Just before my flight to DC to attend my alma mater’s homecoming, I read the chilling account of Lupito Nyongo’s horrifying experiences with Harvey Weinstein in the New York Times. Of all the accounts shared, her reflections unnerved me the most. When she wrote about how she struggled to “extricate [herself] from this undesirable situation,” I felt like she was telling an all too familiar story.
It reminded me of the time when I was a broke, hungry, woefully naive student and a man I’d been talking to for a few weeks offered to pick me up so that he could “cook dinner for me.” After a long drive into the far reaches of Maryland, we walked into his apartment, and a quick perusal of his refrigerator revealed that he in fact had no groceries and certainly no dinner planned. When I realized the ruse, I asked him to take me home and he said, “Well first you need to eat your dinner...” and he gestured at his groin area. I panicked. I was 18, far from campus with no money, and had no intentions of taking him up on his offer. I bolted for the door, sprinted to the 7-Eleven I’d spotted about half a mile from his place, and hitched a 45-minute ride back to DC. It’s a miracle that my story had a happy ending.
So fast forwarding to Fall 2017, it is HBCU Homecoming season and Future, 21 Savage, and Rick Ross are playing from every corner, speaker and sound system on campus. DJs - men and women - spin records directing us to “twerk for a real nigga”, Cash Money is taking over for the 99 to the 2000s, and men are leering appreciatively at women dressed to impress. And just like that, I am thinking of the #MeToo Campaign, Lupita’s article, and my unwelcome memories.
A tinny alarm is ringing in the back of my mind. I hit snooze. I compartmentalize. Everyone knows you can be woke and ratchet at the same time, right?
But as alumni push strollers with adorable cherub babies in “Future HBCU grad” onesies alongside ladies and gents yelling back “BITCH” in response to Too $hort’s catchy refrain, “What’s my favorite word?”, the alarm comes back. This time it’s louder, and is accompanied by a sickening feeling, because I find myself mumbling the words too.
It seems we’re in an interesting space, where feminism (or womanism if you’re super woke), are the standard for any self-respecting, educated black person. Most folks know now that cat-calling is not ok. Despite a few outliers, men’s overwhelming response to the rallying “Me too” cry has been, “How can I help? What can I do?” And yet, I haven’t heard yet a (recent) appeal to take a closer look at our music*. Much of what tops the charts has an ugly underside that is often the perfect soundtrack for the catcalls, the assault, and the rape that a staggering number of collegiate women experience. Even the “conscious” artists refer generally to women by snarling “bitch don’t kill my vibe” (Kendrick) or “all my bitches the pick of the litter (J. Cole).”
Let me be clear, the only ones to blame for sexual assault, harassment and rape are those who commit the crime. To blame Lil’ Wayne for misogyny is to give him too much credit and gives the actual perpetrators far too little responsibility. Those of us who chant and dance to lyrics that would cause us to squirm if our kids, nieces and nephews heard them aren’t necessarily the problem. But aren’t we the silent bystanders? We’re not writing the music; but we’re not dismissing it either. We are all complicit.
This of course, is not a new argument. I’m reminded of the women at Spelman who protested Nelly’s scheduled appearance on their campus after his extremely misogynistic and degrading Tip Drill video. (By the way, in light of those recent allegations and creepy concert videos, the Spelmanites were certainly on to something.) But with recent events creating a communal sense of responsibility, it feels especially apropos to revisit the conversation, with a special focus on the sexual violence hinted at or even directly referenced in many of our favorite jams.
I’m not the cultural police and I’m not in the habit of shutting down free speech. But in this current space of resistance to all things “grab em by the pussy”, does it make sense to stop short of our music? The lyrics that we pump into our earbuds as we’re on a run or cleaning our house, in our cars on the way to work, and at our get togethers… can we honestly say that it lives in its own world, disconnected from our real lives? That the two don’t mingle, creating a toxic stew we’re all unwittingly slurping up?
I can’t call it. Maybe misogyny as part of a rich and varied diet of music is just as negligibly harmful as a small bite of candy when chased with a plate of vegetables. Nevertheless, it’s certainly seems worth it to look at hip-hop’s nutrition facts and respond accordingly.
Author’s note: I don’t presume to speak on behalf of all music; I’m most familiar with hip-hop and R&B lyrics. I’m sure misogyny has made its way into country, rock, heavy metal, pop, indie, techno, and every other kind of music as well.