How Voicemails In Rap And R&B Celebrate A Mother’s Wisdom

Elijah C. Watson Elijah Watson serves as Okayplayer's News & Culture Editor. When…
How Voicemails In Rap And R&B Celebrate A Mother's Wisdom
Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage
How Voicemails In Rap And R&B Celebrate A Mother's Wisdom

Photo taken by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage

The importance of motherly advice is insurmountable. It goes without saying just how important, resilient and downright majestic mothers are. Some are raising children by themselves and somehow overcoming the odds, some are pillars of their two-family homes and some are breaking traditional norms.

When 2Pac rapped about his mother making miracles every Thanksgiving, there’s truth in that sentiment. These women, fighting inequality from all directions, still try their best to create loving and supportive environments for their children. That is a damn miracle in every sense of the word.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve inevitably come to cherish and value the relationship I have with the woman who raised me, my grandmother, more than ever. Her patience, support, wisdom — through her I learned not only the importance of kindness, selflessness and sympathy, but being proud of myself and my blackness. Her words have carried me through life. To be a mother is to be ever-morphing, omnipresent and, of course, a source of endless knowledge.

As I celebrate her, I think of some of my favorite songs that artists have made in honor of their mothers, particularly the ones in which their mothers make an appearance. These appearances, often made in the form of a voicemail or voice memo, are raw. It’s as if we’re in the presence of the artist while they’re listening to the message. The artists didn’t have to do this — they could’ve kept these messages that were meant for them to themselves. But they felt compelled to share something that resonated with them that they’re sure would resonate with their listeners in the same way.

These songs are not only an ode to these mothers but give listeners a glimpse into the relationship between the two, as we get to hear not only from the artist but the mother that made them into who they are today.

André 3000: She’s Alive

The Love Below was André 3000 at his most experimental, exploring sounds of funk, jazz, pop, rap, rock, soul and R&B that resulted in a beautifully cohesive but challenging album. But a part of the allure of The Love Below was its vulnerability, with Three Stacks narrating parts of his life in a way that was just as compelling as it was poignant. Such was the case with “She’s Alive.” The production is moody — echoed brush strums against a snare drum create a sound of rain pouring, as André 3000 sings about his birth with the howl a hurt bluesman.

Then, his mother, Sharon Benjamin-Hodo, enters:

“I was scufflin’ going to school, I was scufflin’ working at night, And you know what, I truly believe, And that’s why I tell a lot of parents, Single parents, don’t tell me what God can’t do, I made sure you had, I never felt like you should be deprived of anything, If a man didn’t want to take care of his child, You move on, And that’s what I did, I moved on.”

André 3000 only has one verse, his only other contribution the chorus which the song’s title comes from. The real star of the track is Sharon, who embodies the resilience of mothers (but especially black mothers) who’ve had to raise their child all by themselves.

“And I knew I had to go that road by myself,” Sharon concludes the song with. The statement comes across as harsh, a matter of fact— a reality that many black mothers experience. But she lived to see her son become an artist that redefined so much. Music, blackness — André 3000 is one of the most important artists of the last 20 years and fans of him have Sharon to thank for that.

Jay Z: December 4th

Basically the first track off The Black Album (unless you count “Interlude”) “December 4th” is a beautiful ode to Jay Z‘s mother, Gloria Carter. The track begins triumphant and upbeat, with the rapper’s mom briefly detailing his birth:

“Shawn Carter was born December 4th, weighing in at 10 pounds, 8 ounces. He was the last of my four children. The only one who didn’t give me any pain when I gave birth to him. And that’s how I knew that he was a special child.”

The track doubles as a conversation and story, Gloria giving short interludes that are followed up by Jay Z’s verses. Hearing her speak about her son’s adolescent years makes “December 4th” much more personal. There’s a light in her voice that juxtaposes the inner angst and turmoil Jay Z offers in his raps as he looks back on the decisions he’s made in his life.

“Shawn used to be in the kitchen, beating on the table and rapping until the wee hours of the morning. And then I bought him a boom box, and his sisters and brothers said he would drive them nuts. But that was my way to keep him close to me and out of trouble.”

Little did Gloria realize that she was cultivating the artistry of someone that would ultimately become one of the most successful rappers of all time.

Kendrick Lamar: good kid, M.A.A.D City

Kendrick Lamar‘s mother, Paula Oliver, is present throughout the entire album alongside Kenny Duckworth, Lamar’s father, the two serving as comic relief to the coming-of-age narrative Lamar tells on his major label debut. The voicemails vary — one might have Paula cussing out Lamar and Duckworth, as she demands that the former bring back her van and hoping he “ain’t out there messin’ with them damn hood-rats out there, especially that crazy-ass girl Sherane.” Another might be this one, which comes at the end of “Real”:

“If I don’t hear from you by tomorrow, I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let ’em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement, and that’s the best way to give back. To your city…”

Hearing the voicemails go from playful to concerned as the album plays is so personal in a relatable way. The fact that we’re aware of what Lamar has gotten himself into while all his parents can do is leave voicemails and hope they hear from him or see him the following day, not only makes the album’s narrative that much better but emphasizes Paula’s last attempt at offering some words of wisdom to her son. That even after all of this he can still change his life for the better and become a role model for the city of Compton and beyond.

Frank Ocean: Be Yourself

Granted, the voicemail isn’t actually from Frank Ocean‘s mother (it’s from Rosie Watson, the mother of Ocean’s “good friend Jonathan”), but it’s still a beautiful moment shared on a very vulnerable album.

“Don’t try to be someone else,” Watson states. “Be yourself and know that that’s good enough. Don’t try to be someone else. Don’t try to be like someone else, don’t try to act like someone else, be yourself. Be secure with yourself. Rely and trust upon your own decisions. On your own beliefs.”

Watson then talks about how addictive marijuana and cocaine can be, while also advising Jonathan to not drink or “get in the car with someone who is inebriated.” The voicemail is equal parts humorous and relatable — the type of generalized warning given to teenagers when everything is defined as good or bad.

This isn’t the first time Watson has appeared on an Ocean album, having made her debut on the Channel Orange track “Not Just Money.” Watson’s advice comes from a place of concern for both voicemails, although it’s obvious they’re directed at what seems to be a younger, teenage Jonathan. Still, there’s some truth to Watson’s words, especially on “Be Yourself,” a brief moment of solace that presents itself through the ambiguities that define Blonde.

Solange: Interlude: Tina Taught Me

“Interlude: Tina Taught Me” comes right before the album’s defining moment, “Don’t Touch My Hair,” an anthem of blackness. Here, listeners get an understanding of where Solange‘s pride for her blackness comes from — her mother, Tina Knowles.

“I’ve always been proud to be black. Never wanted to be nothing else,” Knowles says. “It’s such beauty in black people, and it really saddens me when we’re not allowed to express that pride in being black, and that if you do, then it’s considered anti-white.”

She then discusses the inevitable arguments that are made against the celebration of blackness in America, with white people often arguing why a Black History Month exists but not a White History Month.

“Well, all we’ve ever been taught is white history,” Knowles responds. “So, why are you mad at that? Why does that make you angry? That is to suppress me and to make me not be proud.”

Unlike the previous mother cameos discussed, this is the first one in which the mother advises her child of her roots and to be proud of them. As a mother herself, it’s beautiful that Solange shared this with us because here we see her mother talking to her both as a daughter and a woman that will continue the tradition of raising strong and proud black people.

Drake: Can’t Have Everything

More Life, the playlist-album Drake released back in March of this year, displays the Toronto rapper at his highest thus far, with the project showcasing his global ambitions in curating genres across the world: Afrobeat, dancehall, grime and house. However, in his takeover of the rap game, Drake still has uncertainties — if he’s working hard enough, who can he trust. Which is where his mother, Sandi Graham, steps in on “Can’t Have Everything.”

“I’m a bit concerned about this negative tone that I’m hearing in your voice these days,” Graham says. “I can appreciate where your uncertainty stems from and you have reason to question your anxieties and how disillusioned you feel, as well as feeling skeptical about who you believe you can trust. But that attitude will just hold you back in this life, and you’re going to continue to feel alienated. Give some thought to this, because I’m confident in you, and I know you can reach your desired destination and accomplish your goals much more quickly without this confrontation I’m hearing in your tone these days. When others go low, we go high.”

What makes this moment so beautiful is that Drake is, arguably, the most successful contemporary rapper. Yet, he’s still like the rest of us, questioning himself and his worth even when he seems to have everything. Having Graham here speaks to the bond between mother and child, but particularly mother and son — that under the guise of this success, mom really knows how her son feels.

No matter how old we get we will always consult the wisdom of mothers. The artists discussed still look to their mothers in times of happiness, sadness, anger — their guidance is everlasting. In these moments we’re reminded that artists are first and foremost people and that no matter the money, notoriety or success, nothing feels as good as hearing a mother’s voice.

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