Clockwise (from top left): Danyel Smith, Clarissa Brooks, Drew Dixon, and Shanita Hubbard
For all of hip-hop’s undeniable good, in 2020 it has seemingly counteracted every positive with a negative — and worse, one that further marginalizes or mistreats Black women. Talib Kweli went on a weeks-long abusive tirade against a Black woman. J. Cole’s first rap response to the moment was a song demanding Noname watch her tone when correcting him. After Tory Lanez shot Megan Thee Stallion, 50 Cent posted memes making fun of it while Cam’ron posted a transphobic joke about it. All the while, rappers like Cee-Lo were publicly clutching their pearls at the way “WAP” gave women agency over their bodies. And bubbling below the surface, as detailed in the documentary On the Record but muted by the hip-hop industry’s deafening silence, were Russell Simmons’ longstanding sexual assault accusations.
Admittedly rap is, like so many other cultural products, a symptom of the rest of the world. But while arenas are awakening — or being forcibly awakened — to their deep-rooted misogyny, hip-hop has avoided a true reckoning. The easy and most obvious reason for this is that, for the most part, the women feeling the wrath of rap’s worst traits are Black. The least appreciated, protected, and valued among us.
Let’s be clear about this: The onus of making hip-hop culture a space that values Black women lands on the men in charge. Black men have to advocate for and amplify these voices, but we also have to reckon with the ways — whether through action or complicity — we all act to perpetuate the cycle. So in speaking to these women, the intention is not to burden them with holding our hands through the process, but to hear their experiences and use them to challenge ourselves to demand more.
“I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that I have a right to even expect something of hip-hop as a woman. I had to fight and justify my existence in every room I was in my whole entire career.” — Drew Dixon
It’s a delicate balance, and one that evolves every day. But let this push us toward addressing what more we as a culture can do for the community that has given us so much — while we’ve given so little back.
LEVEL: When did you fall in love with hip-hop?
Shanita Hubbard (author of the forthcoming book Miseducation: A Woman’s Guide To Hip-Hop): That’s my favorite question to ask people. That’s like asking me “when did you love your mother?” I may have been nine or 10. I was listening to my brothers’ version of hip-hop. Whoever my brothers loved is who I loved. Hip-Hop didn’t become mine until high school, when I started to look for my own voice in the music. I started to become attracted to female MCs. I was a virgin spitting Lil’ Kim lyrics. There was a freedom around her sexuality that I didn’t have. I was attracted to this level of freedom that Lil’ Kim and Foxy had. I wanted voices that sounded like more of a version of free I wanted to be.
Clarissa Brooks (journalist and organizer): My intro to music was very mainstream. My mother played the radio, so I learned lots of R&B and Southern hip-hop. I didn’t fall in love with hip-hop, though, until high school. I grew up on Tumblr and fell in love over Tumblr. I found different niches there. I learned about Skepta, MIA, Azealia Banks; those were Tumblr artists who shifted my idea of what hip-hop was. It could be queer, loud, and disrespectful.
Do you still love hip-hop — and why?
Drew Dixon (music producer, central character in On the Record): I still love hip-hop with my whole soul. I feel strongly that it embodies so many of the best things about who we are and what we have been about really since we got here in 1619 in terms of the resistance and survival and Blackness. Hip-hop embodies it. And so I love it. I always love it.
Danyel Smith (former EIC at Vibe, author of forthcoming book Shine Bright: A Personal History of Black Women in Pop): I love what I loved from the beginning. It’s a space for us to tell our truth. It’s a space for us to create art from the heart. [Back then] we as young people didn’t have a space. It’s what drew me to hip-hop in the early ’90s. In the early 1990s, hip-hop was a subculture, which people forget. I was lucky enough to be a part of a vibrant scene in Oakland, California, that included Hammer, Too Short, Digital Underground, Tony! Toni! Toné!, En Vogue. I can’t overstate the amount of creativity and collaboration and competitive spirit and love of art and music that was going on at the time. I’m mentioning a lot of people in the Bay Area who got famous, but there was also a very amazing subculture to the subculture.
How is hip-hop failing Black women?
Clarissa Brooks: I could spend my whole life talking about that. I saw On the Record recently and had a panic attack because it was so difficult to watch. I think about my own lived experience; going to networking events isn’t safe if you’re a single Black woman. Hip-hop is failing us in its silence, in its inability to actually care about Black women wholeheartedly. Misogyny and patriarchy is the water we swim in.
You have Meg, one of the most prominent artists this decade, be shot — and hip-hop can turn on you, knowing a Black man harmed her. This is a lived reality of Black women, Black trans, and Black queer experiences. Black men are centered, and Black women, Black trans, and Black queer people are expected to show up time and time again and ask for that same focus, and it’s met with silence. So many Black marginalized people put on the line for people who don’t show up for them.
Shanita Hubbard: Think about Russell Simmons. There’s a cognitive dissonance because of who he was. We want to reframe what that looks like. Look at all the layers of protection Simmons can get. What if we gave that to Drew? She’s already so accomplished in the industry, but what more could she be? What if we gave these passes to some of the Black women in hip-hop culture? Meg doesn’t get a portion of the empathy that Russell Simmons does. Who would we be in our culture if we had a fraction of that protection?
Danyel Smith: One of the main things is there not being enough space for different types of women rappers. It’s still easier to be a successful woman rapper if you have an hourglass figure and if you come up through a mostly male crew… some of this is changing now, but it’s still difficult for women rhyming about non-straight relationships. And unless you’re somebody that’s a once-an-era artist like a Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim — there’s not a lot of room to just do you as a woman. There just isn’t. What doesn’t get talked about enough is how much more difficult the road is for most famous Black women to become who they are. I’m not saying it’s easy for Black men, but the road for women is relentless. It’s tough, unfair, and ugly. It’s awful. It’s dangerous.
I mean literal danger. When I was in my twenties, covering shows, [people] would tell me that I shouldn’t go, that it was dangerous, and if I did go, there was no one to blame but me if something happened to me. Bunches of my girlfriends were told the same thing. But it was my job. So I just brushed over stuff. I used to climb on top of speakers to not be with men either questioning why I was there, or trying to touch me. If I was backstage, people often assumed you wanted to have sex right then and there. They’d want to take you in the linen closet and I’m like, “I’m working.” Then they assume you want to get paid for sex. At the time I was running on adrenaline, and I took it as a part of the way things were.
Drew Dixon: That’s so hard because it’s obviously unfolding all around us in a way that Megan Thee Stallion has been not only ignored, but mocked and actively abandoned and disparaged by the community. Being in the hip-hop community, I never even gave myself permission to even ask for more for 22 years. So I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that I have a right to even expect something of hip-hop as a woman. I had to fight and justify my existence in every room I was in my whole entire career. Every day I started gaining momentum as a woman, proving that I deserve to be there, no matter how many hits I had.
Maybe I have more language about it when I think about what Black people deserve in America, then I think I can have more language for what hip-hop can do for Black women — and the answer is to acknowledge our contribution, acknowledge our humanity, and don’t ask us to walk around in the shadow of iconography and exalt abuse. I mean, I was raped by the king of hip-hop. I’m still healing and grieving and growing into that space where I’m even allowing myself to demand more.
How do Black men in hip-hop hold each other accountable?
Drew Dixon: It’s actually a lot simpler than people might think. Take the fact that 20 women have come forward with credible allegations [about Simmons]. The person at the top of the game was doing this with impunity. What are the implications for us as a community, beyond the person, beyond these 20 women? It doesn’t matter who you are or how much power you have. You don’t get to abuse women this way. And you certainly don’t get to call yourself the godfather of any great Black cultural genre and abuse the Black women who were part of that history. I think [men] should be saying this isn’t okay.
Just a simple retweet saying “this is not okay” would go a long way. Right now the silence is deafening.
Shanita Hubbard: It looks like Black men in our culture doing the work with us. When Meg got shot, I can count on one hand how many Black men showed up. It’s about showing up for abuse. It’s about unpacking your own shit in hip-hop, because you sound like White people. Black men, unpack the way you are mimicking White supremacy by deconstructing why you aren’t showing up for us. “We have to show up and be your shield and protector and savior” — say that in the barbershop. Say that with the guys. Be more introspective about why you are desensitized to this pain. Black men need to ask this question more because that’s where accountability starts.
What does it look like to be in a hip-gop that welcomes and values you — and that you’re not at odds with yourself to be a part of?
Danyel Smith: I want to start by saying by no means do I think these problems are special to hip-hop. But with that said, there are places where people are appreciated for more than their looks. These spaces need to be made more available to women, and to men. There was a time when none of us could vote — so things do change. I’m not this person who says “this is sexist, so it won’t ever change.”
Good people have to do good things and good work. I remember speaking to Women’s Audio Mission, a group that trains young women to be sound engineers. Sound engineering is a career that’s rarely offered to them. There would be classes at their schools in electronics, say, and that room wasn’t a safe space. Guys took it over. We need spaces that are welcoming to Black women, and free of the dangers we face so often.
Drew Dixon: We need to reform the C-suite and the record industry. People who rose to positions of power in that industry while enabling rape culture need to go. And I promise you, you don’t need to be a toxic human being to make hit records. I made hit records for a decade. So why don’t we find some of the people who aren’t toxic and put them in positions of power? It’s just like talking about the police — there’s some things you can’t reform. If the philosophy is toxic, the entire organization needs to be torn down and rebuilt. And a lot of these C-suites and the music industry needs to be torn down and rebuilt with the younger people and people who are not complicit in decades of rape culture and abuse.
Shanita Hubbard: It would look like walking in a barbershop and having conversations about what happened to Drew Dixon instead of those talks being DOA. Drew had a great career, but imagine what it could have been if she didn’t have to deal with Russell Simmons. It’s cute to do this on social media and on your timeline, but start doing this in places men hold sacred. Once that starts, it’s going to be a domino effect. When someone says we don’t have Black heroes to spare, let’s see these heroes include women.
Clarissa Brooks: I do feel like things are getting better, though, because people are making art for themselves and their communities. People aren’t interested in celebrity in the same way. I can think of so many Black trans and queer artists who make their own music and are fully supported. Cakes da Killa, for example. I’m happy that’s still possible in this day and age. I’m always trying to support those people. We all should.