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Kid N' Playa: The Role Of The Child's Voice In Hip Hop
Paul Rekret , September 29th, 2015 10:21

Paul Rekret looks at the role of childhood and children's voices in hip hop. Picture of 9-year-old rapper Lil Poopy taken from YouTube

Around the same time that the Little Orphan Annie comic strip is syndicated in the U.S. in the mid-1920s, the process of excluding American children from waged work, lasting several decades, is reaching completion. Children become economically worthless, but this only makes them emotionally priceless. Increasingly governed by a household frontier that separates factory and home and so waged and unwaged work, an idealised child both domesticates feminised reproductive labour and serves to sentimentalise the family as site of security, enjoyment, and satisfaction.

"America's Most Lovable Orphan", all innocence and vulnerability in need of shelter, stands in perfectly for a then emerging psychic investment in the child as a sort of futural promissory note, binding us to unchanging and unending toil in the present. “Tomorrow” might indeed be a day away, but it promises to be no different than yesterday.

But Annie recurs. Appreciably more haggard and careworn, she and her fellow orphans re-emerge in 1998 singing the refrain to Jay-Z’s 'Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)'. It's a reiteration of the familiar rags to riches folktale, one that occasioned a trend for hip hop and R&B choruses, often drawn from nursery rhymes and songs, to be sung by small children.

Many emulate Jay-Z's yarn of upward mobility; others celebrate American meritocracy or access to private property; still others revel in irreverent nihilism or inebriation. Together, their lampooning of innocence, purity, and play obliquely registers what we prefer to disavow: the increasingly fanciful nature of the ideal of childhood innocence as it severs ever further from lived reality.

Once Upon a Time in the Projects

With the appearance over the past three decades of a more desperate and so more brutal form of capitalism, the household frontier isolating the child grows increasingly porous. To borrow Melinda Cooper's phrase, the private is increasingly put to work. Welfare is withdrawn or becomes workfare, waged labour grows less distinguishable from unwaged labour, reproduction less distinct from production, and labour less discernible from play. As its abode frays, so too does the ideal of childhood.

Given its emergence from inner-cities poised at the sharp edge of the demise of the Fordist social contract, rap music has been in a privileged position to register the effects of that demise. While Jay-Z's eulogy for childhood in 'Hard Knock Life' spawned a veritable sub-genre, in the enlistment of tropes of innocence he was preceded by a decade by Wimbledon born, Bronx raised, MC Slick Rick. Widely considered the early master of narrative rap, Slick Rick had his biggest hit in 1988 with Children's Story, a picaresque morality tale with a bedtime story as its vessel.

If, as Jacqueline Rose suggests, children’s literature is a seduction, there’s an ambiguity to the child Slick Rick addresses. As the account of a seventeen year old who, in need of money, becomes lured into a life of banditry and is eventually killed by police, 'Children’s Story' is a familiar narrative of moral corruption. Rick asserts of our protagonist, just as he is about to die, that “deep in his heart, he knew he was wrong”. A deadpan over-enunciation only adds to the edifying tone.

Like all children's literature, the song constructs a world for the child to inhabit, a world where the child’s innocence is always at risk. But there's also an equivocation, a willingness to bask in the visceral thrill of the action itself, expedited by accelerating multiplication of syllables: “Raced up the block doin' 83/ crashed into a tree near university/ Escaped alive though the car was battered/ rat-a-tat-tatted and all the cops scattered.”

This ambivalence between edification and pleasurable excess reflects Slick Rick's own frontier status in the history of hip hop. The Adventures Of Slick Rick emerged at the historical moment that Public Enemy's Black nationalist bootstrapping rap was being displaced by the first person account of daily struggle offered by NWA's genre-defining gangsta rap. This happened just as the Hollywood-backed moralising 'realism' of 'hood dramas such as New Jack City and Boyz N The Hood took up a place once reserved for the rogueish anti-heroes of Blaxploitation. Indeed, Rick's own voice slips between the first and third person – a position who's untenability in the terrain of post-NWA hip hop might be evidenced by the commercial failure of his future albums.

Fairy tales might permit adults to re-write an unjust reality, but the form in which they appear in 1990s rap repudiates the possibility of an ideal of innocence for the sub-proletarian ghetto child. Ice Cube's "Gangster's Fairytale" for instance, sees Lil Bo Peep sell sheepskins, Red Riding Hood and Little Boy Blue get in a gang fight, while the Three Little Pigs are found drunkenly driving around looking for a wolf to kill. While Ghostface Killah has Big Bird testify against The Simpsons, Miss Piggy getting shot, and Woody Woodpecker going to jail.

‘Stead O’ Kisses, We Get Kicked

By the release of 'Hard Knock Life', Jay-Z had cemented his place as the voice of hip hop bourgeoisie, his identity centred upon (as it's often pointed out) the perennial re-telling of the ascent from drug dealer to someone who raps about drug dealing and buying things.

The song's driving compulsion, its motor if you like, is a desire for authenticity. Jay-Z repeatedly proclaims his emergence from an illicit ghetto economy. “I'm from the school of hard knocks”, he raps in the first verse. In the second he goes from sleeping “on cots to king size dream machines”. In the third, he vows that “hustling's still inside of me”.

In one sense, this isn't terribly novel. Maintaining proximity to the site of original expression and celebrating rugged individualism are central tropes to rap since at least the early 90s. What is interesting is the reversal the song enacts of Annie. The semantically and harmonically reconfigured staccato and hopeful avowal of ascending notes of 'Hard Knock Life' destabilise her, assign her a new ambiguity. The state of innocence to which Jay-Z gestures is not some pristine fantasy: it is always and only a young corner hustler.

All of this makes Jay-Z's longtime rival Nas's own appropriation of the trope of the child chorus so superficially cloying. His 2002 song "I Can" is centred around a texturally reconfigured and syncopated recording of the first few notes of Beethoven's 'Für Elise', one of the most heavily "commercialised" pieces of classical music. In Nas' case the product on offer is American capitalism. Lest there be any doubt, he wears the words “I AM THE AMERICAN DREAM” embossed in yellow across his T-shirt in the song's video.

A Black nationalist theme of self-empowerment runs through 'I Can'. In its first line Nas tells his young audience, “You can be anything in the world.” But this expansion of the limits of desire is quickly sutured to nationalist rhetoric: “In God we trust.” From there, an already truncated desire is reduced to the beatification of individualism and a life of drudgery: “An architect, a doctor, maybe even an actress." The sentiment is reinforced by the young choral voices that sandwich the two verses with more entrepreneurial self-affirmation: “I know I can/ be what I wanna be /if I work hard at it/ I'll be where I wanna be.” Rather than seek to change the world, Nas merely bargains with it.

The only hint that all might not be rose-coloured comes in the dark, agitated, and ominous notes of 'Für Elise' itself. Long since lost to the crass sentimentalism for which it has been repeatedly mobilised, the piece still functions as a sort of subterranean message of despair beneath Nas’ rather bounded optimism. The inclination is perhaps less subtly, albeit superficially, echoed in the song from which Nas takes his drum break: The Honeydrippers’ frequently sampled 1973 track 'Impeach the President'.

I Don’t Know, What This World’s Gonna Bring

So Jay-Z and Nas, among others, both attest to the death of the ideal of innocence for inner-city children, albeit in different ways. Nas' apparent optimism is defied by the world into which he invites the child. Conversely, Jay-Z's nostalgia cannot reactivate some pristine origin since the glance to childhood only sees the nascent hustler. If Annie recurs here, she does so as a ghost: the promissory future for which she stood is no longer to be found.

The massive commercial success of 'Hard Knock Life' confirmed the child chorus as hip hop trope and a final example should serve to clarify the connotations. Trick Daddy's 2001 single 'I'm A Thug' has propulsive yet gentle twitchy guitar and strings playing the offbeat that give it the aura of a dismissive shrug of the shoulders. The mood suits its lyrical reclamation of “thug-ness”. Popularised by Tupac, appropriation of the racialised signifier both affirms a life beyond legality and, as critic "Michael Jeffries" suggests, acts as a collective identification of living the “slow death” of an existence defined by the experience of physical deterioration.

Trick Daddy has made a career on identifying as a thug, often leaping way past cartoonish (his albums include:; Book Of Thugs: Chapter AK, Verse 47; Thugs Are Us; Thug Holiday; Back By Thug Demand). Notably, on 'I’m a Thug' he places the sentiment in the voice of a child chorus that sings: “I don't know/ what this world's gonna bring/ but I know one thing/ that I'm a thug." Social exclusion is registered not as the product of defective virtue but simply as a fact, if not of birth, at least of childhood.

The claim here is not that these songs have explicit political content (where they do, it is the poverty of vision that is revealing beyond all else). Rather, it is that they register, if only obliquely, an unravelling of the ideal of childhood innocence. The child continues to be the object of pleasure and consumption, but as chimera. The edict is hidden in plain sight: in the contemporary crisis of social reproduction that dispenses ever greater populations deemed surplus to the needs of capital, Annie is done for.

Paul Rekret’s forthcoming book. Down with Childhood: Pop Music and the Social Status of Children, will be published by Repeater in late 2016/early 2017