Frank Ocean publicly addressed his sexuality recently, with the same deftness, eloquence, and gentleness that is evident in the manner he approaches his music. I was elated at his announcement and at the warm reception he received. I was glad to see that another young man had the strength of character and the purity of spirit to share his true self with the world and to show that queer men of color have been a part of our community and have contributed immensely to our culture. However, I was also pleased for more selfish reasons. I had hoped that if the straight and straight-identified men of hip-hop could openly love and embrace the black men who resided in their hearts and their minds and their beds, that perhaps they could embrace the black women who inhabited those same regions as well. My hopes have been dashed, for I realize that the hatred of black women is so profitable and pervasive and has such a tenacious hold on mainstream hip-hop that the men of power and/or influence in hip-hop would likely extinguish the culture entirely before relinquishing it.
And yet, strangely, due it its current ubiquitousness, hatred of black women is not a tenet of hip-hop, is not necessary for hip-hop to thrive, nor was it present at its birth. Though the arena was dominated by men, women were given a clear voice in the genre via ladies such as Roxanne Shanté. Hip-hop in its earliest days was an even field where men and women of color could have an open dialogue—one that was teasing and playful. The words of black women were considered and sought for inclusion. Black women were not depicted as a monolith and had multiple roles available to them—sister, wife, and lover; trophy, thief, and soldier; adversary and confidant. No, not all of these roles were beneficial. However, there was diversity and choice. That choice is long gone, quietly usurped during the late nineties and aughts with the onset of the commercialization of gangsta rap and its permeation of hip-hop.
The misogyny directed towards black women in gangsta rap was a curious thing rooted directly in America’s racist history. There are black men everywhere, in numerous countries, counties, and cities. And in all you could find black men who struggle against deprivation and violence. And yet it is in America where the hatred, debasement, and ridicule of black women in particular were originally forged in song for relief and release. And America, which has culture as its chief export, packages this hatred and ships it, spreading the cancer that is our unique brand of racism to all regions of Gaia’s womb—from Compton to Krakow to Conakry.
Vast, multinational empires have been built, powered by the engine of a small number of young black boys coming of age sans the guidance, education, and environment required to become men. Lacking a father, uncle, grandfather, guardian, or mentor of worth to define what masculinity is, it is easy to fall prey to the binary doctrine of what is male being classified as that which is decidedly not “female”—not nurturing, not dependable, not emotional, not loving. To secure one’s masculinity one must reject these ideals; one must degrade them and the source from which they are purported to originate—black women.
A handful of young black teens, cobbling together their masculinity in the absence of positive male figures, wandering like nomads through an environment utterly saturated with virulent anti-black racism, gave birth to gangsta rap. What else could have manifest? The music was angry, composed by men who had every right to be furious regarding their treatment by society. And the music depicted black women as worthless receptacles, (1) due to the erroneous binary doctrines discussed earlier that required the rejection of intimacy, (2) due to centuries of American-cultivated propaganda depicting black women as hypersexualized beasts of burden, and (3) due to America’s careful instruction that to be of worth, one must stand over another—preferably the descendants of slaves. These men—stripped of political, social, and economic power—had only one group left to subjugate: the women who shared their status.
The music, callous as the lyrics could be, was embraced for many reasons: the messages rode on beats and melodies many African Americans enjoyed during childhood; the music provided a coping mechanism for black and Latino youth experiencing economic devastation and/or enduring social indignities that stemmed from racism; and it provided white teens of the middle and upper classes with an outlet to defy authority.
It was the final example to which music executives took notice. White children brought money. Money bolstered the longevity of gangsta rap and allowed the subgenre to dominate and warp all others. (Amusingly, it mimics the dominance of the superhero in comics. Perhaps that is why the two blend so effortlessly.) The elements of gangsta rap that mainstream white audiences found so titillating—the violence, the sexual exploitation of women, the criminal activity, the illusion of invincibility—was shoehorned into countless acts, whether the genuine result of the artist’s history or not.
As a black woman, it is disturbing to watch white men and women be given agency in the world we gave birth to with black men, to see these black men develop camaraderie—jovial basking in racist misogyny—with them while we are pigeonholed in the role of a subservient clown or whore. We’ve been reduced to less than three-fifths of a human—merely an ass and six bags of someone else’s hair—our faces not even deemed worthy of a camera’s lens or a “featured” role in a video. And when we speak up, when we dare to criticize the treatment we receive? We are ostracized as traitors, labeled “haters,” and demonized for attempting to diminish a rapper’s success, success often driven by our tears and our humiliation. The bodies of black women have been used as fuel. And no maudlin, mediocre sixteen bars about mothers and daughters each decade will mollify that. You need more people.
The commonality shared by black women and queer men of color is that hip-hop has demanded our silence during our disrespect. It is almost Athenian in its outlook. So when Frank Ocean broke that silence and was not punished for it, I was intrigued. And then I realized the key difference in the role of queer men and straight black women in hip-hop. Negative depictions of queer men do not move units. Queer men are erroneously believed not to be able to move units at all. They are forced to be invisible as well as silent. Black women are to be seen—preferably stripped—and not heard.
Mustering only a minor fraction of the courage shown by Frank Ocean, I’m speaking up and speaking out. I’m seeking better music for my rotation. I’m demanding respect from those who demand my money. Will it improve hip-hop? Probably not.
But it will improve me.