Daddy DJ: how I taught my ex-toddlers about Black history without even trying…

The core cause of how it is ‘easy’ for me to teach children about Black history is because I have a homespun understanding of how children do baby stuff—because babies do baby stuff. I do not come at children—especially my children—with some “intellectual framework.” And even self-described Black people need to get the threat of emotional and physical violence out of their assumptions about my references and invocations. Once a parent truly learns that to be violent with children is wrong because it can teach a child the very, very European fantasy of solving problems quickly through overwhelming force, that parent is on the way to setting a traditional African example for their children. A parent who is sane (which is harder to be than one without children would think) would want to teach their children how to defend themselves against the long, slow siege of abstract symbolic psychological assaults before moving on to their rendition of Israeli Secret Service training.

The strategic reason why I have been so ‘sanely great’ with my children (especially when they were toddlers) is because I only saw them on the weekends and (this is very important) I have not taken on a “girlfriend” at the expense of my children. Here in the rasx() context, a girlfriend is an adult woman who has serious financial problems and she (in spite of herself) would psychologically compete for my attention in the manner of a toxic rival sibling. And, yes, ladies, you all have many, many boyfriends that do the same shit (with the optional rape kit sold separately).

So for my toddlers (a boy and girl) a Saturday was their day here in crappy Los Angeles. Driving in Los Angeles traffic easily has a 20-minute minimum, leaving plenty of time to play a truckload of songs for my children—not for me but for my children (and then me). The table below will list a few of the songs I played for my children through the AUX jack of my Prius from my crappy Windows Phones of the past:

Living For The City

My daughter, my youngest, started asking questions about this song when she was four or five. She was the one that taught me that Stevie Wonder supplies, in one seven-minute song, a complete Black history lesson, invoking the memory “great migration” of blacks from the rural South to urban centers. This song helps to teach my children how to compare country living with city living—that “once upon a time” your mama’s momma lived in the country and she would never call her children out their name—and she would never let you out the house with your fingernails so dirty.

Now that my daughter is older we go the library (instead of the park). She is learning how to check books out of a campus library (and get renewal and late notices forwarded to her). She might express interest in a 1989 book by Carol Marks, Farewell—We’re Good and Gone: The Great Black Migration. So far she has not—but I know she has the feeling of the memory of this history. It is not so completely alien to her.

All The Critics Love U In New York

My post-millennial son instantly fell in love with Prince when he heard this song, along with “Lady Cab Driver.” My son was being trained (in his mother’s house) to be a musician so it was no surprise to me that he would be moved by the music. My son was too young to even care about the sexual content in these songs—it was all about the music.

The “Critics” song led me to rap to my son about the history of so-called “Jazz” and the history of punk rock in general (because Prince jokingly yells “take a bath, hippie”) and the Talking Heads (David Byrne) in particular.

Free

At the height of my daughter’s Disney princess phase, I made sure she heard the awesome, enchanting beauty of Deniece Williams singing “Free.” The intro alone immediately held my daughter’s attention because it sounded like a million magic wands cascading rainbows. She was so moved by the song for a few days that you could not tell her that Deniece Williams was not the first, Black Disney princess! I wanted my daughter to know that black women are not always so hard and seemingly invulnerable. I wanted her to experience the soft grace of a woman taking charge and radiating her magic spell… My daughter is born into a situation where the women in her life are very much un-free so this is meant to get her some memory/feeling of freedom…

Bootzilla

It is quite a surprise in the post-gangsta-rap, self-hating racism of today that a song like “Bootzilla” by Boosty was deliberately designed for children (or at most tweens)—me when I was a child to be exact. In fact, I forgot about how this song can reach children. This voice from the 1970s came “short distance” to my 21st-century daughter, saying, “don’t let her cry… don’t let that li’l’ girl cry…” and then came this crazy man saying, “Yabba-dabba-doozy-baba! Bootzilla here!”

Of course, because I am a “nerd” (actually it’s because I hung with DJs as a kid), I do not play a song without the album cover on display. So my daughter looked at the display on my phone and sees Bootsy and asked the question, “Why his eyes like stars?” So the idea with this song is a promise to play—I grew up in world of innocent childhood play. This song brings my personal history to life for my children, the makers of funky thangs to play whiff! Twinkle, twinkle, baby! (By the way, when children hear the word “baby” in a song—the child will logically and often Blackly-correctly assume they are referring to actual babies. Multiple layers of meaning, kids.)

The Mooche

Yes, I have played the game with my children where I pretend, in slow motion that I am about to steal food from them. But before I get to the food they always seem to slap my hand away. Duke Ellington (along with Louis Armstrong sometimes) make an excellent soundtrack to this game. This seems like it’s not Black history lesson but my children know that this idea of music instruments anthropomorphizing characters/ideas is a Black thang (that came into Europe via Italy—conveniently located in the south, baby). It may help to squeal like grandpa, da mooch!, to the rhythm of the music.

Shimmy Shimmy KO KO Bop

How do I get my children to know something about my father when he is Georgia and we are in Los Angeles? The answer is Little Anthony & The Imperials, their classic hit “Shimmy Shimmy KO KO Bop.” One of the cutest things I have ever witnessed is my toddler daughter in her car seat trying to keep up with them. (We have to remember that I have no idea how my children are going to react to this music.) Now in terms of Black history, this is one of the first (or the first) American pop tune sung by black people referring to African imagery (the “native hut” and the “native girl” putting Anthony in a trance).

The Laughing Gnome

My children very, very quickly grew out of this early David Bowie song. Since I was a teenage Bowie fan, I just had to throw this one in. This is a children’s song and it worked quite well. Of course my youngest son would ask, why? And then for some poetic reason I tell my son about Little Richard and how much David Bowie “loved” him.

“Gypsy Boy”

Now I know I have told my son several times about Little Richard telling Jimi Hendrix off for hours about upstaging him. “I’m the pretty one!” Little Richard exclaimed. The “Gypsy Boy” recording by Jimi Hendrix in my collection is from his Midnight Lightning album. And—in terms of history—when my son is listening, it speaks to him directly:

Hey gypsy boy
where do you come from?

Hey gypsy boy
where do you plan to go to?

My African plan is to have my son carry that song (and those questions) with him so he can answer for himself as he gets older. There is some deeper stuff going here (around the meaning of gypsy) but that’s beyond the scope of the fun.

Future Love Paradise

I often fantasize the fantasies of a Black father—that the memory my children will have of me is their dad driving around in his crappy Prius singing along to “Future Love Paradise” by Seal. Even little kids understand that Dad is telling us how he feels about us—he is telling us how optimistic he is in spite of the obstacles—when he is singing that song about the “future power people.” But deeper still kids: I am also telling my children that, should every human being on Earth die all at once, then humanity will come back as an Africoid people as white-lab-coat science tells us how it happened before. And just like before that Africoid people will return to “biological altruism” which is a paradise compared to the apocalypse now. Dad is weird, right?

Pastime Paradise

So, yes, I am a poet and I often wanted my children to hear the words then the music. But with Stevie’s “Pastime Paradise” the message is so clearly in the music. My youngest son knew what “white” orchestral strings sound like from an early age—but for him to hear it mastered and syncopated unto an African rhythm was a different thang all together.

Pass It On

This Wailers song I sang directly to my two youngest children (especially my daughter) when they were infants. This is not a Saturday-fun-in-the-car song. With this one, I learned how powerful music is when it is used on children (to put them to sleep for mama):

It is the conscience
that is going to remind you
It is your heart
nobody else’s
that is going to judge

Song of rejoicing after returning from a hunt (rhythm djoboko)

Like many, many ancient African things they never age—this song from the Ba-Benzele People in my collection sounded completely modern to my children. —And I bragged to my children in a rare moment of a genuine outward expression of joy, ‘This is one of the oldest songs in the world—in the world, kids!’

I tried to get my kids to listen for the organization in the song: the generational sequential order of the communal singing.

I’ll Bet You

How do you promise to your baby girl that you will never leave her (the baby girl that is actually a baby)? All I know is when I held my daughter on a pillow (to put her to sleep for mama), I started singing this Funkadelic song which has meaning for both the child and the mama (at the time):

You ain’t go’ lose…
You’re a winner, baby
You right here in the pocket baby…
…with my love

Small Axe

What is sad is that every time I say this, I feel like I have to prove it: children form deep empathic bonds with people—especially their functional parents. So there is a difference between some adult stranger singing a song and their own parent singing. Sometimes a child cannot understand the lyrics of a song until they feel their parent singing:

Why boast of thyself
O evil man
Playing smart
but not being clever

You come working
in iniquity
to achieve vanity
but for the goodness of J’ah J’ah
I ’dure it
for I ’ver

I have yet to tell my children that they are listening to the voice of the slave talking back to his master. So I do admit that this history lesson takes a bit more work.

John

Even in a perfect black suburban world of 21st-century nuclear family bliss, my children would never experience the Baptist Church like I did when I was child. This song, “John” from the Gullah Sea Islands folk provides some idea of how Church was for Black folk before my grandparents’ time.

I played this song once in the car for my song when I started pontificating to him about the song “Johnny B. Goode” as I was reminding my son of the Black origins of Rock ‘n’ Roll. You can clearly hear the ‘Johnny-hook’ in this old church song:

Some say John
was a Baptist

Some say John
was a Jew

I say John
was a preacher

And the Bible
say so too

So preach on, Johnny!
Preach on Johnny!

I love this song. Should I ever end up a guest in the pews of a Baptist Church and I get to lead the congregation into song (as a creepy old man), I expect to pull this old one out for the congregation.

Boogie Chillun

This John Lee Hooker classic is a historical masterpiece, chronicling the big-band-and-bobby-socks era of Black dance music at “Henry Swing Club.” For my daughter, her memories of the song took us to YouTube again where I could show her how Black people danced in the 1940s. For my son, events in his personal life made him resonate with the message, “Let that boy boogie woogie! ’Cause it’s in him—and it got to come out!”

Try Again

As my youngest children (just two of them for a total of three) flew into their tweens I had to change tack. This Aaliyah song “Try Again” was a way to tell my daughter that girls can make boys try again. She had no idea what they were trying but the important point is that a girl should be able to make a boy wait. From my daughter’s point of view she liked the beats and the girl singing—and when I dug up the video on YouTube, she liked the dancing. It was quite a while before my daughter discovered that Aaliyah is a historical figure.

Things done changed

My youngest son’s mother is super-, super-motivated to deny this but I am 110% certain that my son learned his foul-mouthed, shitty four-letter words from the white kids in the private schools his mother put him in. As soon as it became clear that my son was dropping f-bombs left and right, instead of getting violent with him and blaming him for this shit (although I did tell him to stop), I introduced him to some Black history from Notorious B.I.G.

Of course I knew at the time, introducing my son to this rapper would be news for my son’s mother—and she had the choice of blaming me for putting f-bombs in my son’s mouth or blaming her sacred white folks (even though she is a self-described “black woman”). Who do you think she would choose to blame? (BTW: all three of my children have different mothers—and all of these mothers are older than me.)

Black Cop

One of the earliest hip hop songs I played for my youngest son is the KRS-ONE classic “Black Cop.” My son was too young to understand the content but liked the hook. His mother was not super-enthusiastic about exposing her son to hip hop so I figured that his running around her house repeating “black cop!” would throw her off for a while.

On the deeper level, the long-term message to my son is being concerned about the black cops first before you deal with the white ones.

Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos

Even though my youngest son’s mother was invited over for dinner by Chuck D and his wife, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” would not be on her list of things to play for her child’s education. But, for me, my son’s history lesson is within the first 30 seconds:

Here is a land
that never gave a damn
about a brother
like me
like myself
because they never did.

Strange Fruit

Cassandra Wilson’s high-resolution, acoustic rendition of “Strange Fruit” was something I played in the car to no inquisitive reaction. Since my children know me to play horror movie soundtracks (like “Das Ding aus einer anderen Welt” by Ennio Morricone), repeating over and over again “that’s scary”—to make them answer “no it ain’t!”—this track went by like just another piece of ‘scary’ fiction. This was one of those cases where this history of lynching in North America did not turn into a teachable moment—but it was a musical moment for children at least.

Space: A Monologue

This Sekou Sundiata masterpiece got played once maybe twice in the car. It is a Black history of the 1960s, 70s and bit of the 80s. I have to admit that my children—especially my son—thought the man making all that noise is crazy. My youngest son is a teenager now and should still have the same opinion.

The White Man’s Got a God Complex

I admit I started playing this mega-classic from The Last Poets to playfully annoy my children. When we were driving “through the white neighborhood” my daughter would roll up the windows. My son would try to stop the phone from playing it and demand to hear hip hop—in spite of me saying, “Where you think hip hop comes from?”

Eventually my children grew out of the Daddy DJ. My daughter has her own music collection. My youngest son is definitely doing his own thing. I like to think that I have some kind of influence on my children’s choice in music (my daughter has this term to describe some her music: “dank beats”)—and any sincere, visceral respect for history…

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