Wu-Tang Clan helped this author connect with her immigrant father.
Iwillnever forget the first day I realized my family was “different.” It was during my elementary school years in 1990s New York. The memory remains vivid: my Nigerian father arriving to pick me up dressed in vibrant Ankara print while Fújì music reverberated from his car speakers.
To my American classmates, my dad was undeniably unique in his foreignness, akin to Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem in “Coming to America.” He stood out among the crowd of American parents, drawing attention that I didn’t necessarily want.
Although I was born in the States and spoke English, I sometimes felt like a foreigner myself. I unknowingly used phrases such as “off the light,” only to be swiftly corrected by an American classmate asking, “Do you mean ‘turn the lights off’?” These moments served as reminders that I was being raised by parents whose first tongue was Yoruba, emphasizing my sense of otherness.
Growing up, my self-esteem suffered because I didn’t understand my family’s story enough to glean pride from it — instead, I just felt like an outsider. I tried to balance my new culture with my distant heritage, but it only left me feeling more disconnected. At the time, my dad was a diligent taxicab driver who despised profanity. My mother was a hardworking nursing assistant who dedicated herself to perfecting her English through reruns of “Designing Women.” They had limited time and language to explain our journey. While my dad would share anecdotes about the richness of Nigerian culture during our car rides to school, I yearned for a deeper connection between their past and my present. Without it, a lingering sense of discontent followed me.
It wasn’t until one summer night, secretly watching MTV, that I experienced a shift. Wu-Tang Clan’s music video “C.R.E.A.M.,” an acronym for “Cash Rules Everything Around Me,” adorned the screen with a group of young rappers hailing from my very own Staten Island neighborhood.
Witnessing them on television filled me with sudden and wild confidence. We lived among an abundance of new immigrants from West Africa, all poised and resolute to achieve their dreams amid the poverty that surrounded us. Somehow, this song weaved our experiences together. For me, “C.R.E.A.M.” delved into the pursuit of success and financial stability in the same disadvantaged environment we were all currently in.
The song’s lyrics poignantly defined our existing realities. It became a road map that would guide me to understanding my own family’s complex maze of struggles, encouraging me to aspire to rise above our circumstances. In their dopeness, Wu-Tang even skillfully infused elements of kung fu into their musical repertoire, bestowing our “forgotten” borough Staten Island with the moniker Shaolin. They were peaceful soldiers, fierce and unrelenting in their quest for respect. Yet, I knew my parents wouldn’t approve of my love of this music.
That summer, during a car ride to Six Flags, my dad left the radio on a local New York station. Songs by Snoop Dogg and Wu-Tang played. I couldn’t contain my excitement and blurted out the lyrics, “Get the money, dollar dollar bills, y’all!”
“Do you know your school books as well as you know this song?” he sternly asked.
His disapproval stung. Though he loved all genres of music, he hated that some of the songs were replete with foul language. I suspect that it wasn’t just about his young child listening to crass lyrics. Yet those lyrics were my declaration, highlighting that, despite the obstacles we faced, success was attainable for immigrants like us.
See, I often served as the bridge between my parents and U.S. culture, which hip-hop was very much a budding part of. It wasn’t that they were opposed to it — they just couldn’t relate. I tried to explain to my mom and dad the beauty of the arts and music. Hip-hop was about self-expression and cultivating a consciousness to challenge the status quo. Besides, the curse words came from righteous angst.
“Dad, Wu-Tang is so cool!” I would say, hoping he’d one day see past the profanity. Their music showed some of the commonalities in our stories. They were able to express a piece of my father’s experience — the hustle — in a way that he didn’t have time to fully articulate to me yet. He couldn’t understand this perspective until a chance encounter with Wu-Tang in our neighborhood.
One day, he returned home from work casually wearing a Wu-Tang shirt that had seemingly materialized out of nowhere.
“Whoa! Daddy, your shirt!” my older sister and I shouted.
It bore the unmistakable Wu-Tang logo and included different members of the clan woven into the design. He noticed our excitement and proceeded to describe which emcee he had picked up that day in his cab.
As he continued to narrate the story through his thick Nigerian accent, we learned that a member of Wu-Tang had presented him the shirt during the ride. His small act of wearing the shirt symbolized his attempt to connect with me and understand the positive impact hip-hop was having on my worldview. Even at that age, with my limited life experience, the moment revealed his capacity for compromise and his genuine care for my passions. He could be strict when needed, yet compassionate when it mattered most.
Wu-Tang not only helped me to see my dad in a new light but also ignited my creative ambitions. Their music and the way my generation related to it, regardless of our circumstances, revealed that success in the arts was attainable and significant but also held equal value to the conventional path some in the immigrant community had envisioned for me, such as becoming a doctor or lawyer. Much respect to those professionals, but I came to realize that my true calling lay elsewhere.
I was empowered to carve out my own path. Despite the challenges we faced as a Black immigrant family, we held the innate ability to shape our own destiny, on our terms and in our own distinctive way. And so, every time I listen to an old Wu-Tang track, I remember to honor my journey, my hustle, and the magical moments where my dad and I found common ground.