In 2013, Miami rapper Rick Ross infamously made headlines for his verse on Atlanta artist Rocko’s hit song “U.O.E.N.O.”. In his signature baritone, he boasts, “[P]ut molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.” The backlash was swift: A petition demanding that Reebok sever its sponsorship deal with Ross quickly garnered more than 70,000 signatures. It was then delivered to the company’s flagship store in New York as part of a moderately attended protest organized by women’s group UltraViolet, at which activist and writer Wagatwe Wanjuki and a representative from the New York chapter of National Organization for Women made remarks.
Reebok dropped Ross, and the artist released a statement in which he claimed that the verse “does not reflect my true heart,” noted his own “power of influence,” and stressed the importance of having a “healthy dialogue” that, ultimately, never came. And though the “U.O.E.N.O.” verse was ultimately removed for radio play, fellow Maybach Music Group artist Meek Mill was among the fellow artists who came to Ross’s defense, arguing for his right to artistic license.
Ross’s insistence that art didn’t necessarily imitate life came at an especially awkward time: in October 2013, Atlanta rap legend CeeLo Green was facing prosecution in Los Angeles for an allegation of sexual assault. A 33-year-old woman claimed that Green had spiked her drink with ecstasy before assaulting her. Though Green was ultimately not charged with rape, his subsequent comments on assault, consent, and responsiveness drew wide condemnation. The Goodie Mob/Gnarls Barkley artist ended up serving 3 years probation for a felony charge of furnishing a controlled substance, and forfeited his position as a judge and coach on the hit competition show The Voice.
Both Ross and Green have since rebounded: Green recently performed at the Soul Train Awards with not much above a slight murmur of discontent, while Ross has gone on to several Grammy nominations and was just celebrated alongside 2Chainz in a Verzuz event. In the interim, the entertainment industry faced a reckoning driven by Black women that included the #MuteRKelly initiative, and Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement took hold of the world. But a substantive conversation about rap and rape culture—the “healthy dialogue” that Ross alluded to—has yet to drop anchor in the greater hip hop industry. Isolated conversations come in mercurial fits and starts, from D’ussépalooza to Russell Simmons and Charlamagne Tha God; but a framework around sex, drugs, consent, coercion, and rape culture continues to evade public reckoning, save for the ceaselessly uttered aphorism “believe women” repeated into toothless inutility.
These respective components are all critical in understanding why recent allegations against Atlanta rapper T.I. (né Clifford Harris) and his wife Tameka “Tiny” Harris, are gaining so much attention. Rumors about the couple’s erotic adventures and pursuits in what’s considered the strip club capital of America came to the fore in January 2021 when a former friend shared, via Instagram, more than 30 anonymous testimonies from strippers, escorts, and a few aspiring artists alleging that abuse, assault, and coercion are part and parcel of the duo’s rotation of threesomes and orgies. Many of the narratives land on similar beats: sex workers agree to spend time with the pair for pay, and are “loosened up with” or coerced into taking Schedule I narcotics—specifically molly, ecstasy, and cocaine—that result in loss of consciousness or responsiveness. A few stories even suggest that some of the women were minors at the time of the incidents— a loud alarm bell in a city where sex trafficking disproportionately affects Black teenaged girls.
The stories sound shocking and unfathomable—but in truth, we have been tacitly accepting versions of these narratives in the hip hop industry for some time. In a city like Atlanta, it is easy to read the robust strip club culture as sex positivity; but the devil-may-care environment simply contorts and masks power dynamics, especially when the dominion lies squarely in the hands of rich and powerful celebrities who frequent the premier establishments. That imbalance alone immediately skews the dynamics of determining affirmative and enthusiastic consent in sex work: you may have been willing to entertain, but what acts were you willing to performs and what boundaries were you able to establish? Sex workers are most protected when they are able to set the terms of engagement; the inverse allows for a slippery slope of encroachment that diminishes the worker’s ability to regain control of the situation should the interaction veer into discomfort.
Of course, this is all undergirded by Puritan American social maxims that affirm the taboo nature of discussing what is commonly considered alternative sexual lifestyles in polite company—particularly one with a strong basis in Black religious life. The subsequent compulsion for discretion and shame can make critical discussions around boundaries and consent difficult to draw out into the light.
This is the liminal space in which abusers and predators can manage to thrive under the guise of engaging in kink community: hiding in plain sight in a world where consent, power, and respectability politics remain intentionally tangled and unexamined, leaving Black women fend for themselves in the hedonistic fallout. For Black strippers and sex workers, this junction amounts to their being reduced to little more than a transaction of body parts, their humanity rescinded and empathy revoked, and dwindling faith in support from the authorities. Should you happen to be a repeat client, then your claim to abuse is somehow null and void; your acceptance of cash payment for any services disqualifies your eligibility to complain about mistreatment, as you have been reclassified as rentable property; and a failure of understanding around how a lack of decriminalization affects sex workers’ day to day lives leads to misguided expectations of their available options from law enforcement or other networks of accountability. Drugs add another layer to the conversation: despite many people’s reluctance to publicly acknowledge it, narcotics outside of marijuana are very enmeshed in hip hop culture, but sequestering the discussion into illicit corners prevents an ability to talk about safe practices for use, harm reduction or coercion, which can easily happen if someone tries to push past boundaries while under the influence.
In truth, we have been tacitly accepting versions of these narratives in the hip hop industry for some time.
T.I. has worked to mold himself into the “Family Hustle” image, presenting himself as the relatable sitcom dad of reality TV dreams. He was honored by the Georgia State Senate for his philanthropic work in the community, and has been named to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms’ transition team. But his rebrand as an elder statesman of the Atlanta petit bourgeoisie is still fairly new, and it’s likely that fans will reduce the narratives of coercion and assault to simply a smear campaign by a vengeful former friend; indeed, the Harris’s official statement and subsequent video responding to the allegations already suggests just that. Prior to these recent revelations, however, Harris had been lambasted for freely, even proudly, stating that he ordered recurring virginity tests for his daughter. In a recent episode of his podcast, he ruminated on the nature of heterosexual relationships, stating, “Think about a man who ain’t got no bitches and that energy, and how that is, and how that feels, and what it looks like. That’s what attracts you to that nigga, cause he has bitches, that energy. That ‘misogyny’ you speak so poorly of.” Moreover, the incident that triggered the recent cascade of stories was an allegation from a former friend who claimed that T.I. held a gun to her head. In other words, there’s no need to suggest that there’s a grand conspiracy to expose T.I. as abusive to women—he does a superlative job of expressing that himself.
I am unsure what will come of the allegations against T.I. and Tiny; history is never linear as much as it is a confluence of events that, as artist Ryan McGinness says, builds and feeds on itself. In this pandemic, the threads of events are spilling out quicker than I can trace them. Presently, we don’t live in a society where the abused get justice, either in our outside of the carceral process.
At the very least, however, we can work to have frank conversations about affirmative consent, pleasure, sex, drugs, and sex work—and give a safe platform for women to speak about the experiences they have in hip hop. Building a framework to empower the most vulnerable among us to hold the rich and powerful to the light for violating established social contracts is difficult labor, but endlessly essential; as the next generation of women artists, dancers, video vixens, and strippers start to make their way in the music industry, it is incumbent upon us to help ensure that the journey is markedly more protective, with less opportunity for abusers to perpetuate the myth of shades of gray in consent. Perhaps then we will truly start to believe women in action, rather than in mere rhetoric.