My Fathers and Hip-Hop Taught Me About Self-Care as A Black Man
If cancer and trauma are hereditary, is it not my responsibility to do everything in my power to ensure neither my children nor I have to suffer?
Mortality needn’t be fear-inducing. I’ve always thought that the villains in films who chased immortality hadn’t lived full lives. For many, the fear of death can leave us desperate to cling on. The amount of children my grandfathers had definitely suggests they lived full, but messy, lives. I say messy because of Nigeria’s imperialistic, paternal culture that ripped fathers from their children before they came into the world.
Since Grandad’s death, I haven’t been back to Nigeria. But the plan is to go back next year and learn more about my heritage and family’s history. I can’t speak Yoruba, and neither can my sister, but it’s important that, for the continuity of family, I establish a connection. Embracing mortality, in this sense, is to prepare a way for my future children. If this cancer is hereditary, is it not also my responsibility to do everything within my humanly power to ensure, my children nor I, have to suffer?
When I was eighteen, I jumped out of my bedroom window and onto the ground below to sneak off to a party. Luckily, I didn’t injure myself. But at the time, the outcomes of such risks seemed surmountable. A few months later, I would drive myself to the hospital with one hand, after breaking it in three places during a fight earlier that night. That was the age, I realize now, where all I wanted was to escape. There wasn’t an artist back then who could vocalize the rage I felt at that age quite like Ghetts, the East London grime emcee, then called Ghetto. “I’m known to swing, and not with my fists / I’ll tuck your crew in / I’m on the list, so don’t take the piss / That’s what you’re doing / I’ll try my best to not be aggressive / But it’s one of those days,” he spat on Kano’s “Typical Me.”
Now, a year out from my thirtieth birthday, I’ve been more conscious of the borrowed time I’m on. These are no longer the years where I can eat an entire bucket of fried chicken just to say I did it.There are days though, like the days Ghetts describes, when I say, “Fuck it. We all die someday.” That’s when I fear less, risk more. Nowadays, I’m more likely to pack up and leave and move elsewhere, knowing that there’s every chance of failing. Yet, I still do it. But I’d have a lot to consider if I attempted a stunt like defenestrating myself again, like I did at eighteen. The one thing, however, I’ve learned stumbling through my twenties is that I no longer want to take risks by putting blind trust and faith in others, without being aware of what motivates them to be around me.
At this point in my life, my body and mind tell me when they’re in need of better care, sometimes through drastic warning signs. When I collapsed at a friend’s house due to blood pressure, I learned that my body gives in to anxiety attacks in times of high stress. (My job at the time was definitely a factor.) It’s imperative that I find balance between living as I please while monitoring my diet and health. “One does not consume salt according to one’s greatness” as the Yoruba proverb states. After all, too much of anything can be deadly.
Now, I’m mindful of the foods I eat and how much physical exercise I get. I swim, box, run, work out, and play basketball just to stay here a little longer. Being cursed with the likelihood of a hereditary form of cancer certainly gives you perspective. I read a quote somewhere that finding healing for one’s self means that you discover healing for those that came before you. But I can’t mend the past or fix what cannot be put back together. My worry isn’t the men that came before me, but those that would come after. I see it as my responsibility to ensure that my family’s genetic trauma is at least lessened over time.
The “live fast, die young” mantra purported by rappers extends to a lot of Black men, who don’t often realize until death comes knocking just how precious, and precarious, life is. But since I’m not the only person to have lost someone prematurely, I also know how cruel it can be. “Looking over your life like ’what have I done’ to it,” Phonte eulogizes on “Cry No More,” following the death of his father. “Knowing your bloodline is the river that runs through it.”
My father’s health isn’t great either now. The years, and I, have taken their toll on him. As his own mortality is realized, so is the pain that comes with it. It’s humanized him in ways he never showed me before. When I began to learn of his childhood hardships, I also began to understand his character traits—and why they exist in me also. He passed down to me the silent but explosive ones too, the ones I never realized I inherited until we see our reflections in each other, fully grown and stood in front of us. With Phonte’s line, you could either look at it from the father or the son’s perspective, and it’d still be true.
Although Lil Wayne and his mentor/surrogate father Brian “Baby” Williams had a complex relationship, both business and personal, there was always going to come a time where the former would grow too big to stand in his mentor’s shadow. And for more than a decade, that was true for Weezy, and Baby was aware of that. But this summer, following Lil Wayne’s release from Cash Money Records, he and Baby made peace, so it’s possible. So there’s hope for reconciliation, my sons and fathers, that I believe in.
Without having a one-sided pissing contest with my dad, I’m in much better shape than he was at my age, just a year before he had me. Although I picked up the smoking habit he left behind when I was a toddler. It was seeing me pick up his cigarette butts as a toddler that prompted him to stop smoking. I wouldn’t say he failed; being who I am, smoking was inevitable. This could lead to an eventuality that I may not be able to escape the health issues the men before me where trying to keep me from. Nature loves a curveball. What I do know now is that the burden of responsibility to better the health of myself and future generations, falls on me and my other male cousins who share the same blood.
Living fast and dying young is a blind curse for those who can’t see beyond tomorrow. But it’s very easy to get caught up in a cycle of self-destruction when you have little hope for yourself. It’s only now that I’m beginning to see what life in my thirties could possibly be like, since it’s not far away.
Living fast and dying young is a blind curse for those who can’t see beyond tomorrow.
I believe in the spirit of ancestors, whatever form they may take. With my grandfathers being the closest of my ancestors to me, there’s divine spirituality behind the idea of taking lessons from those that have passed on and seeking ways in which life doesn’t have to be as painful, as it was for them. From the grave, or the other side, they are teaching me to live a full, rounded but healthy life as so their missteps don’t become my own. And being in the moment, as frivolous as that can sound, undeniably gives mortality and the cycle of death a little bit more substance.
“Little by little is how the pig’s nose enters the yard,” as the Yoruba proverb says. Or as Wayne told us on Solange’s “Mad,” “I remember how mad I was on that day / Man, you gotta let it go before it get up in the way.”
Jesse Bernard is a writer & photographer based in London and Brooklyn. He is currently a contributing editor for TRENCH and is working on his debut collection of cultural essays. His work can be found at jessebernard.com.