by Darius Scott
My relationship with hip-hop is complicated. As a queer Black man, I’ve nodded along to more than a few renditions of “dick-riding faggots” and “pussy niggas.” I’m not immune to the sting of those disses, but I know hip-hop is more than just a bunch of homophobic digs. Hip-hop is a raw and radical force of Blackness in a world where Black experiences are rarely reflected in art and media. So when hip-hop is demonized in the mainstream, I become cautiously defensive.
Most recently, hip-hop has been under fire in the media for being sexist. On Kanye West’s new album, The Life of Pablo, he makes a misogynistic diss at Taylor Swift. The line goes, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous,” referring to his notorious interruption of Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. By some accounts, Taylor received an advanced copy of the track and was also in on the “joke.” Regardless of what happened, the lines are definitely problematic.
The issue of misogyny in hip-hop runs much deeper than Taylor and Kanye. Hip-hop’s larger problem with misogyny and homophobia begs for a come-to-Jesus-moment of massive proportions. Considering the fact that Black women and queer people have largely been the targets of the sexism and homophobia in hip-hop, we are well aware of the longstanding issues within the industry. And while we don’t wholeheartedly accept them, we have lived through and discussed hip hop’s ability to be offensive and uplift Blackness at the same time. These experiences are not always considered when hip hop is criticized in mass media. However, as Feminista Jones writes, these necessary conversations about hip-hop have already been started by Black women. And they’ve been held by Black queer people “since the beginning.”
When hip-hop takes it too far, there are those of us who keep it in check out of love. In 2004, Nelly cancelled a visit to Spelman, a Black women’s college, because the students were planning to protest. This was just after Nelly released the music video for “Tip Drill” which contained ridiculously sexist scenes à la B.E.T. Uncut. The worst of them showed Murphy Lee running a credit card between the butt cheeks of a dancing model. After the protest, organizer Moya Bailey wrote,“it is because I love hip-hop that I critique it.”
Many of us defend hip-hop because we know its ability to empower is remarkable. Remember Tupac’s “Dear Mama”? It was a lyrical tribute that thanked Shakur’s mother and other Black mothers who had worked through poverty and addiction. The song came out during a time when politicians worked overtime vilifying low-income Black mothers in the name of “welfare reform.” Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur,said, “it is a song that spoke not just to me, but every mother that has been in that situation, and there have been millions of us.”
But then just a year later Tupac put out a diss track in which he claimed to have had sex with R&B star Faith Evans, who was married to Notorious B.I.G. Faith Evans, who was half of the iconic power couple, was brought into a petty battle for masculinity. As Ashley La Truly point out, this diss was just one incident in a long recognized trend to treat women, who might otherwise be hip-hop royalty, as pawns in hip-hop industry beef.
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Instead of writing off hip-hop at the jump, there are many Black feminist women who address the very tensions between loving one’s self and maintaining a relationship to music that can be harmful. Joan Morgan’s historic, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, features a love/hate letter to hip-hop that addresses its abuses against women but also calls the music “critical to our survival.”
Work like Joan Morgan’s has inspired a whole generation of “hip-hop feminist” academics, such as the Crunk Feminist Collective, who discuss the complexities of being feminist and embracing hip-hop at the same time.
There are many artists who push back against the norms of gender and sexuality from within hip-hop as well. Artists such as Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott have openly defied gender stereotypes in their work to “uplift women.” And more recently, artists like Nicki Minaj have featured lyrics that boldly embrace their queer sexualities. The misogyny and homophobia extends to rappers who are men as well. Rappers such as Young Thug have gotten a lot of backlash for wearing women’s clothing and embracing same-sex affection in a climate where “no homo” is the norm and only a specific form of masculinity is accepted. By shaking up expectations for Blackness, gender, and sexuality in the face of hip-hop’s overt misogyny and homophobia, all of these artists have done a lot for both the Black and queer communities.
I am proud to celebrate new artists who embrace their Blackness, queerness and feminism like Le1f, Junglepussy, Mykki Blanco, and Cakes Da Killa. But we need to remember that these artists are only possible because of the long history of resistance from Black women in hip-hop.
This isn’t to suggest that Black women and/or queer people, or even Black people in general, owe hip-hop their continued time or analysis. We all need to remain critical about how much homophobia and sexism we put up with, especially when it comes down to acts of individual artists. And most importantly, we must know that those of us who are Black and feminist aren’t any less Black or feminist for unwinding to the infectious and willfully ig’nant words of Project Pat, especially after a long day of code-switching.
At certain points in my life hip-hop served my need to hear a Black voice other than my own. The music guided me through issues I was nowhere near comfortable speaking about out loud, such as during my first semester of grad school. Hip-hop allowed me to not only celebrate my Blackness, but to get through what clueless peers expected my Blackness to mean. In the words of Redman, I was empowered to keep it moving and say, “I’ll bee dat.”
Nobody needs to be numb to the offensive lyrics, but some of us take the lows of hip-hop with the highs. Hip-hop, like Black church, has been an important space for the Black community. And while I’m not first in line to hear another spiel about the hellfire my queerness will wreak, I recognize that attending Sunday service is more than that. It’s a place for uplifting and regrouping, flaws and all.
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