Saoirse Ronan the outrun
Photo Illustration by Mike Kim

The last summer of my tweens – 1987 – I got my hands on a cassette of Too $hort’s Born to Mack and was titillated by the first rap songs I’d heard with profanity. Beyond the curse words, the way $hort spoke about women gobsmacked impressionable me. On “Freaky Tales,” he boasts of several salacious escapades. On “Dope Fiend Beat,” the album’s very next song, he begins with his now-signature epithet – a singsong Biiiiiiiiiitch! – delivers a preamble, and launches into his first verse: “Bitches on my mind / I can’t hold back, now’s the time / All you loudmouth bitches talk too much / And you dick-teasin’ bitches never fuck.”

My mom seized the tape but never trashed it, and I soon sleuthed it and began clandestine listening. Not only did Born to Mack use language to describe girls/women that had been verboten by my mother and sanctified great-grandmother – the two most important women in my life – its lyrics proffered a kind of manual for how to treat women, worked to inculcate me on the value of girls/women, or the lack thereof. N.W.A released Straight Outta Compton the next year, an album that became the standard-bearer for gangster rap. On “Dopeman,” Ice Cube raps, “Strawberry, Strawberry is the neighborhood ho,” characterising a woman who’d have sex for crack in the hood. While $hort and N.W.A were laying a foundation of patriarchy and misogyny and sexism, I was at least a decade from learning the meaning of any of those words, much less considering them with informed acuity. Just a few years later, I would head-bob before my varsity basketball games to Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” off The Chronic. “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks / Lick on these nuts and suck the dick,” went the hook. “Gets the fuck out after you’re done / Then I hops in my coupe to make a quick run.”

Misogyny is derived from the Greek words for hate and woman. Dre’s lyrics were the epitome of that hatred. Plus unlike the regional success of Born to Mack, The Chronic became a cultural phenomenon – it has sold more than 5 million copies and ranked 40th on a list of the best hip-hop albums of all time in Rolling Stone, which called it “landscape changing.”

Between those two albums (but not just those two), blatant misogyny got mainstreamed. Meanwhile, on the personal front, my mother began a decades-long struggle with a crack addiction, which impacted how I perceived what I heard and normalised feelings of disappointment and distrust in her. By the time The Chronic came out, I’d tried my hand at selling crack, had a time or two in my teens, watched a woman, waifish and disheveled, totter into a dope house, announce she was broke, and offer to exchange sex for crack. Meaning my relationship to rap music is indivisible from the truth that at one point it was way more real-life than out-of-this-world hyperreality.

And it wasn’t just sitting in the dope house. It was witnessing a couple of my homeboys watch the dope house from a window in our high school classroom (it was across the street) and dash to hit a lick when they saw a smoker approaching. It was my pimp father trying to indoctrinate me with his values. It was being nurtured by uncles who were pimps and dope dealers. It was having my favourite aunt murdered while she worked as a prostitute for one of my uncles (not her brother). It was having peers who started pimping themselves before we were old enough to buy liquor, plus seeing girls I went to school with work as their prostitutes or as strippers or end up pregnant or hooked on drugs. It was having several peers who put in work for their set. It was hearing that my high school was always under fire for poor academics. That was my world, from the time I was a Jheri-curled weebit until I moved away in my mid-20s.

My experience – which ain’t the standard of Black life, nor was it an anomaly – made it almost impossible to dismiss these lyrics and, even though I knew they were harmful, tougher to condemn them. Only a fool would argue that misogyny isn’t rampant in today’s most popular rap music. Commonplace: dismissing women as lesser rappers. Commonplace: characterising women only as sex objects. Commonplace: rappers boasting of passing women around to fuck their boys. Commonplace: rappers demeaning women as dishonest or gold-digging. Commonplace: calling women bitches and hoes and tricks and sluts.

Shouldn’t no-damn-body diminish the harms misogyny can cause to all women. How it can metastasize into the accepting of rigid gender norms. How it can birth anxieties, wizen their esteem, foster a distrust of other women. How it can pummel them into objectifying themselves. How it can manifest eating disorders and self-harm. However, while all women are subject to the traumas of rap music, misogynoir – defined by feminist theorist Moya Bailey as anti-Black racist misogyny – is the beating heart of hip-hop.

Who’s the “bitch”?

Watch the videos; look at the album covers. The overwhelming majority of them are Black or brown women, leaving little doubt as to whom we are supposed to associate with the word bitch. And it matters who’s the bitch because Black and brown women already suffer a plethora of disadvantages compared with white women. Black women have shorter life spans and are more likely to die during childbirth. Have higher rates of obesity, heart disease, anemia. Make less money but are more likely to be head of a household, live in a segregated neighbourhood, and have a lower property value, if they own property at all. Demeaning Black women as bitches-hoes-tricks-and-sluts is like kicking a wounded person while they’re down, a person kept down by the societal ill that that’s where they belong on account of their gender and how it intersects with their race. Who the bitch is matters because there ain’t near enough in our culture to mitigate the harms done to Black women.

Furthermore, if the bitches-hoes-tricks-and-sluts are our women – the blood and relation of the Black men who dominate hip-hop – then what does that say about our self-worth? Is our hatred toward them – the same women who birthed and nurtured us – also a form of self-loathing? If they lack humanity, how could we not?

Weeks back, I downloaded Future and Metro Boomin’s collab album We Don’t Trust You and played their song “Like That” – a tune that shot to the top of the Billboard Global 200 chart – on repeat. The rap world tizzied over Kendrick’s verse dissing Drake. But what’s hella telling is that I’ve heard nothing critical about Future’s lyrics:

“Stickin’ to the code, all these hoes for the streets / I put it in her nose, it’s gon’ make her pussy leak” …“ All my hoes do shroom, nigga, all my hoes do coke” … “She think ’cause she exotic bitch, she attractive / That’s the shit’ll get you put up out the section” … “You know these hoes hungry, they gon’ fuck for a name / I put her on the gang, she get fucked for a chain.”

Is it a good thing that rap laced with misogyny is most popular? Hell no. My streaming it is without doubt part of the problem. Critical me, though, can’t ignore that rap music was born as a response to systemic oppression, that it’s part of a culture still shaped by those systems. What kid wants to live across the street from – or in – a drug house? Wants his sleep troubled by the racket of ghetto birds? Aims to sit in an apartment with a bare fridge while worrying over his mother’s whereabouts? What kid wants his college dreams shot so far out of reach they might as well reside on the moon? Wouldn’t significant changes in the culture of rap music demand significant changes in the circumstances of the people who are both its chief producers and its subjects? As bad as the misogyny is in rap – and it’s almost impossible to imagine it worse – I know it’s reflective of the me-against-the-world, survival-of-the-fittest codes that pervade the domains of the oppressed, rules that are never not also a battle of the sexes.

Why am I still listening? For better and fordamnsure for worse, rap music still feels representative of my culture, is still indicative of the experiences that shaped me. I often deceive myself that I’m able to listen to it only as entertainment. That my critical ear is vigilant. That rap needs knowing listeners who can appraise it. But to keep it 100, the older I get, the less I can engage with it, the more rap music weighs on my spirit. At this age, it’s hard to listen without sadness. Beneath all the rap-beef bravado and celebrated violence and emphatic materialism I hear pain, and I know that so much of the music issues from a broken place. It’s a place I know well. And because I do and also refuse to believe I’m any better than what I come from, entertaining the thought of not listening anymore feels like forsaking my culture, like proof that I’d devolved into a person I despise: an Uncle Tom who looks down his nose at his people, the most wounded ones.

This story originally appeared on Esquire US.


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