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'Our Fathers Were Like Ghosts:' Questions For Juan Vidal, Author Of 'Rap Dad'

Author and critic Juan Vidal.
Matthew W. Warren
Author and critic Juan Vidal.

"The first time I saw my father do coke, I was about six," author (and occasional NPR critic) Juan Vidal writes in his new memoir, Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture that Shaped a Generation. "Batman Underoos in full effect. I didn't know what the powder was on his stache, but I remember wishing he'd take me to see the snow."

He never did. Vidal's father faded in and out of his life, eventually disappearing entirely, in a cloud of guns, drugs and other women. But he's still the spirit that haunts this poetic chronicle of beats, rhymes and life.

... it wasn't just rappers that made me feel less alone in my experience. It was also skateboarders and comedians like John Leguizamo, whose stories of family felt achingly familiar.

Growing up mostly fatherless, falling in love and trouble in equal measure, Vidal found fellowship and wisdom in rap, as a fan and later a performer — something that helped guide him when he became a father himself. We chatted over email about Rap Dad — and Vidal tells me Public Enemy was the first group he really, deeply connected with. "I'd heard other rap songs and artists before them, which I enjoyed but only engaged with casually. Public Enemy was different," he says. "Their anger and disillusionment with their surroundings and with the overall state of America felt real and raw and urgent. Even though I was too young to fully grasp what they were getting at, it seemed important. Instantly, I was hooked; I believed Chuck D. Tracks like 'Bring the Noise' and 'Don't Believe the Hype' tapped into something in me that longed to be awakened. It was some of the first poetry I truly loved."

What artists have been the greatest influence on your own voice, and how?

I was drawn to Latin artists like Fat Joe and B-Real from Cypress Hill. I related to them and many of the references they made in their lyrics. But it wasn't just rappers that made me feel less alone in my experience. It was also skateboarders and comedians like John Leguizamo, whose stories of family felt achingly familiar. So many of Leguizamo's stories centered on complicated family dynamics, and the men and fathers who were problematic in so many ways. Their recklessness, their cheating and womanizing. These were things I understood because I'd been seeing them play out all around me for as long as I could remember. Leguizamo showed me early on that you could take some of the most painful things in your life and express them artfully. That you could make beautiful and nuanced art out of your deepest suffering.

The language in Rap Dad often doesn't explain itself — for example, I didn't know what a cypher was in the context you were using it — and I really liked that. Reminded me of the mah-jongg scene in Crazy Rich Asians, which is rich with symbolism it doesn't ever clarify for white audiences. Was that a conscious choice?

I've always been interested in the exchange between writer and reader. My favorite books and stories are often ones that require the reader to engage with the material in an immersive way. Sometimes that means having to look things up, be it a specific word or a phrase. That extra bit of work makes certain revelations feel that much sweeter, because they were hard-won, so to speak. When art has to constantly explain itself, there is a danger of it coming across like advertising. It can feel performative, and ultimately untrue. This all depends on the kind of story you're telling, of course, but my voice in this book reflects the kind of speech that resonates with me, which is this mix of poetry, occasional slang, and Spanglish. The challenge is to balance these things out in such a way that the reader cares enough to stick with you on the journey.

You do a lot of work around unpacking negative stereotypes of rap and rappers, and showing how you gleaned positive messages from the work, but that left me wondering about the concrete negatives, particularly when it comes to misogyny. For example, you shout out Nas and his words about his relationship with his daughter. How do you square that with the abuse allegations from Kelis?

As you mentioned, the Nas reference in the book is specific to his track "Daughters," which was released just a few months before my own daughter was born. Nas was always an artist I looked up to, someone I'd put on a pedestal. And there was a vulnerability to the track that hit home for me back then. The book was already done when the abuse allegations were made public. It was a sad thing to confront, and a massive letdown to see a childhood hero be exposed as an abuser. Kelis' bravery, especially amid this reckoning around sexual assault and violence against women, was incredible to witness. It's no secret that hip-hop — while it has always promoted positive change — also has a history of rampant misogyny. I hope more and more women continue to speak out, even if it means that the culture's most beloved pioneers get exposed for the harmed they've caused people.

Your father towers hugely over this book, but he's barely in it ... at least, as a physical presence. Tell me about that.

For many of us growing up, our fathers were like ghosts, or these apparitions who would appear one moment and be gone the next. The book is not about my father but he is a lingering "character" that kind of stalks the pages, not fully present but not far off either. I write a lot about him in the beginning section, so as to give context. But I wanted his presence in the bulk of the story to reflect his presence in my real life. Not there, but always sort of lingering.

Where are you and your father now?

My father and I have spoken a few times this year. He knows about the book and some of the ground it covers. He says he's proud. I've tried to convince myself that I don't actually care whether he's proud or not, but that feels untrue. I think I'll always care.

There's a detailed track listing at the end of the book — but if you had to pick just a few tracks that really sum up your journey, what would they be?

(Editor's note — there's some profanity behind these links. Shocking, we know.)

De La Soul, "Stakes is High"

Fat Joe, "The Sh*t Is Real"

Queen Latifah, "Just Another Day"

Wu-Tang Clan, "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'"

Cypress Hill, "Insane in the Brain"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Petra Mayer (she/her) is an editor (and the resident nerd) at NPR Books, focusing on fiction, and particularly genre fiction. She brings to the job passion, speed-reading skills, and a truly impressive collection of Doctor Who doodads. You can also hear her on the air and on the occasional episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour.