Since its inception in the 1970s, hip hop has been predicated on free expression, civic (though not always civil) discourse, and communicating the ills of poverty and white supremacy. In 1988, N.W.A said “Fuck the Police,” and Public Enemy followed up in 1990 with “Fight the Power.” Over the past 40 years, many rappers have followed suit, making activism a core part of their brand. For instance, Meek Mill became a symbol in the fight for criminal justice reform after he was sentenced to two years in prison for a minor probation violation; Common is the face of Starbucks’s racial equity trainings; and Vic Mensa has become a leading voice on gun reform.
But while the hip-hop community is incredibly vocal about systems and structures that intentionally target Black men, its vanguards have been both the perpetrators of or silent about domestic violence and sexual assault, issues that disproportionately impact Black women. In May, Spotify announced a new hate content and hateful conduct policy that would stop the highlighting of music that “expressly and principally promotes, advocates, or incites hatred or violence.” Spotify then removed all of XXXTentacion, Tay-K 47, and R. Kelly’s music from promoted playlists, but kept their discographies available for streaming.
On October 8, 2016, 20-year-old rapper XXXTentacion was arrested and charged with aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, and false imprisonment for allegedly assaulting his then-girlfriend Geneva Ayala. After the alleged assault, Ayala launched a GoFundMe to pay for a surgery that would reverse the damage he caused to one of her eyes. (XXXTentacion’s fans accused her of fraud, and GoFundMe temporarily deactivated her page. She’s since raised a total of $36,450.) When XXXTentacion was murdered on June 18, he was facing 15 felony counts related to the assault, but his fans and industry peers remembered him as an icon, mental health advocate, and humanitarian. Tay-K 47 has been charged with capital murder and aggravated robbery, and he’s also a suspect in a fatal shooting that took place in April 2017 at a San Antonio, Texas Chick-fil-A. R. Kelly has been sued by multiple women for sexual assault and accused of operating a sex cult.
Only weeks after announcing its policy, Spotify rescinded its penalty against XXXTentacion after Kendrick Lamar allegedly threatened to remove his music from the service. Atlanta rapper T.I. posted a message of support for Lamar on Instagram with the caption “Salute.” Many fans encouraged T.I.’s message, and some even suggested that Spotify’s policy reversal should extend to R. Kelly as well, though his streams have increased since the ban. And in the wake of XXXTentacion’s death, Spotify placed a tribute to the rapper on its homepage, leading to his posthumous usurping of Taylor Swift’s single-day streaming record.
Black girls and women who are often the targets of the abuse are not worth defending. However, when the victim of abuse is a Black man or the perpetrator is white, Black artists, including Lamar and T.I., often use their platforms to seek justice. Lamar’s hit 2015 song “Alright” is often played during Black Lives Matter rallies and protests, and his 2016 Grammy performance brought awareness to America’s mass incarceration of Black men. T.I. has been even more vocal, filling his Instagram grid with posts calling attention to police brutality, Donald Trump’s latest atrocities, and the hypocrisies of the criminal-justice system.
In May, T.I. sat down with popular New York radio show The Breakfast Club to lambast Kanye West for insisting that slavery was a choice and supporting Donald Trump. “You said you’re leading with love,” T.I. said. “If you loving this man [Trump] is hurting these people, what makes him worth so much to where it cause these people so much pain?” Given T.I.’s choice to challenge his friend’s anti-Black commentary, it is notable, then, that he does not hold his peers publicly accountable for domestic and sexual violence.
But it is not surprising. The hip-hop community, and the music industry that profits from it, have always accepted Black men’s violence against Black women and rewarded them with success. From Dr. Dre assaulting his ex-girlfriend Michel’le and journalist Dee Barnes to Tupac spending eight months in prison for sex abuse to XXXTentacion’s sophomore album ? debuting at the top of the Billboard 200 after he allegedly beat his pregnant girlfriend, violence against women has been commonplace and occurs without serious consequence. In 2014, hip hop and R&B producer The-Dream was arrested for felony assault and strangulation after his ex-girlfriend accused him of punching and kicking her while she was pregnant.
Just last year, he released new music with Vic Mensa, Ty Dolla $ign, Fabolous and Meek Mill, among others. In March, a video of rapper Fabolous emerged that showed him threatening his girlfriend, fashion stylist Emily B, and her father after she claimed he knocked her teeth out. He is currently finalizing a plea deal on charges related to the incident, but his music still plays on the radio and he recently released a song with Lil Kim. In April, Kelis detailed her physically abusive marriage to Nas; he released a new album, Nasir, on June 15 and will be headlining One Music Fest in September. (The festival’s lineup also includes Kelis.)
This pattern of excusing abuse and rewarding the abuser repeats in part because Black men often struggle to balance their victimhood with their predilection for wielding patriarchal power over women. In assuming the self-proclaimed position of “most oppressed,” many Black men believe they cannot be the cause of anyone else’s oppression. When Black men are considered the antagonist, suddenly justice and accountability become synonymous with persecution. T.I. and his supporters defended XXXTentacion because they “believed in due process.”
Black men must expand their activism to include issues that don’t center them and acknowledge that white supremacy is not the only aggressor Black people face.
Musicians, in their view, should be deemed innocent until the courts determine the validity of a victim’s claim, even when, in the case of XXXTentacion, a damning 50-page deposition is obtained by Pitchfork and made public. Yet, when a police officer is accused of brutalizing a citizen, there is rightfully no call to “wait for all of the facts” before demanding justice, and when the courts fail to convict officers of misconduct, the assumption is that the system did not value the victim’s life, and thus, chose not to hold the officer accountable. Not applying this standard to Black male artists reflects the assumption that the accusers must be lying or simply, that the victim’s life is worth less than the abuser’s.
Black women are often asked to live as though that latter assumption is true, bear the weight of the Black community’s emotional trauma, and explain away the sins of Black men, which frequently means taking blame for abuse or excusing an abuser’s behavior. As the Women of Color Network notes, Black women may be less likely to report abuse in order to protect Black men from the penal system. But when four in 10 Black women are the victims of intimate partner violence, more than 20 percent of Black women are raped in their lifetimes, and Black women were two and a half times more likely to be murdered by men than white women in 2015, it is clear that the problem is systemic.
In the music industry, this means setting clear consequences for abusers. Rather than shirking under backlash, platforms like Spotify should use their influence to demote artists whose actions explicitly victimize others. Plainly, the music industry must stop rewarding men who abuse women with record deals, promotions, and brand partnerships, and start financially and socially penalizing them. As the #MeToo movement has shown in Hollywood and media, industries must acknowledge their complicity in sexism and misogyny and create a culture that’s safe for women.
Within the Black community, specifically, Black men must expand their activism to include issues that don’t center them and acknowledge that white supremacy is not the only aggressor Black people face. Black men must participate in real conversations about the ways in which they oppress Black women, especially those who are poor, disabled, and/or non-cis identifying. Black men have to take each other to task for their behaviors; if Kanye West’s peers can openly critique him for supporting Trump, they can keep that same energy about their peers abusing women. To end misogynoir, Black men need to understand, fundamentally and intimately, that they are not free until Black women are too.
UPDATE: This story was updated on July 13, 2018 to change the sentence “In the music industry, this means setting clear consequences for abusers” to “To address this horrific pattern, the music industry must set clear consequences for abusers,” per the writer’s request.