How Noname Helped Me Make Sense of My Relationship With My Mother

"She can’t imagine having a gay daughter for all time. 'How will you survive?' she asks me."
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It feels damn near impossible to write honestly about my mother.

To write about my mother is to explain the nature of our relationship; to reconcile the relationship in real-time on the page. That means, invariably, someone will come away from reading this essay with an incorrect impression of my mother—that’s not my intention. Really, what I am trying to tell you is that I do not understand my relationship with my mother.

None of these anxieties omit how special Mother’s Day is in hip-hop. A quick Google search will reveal a batch of articles, photosets, and playlists boasting the best mother-themed songs, interviews, oral histories, and so on. This is not that. This is not “Hey Mama” in long form. Mothers should be celebrated, and in some ways, that is what this essay is—except I am not entirely sure who the party is for.

I have spent over two decades discovering my mother in pieces, so it only seems right that I point to fragments of songs by the methodical and effortlessly emotive Noname—not even full verses will do—to unpack my mother and our relationship. By the end, maybe, there will be a full song to dedicate to her, but more likely there will only be more pieces between us, bringing us together by way of shared understanding and keeping us apart in the way physical things do.

“Hold Me Up” is a personally bittersweet tune from the pre-Telefone days of Noname’s career. The first half of the track is a loving ode to her mother from which I can only lift four lines. The second half of the track is a series of poetic word and image associations. Noname has always been tender, but following her showing on Chance The Rapper's breakout mixtape, Acid Rap, she inherited some of his love for the blithe and abstract. In form, “Hold Me Up” is the perfect Mother’s Day song for me, but on paper, it is most compelling within these bars:

“Daddy pays the bills, but mama holds me up / Daddy pays the bills, when that ain’t good enough / She holds me up and tells me she’s a soldier with two hearts / She got that love for me and she got that love for papa” —Noname, “Hold Me Up”  

Critically, these lyrics hinge on the reading of the second bar, the attribution of “that,” to either the paying of the bills or to the emotional labor of the mother. The way Noname seamlessly delivers the bar leads me to believe there is some level of compromise here: yes, your mother holds you up, but sometimes “that ain’t good enough.” Unintentionally, then, Noname complicates the image of her matriarch and demystifies the image of an involved father.

Traditional gender roles aside, when she sings of her father paying the bills, I take it as a type of due being paid. This isn’t about gas and electric, this is about time and dedication. My mother struggles to be emotionally available, she struggles to relate to me and openly wishes I could just be a good Jewish girl and marry a good Jewish man. She also uplifts me in all of my idiosyncrasies. As quick as she is to judge, I would be lying if I said she didn’t take pride in my outspoken nature and resolve, both things I inherited from her.

If these two modes clash uncomfortably for you, that’s because this is a dissonance too great for me to reconcile. In the same breath that my mother uses to tell someone to fuck off until she’s red in the face—on my behalf—she is comfortable telling me her greatest hope is for me to marry a Jewish man. She can’t imagine having a gay daughter for all time. “How will you survive?” she asks me.

When Noname sings of her mother as a “soldier,” I imagine a reality where things are as they “should be,” where our relationship is Hallmark and we take kitschy pictures together with mimosas. This reads as ridiculous because it is unattainable and untenable.

Noname deals in juxtapositions, and this one is the heaviest. There is no way to resolve this tension, there is only acceptance. There is a gully of inconsistencies between myself and my mother, and then there is my father, and there are these “bills” to be paid. This is why my dad once took me to dinner to tell me I should have told him I was gay before I tried telling my mother. She swears she loves us, and me especially, and I have to believe her for my own sake.

As “Hold Me Up” transforms into a bevy of springy poetics and youthful declarations about D-Rose dresses and tongue twisters, Noname speaks to those same insidious inconsistencies that complicate unconditional love. Noname cannot stay on task, cannot invoke her mother in full for one reason or another, and I cannot believe my mother to be a Mother In Full, but I will never tell you that she was not a Mother. Noname’s tickling and escapist raps are a performance of the same tricks and hedging I do when trying to paint a full picture of “Mother.”

“Baby help me testify / Oooh you know I hate goodbye / Bye bye blue / Somebody let the yellow in / Bye bye blue / I'm gonna fall in love again / On a lonely road where happiness needs us / You my baby, you my baby / I'm your baby, I'm your baby” —Noname, “Bye Bye Baby”

"Bye Bye Baby" is the most tender song about an abortion in hip-hop’s existence. Speaking to The FADER, Noname made clear that her intent with “Bye Bye Baby” was to move away from the stigma that abortions are loveless or somehow heinous. She reframes the act as thoughtful, selfless in part, and delivers the situation as a conversation between mother and unborn child. That altruism makes this track immeasurably evocative.

The childish thing to do is scream “I wish I was never born,” or some comparable insult. The deadening thing to say is, “I just wish you thought about this before becoming a parent.” There are so many moments wherein I wished my mother were more discerning with how she spoke to me, how she groomed me to view myself a monolithic idea, not a person. How I wish she bit her tongue before telling me if I left a certain man, I would be alone forever, I would die just as miserable. I would be without, but she never understood that I already was so deprived.

With her flighty temperament—her greatest strength, I must admit—I wish she asked herself, at least once, how she would handle a daughter that is not one-to-one with her imagination.

With "Bye Bye Baby," what really tugs at your heartstrings is the call and response, the sweet symbiosis of “you” and “I’m” swinging to and fro over Cam Obi’s gentle production. This tenderness in the face of grief, how tenderness can eclipse grief in potent flashes, says more about our relationship than I ever could. There are undertones of compensation and consolation, but if we do not claim each other as our own in this way, how can we ever expect to grow closer?

Mother’s Day is a celebration, but for many, it is also a rumination on pain and what it means to be without. For every “Hey Mama,” there is someone who delivers the directive with angst, with an ellipsis, or not at all. In an unexpectedly similar manner as gangsta rap, “Hey Mama” tells a somewhat unattainable story for too many listeners.

One day I will pen my mom a “Hey Mama” article to bring her tears, and I anticipate she will do the same for me in her own way, but for the time being, we must do the work of finding each other. These lyrics are everything I have found thus far, but I hope to find more. 

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