When James Shaw thanked ‘Pirimia Jacinda Ardern, or baby mama’ many of us swooned at its cuteness, while others silently cringed. Asks Lana Lopesi, how much do we really know about the term ‘baby mama’?
“Yeah this one right here goes out to all the baby’s mamas, mama’s mamas, mamas, baby mama’s mamas.”
– Outkast ‘Ms Jackson’
When Outkast rapped about baby mama drama in their hit single ‘Ms Jackson’, they were telling a personal story. In 1997, Outkast’s Andre 3000 and the singer Erykah Badu had their son Seven Sirius Benjamin. The song, released three years later, was Andre 3000’s apology to Badu’s mother (his baby mama’s mama) for not being able to make the relationship with Badu work.
But what does ‘baby mama’ actually mean?
The term is African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) (a dialect of English spoken primarily by African Americans) slang for “the mother of a man’s biological child; especially one who is not married to or in a long-term, intimate relationship with the child’s father”. The term started life as a demeaning reference to mothers who were not married and whose relationship with the father was solely sexual, and evolved into a description of any unmarried woman who has had a child.
Some linguists have concluded that the Jamaican Creole term “baby-mother” (pronounced bebi mada) is the original derivative, its first recorded usage in a 1966 Kingston newspaper The Daily Gleaner. The term was originally used by fathers of illegitimate children to describe the mothers of their children, but today it is used to describe any single mother.
The term has since made its way into the mainstream vocabulary, and is increasingly being used out of its social and political context to refer to all mothers, regardless of ethnicity and marital status. In 2008, Fox News referred to Michelle Obama as “Obama’s Baby Mama”; the senior vice president of programming later acknowledged the use of the term displayed “poor judgment.” That same year, the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy Baby Mama – about middle- and working-class white mothers – further decontextualised the term. Since then we’ve seen Kanye West refer to his wife Kim Kardashian-West as his baby mama, and now the phrase is even part of Green Party co-leader James Shaw’s vocabulary.
What’s all the drama?
Using the term baby mama as a catch-all phrase seems harmless – after all, it’s a simple term that refers to someone who has had a baby. Literally, a mother of a baby. The problem is that by the time ‘baby mama’ washed up on the shores of Aotearoa, it had gone through multiple waves of mainstream recontexualisation, all of which diluted its initial meaning. The geographical distance between America and Aotearoa further estranges it from its original political and social context.
Which prompts the question – why are we so keen to adopt signifiers of Black culture as our own? ‘Baby mama’ is one drop in the ocean of New Zealand’s constant appropriation of African American culture. Whether it’s hip hop, fashion, slang (the word woke comes to mind), thought (have you looked into where the concept of intersectionality came from?) or memes, we are always more than happy to take. But how often do we stop to ask ourselves what our relationship – our obsession – is with Black culture?
Black American culture has a very high social capital – meaning it’s cool – but that capital is tied to a stark social reality and very dark historical legacy. So, when we cherry-pick the parts of a culture we like best — language, in this instance — it strips it from the very people it belongs too. When James Shaw called Jacinda Ardern “baby mama”, it suggested an attempt to appear hip and young – but it also (unintentionally, I’m sure) made fun of Black speech styles and Black family structures.
According to linguist Hanna L. Smokoski, non-Black users of the term risk exploiting “aspects of relationship or family structures which are pathologised when exhibited by their Black counterparts, perhaps even by the White stylisers themselves,” (think about the treatment of ‘baby mama’ Metiria Turei). More often than not these appropriations are made by educated people hiding, as American anthropologist and linguist Jane H Hill says, “behind a façade of worldliness and cultural appreciation.” One can’t help but wonder if they refer to their partners as baby mama (or baby daddy) behind closed doors, or only in public appearances.
Smokoski coined the phrase ‘Mock AAVE’ to describe the use of the language by non-native speakers which “stylise iconic features” to “invoke a Black persona”; these stylisations are often filtered through hip hop and pop culture. Smokoski’s research suggests that, regardless of the speaker’s intention, Mock AAVE reproduces and normalises negative stereotypes of AAVE speakers, and therefore constitutes covert racism. “AAVE stylisations are intended to be humorous because of the comic mismatch between the speaker’s ethnic, educational, socioeconomic and cultural background and the perceived lack of education that would result in the kind of ‘lazy, error-riddled’ speech they are temporarily using.”
Still, there have been attempts to reclaim ‘baby mama’ by non-White women, even here in Aotearoa (whether it is ours to reclaim is another question). For evidence, see the TVNZ comedy webseries Baby Mama’s Club, in which “four very different women discover they have one thing in common… they’re all looking for Johnny”, their baby daddy.
Unfortunately, the show’s marketing demonstrated once again the stigma experienced by women who become pregnant to men who refuse to stick around. The promo video which went viral on Facebook featured one of the characters telling her story of falling pregnant and desperately searching for the father, Johnny. The catch was that it was not clear that the video was actually a TV show promo – it seemed like a genuine search. In response, some viewers rallied in support, while others blamed the woman for her own situation. One thing is clear: however much we throw the term ‘baby mama’ around, those who genuinely are baby mamas are under constant judgement – just look at the rhetoric around solo mums and benefits.
I’m not here to pass judgment on whether or not ‘baby mama’ should be used in decontextualised situations such as white middle class politicians addressing one another. Rather, my aim with this piece is to explore the complex legacies the term carries with it. We don’t need to borrow from others for the sake of proving our own currency – but if you are going to use ‘baby mama’ for that reason, you should at least know what it means.
Lana Lopesi is the editor in chief of Pantograph Punch and a critic of art and culture. She lives in Tāmaki Makaurau.
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