“Don’t do no press, but I get the most press kid.”
The last Michigan Daily hip-hop columnist, Adam DePollo, wrote his first piece on college hip hop with an obligatory focus on Kanye and the monumental moment that was the ’04 release of Dropout. Before him, columnist Jackson Howard recounted the hip hop that set the scene for the summer of 2013, making sure to include Ye’s “Bound 2” on his list of songs that lasted into the fall. So I ask, as Killa Cam might, who am I to fuck tradition up? Besides, Kanye just makes it too damn easy.
I’ll safely assume that the Daily’s readership is composed of cultured college students who make it a personal duty of theirs to stay up to date on the world’s current events, latest political scandals and, of course, Twitter beefs. (Read: You saw the belligerence that was Kanye’s Twitter account last week, right? Or at least read about it before he deleted those embarrassing-ass messages chock-full of self-absorption and sexism? Cool, I figured.) Just in case, though, here’s a quick refresher to get us going: Wiz wasn’t feeling Kanye’s album’s name change (initially Swish, now Waves). If you’ve ever heard someone say “free the wave,” you can be 99% sure she was referring to Max B, the Harlem rapper currently serving a 75-year sentence, best known for creating the Wave sound. This is what upset Wiz: Everyone in the (rap) world knows the wavy movement is associated with Max B, the reason he’s lauded and loved, so why is Ye biting Biggavelli?
This set the scene, but it was a misinterpretation on Kanye’s behalf that caused the conflict; Wiz was tweeting about his weed, known as KK, or Khalifa Kush, but in Kanye’s mind, the only thing KK could possibly refer to is Kim Kardashian. So he flipped, called Wiz out for being corny, made observations about Wiz’s “cool pants” and asserted that he is Wiz’s “OG and will be respected as such.” But it didn’t take long for Ye to bring up his ex, the mother to Wiz’s child, socially conscious SlutWalk-organizer and bald-headed baddie — Amber Rose. “You let a stripper trap for you” is point four on a 17-point-long tirade by Ye. It makes you wonder if he really made that misinterpretation or if he was just looking for a reason to talk about Amber. He does it an awful lot, every time just as uncalled for as the last.
I’m going to refer to this spat between Wiz and Ye as a “rap beef” just for the sake of the argument. The use of women, specifically Black women, and even more specifically Black women who occupy or occupied the role of ex-girlfriend/lover/etc., as pawns in a conflict between two men is pretty common in rap. It’s actually something like a staple. Think: What’s the most famous rap diss of all time, and what do you hear within the first two seconds, the line that sets the pace for the rest of the song, and cements the track’s place in rap diss history?
“That’s why I fucked your bitch, you fat motherfucker.”
Pac was never subtle about anything — not about his paranoia surrounding death, not about his views that the government and police were the true gangs who ran the country and, sure as hell, not about his sexism. “Hit ‘Em Up” is the most famous track birthed during the infamous East Coast/West Coast rap beef. The opening line is an allusion to Biggie Smalls’s wife at the time, Faith Evans. “You claim to be a player, but I fucked your wife,” spits Pac, and we’re not even thirty seconds into this shit yet. Though Pac makes multiple threats aimed at each and every member of Bad Boy, threatens to cut up Cease until he’s deceased (clever) and “snatch” Lil Kim off the streets, the most insulting line is the one heard first; everything else seems like an afterthought. Faith is positioned as a pawn, reduced to nothing more than a tool Pac can use to discredit Biggie on all accounts. Simply put: How could anything Big say hold weight when Pac “fucked (his) bitch?” Though Pac claims to have been amorously involved with Faith, there’s nothing romantic about their supposed relationship; he simply used her sexually to compromise Biggie’s reputation. As a means of asserting his power over Big, Pac places Faith, a sexual pawn, beneath the both of them.
But we don’t have to go back 20 years to find comparisons. There’s a prime case from last summer that I know you haven’t forgotten yet, no matter how much we all want to: Drizzy vs. Meek, the feud that we can safely say Drake won, but damn, did he really say much outside of all those lines referencing Nicki Minaj? Nicki and Drake, longtime friends and Young Money family, have always had a flirty relationship, so it’s natural people would assume the two were at some point romantically involved; after all, he took her to a convenience store and bought her snacks that one time. That’s real. But on The Pinkprint’s “Only,” Nicki lets it be known, loud and clear: “I never fucked Wayne, I never fucked Drake / On my life man, fuck’s sake.” Instead, she’s been cozied up with MMG representer Meek Mill for a minute now, and the two are happily engaged. Knowing how longstanding Drake’s friendship with Nicki is, you’d assume he wouldn’t bring her into the beef with Meek; their friendship precedes Meek’s claims of Drake’s history of ghostwriting. Drake is better than that, right? Not in the slightest.
“And shout out to all my boss bitches wifin’ n****s / Make sure you hit him with the prenup.”
“Back to Back” was performed at OVO Fest before thousands, a screen full of memes accompanying Drake’s performance and adding to the embarrassment. Many of the memes feminized Meek, illustrating him in dresses and Nicki in suits; Meek’s in a relationship with a woman who has built an empire around her name, which is to say she’s making more money than him. Like, a lot more. Like, her net worth is more than 20 times Meek’s. But the breadwinner in the States is traditionally male, as is the case in any patriarchy; thus, whoever is financially subordinate occupies the “wife” role, regardless of gender, as is implied by Drake. And in a capitalist society, if you’re financially subordinate, you’re actually worth less — I’m speaking about your humanity here. Keep this point about class in mind. Nonetheless, the main point here is that once again the easiest and most hurtful way to diss a dude is to bring his girl into the mix, reduce her to a instrument and if you can somehow incorporate financial status, definitely do so, since cash rules everything around us.
“You let a stripper trap for you.”
Sex-shaming isn’t cool, never was, never will be, but it’s fascinating that Kanye has the audacity to shame Amber’s history as a sex worker while praising Kim as the Marilyn Monroe of our generation. Both figures — Kim and Marilyn — are regarded as sex symbols, Kim specifically entering mainstream popular culture discourse through an appearance in a sex tape. I mean, the tape was leaked, but Kim still struts her stuff every chance she gets. And this isn’t said to shame Kim. I’m all for bodily autonomy (as I hope you are too). It’s sad to point out the cognitive dissonance it seems Ye is dealing with, since he knows Kim’s success is strongly associated with her sexuality: “My girl a superstar all from a home movie.”
But there’s a difference between how certain acts or occupations, all sexual in nature, are understood based on differences in race and class. For example, burlesque vs. stripping. The two differ in compensation, in historical elements and some performance ones as well — burlesque being viewed as a performance piece that doesn’t necessarily involve direct engagement with the audience. But race and class can’t be factored out of the equation and are intimately woven into the difference in perception between high-class, sophisticated burlesque performers and “ratchet,” for everybody strippers. It’s important to incorporate race and class dynamics when we discuss sexism, and that’s really the common thread here — the domination of women, or sexism.
How do we talk about sexism in hip hop? There’s a few options here, and most suck, but hopefully the good one (I saved it for last) can help us out when the next rap beef ensues and someone’s baby mother is unnecessarily mentioned, grossly demeaned and nonchalantly objectified.
Option one: adopt an anti-hip hop stance, because if hip hop goes away, then sexism in hip hop goes away too by default. My vote here is no. For one thing, by erasing all hip hop, we’re erasing the good stuff too — the politically charged, radical and rebellious, uplifting and liberating stuff. And that’s uplifting and liberating for women too. “So preserve the Golden Age tapes and just get rid of contemporary rap,” you might be thinking. Still no. “Fight the Power” was more than a song; it was an anthem, I agree. But present day artists have proven to have the same capacity to make powerful music, music that calls for reflections on excessive consumption, for the sexual liberation of women, for the dismantling of white supremacy. The real issue with this stance is that it is often tinged with conservative rhetoric, anti-Black at its core, blaming rap’s content for societal issues at large and the decline in American society. Essentially, it uses hip hop as a racially charged scapegoat, and I hope I don’t have to explain why that’s wrong.
Option two: if the issue (sexism) isn’t a product of hip hop, then leave it be and address it at its core instead. This is better, but still no. Sexism predates hip hop culture, but the issue with sexism, as is the issue with any systemic form of oppression that permeates all facets — media, government, you name it — of society is that any fight against it is “necessarily partial and incomplete.” Tricia Rose elaborates on this in “The Hip Hop Wars” (I know I mentioned the text in my last column too, this is the last time I promise, I just really want you to read it), but the takeaway is we’d be doing ourselves a disservice. Sexism is everywhere, yes, but that means it must be fought on all fronts, including and especially hip hop — the dominant music of our time, a primary means through which we’re socialized.
Option three: come to terms with the fact that most sexism in rap isn’t an articulation of what rappers observe, but instead is a reinforcement of those observations, and hold rappers, as you should hold anyone, accountable. Winner, winner. This attack on sexism must not be of the religious kind — encouraging women to dress and act modestly, submissively, as a means of avoiding degradation. Basically “don’t act like a hoe and you won’t be called one” — inherently flawed, oppressive logic. And the attack also must not be anti-Black-youth, pinning the plights of our time on the most marginalized peoples. Only a progressive engagement that successfully avoids the aforementioned traps can do hip hop any good, and as sexism is found virtually everywhere, a synchronized and similarly structured engagement in other arenas is the only thing that can do us all some good.