Love, Lessons, Learning and Leadership

I look back fondly on my upbringing in the housing projects of East New York, Brooklyn. My environment then, along with hip-hop, included me in its blended family. The family values that I learned early on from hip-hop taught me unconditional love and helped me to be a father in my own blended family today.

I grew up in a family of five boys and I am the youngest. My father was in the house until I was about ten or eleven. During adolescence I was blessed to be fathered by men who guided me with wisdom and purpose throughout my life. Men such as Jeremiah Jones (who headed the youth center in my projects) and the brothers who, despite their life choices, knew right from wrong and steered me away from the mistakes that they made.

I also came to know the blessings of family life through the positive influence of hip-hop. The music and the culture served as a bond that formed many relationships. This new phenomenon called hip-hop served as the rationale to put differences and personal agendas to the side in an effort to be a part of something that was bigger than the individual. Hip-hop encouraged individuals to form the positive family bonds that previously were presented to inner city youth in the form of gangs. In fact, the most renowned MCs where parts of groups or crews: LL Cool J was partnered with DJs Bob Cat and Cut Creator; Rakim with Eric B; KRS-One with Scott LaRock and Boogie Down Productions; Queen Latifah with the Flavor Unit; Chuck D with Public Enemy; Scarface with the Geto Boys; Ice Cube with NWA; and Big Daddy Kane with Mr. Cee and the Juice Crew, just to name a few. Whether they intended to or not, all of these groups promoted the value of (and need for) strong family ties.

I carried this perspective throughout my college years and it helped me form a family bond with a group of friends who I consider brothers to this day. We created our own standards of manhood and look out for each other constantly: we attend each other’s weddings, celebrate the birth of our children, and so on. In college, I was blessed to have another strong connection with a man who guided me into adulthood. He continues to be a strong father figure in my life today. Dr. Barron H. Harvey was the man who fathered me while, in my head, I was having conversations with my biological dad that now remind me of one of lyrics by Lupe fiasco: “I want you to be a father / I’m your little boy and you don’t even bother / like “brother” without the R.” my relationship with my dad had eventually became non-existent to the point where I would wonder: “You see what my problem is? That I don’t know where my poppa is.” Those were the thoughts in my head that laid heavy on my heart as I transitioned into adulthood, despite the father figures in my life.

As a young adult, with my personal and professional lives ahead of me, I met Mr. Mahmood “Billo” Harper. Mahmood invited me into his world and I saw in him a futuristic interpretation of myself as a “Hip-Hop Dad.” Mahmood showed me how to incorporate my love of hip-hop into my business and family life.

Within hip-hop culture, the crews evolved similar to how relationships develop in personal life. Rappers went from coming together to do shows and songs to coming together to establish businesses. This shift is exemplified in the emergence of Wu-Tang Clan in 1994. Wu-Tang redefined how to do business within hip-hop. The family structure of “the posse” was a new model. Hip-hop evolved from having crews on the street corner to having clans in the corner office . . . similar to how relationships can evolve from boyfriend/girlfriend status to a husband and wife union. As hip-hop continued to develop in this way, so did I. In 1998, I put aside my boyhood ways and got married. I became a husband and a father in the same moment because my wife, Vanessa, had a seven-year-old daughter.

Raising my daughter Jasmine (I never use the term “step”) called forth all the positive images and lessons that were presented to me by hip-hop and by the wise men in my life— both my elders and my peers. I was now initiated into a new sort of hip-hop crew. Within my new family, some of hip-hop’s basic values and practices applied: nothing should break down the unit, posses roll deep, and your word is your bond. And if someone in the crew presents an “outsider” (i.e., me, in this case) as being “down,” then the so-called outsider must receive the same love and support as every other member of the family . . . regardless of tenure. I joined Vanessa and Jasmine’s crew by making my wedding vows to both of them. I knew that the success of my marriage would be based on my ability to keep my promises to my wife and my new daughter. Without these rules to live by, I don’t think that I would have been psychologically or emotionally equipped to be a father to Jasmine.

By 1999, I was a happily married man in my thirties. I was still a hip-hop head and I began to notice a growing frustration within the hip-hop community—mostly centered on the issue of fatherhood. More and more, rappers began to address the pain caused by fathers’ dysfunctional relationships with their children. Though I had forgiven my father for his not being around, I could still relate to this pain. It motivated me to do my best for my daughter and for the young people that I worked with as director of the teen program at Martha’s Table (Martha’s Table is a prominent non-profit community-based organization in Washington, D.C.). Many of the teens in my program don’t have fathers or father figures in their lives. Through my work, I felt I was answering Quan’s hip-hop plea: “Can we please have a moment for children who got raped or murdered, or trapped in the system who never knew their father, never learned to dream but was guided by drug dealers, killers and crack fiends.” I have established long lasting bonds with most of the teens in my program over the past twelve years and I saw, once again, the value of the blended family.

Still and all, I longed to have a son. I believed a son would help heal any remaining wounds that were created by my biological father. In 1999, god answered my prayers and my son Isaiah Jeremiah Ezra Jones was born on my thirty-first birthday. He was named in honor of all the father figures who filled in the gaps for me and my wife. Since that day and moving forward, Isaiah will always know what life is like with his dad. His life challenges will not be based on the hard circumstances that come with growing up in a single parent home. Instead, he will benefit from my having broken a cycle of bitterness and my having learned how to love past pain. The father and the man that I become; and the man that I will raise my son to be, are deeply rooted in my belief, trust, confidence, and reliance on Jesus Christ for all things. As I continued to mature into manhood, I found comfort and joy in serving Jesus Christ in spirit and in truth, in my rewarding work, and in a faithful marriage. All these things helped me to be secure in my identity and purpose in life.

When teens ask why I am the way that I am and why I care as much as I do, I love that I get the chance to tell them that I love them because Jesus first loved me and that He gave me so many fathers to model after. I believe I must be a father for them too. I am also proud to tell them that hip-hop culture, contrary to popular belief, has been a guidepost for me to follow with regard to building a family unit—be that family in the household, in the projects, on the block, or at the local community center. The role that hip-hop has played in my life is based on an insight that was god-given. Hip-hop influences my ministry from the pulpit as a minister and I have been afforded a spiritual father who leads me as my Pastor, Bishop Larry H. Jordan, Sr. I am able to reflect on hip-hop culture in a way that many see as contradictory to how hip-hop has been defined by society. I know better. In the words of Inspector Deck I say, “Leave it up to me while I be living proof to kick the truth to the young black youth.” my life with hip-hop, family, mentors, and friends has consisted of the love, lessons, learning, and leadership necessary to mold me into what I am and all the things I will become.

By Optimus