“You either a Baller or a Rapper” – Damian Lillard and Black Youth

Damian Lillard, the $120 million dollar all-star point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers, has done the not-so-unthinkable – he released a rap album titled The Letter O.

Normally, the words “NBA player” and “rapper” would force me to roll my eyes to the back of my head. There is, both unfortunately and hilariously, a history of NBA players who’ve dabbled in hip-hop. None of them have been good. The most successful of the lot was Shaq, who released an album that went Platinum. He even spit with Notorious B.I.G. on “You Can’t Stop the Reign.” Otherwise, he was never a great rapper and neither was Kobe, A.I., or Durant, to name a few.

Yet, instead of rolling my eyes, I bobbed my head thoughtout the album. Dame can spit! He always could for Four Barz Fridays on IG and in State Farm commercials, but I was pleasantly surprised with the album. His lyrics focused the three O’s in his life Oakland (where he is from), Ogden (Weber St), and Oregon (Portland). No one will confuse him for contemporaries such as Kendrick, Cole, or K.R.I.T – some of the best lyricists in the game. Yet, his delivery was effective, the production was good, and he had several notable guests – including Lil’ Wayne, Jamie Foxx, and fellow Oakland native Raphael Saadiq – to help the buoy the album.

However, because everything is a culture war/social issue nowadays, there is another pressing question/debate asked within (and outside of) the Black community – by being both a baller and a rapper, is Dame an appropriate role model for young black boys/men?

As I mentioned before, there are those who think that hip-hop is naturally corrosive to Black youth and will lead to our self-destruction. I refer to these critics as cultural Puritans or “doomsdayers.” As such, they’ll believe that Dame is a bad role model solely off being a rapper alone. Their arguments are silly and nonsensical, thus needing no further address than this brief paragraph (which is more than they deserve).

This conversation regarding Black celebrity role models is one that the Black community has had since the death of Jim Crow. Both sides of the ideological spectrum have mixed thoughts – some who think that they are good examples, others who think that they aren’t. For instance, President Obama and First Lady Michelle have each spoken how Black kids should seek an education while lamenting about their fantasies of being multimillionaire celebrities. Other times,  Inevitably, Black celebrities find themselves on the wrong end of the discussion by being chastised as bad role models simply because of their success in their given field. Garnett, Kobe, and LeBron are known for skipping college and going straight to the pros. Due to the circumstances around him, Nas dropped out of 8th grade before dropping a classic Illmatic. Middle class Black Americans who believe in a certain respectability politic cringe when folks tell these stories. Instead of being the next President Obama or  telling

Yet, my other question is this – why don’t we ask this same question about white role models? Don’t young white boys dream of being multimillionaire athletes and entertainers? Why aren’t folks within this dialogue repeatedly telling white kids not to aspire being Bryce Harper,, (who skipped college) or ? And like young White boys, don’t Black boys grow out of their fantasies when they realize they don’t have the talent necessary? I know I did in high school.

Black boys aren’t that different form all the other children who dream of being something they can never achieve. It’s natural that they’ll want to emulate multimillionaires such as LeBron and Jay-Z more-so than Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and U.S.Senator Cory Booker. I too fantasized about playing for the Sacramento Kings even though I couldn’t make a layup or even dribble a ball (except off my own foot). I also dreamed about being brilliant multi-billionaire scientist like Elon Musk or some comic book superhero. Of course, I would have settled for Commander-in-Chief if I only made a few million.

However, I realized that those dreams are even more unobtainable than spitting bars with E-40 or playing wide receiver for the 49ers. How? I grew up like everyone else. The reality is that even with enough schooling and hard work, not everyone is going to be a doctor or a lawyer – two respectable professions that all middle class families want to their children to be. We’re not all going to earn doctorates, speak on television, or be brilliant scientists. Some are not going to be strong enough to join the military or patient enough with kids to be a teacher. One can easily make the case that former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Ebony Magazine Editor Jamilah Lemieux, and Dr. Jelani Cobb are bad role models for Black kids because children are not likely going to be that talented or brilliant.

Yet, we never make that claim when it comes to these type of careers. For the most part, we encourage them to try and follow their dreams until they fail. The same should be the case with wannabe ballers or rappers. We should tell them that if they are passionate, then they should try their absolute hardest and figure out what works for them. If you’re not being fast enough to be in the NFL, try something new. If you’re not good enough on the mic, do something else. Like all things, have a backup plan in the likelihood that you fail.

Furthermore, if one isn’t a baller or a rapper, we should not shame them for their career choices or attach their value as human beings with the size of their paychecks. This toxic mentality is part of the reason why so many are desperate to become celebrities or 1 percenters for the rest of their lives – which, under our capitalist economy, is a statistical improbablity. We need disposal workers, plumbers, and miners (all of whom should be paid more anyway) even more than celebrities and 1 percenters anyway.

So back to the question, is Dame a good role model for Black kids? The answer is that the question itself is invalid and unsatisfactory. If he’s talented enough to play basketball and good enough to release a mixtape, then it is none of our concern what he does with his life. No one’s career alone can determine if someone is a good enough role model for children, whose dreams and fantasies almost always disappear along with their childhood.


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