Time’s Up (Except in Hip-hop)
This article was originally published on Ampersand
Boys will be boys, even when they’re fully grown men.
Such incongruous logic doesn’t hold up in the dialogue surrounding social justice today — unless it is disguised as a breed of masculinity born from hardship. This is the contextual shield that hip-hop’s most renowned performers have hidden behind. Today, the genre’s leaders have been elevated to a martyr-like status to the point where poking holes in their character is considered tantamount to blasphemy. For this reason, fans often accuse skeptics of undermining the sacrifices of their heroes in pursuit of social growth because hip-hop is by design a sustained challenge to power holders.
While the genre has undoubtedly brought issues of systemic oppression to the public consciousness, it has simultaneously validated and preserved the subjugation of women.
But hip-hop feeds off those who point this out. Without critics and doubters, the sport of the underdog loses its most crucial element: success stories premised on defeating the odds, from overcoming poverty to circumventing institutionalized racism. This framework benefits those who have been inconsistent in their drive to empower marginalized communities. “Haters” allow hip-hop’s narcissists to minimize the dichotomy within the hip-hop community. To this point, the genre owes its success largely to fans who actively ignore a past littered with domestic violence, sexual abuse and misogyny.
The Super Bowl halftime show on February 13 was a landmark moment for hip-hop and marked a shift in culture, both forwards and backwards. The featured artists enjoy the respect and protection of their veteran status to the extent that their pasts have no bearing on their legacies.
Every man who performed at Super Bowl LVI has perpetuated, to varying degrees, a narrative that trivializes the abuse of women. As a result, these artists have cultivated a fanbase that actively turns a blind eye to morally objectionable behavior that goes against the very ethos of the social movement hip-hop is branded as.
Dr. Dre, the patriarch of the halftime lineup, has an extensive history of violence against women. In 1991, following an episode of Fox TV’s rap program Pump It Up that showed Ice Cube slandering his former NWA (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) group members, Dre confronted Dee Barnes, the show’s host, at a party in Los Angeles. Because the members of NWA felt the segment reflected poorly on them, Dre felt the need to get even and proceeded to maul her. In a 1991 Rolling Stone article, Barnes recalled him “slamming her face and the right side of her body repeatedly against a wall near the stairway.” After attempting to throw her down a flight of stairs, he began kicking her while she was on the floor. When she tried to escape, he “grabbed her from behind by the hair and proceeded to punch her in the back of the head.”
The penalty? A $2,500 fine, two years of probation and 240 hours of community service … and of course, a public service announcement on television condemning violence, because Dr. Dre is someone to learn from on this subject? The $22 million lawsuit filed by Barnes for assault was eventually settled out of court. NWA mastermind Eazy-E shared his own thoughts on the incident: “Bitch had it coming.”
At the time of the incident, R&B singer Michel’le was dating Dre. In addition to mothering his child and having to deal with his subsequent absence, she had to tolerate excessive domestic abuse when he was around. “I had five black eyes,” she said about their strained relationship. “I was getting dragged on the floor … shot at.” Still, she never took legal action against Dre.
As for other women who never pressed charges against Dre, rapper Tairrie B has said that Dre punched her multiple times at the 1990 Grammys for refusing to collaborate with him. The mother of three of Dre’s children, Lisa Johnson, only obtained a restraining order against him for repeated abuse, including when she was pregnant.
Though Dre has tried to justify his behavior by recounting the domestic abuse he witnessed growing up, he passed down his values to the next generation. His protégé, Detroit rapper Eminem, made a career out of rape and assault fantasies. Listen to his 1999 track “Guilty Conscience” featuring Dre, which details a young man’s dilemma to decide whether or not he should drug and rape a 15-year-old girl (also poking fun at the Dee Barnes incident). Despite reinventing himself as a wiser man later in his career, Eminem remained consistent with the rape fantasies as recently as 2015. On the song “Medicine Man” featured on Dre’s album Compton, he raps, “I even make the bitches I rape cum.” Yet, he is still considered an inspirational figure for overcoming a crippling drug addiction, which in turn cleared his debt. It’s almost as if he never traumatized his ex-wife after he vividly described murdering her on his 2000 song “Kim,” leading her to severe emotional damage and self-harm. If it weren’t for Eminem, artists such as Tyler the Creator wouldn’t have been able to explore such imaginations well into the 2010s and continue energizing a culture that downplays rape and violence. Eminem paved the way for some of hip-hop’s most prized artists to say whatever they wanted with only nominal repercussions.
By the early 2000s, Eminem was ushering in the “next big thing.” Among them was Curtis Jackson, also known as 50 Cent, who quickly became one of the biggest names of the decade. His machismo was conspicuous and his street cred undeniable. Over the years, he has become notorious for his unfiltered commentary on sensitive issues, and by consistently staying in character, he’s conditioned the public to accept him as the audacious agitator he is. When asked how he has avoided being “canceled,” Jackson explained that he refuses to label himself a “mogul” because then he’d have to abide by a standard of conduct. Instead, he says, “I’m a rapper,” which he argues allows him to continue doing as he pleases. This is precisely why Jackson seemed unphased when his ex-girlfriend (and mother of his child) claimed that he vandalized her home and then assaulted her. He subsequently went on Twitter to let everyone know “I’m not in jail I’m by my pool” and “I’m not in jail I’m on my Gucci couch.” He was eventually put on three years’ probation and assigned 30 days of community service after settling the domestic violence case and pleading no contest to one count of vandalism.
Some abuse allegations came to light just days before the star-studded halftime performance. Snoop Dogg, who has eased into his role as hip-hop’s cool Uncle, has made it nearly impossible for the public to dislike him. For example, when he announced his acquisition of Death Row Records (the label that gave him his start) three days before the Super Bowl, the sexual assault allegations brought against him on the very same day got buried under the good press. The day after the show, he kept the positive coverage in motion when he inaugurated his merchandise store right opposite SoFi Stadium. About being sued for forcing oral sex on a backup dancer in 2013, Snoop says the claim is “implausible and false.” Though the image he has created for himself as a gangster pimp doesn’t make these charges surprising, fans of hip-hop have been trained to selectively pick which lyrics to believe based on how well it serves the artist.
This is why Jay-Z and Meek Mill are currently lobbying against rap lyrics being used in court, which would make sense if hip-hop’s most distinguishing characteristic wasn’t authenticity. It is essentially an inversion of “separate the art from the artist,” which is to say that they’re not actually as bad as their music might suggest. On one hand, we have rappers saying they’re true to their word because they “keep it real,” while on another, they don’t want to be held to their word.
Rap snitches, telling all their business Sit in the court and be their own star witness “Do you see the perpetrator?” “Yeah, I’m right here” –MF DOOM, “Rap Snitch Knishes” (Mm..Food, 2005)
Kendrick Lamar, an artist best known for a progressive vision that has enriched hip-hop’s subject matter tremendously, is also a staunch believer in separating the art from the artist. Though Lamar doesn’t have past allegations of abusing women, he has used his influence to protest in favor of those who do. When late rapper XXXTentacion was charged with aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment and witness-tampering by an ex-girlfriend, Spotify pulled his catalog from their promoted playlists and algorithm recommendations. This was the result of their Hate Content & Hateful Conduct policy geared toward “openness, diversity, tolerance and respect,” which also limited the circulation of R. Kelly’s music as per the same principle. When Lamar threatened to pull his music from Spotify in solidarity with XXXTentacion, the company backtracked on their endeavor and left things as they were.
XXX has since been remembered as a damaged yet captivating figure — just a talented young man who made some mistakes. Last week, a previously-unreleased demo recorded by him was featured on the opening track of Kanye West’s latest album, Donda 2. West is the same person who made “Violent Crimes,” which is a song about rethinking the male role in a society that protects the objectification of women, but he’s now on board with men who’ve been accused of heinous crimes against domestic partners.
Anyone in attendance (virtual or in-person) of West’s album listening event couldn’t have missed the menacing presence floating right next to him as “Jail pt 2” blared over the stadium speakers — it was none other than shock-rock sex offender, Marilyn Manson (allegedly, but 16 accusers put forth even more damning allegations). Next to him, hip-hop homophobia revivalist, DaBaby. This is their song — “Guess who’s going to jail tonight?” repeats over and over again to exhibit that the answer is “not us.”
The Ye–Manson–Baby alliance has very little to do with music. Instead, it serves a greater purpose: one that is symbolic of a subversive new brand of immunity that West is at the forefront of. The gist of it is this: we all make mistakes, so we all deserve a second chance. This shifts the focus from garnering sympathy for victims to absolving culprits.
Now this has started to bleed into the public’s perception of these figures.
West recently said, “You can’t cancel a song,” while defending his decision to shelter and collaborate with Manson and DaBaby. This sets a firm precedent for the millions of people watching and listening: you can do what you want, because a shot at redemption trumps the consequences commensurate with your actions. And this is what people like West are fighting for: a shot at redemption, not compassionate conduct. Hence, it came as no surprise when Manson showed up to West’s Sunday Service gathering to rejoice the Christian faith and summon public sympathy. He really believes what he sang on West’s song: “God’s gon’ post my bail tonight.”
“Jail pt 2” is a cheeky middle finger not only to cancel culture, but also to the recent strides society has made toward holding people accountable for their actions. It is basically an extension of 50 Cent’s poolside tweets.
We all make mistakes. Hate speech, violence, violence against women, sex crimes … it’s all forgivable so long as it doesn’t cross the forbidden line that one Mr. Robert Kelly leapt past with unprecedented strides.
But even then, pedophilia wasn’t the real issue, because R. Kelly never really got cancelled. He was made fun of, sure, but his career never took the hit it truly deserved. He headlined Pitchfork Festival in 2013. His “Trapped in the Closet” series became so successful that he began working on a Broadway adaptation. It’s only when he lost in court that he truly fell. Until that happened, very few people held back from associating with him. 50 Cent, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre all worked with Kelly, even after his sex tape with a minor went public in 2002.
Monsters bask in the benefit of the doubt and Manson’s accusers have made this more evident than ever. In hip-hop, however, fans have a tougher time accepting that the movement’s stakeholders aren’t ethically sound despite the glaring signs. The Super Bowl halftime show carried a lot of weight because it symbolized that an anti-authoritarian genre rooted in social struggle finally reached mainstream acceptance.
Each of the men mentioned above came from nothing and became giants. They’re too important to the culture, so it’s easier to treat them like heroes rather than villains.
In doing so, we continue to accommodate the bullying that has been a dominant trait of hip-hop since its inception, leaving us with a puzzling question: how seriously do we take the lyrics? Fans, peers and executives have consciously overlooked the trail of clues artists have left behind and sure enough, a lot of them had been “keeping it real” the whole time.
Hip-hop’s rise in popularity is a win for social justice. At the same time, the masculinity that has been central to it since the beginning has legitimized an escape clause that allows artists to slip through the cracks when it comes to crimes against women. The only difference between R. Kelly headlining Pitchfork Festival and hip-hop’s forgiven legends performing at the Super Bowl is that the music industry stopped cosseting Kelly when a blow-by-blow documentary series took him down once and for all. The hip-hop community is so fixated on the number of lives the genre’s pioneers have touched that they have failed to recognize how many among those are women who didn’t want to be touched.
A culture born of oppression has thus allowed its participants to become the oppressors.
One would have thought that hip-hop culture, in its profound sexism, would eventually collapse under its own weight. Yet, that never happened. But on the off chance that the genre’s icons finally have their wrongdoings catch up to them, they have nothing to worry about — all they need to do is show up to Kanye’s Sunday Service.