Vince Staples in the Ears of a Child


by Paige Spangenthal

In October, an eleven-minute video of an anonymous mother decrying Vince Staples’ “Norf Norf” went viral. She explains that she first heard the popular rap song from Staples’ Summertime ‘06 on the radio while driving her eleven-year-old daughter to school. She recites the song’s explicit lyrics from her living room desk. “We can dip / fuck in the whip” she reads as her youngest daughter plays in the background.

The anonymous mother expresses her deep concern that her daughter is being exposed to the explicit and provocative lyrics of songs like “Norf Norf.” Holding back tears, she reads the line, “I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police.” She laments to her camera, “This is on our radio station that our kids are listening to. I tell you right now, music has a strong influence on children.”

She has a point. Media can telegraph messages to children that have a marked effect on risk behaviors in children. It’s easy to dismiss this mother’s concern as racist misunderstanding, but her behavior and the reaction to it on the internet raises some important discussion. Think pieces from publications like the Stanford Daily and a flood of responses on Twitter prompted a series of questions. To what extent should parents monitor the media that their children consume? Is parental control of media use a new issue? What are the implications of a white mother freely using racist language in front of her children? To get some perspective on these questions, Melisma spoke with Calvin “Chip” Gidney, Associate Professor of Child Development at Tufts.

Gidney explained that parents have long been worried about the songs that their children listen to. This concern has often revolved around the sexualized and racialized messages in music. Gidney used the rise of Jazz and Rock and Roll as two examples: “When Elvis started bringing African-American music to white audiences, a big fear of many white parents [was] that he was teaching them the ways of ‘those people.’ One of the hypotheses regarding the origins of the term ‘jazz’ is that it was a slang term for having sex.”

Gidney made particular note of the movement to put warnings on inappropriate albums in the 1980s. In 1985, former first lady Tipper Gore became one of the founders of an activist group known as the Parents Music Resource Center, which fought for measures that would require ratings on albums to indicate their explicitness. According to an article in Rolling Stone, “[Gore’s] interest in labeling record covers had arisen when her 11-year-old daughter bought Prince’s Purple Rain and played ‘Darling Nikki,’ a song that references masturbation, on the home stereo.”

One sexually explicit line in “Norf Norf” that the mother in the video seems to find particularly horrifying is “folks need Porsches, hoes need abortions.” Her voice breaks reading the lyric. She seems devastated that her daughter is being exposed to the idea of abortion.  One might find this to be an overreaction. After all, no child can be shielded from the harshness of reality forever—every child learns about abortion eventually.

Gidney explained that parents want to control the ways in which their children are exposed to difficult subjects. “You might not want your children to learn about the world in a certain way, but you might want to have them learn about it in a certain lens,” he said. As an example, Gidney pointed out the misogynistic implications of the phrase “hoes need abortions,” which fits into a greater trend of misogyny in hip-hop. “That’s not the context in which I would like to introduce my children to abortion.”

Gidney supported the mother’s right to monitor the music that her children listen to. “I want to affirm any parent’s right to make sure that the media content that their children consume is congruent with their values and belief systems,” he said. Interestingly, Vince Staples himself seems to agree with this sentiment. Staples posted a tweet that has now been deleted: “No person needs to be attacked for their opinion on what they see to be appropriate for their children. They have a right to it.”

A recurring criticism revolves around the mother’s apparent hypocrisy. As she denounces the language used in “Norf Norf,” she simultaneously reads it out loud in front of her daughter. One might argue that hearing these words come from the mouth of her mother, a central figure in her life, will do much more damage to the girl than hearing them from Vince Staples. Fortunately, the daughter in the background of the video is most likely too young to be greatly affected by this. “A lot of times, kids hear these lyrics, but because of their own linguistic, socioemotional, and cognitive development, the lyrics skate right above their heads,” said Gidney.

Even so, the number of times the woman (who is white) reads the n-word aloud is perplexing. She does not seem to regard it as a violent and hateful word, which leads her to perpetuate the violence she decries.

Her use of the slur sparks an interesting conversation on these implications. Gidney pointed out that the rise of hip-hop has moved the n-word into the vocabularies of non-black people. “Hip-hop is popular among everybody. Especially white boys like it, in terms of sales. A version of the n-word is every place in hip-hop, and you can’t control who likes your music and who says it. It becomes in everybody’s mouth,” he said.

Gidney referenced Wale’s “The Kramer,” a rap song that explores this phenomenon. The lyrics of this song trace the path of the n-word from the mouths of black people to the mouths of non-black people:

And niggas say “nigga” to a nigga,
A nigga write “nigga” in a lyric, expect the white boy to omit it,
The white boy spit it like he spit it,
Recite it to his friends who, by the way, ain’t niggas,
And say “nigga, nigga, nigga,” my favorite rapper did it
And non-nigga friends got it with him,
Incorporate this lyric to their everyday living. 

The mother’s definition of child-appropriate music seems contingent on the race of the artist. “I remember listening to the top hits when I was a kid. Like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Back Street Boys, NSYNC… Nowadays, it’s not the same,” she says. The woman pits white artists against black artists, using the former as a symbol for goodness and the latter as a symbol for inappropriateness and impurity.

Gidney believes that the mother does not fully understand the role that race plays in “Norf Norf.” “[Staples] was talking about a particular set of problems for a particular set of urban, black men. Many of us can understand why a black man might want to run from the police. That criticism is a little unfair. Many black parents have to have ‘the talk’ with their children. My parents had one with me when I was fourteen and started hanging out on my own in adolescence. [They said,] ‘Look, if an officer comes up to you, you can’t be like your white friends.’ I got that talk because that’s a reality. That might not be something that the person in the video understands.”

It is difficult to detangle race from this conversation about music and its effects on child development. Beneath the surface of this mother’s scathing critique of Vince Staples is a historical pattern of white attitudes towards African-American music and decades-old discourse on explicit music. By examining this viral video from a historical and race-conscious lens, we come to see parental monitoring of media consumption in a new light.

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