Recently, I became obsessed with the WE tv franchise Growing Up Hip-Hop, the cast of which is comprised of former child-star rappers like Bow Wow and also the children of rappers who were famous in a distant past. What initially drew me to the show were the names: Lil Wayne, T.I., Pepa, Treach, and my former high school crush Ja Rule, to name a few. But this show is not at all about them. It’s a platform for their children, a generation of silver spoon hip-hop kids who are now in their twenties and thirties, free to live their own lives and appear on reality TV.
It’s rare to see this on television: young, black heirs who get to essentially coast by virtue of money and the safety net provided by hip-hop success. The closest approximation to Growing Up Hip-Hop that I can think of is Baldwin Hills, a reality show that aired on BET from 2007 to 2009 and followed the lives of well-off twentysomethings living in a predominantly black upper-middle-class area of Los Angeles. It was billed as the “black Laguna Beach” set in “the black Beverly Hills.” The elevator pitch for Growing Up Hip-Hop is similar but centered around the mess that envelops the glamorous, uneasy life of a hip-hop descendant trying to, in some way, live up to the greatness of their parents who were born with much less. As the title suggests, these are young people who “grew up” in and around and with hip-hop, and are well-off enough to not have 9-to-5 jobs.
Since the show premiered in 2016 with its flagship, set in Los Angeles—Season 5 is currently airing Thursday nights—WE tv has spun off editions in New York and Atlanta, the latter of which featured Waka Flocka Flame, who “grew up hip-hop” because his mom is a well-known manager who worked with Nicki Minaj. The L.A. version is anchored by Bow Wow (not the son of anyone famous, but an obvious, obnoxious made-for-TV centerpiece) and by Run-D.M.C rapper Rev Run’s children Angela, Vanessa, and JoJo, already familiar with reality TV from their days on their dad’s show Run’s House. Master P’s son, Romeo Miller, is featured, along with Sandra “Pepa” Denton’s daughter Egypt. There’s Briana Latrise, the daughter of Mary J. Blige’s ex-husband Kendu Isaacs; late rapper Eazy-E’s son Eric Wright, Jr.; and Lil Twist, an eccentric, dreadlocked former child rapper who was part of Lil Wayne’s Young Money empire and speaks in a similar Wayne croak, providing much of the show’s comic relief.
In the past few months, I’ve binged the Atlanta and New York editions of Growing Up Hip-Hop—in the former, Lil Wayne’s daughter Reginae Carter appeared for just one season with her friend and former OMG Girlz bandmate, T.I.’s daughter Zonnique Pullins. But it’s the Los Angeles cast that most efficiently combines entertainment value, trash TV, and the psychological turmoil of being the child of a famous person. This comes with an unfortunate side dish of dramatic editing that cheapens the show’s production. There’s enough real-life salacious material on hand in the cast’s lives that there’s no need to overdramatize it, but WE tv too often misses the memo. For that reason, Master P and Romeo, upon realizing they were on a show that veers too much into lowest-common-denominator TV, recently criticized producers for abandoning positivity in favor of messy storylines and shade, i.e. airing a montage of members ridiculing Romeo for texting bible verses to them. This is a known repercussion of banking on reality TV stardom as a career strategy. (Master P and Romeo have since quit the show.)
The thing about the children of famous people is that they remind us that children look just like their parents (see Ja Rule’s son in the video below). And they act like them as well. The young GUHH cast seeks out careers in entertainment, as they should. They record music, they sing and rap, and they have big ideas but with little widespread success. Outside of the show’s preexisting stars (Bow Wow, Lil Twist), this isn’t about nurturing legends in the making but rather witnessing their attempts at some version of stardom only to land on “reality TV star.” They tend to mostly gather for contentious social interactions, talk about achieving their dreams (this season, Angela helps Bow Wow produce merch for his Scream tour). And they bicker with their parents about their own life choices. In the New York edition, Siaani Love, the daughter of Charli Baltimore, a member of Ja Rule’s unstoppable Murder Inc. crew in the aughts, is an aspiring DJ; and Fat Joe’s rapper son Ryan Cartagena tries to launch a rap career without his father’s help, which he sorely needs.
Similarly, Boogie Dash, the son of Damon Dash (a co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records who is constantly in legal peril) gets into frequent arguments about his son’s lack of ambition, meanwhile treating his son more like a business partner, but what do I know. He once told Boogie during an argument, “The disrespect’s gotta stop, stupid!” For his part, Boogie, who was the subject of drug intervention in previous seasons, has tried to open and run a rehabilitation center without his dad’s assistance. There are serious moments like that. Angela Simmons deals with the brutal death of her child’s father and has talked about being a victim of domestic violence. The pressure on these young people is visible, even if it’s amid a sea of senseless arguments.
Over in Los Angeles, Egypt, the daughter of Pepa and Naughty by Nature’s Treach, is an aspiring singer who complains to her mom about not paying for her studio sessions, though it’s hard to tell how serious Egypt is about this career path. The real story, for television at least, is her ongoing battle with her cousin Tee Tee, who despises Egypt’s fiancé Sam, a hanger-on who is blatantly out for fame. (Sam dressed as the Joker to propose to Egypt while performing a really bad song on stage.) Romeo is, meanwhile, just as enterprising as his dad, Master P, who never lets us forget that he’s a no-nonsense hustler who once turned a regional movement, No Limit, into a phenomenon and made millions independently. It’s clear Romeo has lived a life of trying to impress his dad and this comes across on the show, especially whenever Master P unleashes a trove of business-isms about the merits of entrepreneurship. When he speaks about the importance of generational wealth, though, it’s a reminder that this freedom of opportunity hasn’t been afforded to hip-hop artists for that long, and that it was the golden age of the ’90s that produced a wave of rappers who could finally become millionaires. WE tv would naturally rather focus on the drama.
I’ve often felt very silly watching this show, but I like the nostalgia of seeing artists I grew up listening to impart wisdom onto stubborn children who didn’t have to struggle like them. It’s always the fathers explaining to their kids that they have it good. In Growing Up Hip-Hop: New York, Ja Rule and Fat Joe had “back in my day...” scenes with their offspring. In a recent episode of Growing Up Hip-Hop proper, Damon Dash vents to Treach about the difficulty raising privileged kids. “We famous for different things than our kids,” Dash says. “We’re first-generation millionaires... But there’s been nobody to teach us how to deal with second-generation kids.” This is the virtue of the show and one that could be explored way more in-depth. I’m otherwise happy to watch Ja Rule’s kids react to his unwise plan to recreate another Fyre Festival. Of course, it’s supposed to be “iconic.”