Bow Wow and the Curse of the Child Rapper

Bow Wow recently became the butt of jokes for posting a bogus private jet pic, but Shad Moss is doing just fine. Other rappers who became teen superstars haven’t been so lucky.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

The Bow Wow Challenge became a viral sensation this month. One of the many awkwardly funny moments in the ongoing saga of Bow Wow was turned into a creative opportunity to poke fun at the need to pretend to be cooler than we are. Everyone does it on some level—it’s just funnier when it happens to Bow Wow.

In case you somehow missed it, Bow Wow became a trending topic for two days on social media after he was busted for posting an image of a private jet on Instagram in what looked like a moment of ballerific bragging. On May 8, Bow Wow aka Shad Moss posted the pic of the jet with a caption about traveling to New York City.

“Travel day,” read the caption. “NYC press run for Growing Up Hip Hop. Lets gooo. I promise to bring yall the hottest show EVER. May 25th on @wetv.” But the jet pic actually was an image from the website for MIA VIP Transportation, which describes itself as “an executive group transportation company” located in Florida. Also, a photo of what looked like Bow Wow sitting quietly on a commercial flight was tweeted shortly after his private jet Instagram was posted.

For the next couple of days, everyone from Snoop Dogg to Chance the Rapper took part in the Bow Wow Challenge, where you post a flossy pic that appears to show you living the good life, only to share another that “exposes” the sad truth. But as the hilarious memes flooded social media, some began to voice concern over why we were mocking Bow Wow. BET writer Aliya S. King admonished those who’d forgotten what Bow Wow had been as a tween star.

“At the start of the 21st century, Bow Wow had Solange riding shotgun in his kiddie-car in the video for his first single,” she wrote. “At the 2001 Grammys, he C-walked on stage before opening Madonna’s car and leading her out to her performance. His debut album sold three million copies. The announcement of his first headlining tour, The Scream Tour, sent his fans into a frenzy. The first date confirmed in Washington, D.C., sold out immediately and two more shows were added. Eventually, the entire 50-date tour would sell out, including the Madison Square Garden dates.”

King’s sentiments were echoed by several observers on Twitter who also felt the viral fun was mean-spirited and that we should show more compassion to a former child star who was obviously struggling through what it means to be an adult who peaked when he was 14.

Except there’s nothing truly sad about Bow Wow’s life or career

Bow Wow has never been a “tragic former child star.” As an adult, he’s starred in Lottery Ticket, was a cohost for BET’s 106 & Park and was a series regular on CSI: Cyber. He’s co-hosted the Grammys. He’s on a reality show, Growing Up Hip-Hop.

And if one wants examples of former child rappers whose lives actually did take rough turns, there are much stronger examples than Bow Wow.

Chi Ali was a teen star who scored notice in 1992 with his hit single “Age Ain't Nothing But a #.” Ali was affiliated with the Native Tongues through his cousin, Dres of Black Sheep. He never saw much more success than he had with his debut single, and by the late ‘90s had all but faded into obscurity. In 2000, during an argument in the Bronx, he shot and killed Sean Raymond. After a manhunt that spanned more than a year and featured two appearances on America’s Most Wanted, he was apprehended in 2001 and took a plea deal, avoiding a homicide charge in favor of first-degree manslaughter. He would serve 12 years of a 14-year sentence.

“I took a life, and you can’t take that back, so that’s probably the worst thing one can do,” he told RapFix Live shortly after his release. “I want to send my condolences to the family, and no matter what I say, I’m never glorifying that. I want everybody to get that straight.”

“It feels surreal to be home. I’m truly blessed,” he added. “You know, I committed a crime that I wish I could go back in time and undo. However, I can’t, and you have to live with your mistakes and learn.”

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Shyheim was another ‘90s teen rapper who rose to fame via association with a legendary crew. Born Shyheim Franklin, the prodigious rapper from Staten Island was the cousin of Ghostface Killah and the youngest affiliate of the Wu-Tang Clan. Shyheim would drop his debut album in 1994, which featured the hit single “On and On.” In 1995, he would be featured prominently in the music video for TLC’s blockbuster hit “Waterfalls” and co-starred alongside ‘70s Blaxploitation legends Pam Grier, Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Richard Roundtree in 1996’s Original Gangsters. He also made appearances in The Preacher’s Wife, In Too Deep and the hit WB sitcom The Parent’Hood.

But things took a dark turn in the late ‘90s. Shyheim was the victim of a slashing in 1997 that required 300 stitches. In 1999, he was arrested for criminal possession of a weapon and charged with 2nd degree attempted robbery after an incident in Manhattan. In 2013, Shyheim was arrested on felony gun and drug possession charges when New York City police raided his Staten Island apartment. A year later, he turned himself in to police in connection with a New Year’s Day hit-and-run accident in New Brighton that left a 29-year-old bakery worker dead. At the time of the accident, he was out on $10,000 bail. After pleading guilty to second-degree manslaughter—as well as a weapon-possession charge stemming from the 2013 raid on his apartment—the rapper was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

“People try to tell me I should leave, to find success or whatever, but this is more than where I’m from,” Franklin told SIAlive back in 2010. “I’ve been around the world, but your home is your home; it’s never gonna be anywhere else.” That same year, Shyheim lost his mother. “Nobody will ever love me more than that,” he said at the time. “And nothing could hurt me more. In a way, I feel like the worst thing that could ever happen to me has already happened, and nothing can hurt me now. I’ve seen rock bottom—the only way things can go is up.”

There was no shortage of “kiddie rappers” in the early 1990s. Alongside Chi Ali and Shyheim, there were groups like Da Youngstaz and Illegal who had their fleeting turns with success.

But none were bigger than Kris Kross.

Unlike Shyheim or Chi Ali, the duo of Chris “Mack Daddy” Kelly and Chris “Daddy Mack” Smith stormed the pop charts and enjoyed tremendous success as superstars on the strength of their megahit single “Jump” and their Jermaine Dupri-helmed 1992 debut Totally Krossed Out. More than anyone, they enjoyed the kind of success a Bow Wow would attain a decade later: they had Sprite endorsements, toured with Michael Jackson, appeared on hit shows like A Different World and in movies like Who’s the Man? The duo, known for wearing their clothes backwards, would release two more albums in 1993 and 1996, but their maturing voices and reputation as a teenage novelty act kept them from ever reclaiming their early success.

By the 2000s, the twentysomething rappers had been away from the spotlight. They would record a never-released fourth album in the early aughts for the fledgling Judgement Records label. Kelly would found his own label but not much ever came to fruition from it; Chris Smith eventually walked away from music altogether.

The pair would reunite in early 2013, when it was announced that Dupri would be celebrating his legacy and the legacy of his label, So So Def, with a reunion concert in Atlanta. Kris Kross was to be featured, and Kelly and Smith took the stage together for the first time in more than 15 years.

“In all these years, this is the first time that Bow Wow and Chris Kelly have ever met,” Dupri announced at a reception for the event, toasting all of the artists in attendance who’d help make his career and label such a success. “Bow Wow is a product of Kris Kross, so the fact that we can bring everyone together like this means a lot. This is my way of saying thank you for helping me build the So So Def empire. This is a historical moment, so tonight I’m celebrating you. Sit back, relax… I’m gonna serve you. But enjoy it, because that will never happen again!”

Dupri’s words would prove eerily prophetic. On May 1, 2013, Chris Kelly was found unresponsive in his Atlanta home. He would be rushed to Atlanta Medical Center and pronounced dead at 5:30 p.m. His mother, Donna Kelly Pratte, said that her son became ill after taking a mixture of cocaine and heroin the night before he died.

The late rapper had talked about his plans in 2009. “Going to school to be an engineer,” he said after he’d been asked what he was doing. “Taking care of my family, just doing music... I don’t foresee me doing anything else. It’s just the love of it. And at the same time I want to help other people get on and fulfill they dreams as well.”

Kelly’s death was a sad reminder of the road that many former child stars face—in hip-hop or otherwise. Names like Gary Coleman, Corey Haim, River Phoenix, Jonathan Brandis, Lee Thompson are etched into our collective memories because of the joy they brought into our lives as performers, but also because of how sad and sudden their falls were.

Bow Wow has never been anything like that. Bow Wow is doing just fine. Better than most, actually. The fact that he’s not as famous as he once was isn’t a sad reminder of child stardom; it’s just par for the course for many famous people. Not all who are famous stay as famous—and that oftentimes isn’t a tragedy. In the case of Bow Wow, he’s still pretty famous. He’s just kind of corny, and there’s nothing tragic about being corny. If you’re looking for tragedy, it ain’t hard to find. We should save our sympathy for those who truly deserve it.