As you may know, authors often write Op-Ed columns during the weeks and months when their book is released. The objective is to find a convincing narrative to link the news of the day with the argument that they wrote a year, two or more years before the news of the day. It often isn’t pretty, and the digital floor of the newsrooms of America are littered with Op-Eds that were never published. And well, here’s one of mine:
This week, rapper Jay-Z released “Glory,” a song that addresses his feelings about becoming a parent to his newborn child with Beyoncé, a girl named Blue Ivy. The single marks a significant departure from what fans of rap are accustomed to hearing on the radio and Internet: it is both a love song and a lullaby, a lament over a lost pregnancy, and a promise to faithful service as a father. Fans of Jay-Z’s music won’t be surprised at the content or tone of the song: the rapper has a decade’s worth of lyrics dealing with his feelings about parenting and his love of children (most especially, his nephews). But “Glory” calls our attention to the remarkable absence of rap songs that are by or for the pre-teen set.
The world of what we might call “kids rap” is populated almost entirely by children, and most of them are the offspring of music professionals. The singer Jordy, son of music producer Claude Lemoine, is on the record books for being the youngest #1 charting singer for his rap, “Dur Dur d’être bébé!” While relatively unknown in the U.S., this 1992 single—produced when Jordy was only 4—was a dance hit across Europe, South America and Asia. Children of rappers in the U.S. have not fared as well on the charts. Lil’ Romeo, son of rappers Master P and Sonya C, may be at the top of the pack with one gold, one platinum and one double platinum album. While there is some rap music that is marketed to children—the 2008 book and CD “Hip Hop Speaks to Children” is a good example—it is generally repackaged or excerpted, as opposed to being created for this purpose.
There are good reasons to think the market in kids rap would flourish. Within film, actors who become parents tend to diversify their portfolio to include films for children. Rappers haven’t done this, even though many are parents or even grandparents. Additionally the pre-teen market is huge, a fact demonstrated in Taylor Swift’s recent phenomenal success. According to one estimate, the 12-to-19-age bracket is at a historic high of 35 million kids. Kiddy ditties, or bubblegum pop, have captivated these consumers; the leading edge of the demo fueled the success of boy bands like O-Town and divas like Britney Spears. Moreover, this generation grew up with rap music woven into all aspects of their cultural experience: from school curricula to car advertisements.
The explanation for the missing genre of kids rap lies in the nature of creativity. Almost all of our popular music grows out of artistic circles where members collaborate and experiment, share grievances and opportunities, and cobble together enough money to continue to perform for bigger (or better) audiences. The music that does not grow from these roots, a collection of what we might call “music without genres,” is music made to satisfy market demand, with no community to support it. Kids rap, like bubblegum pop, and World Music, are commercial products crafted for a specific demographic. Consumers of kids rap might think of themselves as music fans, but they’re really not distinguishing on the basis of any musical characteristics at all. Just as World Music combines varied musical cultures, kids rap combines attributes of multiple styles and mutes their differences in order to attract dollars.
It is hard to imagine another fate for kids rap, as so many of the attributes of adult creative collaboration are beyond their emotional and developmental reach. But it is possible to imagine a group of rappers, convinced of the necessity of making mature, kid-friendly music, combining their powers to create something new, and something beautiful. “Glory” should be an inspiration to us, just as Blue was to its author.