Can growing up without a father be a gift? Jay-Z thinks so
For boys trying to learn to be men, the rapper and businessmans autobiography can provide a guide
Can growing up without a father be a gift? That’s how Jay-Z counterintuitively described it, in his autobiography. “We were kids without fathers … and in a way, that was a gift,” the rapper and businessman writes in Decoded. “We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves.”
If you choose the right inspirations, growing up without a dad can be a gift. But, as the title of Jay-Z’s album Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse suggests, there’s a flip side. Many of us who spend Father’s Day wishing we had somebody to celebrate with haven’t chosen the right influences as substitutes. We might not be making many choices at all.
I grew up without a father regularly in my life. I would leave my mom’s house every morning searching for what was missing at home – the role models who could show me how to be a man. Like many kids in the same situation – and many of my peers were fatherless – I found those role models on television and in music.
Jay-Z was one of them: the pre-Beyoncé Jay-Z of the late 1990s and early 2000s, big pimpin’ and trading disses with fellow New York rapper Nas. His tough-guy bravado, glorification of crime, flashy jewelry and videos full of dancing women captivated me. I tried my best to emulate him and other rappers. My friends and I wanted to use drugs and thought selling them was cool; we got into fights, skipped classes and in some cases dropped out altogether. Studying seemed boring when compared with the gangster fairytales we shared. Delayed gratification, which is vital to living life with long-term benefits in mind, was a foreign concept.
I have no interest in blaming Jay-Z – or any other man – for playing a role in my life he didn’t ask for. My father uniquely carried the responsibility of setting an example for me. But he, too, had fallen to the curse of fatherlessness. Born an orphan in Kenya, he was re-orphaned at 14 when his adoptive parents passed away. He persevered, working his way from an apprentice at the Hilton Hotel in Nairobi to a chef at the Hilton Hotel in London by the time he was 21. When the time came for him to have a family of his own, however, the curse caught up with him. He didn’t know how to be a husband to my mom or a dad to me. He had no examples from his past or his present to provide guidance. Unlike the years my father spent training with other chefs to learn how to succeed in the kitchen, he had no role models to show him how to be a family man. It didn’t take long for my father to give up and disappear.
My family is not alone in experiencing the curse of growing up without a dad in the house. Fatherless children are more likely to use drugs or alcohol, repeat grades in school, become teenage parents, go to prison and engage in criminal or other delinquent behaviours. A 2013 literature review by researchers from Princeton, Cornell and Berkeley universities concluded: “We find strong evidence that father absence negatively affects children’s social-emotional development, particularly by increasing externalizing behavior [such as aggression and attention seeking].” The review also notes these affects may be more pronounced for boys than girls.
Evidently, it’s not easy to fill the void – but even easier to find the wrong influences. Kids today are exposed to a much broader range of media technologies than I was in the 1990s through which to find examples for what a “man” is. Online communities formed through social media and discussion boards can exert their own kind of masculine peer pressure: incel (“involuntarily celibate”) culture, which became the subject of international media coverage after this year’s mass murders in Parkland, Florida, and my hometown, Toronto, is an example of how young men can develop resentful, angry and self-victimizing masculine identities while having these identities reinforced by an online peer group.