2020 Was a Banner Year for Letting Black Women Down
Illustration: Franco Égalité

2020 Was a Banner Year for Letting Black Women Down

Instead of holding each other accountable, Black men rushed to support celebrities who displayed the worst of us

Illustration: Franco Égalité

Hip-hop’s brooding edgelord antagonism toward Black women didn’t appear out of nowhere — blame Western patriarchy for that — but it’s thrived because of power-hungry Black men. And in 2020, no instance made this clearer than what went down between Megan Thee Stallion, Tory Lanez, and an internet full of hip-hop fans.

The story’s been told, but it bears repeating. In July, after a post-party dispute, Tory Lanez shot Meg in both her feet. She posted pictures of them, and after some diplomatic restraint explained the whole story on her Instagram, calling out Tory’s team for seeding lies to hip-hop blogs. Rather than show solidarity in the midst of a clearly traumatic situation, hip-hop icons from Cam’ron to 50 Cent took the opportunity to get jokes off instead. That, in turn, stirred up their own followers — most of them Black men, and many of them exhibiting big incel energy — to vent their own unnecessary feelings.

It got worse: Lanez not only denied the allegations, but released a hateful album that effectively called Meg and those who believed her liars. Throughout the debacle, men clowned Meg in one breath, and questioned the truth of her injuries in the next — somehow both silencing and abandoning a Black woman in need. The saga became a spectacle of overlapping atrocities, but despite its extremity it represents a daily concern for Black women everywhere. When these violences happen to women with platforms, a torrent of men fill their space with brutish, facile fuckery. Whether questioning, silencing, harassing, or outright abusing Black women, prominent Black men become lighthouses of toxicity, attracting abusers and those who support them. And this year, we witnessed that phenomenon a deeply unsettling number of times.

If 2020 showed us anything, it’s that for every boneheaded famous man demeaning Black women, there are countless others who will ride with them regardless of what they do.

If there remains any question about why the hate for Black women has yet to be solved by Black men, one look at a comment section — full of Black men high-fiving and one-upping one another for punching down on vulnerable Black women — might provide some hints. Famous men have a way of not just dismissing the harm they cause, but perpetuating even more violence through their followings. If 2020 showed us anything, it’s that for every boneheaded famous man demeaning Black women, there are countless others who will ride with them regardless of what they do.

There’s not one mode of abuse. Instead, it’s a network of interlocking offenses — harassment, physical violence, gaslighting, inflicting emotional trauma — that often reveals a man’s character. That’s not to say that every instance in 2020 encompassed all those violations. On the more trivial end of the continuum sits the hermetic J. Cole, who this summer released “Snow in the Bluff,” a sudden loosie taking aim at Chicago rapper Noname. As Noname had begun digging into Black radical politics and organizing a book club to help enlighten others, she called out unnamed music peers for being silent amidst uprisings against police brutality. It wasn’t the criticism that bothered Cole, but rather, as he said on “Snow in the Bluff,” her “queen tone” and her upbringing in “conscious environments.”

Cole’s pointedness on this random drop rang strange to the rest of us who were staggering under the combined weight of a pandemic, riots, and an upcoming election. Why come for Noname at all? She asked as much in her response, “Song 33,” rapping, “Wow look at him go / He really ’bout to write about me while the world is in smokes? / When his people in trees, when George was begging for his mother saying he couldn’t breathe / you thought to write about me?” Her teasing out Cole’s misguided egoism crystallized what we all felt in the moment: his outburst wasn’t just untimely; it was silly.

Unfortunately, Cole wasn’t alone in wanton ridiculousness when it came to dealing with Black women this year. Consider Talib Kweli’s unhinged two-week harassment of a 24-year-old student activist named Maya Moody in July. The spark that set him off? A thread of rappers who were married to light-skinned women. Talib accused Moody of siding with white supremacists, unleashing his followers on her; for months afterward, they threatened her with sexual abuse and physical violence, doxxing her and posting pictures of her family. As for Kweli, he was finally banned from Twitter and Instagram after two weeks of steady abuse on those platforms — all while he denied ever cyberbullying anyone. Where were the men in his circle condemning him for that kind of behavior?

Sad as it sounds, look to hip-hop. The foundations of the culture were based on the freedom to talk your shit. So when Black women started conversations about rap’s prolific use of “bitch” and “ho” in the ’90s, counterarguments cried that censorship had no place in hip-hop. Ever since, Black women and womanists have had to enjoy hip-hop through a sort of cognitive dissonance. It’s the “they not talking about me” endaround. One has to separate what they know to be true about the music: that Black men both within the walls of hip-hop and without are no less capable of humiliating them than anyone else in the world. In fact, due to proximity, it’s more likely.

Through our violences, we place women at odds with a beautiful, expansive culture that they have to either actively resist or end up being victimized by. That’s a heartrending proposition. Luckily, the space being made for femcees in the last decade of rap has expanded to include some of the most forward thinking and immensely talented artists in music. From icons like Nicki Minaj, Lil Kim, and Missy Elliott to in-the-makings like Meg, Cardi B, Rico Nasty, and Tierra Whack, these artists have seized and upended the same misogynistic tropes used to hem them in. Spitfire verses and indelible charm catapulted their names into the pantheon of hip-hop lyricists. Their sample choices — often veering into the sounds of ’90s rap patriarchs who once denounced them — developed new worlds around old sounds, giving shape to femme narrative of liberated body and conscious.

Yet, too many Black men are accustomed to only hearing themselves in their headphones. And so again and again, we hear and see them being unable to recognize the worth of female artists — whether they’re rapping about their sex lives, their politics, or just their regular degular existence. If men were looking to come to grips with their own toxicity, listening to autonomous women articulate themselves on wax isn’t the worst place to start. But it cannot end there.

What’s particularly abhorrent about this terrible year in pitiful Black masculinity is that this isn’t just a celebrity issue. It’s that once a violation becomes public knowledge, it’s other people — fans, or just reactionaries — who so willingly amplify the violence that a single man can do. Acts of violence bring these men together. It’s not until a very public controversy happens that the echo chambers are punctured and we’re all able to see one another for who we are.

The fact is, there can’t be any true resolution until men understand how self-destructive their lack of accountability is. How not sharing the slice of freedom that hip-hop has afforded us dehumanizes us as much as it does Black women. Black men have become singleminded and greedy with their empathy, ignoring our violences against women and pushing back against their lived realities out of some blind “loyalty to the race.” As loud and revolutionary as the Black male spirit claims itself to be, we still do not have the courage to check other Black men when we know they’ve done harm.

This shit isn’t pathological. It is taught. And we’ve learned how to violate one another from the best. There is no resolution until there’s been revelation; no revelation until reckoning. If Black men aren’t willing to be re-educated by one another — or the patient women who still have the bandwidth for the task — hip-hop’s kamikaze flight along gender lines will be its most tragic legacy.