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I was 9 when my stepbrother burned me a Kanye West compilation CD. All Falls Down was my alarm tone for years. My dad still drives around with the OVO owl sticker I plastered on the family car. I grew up loving hip-hop, which often meant loving something that hated me.
As a Black woman, feeling betrayed is commonplace. We are failed not only by the social and political structures we exist within but also by the artists whose work colors our lives. I experience this so regularly that I was not surprised to learn that R. Kelly, currently on trial for sex crimes and racketeering, is credited on Drake’s highly anticipated new album Certified Lover Boy, which is—to make matters even worse—host to a song where Drake calls himself a lesbian. Fetishization, how original. This came less than a week after Kanye dropped his latest album, Donda, which features Marilyn Manson, another artist with multiple abuse allegations against him—it’s easy to lose count. (He has denied these accusations.)
The truth is, I expect nothing from celebrities, and neither should you. Most times, they simply don’t have the range. And yet Black entertainers are often treated as social and political representatives of our race. Former President George Bush, a man who presided over the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq, said Kanye’s 2005 callout was the “worst moment” of his presidency. Within a week of its release, Drake’s album inspired a new meme format that appeared on the corporate social media accounts for Pepsi, Amazon, Adobe, and more. Imagine having all that influence and using it to fund an alleged sex offender.
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So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that either rapper associates with alleged abusers. But to do so on albums dedicated to your mother and to the women who made your career? Fans like me? They’re playing in our faces, confident that there won’t ever be any real consequences. Misogyny isn’t a deal breaker for them, it’s a corporate marketing strategy.
Drake is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He has Aaliyah’s face tattooed on his back and R. Kelly in his liner notes as a cowriter. Drake’s art wouldn’t be a financial vehicle for the man who allegedly abused Aaliyah if Drake himself saw her as a human being. Kanye clearly misses his mother, yet his behavior reveals a deep hatred for women like her. I don’t have enough time or patience to list all the particulars of Kanye’s personal brand of toxic masculinity, but a highlights reel might include the time he told Wiz Khalifa, “You let a stripper trap you” and “I own your child” in reference to Amber Rose and her then-2-year-old son.
Rappers do not have the individual influence to end the patriarchy, but they do have the power to stop reinforcing it.
One way to start? Work with the industry’s most interesting players: women rappers.
Lauryn Hill was the last Black woman to win the Grammy for Album of the Year. That was more than 20 years ago. Missy Elliott has been running laps around her peers visually, sonically, and lyrically for almost 30 years. Nobody is touching her. Lil’ Kim sprinted so Nicki Minaj could soar. (Although I’m not feeling Nicki right now, all these rappers are her sons.) Megan Thee Stallion can wash any male rapper in this generation. Doja Cat performs on a level that your favorite male rapper just doesn’t—thanks to laziness or lack of talent, who knows.
Each of the women I just mentioned had to work three times as hard to earn a modicum of the respect and opportunities we so generously award male rappers simply because they’re men. This is costing the art form.
The abysmal number of women rappers on Certified Lover Boy and Donda has nothing to do with ability and everything to do with misogyny. I’m supposed to believe that space wasn’t an issue for legendary capitalist Jay-Z to wax on about his wealth and status on both rappers’ projects but Kanye couldn’t fit Andre 3000’s reverence for his mother on Donda? Instead, Drake leaked Andre’s heartfelt verse (“Miss Donda, you see my mama, tell her I’m lost”), reducing Andre’s pain to a pawn in a hypermasculine pissing match between the two artists.
But the thing is, Drake and Kanye wouldn’t have any fans if they were the only people who held these values. We’re all complicit. The fact that anyone can see the liberation of Black queer women as tangential to their own is fascinating to me. The most protected Black people are cishet men, and they use hip-hop to reaffirm power they don’t have in white spaces—at the expense of the same Black women and queer folk who made them into stars. Drake and Kanye need to remember that anti-Blackness, homophobia, and misogyny arise from the same constellation. When we legitimize abusers who pose a threat to the psychological well-being of Black women and queer folk, we stall our own liberation.
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Things get worse when you remember that misogyny in popular music is often echoed and affirmed in policy. The Texas abortion ban legally empowers people like R. Kelly. Black women are victims of violence twice as often as white women—which is why it was so disturbing to see Kanye sharing a stage with Marilyn Manson during the third listening party for Donda. Also onstage that night? DaBaby, who recently made a series of harmful homophobic comments about AIDS and then doubled down on them when fans got angry. Mind you, Black people accounted for nearly half of new HIV diagnoses in 2018 because racism is a barrier to health equity. Drake, for his part, chose to frame financial abuse of women as a flex (“Imma fuck her friends and send her back to Metro housin’”) in a climate where 25 states just cut unemployment benefits in a pandemic. Drake and Kanye have aligned themselves with institutions that protect their manhood, cis-ness, heterosexuality, and wealth, and they don’t appear to be looking back.
It’s 2021—the folks Kanye enrages aren’t white conservatives anymore. The same guy who said “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” later declared racism was a dated concept. Then he became a billionaire and said slavery was a choice. Kanye “got on”—behavior he himself foreshadowed in his 2005 hit “Gold Digger”—and alienated his Black fans for white approval. To paraphrase Malcolm X, there’s no disloyal Black leader that has not been endorsed by white people.
Personally, I’m not holding my breath for accountability in a capitalist society that protects profit over people. But I want a safer world, and sometimes that means deplatforming people who cash in on violence.
If you’re tired of reading op-eds like this, imagine how exhausting it is to write them. Leaving misogyny uncriticized allows it to proliferate; responding to it generates free press. But we can’t wait until the next album drops. We have more than enough reasons to deplatform Drake and Kanye West today. Doing so won’t abolish white male supremacy, but it will benefit the women of hip-hop and protect those whose talents don’t inspire harm.
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