“You Only Get One”: Rappers Honor Their Solo Moms
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Musical declarations to the hardworking moms that raised them
Over the years, rappers have come under fire for the misogyny in their lyrics, most recently with Kanye West’s controversial dig at Taylor Swift in his song “Famous.” But what the critics often overlook is the love and admiration rappers have for the moms who raised them, and Kanye West proves the point. “Famous” rekindled a long-standing feud between Yeezy and TayTay and earned the outspoken hip-hop artist enough blowback to last a career. But even Kanye’s detractors cannot deny that his song “Hey Mama” (from album Late Registration) is a poignant declaration of pride and love for his mom, Donda.
Kanye West is a prominent member of a fraternity of hip-hop artists giving props to the Solo Moms in their lives. Here is a sample of more rappers who have collectively created a mixtape for them:
Shawn Corey Carter (known by his stage name, Jay Z) and his three siblings were raised by Solo Mom Gloria Carter after their father left the family. The boy was 11 when his dad left, and he took the abandonment to heart, but he always felt—and appreciated—his mother’s love. As he raps in 2001’s “Blueprint (Momma Loves Me),” “Momma loved me . . . Momma raised me . . . My momma loves me.”
But Gloria also recognized her son’s need for a father’s love, and when Jay Z was an adult, she arranged a reconciliation between father and son. It wasn’t a Disney moment: Adnes Reeves didn’t show the first time. But Carter pushed her son to try again because, as the rapper told Oprah in 2009, “[S]he’s just a beautiful soul.” (Reeves did show up the second try.) Carter also encouraged the boy’s interest in music from the get-go: according to her, the young Jay Z would bang out drum patterns on the kitchen table at all hours, sometimes waking his siblings. She eventually bought him a boom box for his birthday, and his interest in music grew: he began freestyling and writing lyrics.
The music was a positive escape: the Solo Mom was raising her kids in Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses, or Marcy Projects, and Jay Z struggled with the drugs and violence surrounding him. But he wrote about that life, and over the years has continued to draw from his own experiences for inspiration, including, of course, his love for his mother.
His mom was doing something right: Jay Z is now a phenomenally successful music mogul, parlaying his success as an artist into his own line of clothing and an entertainment company, Roc Nation, which manages successful artists such as Rihanna and J. Cole. In 2015 alone, he earned $56 million, according to Forbes. Of course, he is also married to singer Beyoncé; the couple have a daughter, Blue Ivy, whom he also rapped about in the song “Glory.”
Kanye West was three years old when his parents divorced; he moved with his mother, Donda West, from Atlanta to Chicago, where West was chair of the English department at Chicago State University. Donda West achieved renown of her own. In her youth, she participated in a sit-in to desegregate a local business in Oklahoma City. She was also a Fulbright scholar and author of a memoir, Raising Kanye: Life Lessons from the Mother of a Hip-Hop Superstar (Gallery Books, 2009), among other achievements.
In her memoir, she wrote of her son, “Whatever mistakes he makes, I am certain that he learns from them. And learning from mistakes means growth.” She accepted him, warts and all, as he grew up, and he, in turn, loved and respected her deeply, as “Hey Mama” would demonstrate. In lyrics like “You work late nights just to keep on the lights” and “See you’re, unbreakable, unmistakable,” West recounts a childhood in which his mother was a constant and supportive.
Donda, who died in 2007 of complications resulting from surgery, committed the entire song to memory: in this clip, mother and son joyfully sing it together:
Kanye would describe the grieving process as “losing an arm and a leg and trying to walk through that.” In February 2016, he also paid homage to Donda by announcing a video game that features his mother “traveling through the gates of heaven.”
West is married to actress and social media personality Kim Kardashian, with whom he has two children. He now performs “Hey Mama” at his shows in Donda’s memory.
Hip-hop mogul, actor, and record producer Sean John Combs (known by his stage names Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, or Diddy) was three years old when his father, Melvin Combs, was shot to death. His mother, Janice Combs, was left a Solo Mom, and she did her best to raise her son to believe in himself: as Diddy rapped in the 2006 song “Claim My Place,” “You know my mother / Mama always say that I’d be somebody / You know / So you know, I figured that I might as well be great.” Janice worked as a teacher’s assistant at a day-care center but then added multiple other jobs, from driving a school bus to caring for kids with cerebral palsy, to provide for Sean and his sister. “I wasn’t going to be homeless,” she told the New York Times in 2001. “I wasn’t going to be on welfare, if I had to work all day and all night.” She also wanted her children to understand their roots, and for this reason initially chose to remain in Harlem after her husband’s death rather than pursuing a “fresh start,” as she noted in a 2010 interview on Inside the Actors Studio:
“I wanted [my kids] to have the experience of Harlem and to be around their culture.” Sometimes this meant teaching her son how to take care of himself. When nine-year-old Sean went to the store to buy something for his grandmother and his money was stolen, Janice engaged in some tough love. Years later, Sean shared with Oprah how his mom told him, “Go back out there and get that money—and if anyone ever puts their hands on you, make sure they never do it again.” As he recalled, “She knew the reality—if people smell weakness, they take advantage of you. You have to defend yourself.” In recent years, Janice’s birthday has become a triple cause to celebrate. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY to the best mom!!” Diddy wrote on Instagram in December 2014, noting that Janice and his twin daughters share a birthday. “I love you more than words can say! Forever & always!!”
Artists communicate pain as well as love. On the song “Headlights,” rapper Eminem demonstrates mature insight and sorrow over the rocky relationship he and his mother, Solo Mom Debbie Mathers, have endured over the years. The rapper has a history of insulting his mother in his songs, but “Headlights,” which was released in 2013, is meant as an apology of sorts. In the song, Eminem expresses regret that he has never let his mother be involved in his children’s lives, and he concedes that he wrongfully blamed her for his difficult childhood. Though Eminem and Mathers remain estranged, the song gives Mathers credit for trying to raise him as a Solo Mom. Andy Gill of the Independent called the track “an almost shockingly apologetic love letter to the mother he once denigrated so viciously”; the song’s video, filmed in Detroit in 2014 by accomplished director Spike Lee, was released on Mother’s Day of that year and chronicles the turbulent relationship from Debbie’s perspective:
And then there’s Tupac Amaru Shakur, considered to be the king of West Coast rap. His song “Dear Mama” lays bare his love for Solo Mom Afeni Shakur. “You are appreciated,” the song begins, then proceeds to detail how much he appreciates her, despite the challenges of poverty and drug addiction Afeni faced during his childhood: “But now the road got rough, you’re alone / You’re tryin’ to raise two bad kids on your own / And there’s no way I can pay you back / But my plan is to show you that I understand / You are appreciated.” 2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the song: to get a feeling for its depth of feeling, listen below.
As Tupac said to the Los Angeles Times the year of its release, “Why do you think I wrote ‘Dear Mama’? I wrote it for my mama because I love her and I felt I owed her something deep.” By 1996, Tupac was dead, the victim of a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. But the song was a legacy that continued to resonate with Afeni. “Can I listen to it without crying? No. It gets worse every time,” she told People magazine in 1997. “It gets harder, it really does. That song gets deeper and deeper.” The late rapper’s story is slated to be told in a biopic to be directed by music video/commercial director Benny Boom.
Critically acclaimed and successful rapper J. Cole has honored his Solo Mom through music. His mother, Kay Cole, raised her son in Fayette, North Carolina, supporting them both through her job in the United States Postal Service. When he was 14, she bought him an 808 beat machine to help him turn his pages of verse into music. After attending St. John’s University on a scholarship, J. Cole caught the attention of Jay Z and became the first artist signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation label. He has since then released three successful albums under Roc Nation. In the wake of his success, J. Cole repaid his mom by making it possible for her to retire early from her job, a moment he captured on video. He would tell his fans, “Far from the richest rapper, but my biggest personal achievement thus far in my life has been retiring my mom early from her job at the post office. It’s a tiny payback for the sacrifices she made that allowed me to chase a far-fetched dream of becoming a successful artist. I’m forever grateful.” His love of his mother is apparent in his Grammy-nominated song, “Apparently,” in which he says, “Wish you could live forever / so we could spend more time together / I love you Mama.”
Many other rappers have paid homage to their Solo Moms. André 3000, for example, sang of his Solo Mom in “She’s Alive” from album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Snoop Dogg remembered his Solo Mom in “I Love My Momma.” Ghostface Killah reflected on the hard times his Solo Mom had to endure in “All That I Got Is You.” Tyler, the Creator referred to his Solo Mom in passing in “Smuckers,” and Talib Kweli asked “Momma Can You Hear Me?” in a collaboration with Kanye West.
Hip-hop has always been a very masculine art form brimming with bravado, self-pride, and a hunger for the trappings of success. At the same time, hip-hop has also reflected harsh realities of the artists’ lives, as the movie Straight Outta Compton shows. The themes of drugs and gangs feel real, but so do the tributes of the artist to their Solo Moms—perhaps, even more so. When hip-hop artists rap about Louis Vuitton and dealing dope, in some ways they are embracing popular themes that their audience expects to hear even if the details of their lives don’t always square with the themes of their songs. (Rick Ross might rap about drug trafficking, but he was also once employed as a corrections officer.) When they write songs about their Solo Moms, they rise above societal expectations. These rappers understand the sacrifices their Solo Moms have made, and they know those sacrifices have contributed to their success.
Art is a powerful way to say what we feel, and rappers clearly feel deeply about their Solo Moms. As American hip-hop group Brand Nubian once sang, “Cause I always loved my momma (you only get one, you only get one, yeah).”
So here’s to the artists who take the time to shout out to their Solo Moms, and to the Solo Moms who helped them succeed.
A special thank you to David Akst for his input!
Janice Deal is a writer, an editor, and a lover of found objects. Her short-story collection, The Decline of Pigeons (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her first novel, The Sound of Rabbits, was recently named a finalist in the Many Voices Project Prose competition. Janice lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, with her husband, daughter, and three disreputable cats.
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