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Why am I still listening?

In the last summer of my teenage years – 1987 – I got a cassette of Too $horts Born as Mack and was aroused by the first rap songs I heard that contained swear words. Aside from the swear words, the way $hort talked about women left me speechless. In “Freaky Tales,” he boasts about several lewd escapades. In “Dope Fiend Beat,” the next song on the album, he begins with his now-signature nickname – a sing-song Crap!– provides an introduction and starts with its first verse: “Bitches on my mind / I can't hold back, now's the time / All you loudmouth bitches talk too much / And you cock-teasin' bitches never fuck.”

My mother confiscated the tape but never threw it away, and soon afterward I began listening to it in secret. Born as Mack Use language to describe girls/women that had been forbidden by my mother and great-grandmother – the two most important women in my life. The lyrics offered a kind of manual for dealing with women and tried to inculcate in me the value of girls/women, or the lack thereof. NWA published Straight from Compton the next year, an album that became the benchmark for gangster rap. On “Dopeman,” Ice Cube raps “Strawberry, Strawberry is the neighborhood bitch,” characterizing a woman who would have sex in the neighborhood for crack. While $hort and NWA were laying the groundwork for patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism, I was at least a decade away from learning the meaning of those words, let alone viewing them with informed acuity. Just a few years later, I was nodding my head to Dr. Dre's “Bitches Ain't Shit” before my college basketball games, The Chronicle. “Bitches ain't nothing but whores and tricks / Lick these nuts and suck that dick,” went the chorus. “Fuck off when you're done / Then I'll jump in my coupe and take a quick drive.”

misogyny is derived from the Greek words for to hate And WomanDre's lyrics were the epitome of this hatred. And in contrast to the regional success of Born for Mack, The Chronic became a cultural phenomenon – it 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 it described as a “landscape change”.

Between these two albums (but not only between these two), overt misogyny became mainstream. Meanwhile, on a personal level, my mother began a decades-long battle with a crack addiction, which affected how I perceived what I heard and normalized feelings of disappointment and distrust towards her. As The Chronicle When I came out, I had tried to sell crack, had done so once or twice as a teenager, had seen a woman, scrawny and disheveled, stagger into a drug house, announce she was broke and offer sex in exchange for crack. That is to say, my relationship with rap music is inextricably linked to the truth that, at one point, it was much more real than some otherworldly hyperreality.

And it wasn't just sitting in the drug house. It was when I witnessed a few of my buddies watching the drug house from a window in our high school classroom (it was across the street) and running to smoke a joint when they saw a smoker coming. It was my dad being a pimp trying to instill his values ​​in me. It was when I was nurtured by uncles who were pimps and drug dealers. It was when my favorite aunt was murdered while working as a prostitute for one of my uncles (not her brother). It was when I had peers who started pimping themselves before we were old enough to buy alcohol, and when I saw girls I went to school with working as prostitutes or strippers or getting pregnant or drug addicts. It was when I had several peers who tried hard for their group. It was when I heard that my high school was always being criticized for poor academic performance. That was my world, from the time I was a Jheri-curled weebit until I moved away in my mid-20s.

My experience—which is neither the standard of black life nor an anomaly—made it nearly impossible for me to dismiss these lyrics, and even though I knew they were harmful, it was even harder to condemn them. Only a fool would claim that misogyny isn't prevalent in today's popular rap music. Commonplace: Dismissing women as inferior rappers. Commonplace: Characterizing women as nothing more than sex objects. Commonplace: Rappers bragging about passing women around to fuck their boys. Commonplace: Rappers demeaning women as dishonest or money-hungry. Commonplace: Calling women sluts and whores and cheaters and sluts.

No one should trivialize the damage that misogyny can cause to all Women. How it can expand into an acceptance of rigid gender norms. How it can create anxiety, diminish their self-esteem, and foster a distrust of other women. How it can push them to objectify themselves. How it can create eating disorders and self-harm. Although 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 is the “bitch”?

Watch the videos, look at the album covers, the vast majority of them are black or brown women, so there's little doubt about who we're supposed to associate with the word. female dog. And who the bitch is matters because black and brown women already suffer from a plethora of disadvantages compared to white women. Black women have shorter life expectancies and are more likely to die in childbirth. They suffer from higher rates of obesity, heart disease, and anemia. They earn less but are more likely to be heads of households, live in a segregated neighborhood, and their property is worth less, if they own property at all. Degrading black women as bitches, whores, and sluts is like kicking a hurting human being while they're on the ground, a human being oppressed by the societal evil that they belong there because of their gender and the intersections with their race. Who the bitch is matters because there aren't nearly enough options in our culture to mitigate the harm done to black women.

And if these sluts, whores, and harlots are our women—the blood and kin of the black men who dominate hip-hop—what does that say about our self-esteem? Is our hatred toward them—the same women who birthed and raised us—also a form of self-hatred? If they lack humanity, how could we not?

This article appeared in the Summer 2024 issue of Esquire
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A few weeks ago I downloaded the joint album by Future and Metro Boomin We don't trust you and played their song “Like That” – a tune that reached the top of the Billboard Global 200 Charts – on a continuous loop. The rap world is all excited about Kendrick's verse dissing Drake. But what's damn telling is that I haven't heard anything critical about Future's lyrics:

“I follow the code, all these bitches for the streets / I stick it in her nose, it'll make her pussy leak” . . . “All my bitches take mushrooms, nigga, all my bitches take coke” . . . “She thinks 'cause she's an exotic bitch, she's attractive / That's the shit that gets you kicked out of the section” . . . “You know these bitches hungry, they'll fuck for a name / I put her in the gang, she get fucked for a chain.”

Is it good that misogynistic rap is the most popular? Absolutely not. The fact that I stream it is undoubtedly part of the problem. However, as a critical person, I cannot ignore that rap music was created in response to systematic oppression and is part of a culture that is still shaped by those systems. What kid wants to live across the street from or in a drug house? What kid wants their sleep disturbed by the noise of ghetto birds? What kid wants their college dreams to be so far out of reach that they might as well live on the moon? Wouldn't meaningful change in the culture of rap music require meaningful change in the circumstances of the people who are both its primary producers and its subjects? As bad as the misogyny in rap is—and it's almost impossible to imagine it being any worse—I know it's a reflection of the me-against-the-world and survival-of-the-fittest codes that prevail in the realms of the oppressed, rules that always involve a battle of the sexes.

Why do I still listen? For better or for worse, rap music still feels representative of my culture, still indicative of the experiences that shaped me. I often fool myself into thinking I can only listen to it for entertainment. That my critical ear is alert. That rap needs knowledgeable listeners who can evaluate it. But truth be told, the older I get, the less I can engage with it, the more rap music weighs on my soul. At this age, it's hard to listen without sadness. Beneath all the rap beef and celebrated violence and emphasized materialism, I hear pain, and I know that so much of the music comes from a broken place. It's a place I know well. And because I do that, and also refuse to believe that I'm better than what I came from, the thought of stopping listening feels like abandoning my culture, like I'm proof that I've evolved into a person I despise: an Uncle Tom who looks down on his people who are most hurting.