I don’t often think of my father as free, but those moments in his car, with his music bumped up too loud, he was a falcon with wild velocity in his wings. There was the older cassette recordings of Ray Charles; the cherubic sounds of an early Michael Jackson; one particular James Ingram song I would misremember for a decade; a heavy dose of funk, and sometimes, no voice at all, but instrumentals that would light up his whole dashboard. I was in his car when, by the end of my parents’ marriage and of a whole lot of other parts of the life they had built together, his playlist dwindled down to this one gospel song that he played and replayed like a panicked ghost of a mantra.
In that car was where I first heard that Biggie Smalls had been slain, shot down, on the morning radio news.
And in a car, a different car, but still driven by my father, when we drove on a roadtrip for a last summer as a whole family, my mom found me a battered copy of The Bluest Eye at a roadside bookstand. A book which of course scared and delighted the shit out of 10-year-old me: I was hijacked by the revelation that black people, black women, maybe even I, could talk, write, sing our lives and those stories could be beautiful.
All of that may sound unrelated–like a string of stories linked only by the cars my father drove--but hear me out. When they ask me why I love hip-hop, how I could love it, particularly my mother and my aunt–women who had taught me fierceness, resistance and solitude in the kitchens and living rooms of my growing up, I tell them that: how the way I loved sound was almost a blood inheritance; how I love language, the way it can punch the stomach out of you, its violence, its seduction, its rhythm, the way it makes the real realer; and I’ll tell them that hip-hop was the natural evolution, not contradiction, of what got birthed in the passenger seats of cars.
For me, hip hop was the first album I got–The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill–and the first album I bought–Warren G’s Return of the Regulator–mix tapes; summer hits; the classics but also what landed on nobody’s curated playlist. It was Missy in that trashbag suit folding under the pendulums; Busta, Luda, Outkast; the fire in a young T.I.’s eyes as he told the world he was serious; Trick, Old Dirty Bastard, Redman, Freeway; Trina’s queendom, beef between greats, miss fat booties, bored car rides when there’s nothing left in this country town for you; and leaning against the walls of dorm rooms that reek of wet perms and cheap liquor. Hip-hop is Jean Grae whispering your heart out of hiding like a modern Nina Simone, Cam’ron respinning the songs that float down the block from old folks’ barbeques, and if you didn’t already know who Common was talking about, y’all, it was hip hop. I am nobody’s MC or scholar, but I know what gets in the sinews andunder my skin. For better or worse, intended or not, I am as much hip hop as hip hop is me. But let me also tell you this: my affair with hip hop is the most loveless one-way street I have ever traveled.
Because hip hop sure as hell does not love me.
Part of why it has been so hard for me and others to speak up is because for those who love the art, calling out the music can feel like like treason and trespass. It can feel futile, like telling folks the sun is warm and this country is unequal. And it can also feel incredibly corny.
I can’t explain it in any other way but this: there is an art to catching fireflies. You have to hold the jar just so, let them come to you, close the lid fast enough, tight enough. I still remember those hot-as-shit summer nights at my grandma’s, how the light would dart in and out of trees like old Christmas bulbs on a tangled cord, how our screams would fall all around us as we ran to catch as many of the bugs as we could before we were called in, and the way our shadows lengthened up and down her red dirt driveway. But of course the real lesson in all of this was what happened when we set our jars down: no matter how many holes we punched into the metal lid, we would wake up to what had become an airless tomb, feeble light bleeding down the rim and along the curved edges; however earnest our awe, however tender our care, a jar was no place for fireflies.
And that is what writing hip-hop feels like. I have been writing and rewriting my lovehate letter to the music for probably as long as I have known I could do so, and that letter has always felt incomplete, hollow, wrong, like the tourist map to the city, or some other version of not quite what I wanted. As it turns out, hip-hop cannot be written about like a moment or a movement or a thing you can feel around the edges of: you have to start the story with you, you have to hang your whole neck out on the line, you have to story it like a relationship, like dialogue, like a moving, breathing light that will die overnight in your jars.
The challenge, it seems, is singing the pain in an octave that can be heard over the din of others who are here to to injure the music, silence it, kill it. Critiquing hip-hop lands you in a room full of people you would not trust to tie your shoes and is the surest way of being misheard. The genre is rightfully defensive in a world more poised to blame black suffering on hip-hop than the poverty, racism, and state violence that inspires the music in the first place; and has, for better or worse, become the figurative barbershop for mostly brown and black men to just be when other institutions and spaces, including those guarded by the black intelligentsia, deny them entrance, let alone a position and voice at the table. I know, have witnessed, even lived what it is for a song on the radio to keep you afloat, for the music to find your letters and read each one out loud. All this gets to the real danger of being a black woman who wants to sit hip-hop down and tell it about itself: we are not extraterrestrials, but we come in peace and we’re gonna have to hurt the feelings of some folks we call family.
Radio hip-hop is not all that the music is and nuance is important here, but delicacy can also distract and silence the cultural interrogation the genre deserves. Honoring hip-hop’s turns and twists, its underground, and its wonderful exceptions should not rob me of language to talk about the way hip-hop as a whole has also been riddled with fantasies of killing, raping, trading women like collateral in ego wars, metaphorizing their vaginas as upholstered furniture, cars, and the bodies of slaves; and telling them they are ugly and worthless and nothing but the sum of unrealistically proportioned parts. I need the language to be able to point out the worst of the music, but also the subtle ways we women are told and have been told we ain’t shit in even the sweetest of love songs, by the most “conscious” of artists. Not to mention the industry’s staggering scarcity of mainstream video directors and MC’s and the steep price women who do brave it out must pay, whether they are hip-hop journalists, directors, video stars or rappers, or are listeners, fans or lovers. I’m tired of my back being the prop for some lazy or wack rapper with a semi-hot beat to rest his enfeebled manhood on. This is not just about my hurt feelings: I’m tired of folks feeling safety and solace in and disguising what is otherwise lack of talent in throw-away lines that shit on me. There is no courage or novelty about shitting on black women. To be a black girl in this world, to get out of bed with this crazy idea that we can love and be loved ,that there is beauty and worthiness in ourselves is a radical act of war, and if you are a poor, black girl, it is a Godless prayer. If any form of artistic expression were as committed to dismembering, disrespecting, and dismissing black men as hip hop is to black women, we would appropriately boycott and protest it into accountability. And black women would be front and center of such a movement.
I stand in full solidarity with the folks who have decided that the only way to wake up the hip hop industry is to boycott it. I also understand the folks who have decided that turning off the radio is the only way to heal. Some have met firewalls after decades of speaking out, against and for the music that once entranced and now holds them hostage. But I’ll speak for myself when I say I’m not going anywhere. Hip-hop is mine and I want to be there to hold it to the fire. I want music that confronts the full range of who women are. I want it to stare us in our eyes, love and hate us the hard way, for it not to erect bruised egos from the ashes of the broken and the voiceless. I want courage, creativity, honesty. Another kind of song to shake my ass to. I want more. Misogyny in hip-hip is only partially about us not owning the labels and the stations; and only partially about an industry organized around satiating white suburbia’s appetite for black nihilism; this shit is also deeply about us: about our pathologies that keep us alive but broken in a racist, capitalist world and, more specifically, about us not loving our black girls enough. Which is metaphor for the other ways we don’t stand up for and defend our black girls; the way we don’t march for them or create institutes for them or statuses about them. If I hear another lazy recitation about how upwardly mobile black girls are outpacing black boys in college enrollment as a defense for why black women aren’t dying and in need of our own kind of saving, I will scream.
So I’m sticking with hip-hop but I am going to pledge to be the biggest pain in the ass I can find the energy to be and I’m asking all my other hip-hops heads, especially my brothers, to be the same. There should be commercial consequences, editorials, hot-seats, unbought albums, sunken chart spots–a culture of accountability– for these knuckleheads (even, perhaps especially, for the talented, deep knuckleheads) because power does not cede to thoughtful blog posts or polite black student union discussions. Nah, bruh, you cannot swipe a credit card down my ass, literally reduce me to a transaction, and offer up some bullshit excuse about the video starlettes being well-paid, consenting adults. Don’t joke about sneaking drugs in my drink; you ain’t beating my box up like Mike nor will I eat the cake; and you’re not putting a fist in me like a civil rights sign. Fuck. Out. Of. Here. What I’m asking for is hip-hop womanism to not only come in glossy, hard-covered books and not only from professors and right-wing politicians: the interventions have to be conversations but also failed business deals, pissed off Black Twitter, and cancelled concerts; and it has to happen in rooms full of nothing but men; studios, barbershops, concert halls, clubs, bedrooms, and during those long drives from one city to the next–if not to change an industry, then at least to change the signals we send our black girls about their beauty, their value, and how much their lives matter. I want people to feel more urgent about the existence of black women and girls–in our activism, in our love, and in our songs.
If Nipsey Hussle can sell a $100 mixtape to rebel “against an industry that has tricked us all into making products that have no soul for fear of not being heard” and Beyonce can independently release a surprise album to bridge what “gets between the music, and the artists and the fans”–that is, if artists can stand up to the music industry in defense of their art–they can also stand up just as courageously for other things I care about–women, but also queer folks, anti-racism, freedom. This could be a good era for music, but only if we demand it.