How introducing my kids to the Wu-Tang Clan reminded me of art’s endurance.
Over the past four months, I’ve been introducing my children to the Wu-Tang Clan. Daily rides to and from school have been filled with chants of “Tiger Style” and “Up from the 36 chaaaaambers!” instead of our family’s usual diet of NPR’s “Morning Edition.”
At various times when they were younger — my kids are 10 and 8 now — I played Biggie and Bone Thugs, Shai and Boyz II Men, Lauryn Hill and Outkast in an attempt to introduce them to important music from my adolescence, but also Black hip-hop and R&B icons that I figured everyone should know. No one wants to be that Black kid at the party who doesn’t know who André 3000 is when the deejay spins “Int’l Players Anthem (I Choose You).”
And so, Wu-Tang was another unit in my children’s intermittent musical and pop-culture education. My spouse and I long ago succeeded in making our kids Anime fans — which was probably a forgone conclusion since they’re both named after characters from Naruto — and I thought Wu-Tang would be in their wheelhouse.
When I first played Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in the car, I’d somehow forgotten how much body horror was on the album. Most of it is done in a jocular manner, but there’s a several-minute, tit-for-tat torture intro before the song “Method Man.” My daughter’s first reaction was, “I don’t like this,” said in a slightly babyish whine. My son just rolled his eyes and stared out the window.
Wu-Tang as a hip-hop crew is undoubtedly a predecessor to Nerdcore, so I was surprised my kids didn’t take to it immediately. Turns out, however, those nearly 30-year-old lyrics do, in fact, “carry like Mariah,” because within two days, my daughter came down from her bedroom holding a pencil aloft like Excalibur, saying, “This is my Wu-Tang sword!”
I took this as a good time to explain who ODB was, and why all the Clan’s names were essentially superhero monikers.
This experience with my kids reminds me that, sometimes, deft and inventive uses of language need time to incubate in the imaginations of listeners and readers. The overwhelming weight we as writers can give to the idea of an “instant classic,” or to something going viral in minutes, can warp our ability to self-evaluate.
We should honor the slow burn of great work without mythologizing the “No one will understand me in my time” narrative. And we should remember how enduring good work can be and learn from the enormous chorus of previous poets, novelists, playwrights, and essayists.
I imagine this admonition is obvious to many dedicated writers, but what bears repeating is new readers’ (or listeners’) capacity to be moved by writing, even when that writing is mostly understood to be great by others.
My children had no grid for Wu-Tang. Their peers at school certainly aren’t humming “Cash rules everything around me” on the playground. And we live in Baltimore and not the “rugged lands of Shaolin” (Staten Island). Yet they could recognize references to Dr. Doom, Family Feud, and martial arts in these songs.
Essentially, they recognize fellow nerds when they hear them.
We can do the same even with ancient and older work if we realize that Homer and Ovid, Basho and Li Po, Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley were all nerdy about language, too.
Steven Leyva’s latest poetry collection is The Understudy’s Handbook.