I listen to Lil Uzi Vert in the car with my kids, and I’m OK with that.
A lot of the music we listen to in the car would be deemed inappropriate by my kids’ schools and by many of my kids’ friends’ parents. Lil Uzi Vert is mumbly, but the “explicit” content comes through pretty clear. I was, at first, taken aback by the idea of my kids hearing all the n-words and other language that we don’t use in other contexts (like in our house). But I have a problem with artistic censorship, and I refuse to insult my kids by making them listen to the available clean versions of many great hip-hop and rap songs.
I took hip-hop artists’ use of the n-word as a challenge to explain to my kids how oppressed people have taken back the very words used to denigrate them and deny them equality in our society: They use the derogatory term as a badge of honor and pride when it comes from their own mouths. And this follows a long country and blues tradition.
The n-word is tricky. I don’t care whether my kids use the f-word, but the n-word is different: I’ve forcefully expressed how wrong it is to dismiss people as inferior because of the color of their skin or their ethnic background.
I tried an analogy: I’m of Polish ancestry, descended from dirt-poor farmers in Eastern Europe. When my ancestors came here they had a hard time assimilating into the existing social structure. They worked in factories or as longshoremen. People referred to them derogatorily as “Polacks.” It was their way of saying that they thought the Polish newcomers were genetically inferior to the Europeans who had come to the country before them. They were despised as immigrants and told to go back where they came from. They were thought to be too dumb to work at any but the most menial jobs, jobs no one else wanted to do. They were marginalized.
And when no one was listening, what did they call themselves? Polacks. With pride — taking back the name (it’s the Polish word for a Polish man, after all) that had been turned on them as a way to keep them down. I remember my uncles regularly referring to themselves as Polacks. At first, I was confused, and then I realized they were proud of who they were: They were using the word to express their identity, the very word they had heard others call them to belittle and ostracize them.
My kids got this. They understood how Black American musicians also used the term in a way different from the way other people used it to denigrate them. My 9- and 11-year-olds picked up on the difference between Kendrick Lamar’s use of the n-word and the way they had heard white kids use it to describe an African American. I found it much easier to explain the distinction to my kids than to many adults.
I pointed out, too, that many great writers have distilled street language to create their art, including some of the greatest poems — the ones that resonate with day-to-day life, not the ones that sound as if they were written by English professors.
I would like my kids to at least take a shot at appreciating the beauty of great poetry, and I feel they are more likely to grok a Lil Uzi Vert song than, for example, Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.”
Listening to Lil Uzi Vert has helped me talk to my kids about some important things: racial discrimination and great art. Plus, we really dig the accordion sample (even if it’s not a polka) at the beginning of “Ps & Qs.” My daughter frequently asks to hear that song, “Money Longer,” and “Team Rocket” — all from Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World (2016).
And I’m OK with that.
Peter Jakubowicz is a writer in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his son and daughter. He plays hockey and banjo, and he would love to be sampled by a hip-hop artist.