“Hey, kid,” I said in the doorway of my 15-year-old son’s room. It was late last year, and he had just told me about the death of Chicago rapper Juice WRLD. “You know you can talk to your dad, too?”
“He doesn’t know who he is,” my son replied.
“I kinda didn’t either,” I said with a light chuckle.
“Yeah, but you care,” he said.
I couldn’t argue, but I wanted to explain. I wanted to explain to him that his dad did care. I wanted to explain to him that it’s not easy for any parent to talk to their kids about loss — and that Black men face specific obstacles that make this type of vulnerability even more difficult.
Given the spate of deaths in hip-hop in this past year — from Nipsey Hussle to Juice WRLD and more recently Pop Smoke — it’s a timely discussion that needs to be had. How can Black fathers help their children through the deaths of their favorite musicians? Ebony White, assistant clinical professor of counseling and family therapy at Drexel University, says this question is for all of us to answer. “As a community, we have to do better with allowing and encouraging our men to express their emotions,” she said.
Fathers, in general, are not the go-to when it’s time for kids to talk about their emotions. When it comes to fathers of color, however, that preference is more of a societal expectation of how they, namely Black men, are expected to be. “Within the Black community, there is an expectation and hope for Black men to be the protectors and showing any emotion outside of strength may be viewed as a sign of weakness and a point of vulnerability,” White says. “There are many who find it more acceptable for a man to punch a hole in a wall than shed a tear. This has resulted in many suppressing their emotions or expressing all emotion as anger. In other words, whether a man feels hurt, frustrated, disappointed, or rejected, it comes out as anger because that is all that has been seen as allowable.”
Anger covers vulnerability; the long-term solution is for fathers to let children see them as Black men who are in touch with their own grief and emotions of loss.
It’s the legacy of slavery, White says, that has persisted, placing Black men in the category of strong and angry — and these messages persist. “There’s this constant bombardment of messaging that tells you who the world and who America thinks you are,” says Lawrence M. Drake II, PhD, psychologist and author of Color Him Father, a book about fatherhood and grief. “And the more that that gets perpetuated, the more that you believe it.”
The image of Black men as one-sided emotional beings, Drake points out, is a myth. “There’s this intersection of rage and vulnerability,” he says. “We often don’t meet that intersection with the right level of enthusiasm because of how we’re socialized.”
Drake, who has experienced the loss of a child, explains that anger covers vulnerability; the long-term solution is for fathers to let children see them as Black men who are in touch with their own grief and emotions of loss. “You have to model it,” says Drake. “In order for us to see this idea of rage and vulnerability being manifested, we have to manage the rage and also believe very clearly that for those who love us and those we love, being vulnerable is more courageous than not.”
Because children learn mostly from observation and interactions, White says, they tend to interpret the messages they receive from their fathers and incorporate them into their behavior. “For example, telling a boy who is crying that boys don’t cry or to stop crying like a baby or a girl can be quite damaging to his identity,” she says. The loss of a favorite musician is a real loss to kids, and reactions such as crying are normal and need to be welcomed.
Both White and Drake emphasize that when children lose their favorite musicians, they need their parents to listen. “Don’t just hear them; listen to them,” says Drake. “You are acknowledging and you are engaged with them in a way where they know that your listening is sincere.” When the death of Juice WRLD rocked my son’s world, listening was key, but he didn’t just need me — he needed his father to do the listening as well.
“I just really feel lost as far as where he’s coming from when I’m engaging with him. You’re better at that,” my son’s father told me. “That’s why it’s so much easier for him to open up to you.” But White says Black fathers can set the stage for their children to open up to them by first opening up to their children. “I encourage Black fathers to share with their children their own hurts and losses,” she says. “Sometimes children see their parents as invincible, especially their fathers. They may be afraid to disappoint them or to be viewed as weak in front of them. Sharing your own pain can help your child feel safe and comfortable to share theirs.”
It’s also important that young people struggling with the loss of musicians they connected with also feel connected to the people in their lives, especially their parents. “Many of the teens and young people at that age don’t feel like they’re understood, and that the music or idols that they have their parents don’t appreciate how they see them,” says Drake. One of the questions Drake asks his own kids and grandchildren as they grapple with the loss of musicians they love is, “what is it about that musician that you really love other than the music? What is it that you hear or see about them that you identify with?” Exploring your child’s connection with the artist behind the music gets to “the heart of really engaging and understanding how they see the world,” Drake says. And it shows kids that you’re interested in how they see the world, something Drake says fathers have to do a better job of.
Demonstrating affection is a valuable part of showing young people we’re interested in not only how they see the world but how they grieve the world. Drake wants to see fathers normalize hugging their children and telling them they love them. And when you account for the many ways that Black children are perceived and treated as less innocent, criminalized, and experience the chronic and complex trauma of racism, the loss of their favorite musicians weighs heavier. “Black kids experience a sense of loss in different ways every day,” he says. “That loss translates in even more significant ways when you talk about the death of someone they felt close to.”
For young people who love hip-hop, death has almost become part of the culture. Today’s hip-hop is vulnerable and emotional, like Pop Smoke’s introspective track “PTSD” where he gets real and honest about his mental health or Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams.” Musicians like these told teens it was okay to not be okay. And fathers can play a critical role in helping teens “not be okay” when their favorite musicians die — and to help them move forward in a healthy way.