Time Will Tell: Passing Bob Marley and other music down to my daughter, responsibly

City Paper

“You always got a request . . . ”

My close friends always clown me when it comes to how frequently and persistently I suggest that we listen to a certain song right now. And I get it; most people probably don’t like having their groove session interrupted by a random Young Moose song or a screwed-and-chopped version of Michael Jackon’s ‘Billie Jean.’ I can’t help it, though. I’ve low-key accepted that one of my purposes in life is to share my favorite music with whoever is around me. It’s a compulsion. If I’m with someone who’s browsing through YouTube for random music, I have to jump on the keyboard and start searching. When I’m not in Baltimore, I’ll share all my favorite music coming out of home right now. When I’m here, my recommendations are informed by superlatives: Drake’s most annoying songs, Project Pat’s strongest verse, the best French rap from the ’90s. There is always the chance my friends could respond with “This shit is weak,” or the more obvious sign of disinterest, hopping onto Instagram.

But when you have a young kid, your taste in music is rarely challenged—children are, for the most part, passive listeners, so you get to play whatever you want. When my 4-year-old daughter Ayden was born, I had just turned 20 and, needless to say, had no idea what the fuck was going on. What music I “should” play for her rarely ever crossed my mind for at least the first year of her life. When she was with me, I played whatever. Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” dropped a month after she was born so I played that nonstop. I never considered that Chris Rock was talking about re-upholstered pussy or that Kanye rapped about choking and fucking people. I never had to think about that before. It was good music so I played it.

But, somewhere around the time she was a year-and-a-half and saying real words and locking in on the music, I had an “oh shit” moment. Typical parent reaction, I guess, but I wasn’t trying to be a square about it. I wasn’t going to be that parent that kept my kid from listening to rap. That’d be corny considering that rap has been so important in my life and that I write about it. I just wanted to shift the focus. I played more stuff like Gnarls Barkley, Bob Marley, and Gil Scott-Heron for the sake of broadening her musical palette and giving her an alternate energy to absorb.

She was receptive to mostly everything I played but nothing stuck like Bob Marley. By the time she was 2, she started crying and throwing fits if I didn’t run ‘Smile Jamaica,’ ‘Natty Dread,’ or ‘War’ back about 10 times each. She seemed to know the words to about two dozen of his songs. What began as just me playing music that I liked for my daughter began to have more purpose when it came to Marley. The sunny Saturday afternoons from my own childhood were soundtracked by my mother—who had played in reggae bands—blasting Marley, Beres Hammond, and Buju Banton out of her car or in the house. Passing that onto Ayden started to feel important to me and it was probably the first time I thought about preserving a family tradition. But what made it feel most rewarding is what Bob Marley was about: uniting black people worldwide, promoting a black messiah, uplifting broken spirits. All of which was greatly needed during his lifetime, before it, and right now for all that we’ve endured over the past 400 years. Ayden being familiar with his work felt like a good move.

From Bob Marley, she moved onto wanting Damian Marley’s ‘The Master Has Come Back’ and Buju Banton’s ‘Wanna Be Loved’ repeated nonstop. Reggae fell out of style for Ayden after a while, though how long the fixation lasted actually surprised me. Her next obsession became Kelela’s “Cut 4 Me,” which didn’t exactly mirror Bob’s message, but it’s an emotionally sophisticated work and something I feel like any little girl (who will become a young woman like Kelela) would like.

At 4 years old, Ayden has her own musical taste now. It’s funny to see. She’ll ask to hear Bob Marley on occasion, but it’s rare. The last time I tried to maintain tradition and played Gil Scott-Heron in my car, she said strongly from the backseat, “This is boring.” I couldn’t help but laugh. My mother playing him around the house and taking me to go watch her open up for him when I was younger was enough for me to like him, but my daughter thought it was wack. That was one of my first out-of-touch parent moments. Even now with Ayden knowing ‘Bird Flu’ by Lor Scoota, dancing and singing to Rae Sremmurd’s ‘No Type’ (not even sure where she learned these), or knowing every word to songs on Amy Winehouse’s “Frank,” I’m still happy with what she’s taking in. And while I’m still not going to bump the latest song Chief Keef uploaded to his SoundCloud around her for obvious reasons, I’m hoping that she’ll play me the 2027 equivalent to Keef when she’s a teenager to keep me well-rounded—just like I’m trying to do with her now.

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