One day out of the blue I decided I wanted to go see my grandparents in North Carolina. I had been on tour performing for some time and I was really missing my family, so I was going to hop in the car and drive eight hours to surprise them. When I told my dad, who we all call “Pop,” he ran into the house grabbed some clothes and jumped into the car.
We got on the road around 9 pm. The plan was for one of us to drive while the other slept and then switch somewhere down the road. Well, of course we didn’t stick to that plan. Pop started behind the wheel. I pulled my iPod out and literally for the first four hours of the drive we were jamming, singing at the top of our lungs, having a ball. We played Barry White, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Mos Def, A Tribe Called Quest and a ton of other acts that just brought back some great memories.
We have always had a deep connection through music. My father was a guitar player. Though he worked a regular 9-5 job, guitar was his hobby. He also played guitar and sang in church. I’m not exaggerating when I say that there was a guitar in almost every room of my house. He collected them. And as he moved from room to room in the house, he’d pick up a guitar and start playing. If he went in the bathroom, you’d hear him in there strumming. But growing up, I never picked the guitars up. That was his thing. He got me a keyboard eventually and I fell in love with it; I couldn’t stop playing it. But one time when I came home from college, I had gotten into an argument with a girl and I was so frustrated. I was sitting in the room and I just picked a guitar up and started playing. My father heard me and he walked in, in amazement. He said, “How in the world are you playing like that?” I had never played, but I guess 20 years of watching him do it and it just came to me. I was finding the fingers, and then asking him how to hit this note and that note and he was like, Put your finger right there and put that one here. I wrote a song for the group 112 called “Funny Feelings” on the guitar; eventually it was on my album. I wrote many songs on the guitar after that. That’s just the power of the influences around you.
As I drove in the car with my father, I smiled as I thought back to my childhood and all the music my father educated me on while making this drive to North Carolina. He would have 8 tracks and tapes of country, pop, R&B, rap. He would say this is Stevie Wonder, this is Donny Hathaway, this is the Winans or Bill Withers. Now here I was returning the favor.
As I got older, it became me bringing the tapes and CDs into the car to get him aware of what was out there. I’d say, “Pop, there’s guy named D’Angelo.” I had the Purple Rain soundtrack on cassette tape and my favorite song was “Darling Nikki.” I remember it like it was yesterday. Hands down, even to this day, it’s still my favorite song. I’m a fan of story songs. I was probably 10 or 11. I put the tape in and he said, “Boy, what you know about masturbating?” The whole song was about sex but I wasn’t mature enough to know what the song was about; I just knew what it felt like. I remember the magnitude of A Tribe Called Quest. Their first album, People’s Instinctive Travels, the one with Bonita Applebum, changed my perception of music, my approach to music. It was the passageway for me connecting my love for R&B and hip hop; that album was what connected the dots for me. I remember every time we got in the car, we had to play that album for a year or two. I couldn’t stop talking about it.
So at around 1 am, I took over the wheel. Pop was tired but too wired to close his eyes. We were having too good of a time. We turned the music down and just talked. These are some of the most priceless conversations a son could wish for with his father. He talked about his childhood, the beatings he can now laugh about, the lessons learned, becoming a man, finding his way once he married my mom, and so much more.
I sure had my own memories of the beatings. I’d do something and when my older sister would be on the phone with Mom and Pop, they would pass the message that I need to “get ready.” She’d look over and say, “Daddy said get ready.” But there was so much love. I remember the transition when I got older. The last time I got a so-called spanking, when my father hit me with the belt, I said I wasn’t going to flinch. He was so mad at me. I was thinking, “Come on, Pop, we know I’ve outgrown this stage.” He said it was hurting him more than me. So then they moved to punishments, the not going outside. It was so painful, I was like, Just go on and hit me with the belt. I remember the time I took my sister’s hairpin and stuck it in an electric socket. My mother had to kick me off of it and my hand turned black. I remember sitting with my hand in the sink and my father saying, “Man, you can’t do that. You’re gonna get yourself killed!”
We had planned to stop and get a hotel room for the night. The goal was to get to my grandparents at around 11 am. Once again things weren’t going as planned. But that was a good thing; we were having too good of a time. One hour away from my grandparents’ house, we decided to push it and get there around 5 am.
There’s definitely some luck involved with parenting. I remember doing some things that I really could have gotten in trouble for if I had gotten caught. But a lot of things I stayed away from because I felt a responsibility not only to my parents but to the elders they put around us, the aunts and uncles who weren’t really aunts and uncles. You knew they were looking out for you, and they were looking at you. When I turned 12, I was on punishment practically the whole summer. Both parents worked, so neither was home and my sister was getting ready to go to college. I was at home by myself; they said, He’s smelling himself. I was feeling the girls; they knew the trouble I would get in. I didn’t really do anything wrong, but the littlest thing got me on punishment. If I said anything I was on punishment. I remember staying home the entire summer. I can imagine them saying, “He’s going to wind up in bed with some girl. We might as well put him on punishment.” In hindsight looking back, I’m thankful. Because the next summer I was out of control. That summer brought them one more year of making sure I still had the young mind.
So when we got to my grandparents’ house, the plan was we weren’t going to wake them up. We would just go to sleep in the driveway and let them see the car when they woke up. Well, we stuck to that plan. One of the greatest sounds and sights I’ve ever had was being awakened by the sound of my grandpop’s voice. “Aye!” Then looking up and seeing that Roberson smile. We spent several loving days with my grandparents. Full of good food, sweet tea, warm hugs and wise words, we loaded the truck, determined to make the drive home as enjoyable as the drive down. With family like I have, that’s not hard to do. I remember as we pulled off I looked over at my Pop and he was just sitting back, grinning from ear to ear. Seeing him that happy is what life is all about.
We just had my first son and I really hope I can have the same relationship with him that I had with my father. I don’t take for granted at any point the opportunity I had with my father. Most of my friends didn’t have that opportunity. The reason we called my father Pop was because he took on that role early on. For all of my best friends I grew up with, he was like a father to them too. They all call him Pops. If I’m out of town for Thanksgiving, I know my mom will be cooking for them and Pop will be taking them somewhere, making sure they’re doing alright. That’s the kind of man he is.