The Game. Technically, this song isn’t about mothers; it’s about (as 50 Cent puts it) those rare times when born losers win. As you might expect, given the pedigree of The Game and 50, a lot of the tune is given over to boasting about whose car is bigger, but at the end of The Game’s second verse, he suddenly veers away from the fantasy of capitalist high-siding and straight into hard, cold reality.
Sitting in the Range, thinking How they spent 30 million dollars on airplanes? When there's kids starvin’ 'Pac is gone and Brenda still throwing babies in the garbage** I wanna know what's going on, like I hear Marvin No schoolbooks, they used that wood to build coffins Whenever I'm in the booth and I get exhausted I think, what if Marie Baker had got that abortion?*** I love you, MaI’m not going to lie and say I’m a big fan of The Game—too much nihilism, too much glorification of casual sex, easy money, and shiny watches. You know, the normal commercial rap bullshit. But I will say this—there’s more heart, passion and love in that last rhyme of his than some rappers manage in their entire careers. As for me, I’ll end this Mother’s Day write-up the same way Game ends “Hate It Or Love It.” I love you, Mama. —Mtume ya Salaam * Full interview by Kam Williams available at http://www.beansouptimes.com/Afeni_Shakur1.htm ** This is a reference to Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got A Baby,” in which a teenage mother throws her newborn in the trash. *** I would think it goes without saying, but Marie Baker is The Game’s mother. (I know, I know. But people have asked.) Getting up on what the fellers are putting down Of these four tracks, only two appeal to me aesthetically, meaning I actually enjoy listening to those two. Ghostface because he has a brilliant opening verse, but after that, well, let's just say... well, let's not say, because really there is not much to comment on after Ghostface unleashes his tale of po(or)—rhymes with woe. The Tupac is much more hip, not simply because of who he is and what he came to represent, but rather because not only did they hook up the song on a higher level than the others in terms of musical elements, but significantly Tupac's song is actually about his mother rather than about his own life as a child. The others spend most of their time talking about themselves, unable to move beyond ego adoration, but Tupac, who arguably had the hugest ego of the four, was able to shine the spotlight on his mother. Moreover, to Tupac's credit, there is nothing romantic about his portrait. It's boldly realistic. I mean the man calls his mother out as a "crack fiend" and manages to make it sound endearing. Plus, he sustained the portrait beyond one quick verse. Kudos to a rapper whom I believe is too often over-rated. Goodie MOb and The Game, well, they mean well, but they spend more time recycling stereotypes than revealing the depth of their experiences. Mtume, I'm glad you dropped these tracks. I never would have listened to The Game. Never. You called my attention this brief bit of seriousness from someone who seems to be deadly serious about getting paid and not much else. Tupac, I have listened to before. A little Goodie MOb and only occasionally Wu-Tang. Selections like you have done here, Mtume, are educational for me and help me hear voices I would have ignored in the music context, even though I seriously need to be up on what these fellers are putting down. —Kalamu ya Salaam
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