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For Women, Love, and Hip Hop: A Reflection Eternal by Aja-Monet

By April 7, 2013Blog


“Women, more often than not, speak from a position of lack, of not having received the love we long for…Taught to believe that the mind not the heart, is the seat of learning, many of us believe that to speak of love with any emotional intensity means we will be perceived as weak and irrational. And it is especially hard to speak of love when what we have to say calls attention to the fact that lovelessness is more common than love, that many of us are not sure what we mean when we talk of love or how to express love.” –bell hooks

I love Hip Hop.  I was chillin in the belly of an emcee in 1987, ready to enter the cypher that is our world. I am my mother’s best battle rap. She stood in the playgrounds of East New York, surrounded by male emcees, with a poet in her womb talkin about, “My name is Baby E…” She taught me everything I know about love and patriarchy and although those two words are just about as alien to her as a Rick Ross lyric, she exercises these words in a variety of ways (unknowingly and sometimes knowingly). It has always been her range of doing what has been most difficult for some and yet rewarding for her, that has made the difference in my life. It is thanks to my mother, a single mother, that I know anything about the range of femininity. The energy within that encourages our nurturing sensibilities and recognizes the strength in vulnerability.  As I grew to learn more of the world I live in and the system that has conceived us, I have learned that love is a strength, a political motive and is perhaps the only transforming power we have to date. Love as a function, as an actual framework for discussion, confrontation, and solution will be what changes future generations from the past.

It is also because of my mother that I first learned of Tupac Shakur. My childhood was decorated with his lyrics.  I learned from the example of Tupac that though he was a controversial rapper, he was black, proud, and a spokesperson for a community that recognizes the power of Hip Hop and Poetry as a vital force against a corrupt white patriarchal system. When Tupac was indicted on rape charges in 1994, you could hear critics from all ends of the spectrum attacking him as an artist, individual, and a man. Here was a seemingly loved rapper accused of actions that attacked our sisters and by extension, our brothers. It was heartbreaking to see what was being said and yet what was actually going on in that case. What was the role of Hip Hop at the time? Was Tupac an evil criminal? Did he do it? Whose agenda was this public spectacle serving? In retrospect, when I look back at Tupac in interviews during the time of the indictment, his biggest critique was of us, his people. He pleaded for our defense, our understanding, and more importantly our reaching out.  Women all over rallied against the people’s favorite rapper and in part, as a result, Pac was quickly pigeon-holed into white music industry’s coining, “Gangsta Rap.” Was there any reconciliation for our beloved Pac? Was the rape part of a larger conspiracy and what was the responsibility of us, as his fans, and of him as an artist?

When Rick Ross came out with his “Tupac Back” song, I questioned his intentions in toying with the image of a monumental figure not only within Hip Hop but more largely, American History. Was he making a mockery of Pac? What did it mean when Ross said, “Brenda’s having my baby,” assuming we understood the characterization and condition of the infamous character Tupac once poignantly rapped about? Brenda was and still is a real voice in our community and while Tupac may have also had many controversial lyrics in the midst of his early 20’s, he most certainly addressed issues central to Black existence in America.

In 1992, Tupac was invited to speak at a banquet in Atlanta by the Malcolm X Grassroots movement. It is a speech that I often share with my students in an all-male populated rehabilitation facility. Tupac, first and foremost, acknowledged his mother, Afeni Shakur, and how he would not have been able to speak before Black activists and intellectuals without the nurturing love and politicization of her. He experienced the pain of watching his mother become addicted to drugs and affected by the larger problems of society. He further articulated how many Black leaders in the height of the Black Panther movement were sent to jail and as a result, the youth had been failed and subsequently relied on the hustlers in their communities to serve as educators. Hip Hop has evolved into the new hustle.  “It’s not just about you taking care of your child, but it’s about you taking care of these children… I can’t go to college, there’s too much problems out here. I don’t got the money, nobody do… In our strive to be enlightened we forgot about all our brothers in the street, all our dope dealers, our pushers, and our pimps. And that’s who’s teaching the new generation. Cuz y’all not doin it. I’m sorry but it’s the pimps and the pushers who is teaching us so if you got a problem with how we was raised it’s because they was the only ones who could do it… ” You cannot be no more offended by Ross’ lyrics than by what’s really going on. What I have reflected on over time is that though Ross is nearly twice the age of Tupac at the time of his tenure, he is just as much a part of the problem as he is a potential ally for building a solution. (Who was mothering Ross? What communities did he belong to, and who was he accountable to?)  How has he made it this far in life without addressing the role of his influence and his patriarchal conditioning?

Though I have always had my critiques of how men in Hip Hop have addressed women, I understood all too well that the root of patriarchy is not Hip Hop and that our men are as much victims of patriarchy as they are perpetrators of it, (Please read: “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love” by bell hooks). This realization aroused/sparked a few questions including: how has Hip Hop been used to serve agendas that negate the best interest of us? And who is truly benefiting off of the violence and crimes we commit against each other? I started to wonder about the record industry’s relationship to the Prison Industrial Complex, Hip Hop’s blind perpetuation of American Capitalism, and what the role of healing our traumas is for us activists.

As a poet, activist, and a human being—I am afraid for our future and how I, as a woman, and other women, as self-proclaimed feminists, may be forging into this new age with some naiveté about the ways we are unconsciously perpetuating patriarchy. No two people are the same. There is diversity in our blackness, in our womanness, in our being etc.  Perhaps, we can begin discussions about how we are specifically hurt by or affected by the aggressive nature and tone of discussions with men, the lack of urgency to issues central to our existence etc. Though it may be frustrating, disappointing, or insulting to see the amount of ignorance surrounding our suffering, I do not wish to see men suffer as we have. I wish to see us cease the need to cause each other pain by healing and dealing with ourselves and addressing each other with love.

In a recent Huffington Post web series, hosted by Marc Lamont Hill—Talib Kweli and Rosa Clemente exchanged words over the rape-insinuated lyrics spit by the infamous Maybach Music’s ex-correctional officer, Rick Ross. Having both witnessed and participated in far too many social network discussions, I have not only learned that sound bites of a discussion are rarely if ever accurate to the context of said discussion, but also that something real and intelligible is lost in the detached form of communication we find this generation taking to via Twitter, Facebook etc. The nature of human contact and connection is often lost in cyberspace. In fact, this piece can only serve to scratch the surface of the many ills of our society.

Donna Haraway wrote, as quoted by Chela Sandoval in Methodolgy of the Oppressed:

“Cyberspace seems to be the consensual hallucination of too much complexity, too much articulation. It is the virtual reality of paranoia. Paranoia is the belief in the unrelieved density of connection, requiring, if one is to survive, withdrawal and defense unto death. The defended self re-emerges at the heart of relationality. Paradoxically, paranoia is the condition of the impossibility of remaining articulate. In virtual space, the virtue of articulation, the power to produce connection threatens to overwhelm and finally engulf all possibility of effective action to change the world.”

The last few days have escalated into a spectacle of our egos and a car crash-esque scene of our best intentions via Twitter and blogs. I’ve had my fair share of rants on Twitter; my outlet to the world and to the stream of consciousness that is my “followers,” all of which came from deeply triggered spaces. Unbeknownst to me in those very triggering moments, I was disrupting a flow of thought, a groupthink if you will, with only a fraction of my character; imparting them with an assumption and sense of entitlement to my thoughts (as if they could read in those tweets anything about the nuance of my living). The lesson: you live and you learn. In this living and learning, I have come to understand what it means to take responsibility for my output and for my sharing. Also, how do these mediums engage us into action outside of an imagined realm. How do we make social change a real function in everyday society that does not create desensitized beings?

We may not all be able to control the circumstances of how we came to be the way we are, but that can change in the choices we make and our ability to think critically about both the world around us and our roles in it.  Some of us are not afforded the privilege of demonstrating formal critical thinking skills. Instead, many of us are just out here trying to make it day to day. We are in the midst of an economic crisis, a failing education system, an international turmoil, the probability of more war, and the list goes on. How are we separating these blatant issues from the discussion of our arts, its expressions, and the figures who we end up attacking? There’s a context to the stories told and the people we are addressing. None of these causes will be resolved by attacking the individuals and not the systemic problems that produces these individuals.

I imagine Kweli was speaking from an honest place when he tweeted, “Ross needs love and education on this issue. He has a platform that can be used for good, especially if he takes responsibility here.” I thought: Hm, well, okay. Instead of tweeting about it, how about you DO something. And so, I tweeted (as if that were doing something), “brothas banning togethr & creating a space for healthy discourse is possible. he could use some men reaching out to him on issue.” If we really care about each other, then we must reach out to each other and try to do something about the change we would like to see in the world. The doing, is the important part. How we feel, informs our doing and the feeling is what wavers upon our experiences of life. Empathy is an intricate part of our lives for women and men, equally. What is this doing actually? Doing can change upon any given situation, what we deem necessary to be done can be affected by the severity of our feeling. For some, writing and intellectualizing our issues is part of the doing. For many of us not afforded the privilege of articulating these “intellectualisms”, we tackle issues the best way we know how. For many people in poverty, the best way is making it out of poverty. Everything else is an afterthought. We witness this desire, in so many of our rappers in Hip Hop, which is essentially a microcosm of the bigger American Dream; the wish to attain financial success at all costs–the hustle.

When I sit with young Black and Latino men in halfway homes, prisons, and high schools, I listen to them. I once critiqued one of my students for finding Lil Wayne to be his favorite rapper. I said, “But he’s not a very positive role model. He disrespects many women…” To which this young Black man began to express the relationship that he felt he and Lil Wayne shared: to struggle, to defy all odds the system set for him to fail, and to financially attain a wealth that put him in the position to be heard. Though he could hear my frustration, he did not directly identify with it. I had to reach further. His conditioning as a young man was far more affected by the failing of a system than that of a Hip Hop artist. The artist was merely a coping mechanism, a dream and a vision. This does not take responsibility away from the portrayals of artists but it also demands context in our critiques of artists.

If I am ever to reach these young men: how do I first, see where they are coming from? What is their story and how do they get to be who they are? What is invested in our lack of education? Have they ever been loved, truly? What is love to us and how does it differ? How do we hold our brothers accountable without demonizing them? As women, how do we hold ourselves accountable in our critiques of men?

I once asked a young man, in the suburbs of Paris, who his favorite rapper was, to which he replied, “Rick Ross.” He noticed the grimace on my face and asked whether or not I liked Mr. Ross. I stated that he wasn’t my kind of Hip Hop. I was arrogant and defensive. Rick Ross isn’t even a great lyricist, I said. To which he replied, “Do you know what it means for young Black men here to see someone like Rick Ross make it? To be wealthy and successful? For many Black men here, it’s a dream we can never attain and we respect him for it.” It made me wonder about the role of Hip Hop in a larger world context. Too many of our men and women, of all ages, associate financial prosperity with freedom and so we find ourselves in the pursuit of profit at all costs, and thrust into positions of influence without ever having anyone to inform us of how to be accountable and responsible for our influence.

A few years back, I watched a New York Public Library talk with Cornel West and Jay-Z where West asked the question, “What is the connection between the hustler and freedom fighter?”  Jay-Z answered, “Maturity.” And maybe that is what hurt about Ross as well, his apparent lack of maturity and introspection, the seeming lack of concern for the outrage surrounding his lyrics, and his insincere apology via Twitter. More than I want to hurt him in the ways his lyrics hurt me, I want him to understand the root of this hurt. I want him to comprehend where that hurt stems from and how that hurt ricochets in society all around us. However, was it not us who took to the internet to address him? How sincere have we been in our critiques and in our doing? How do we channel this outrage into methods that address the root of his thinking? In raising these questions, I was also reminded of the Soulja Boy and Ice T beef, where Ice T insulted Soulja Boy and his contribution to Hip Hop as the sole reason for the death of Hip Hop. Soulja Boy responded, honestly and maturelywhere was Ice T when he was growing up? What example has he made for an artist like Soulja Boy and did he ever think to first reach out to him, to educate him, to love him enough to bestow some wisdom and advice? Many of these young men are products of a larger system that is fucked up. This is not an excuse. This is doing what love does.

This finally brings me to my larger and most crucial point: Black women and women of color have been writing about love as a political technology for years, and though Kweli may not have had the theoretical terms or quotes to support his attempts to build alliance with Black Feminist scholars, his ideas were grounded in the very essence of what we have all been claiming to be about in the first place. When bell hooks wrote extensively about love as a forefront for our means of attacking patriarchy, I recognized the severity of our lovelessness as a society and also the future I wanted to work towards. Is it not love that raises us into beings of maturity and growth, revolution and insight, strength and power?  

bell hooks wrote in her book, All About Love: New Visions

“Women have endeavored to guide men to love because patriarchal thinking has sanctioned this work even as it has undermined it by teaching men to refuse guidance…A useful gift all love’s practitioners can give is the offering of forgiveness. It not only allows us to move away from blame, from seeing others as the cause of our sustained lovelessness, but it enables us to experience agency, to know we can be responsible for giving and finding love.” –bell hooks

When did our emotions become antithetical to logic? Is our emotional intelligence not part of our struggle to use love as a mediator in our disagreements? Using our anger to inform our feeling selves of what is detrimental to our survival is only the preliminary stage of action, how do we use that anger to better serve our vision?

Audre Lorde wrote in her essay “The Uses of Anger”:

“Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision, it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change. And when I speak of change, I do not mean a simple switch of positions or a temporary lessening of tensions, nor the ability to smile or feel good. I am speaking of a basic radical alteration in those assumptions underlining our lives… But anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification, for it is in the painful process of this translation that we identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies.”

Many of us have used Twitter and blog posts in response to comments made about loving Ross through his ignorance. In the midst of this outrage, I read comments that were just as violent, vulgar, and as offensive as any rape lyric. Yes, we live in a world run with patriarchal values and which is totally off balance. Yes, Hip Hop participates in rape culture. Yes, Rick Ross is problematic and his lyrics are a part of a larger systemic issue. We have every right to be outraged. However, let us not imply that a world run by women, let alone anger, is the solution to a world run by men. Lest we forget the importance of both energies in the composition of society. Furthermore, Ross does not owe anything to anyone but himself.  To walk around with the arrogant assumption that he should care about what we feel and yet deny the space for love to transform him, is part of what detriments our efforts in dismantling oppression.

We need healthy discourse. We need more men willing to expose themselves so that we may better understand the gravity of the issues we are facing.  I am a woman that is willing to love and use love as an actual groundbreaking weapon against patriarchy exhibited by men and women the same. And not only does love serve as an empowering emotional reservoir, it is an actual resource that many of us lack in social change movements, discussions, and especially in contemporary feminist discourse. To even bring the word love into the discussion, is a step towards resolution. Rather than harboring on the qualities that separate us greatly from men and implementing the same behavior we know to hurt our feminine selves, let us explore the range in our femininity and to affirm men that make the efforts to do so as well. The most important part to note is that it is not our work to do alone. It must be done together. Yes, we need more men holding other men accountable. Get angry, be hurt, hold each other accountable and still, recognize the reality of love as a natural resource that everyone has the right to—just as much as our right to water, air, and food. It is a necessity, not a token of your appreciation.

What VH1’s “Love and Hip Hop” fails to demonstrate, amidst the drama and celebrity gossip, is that Hip Hop and Love are fluid. The culture could not exist without the many women who birthed them and loved them and also the men and women whose hearts have showed true devotion to a craft. To dismiss love as an emotional reward for some sort of exemplary behavior is not love. Male Hip Hop artists may do and say many things that I do not condone or agree with but they are no less deserving of open discourse and approach. Rick Ross is a human being that has the capacity to be transformed by the renewing of his mind and heart. I would like to see him choose to make that effort and to hope that there are individuals in his life invested in this effort, if they truly care about the root of his lyrics and not the spectacle of his celebrity.

What do we really want? Of all the things that rap has said and done, what has made this the tipping point? There has always been a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment merely gathered from “preaching to the choir.” In an era where social network affirmation is as critical to our young people as it has become to our elders, what has truly changed by a few likes, retweets, or reblogs in our causes? Have we imagined a future with resolutions, independent of the nostalgia of our pathos. I do not trust a future reliant on social media as our primary catalysts for social change. I’d argue that we could benefit from spending a little more time reaching out to each other. It is less challenging to sit behind a computer and banter about other people at a distance, and yet how many of us, literally, reach out and touch someone. Or would that be asking too much? To give the courtesy we are so often denied does not make us weak or powerless or less woman, it makes us human. I believe in our capacity to be transformative and to be transformed.

If Rick Ross gives his most sincere apology, what changes? How do we not band-aid the issues dealing with the root of his lyrics by attacking him and neglecting the system that produces the mentality that has allowed him to say, feel, and think things that counteract our efforts? There are many battles I am willing to fight. Who do I want fighting these battles beside me? Can I even trust that we are fighting the same battle based off of a term, a color, a sex organ etc?  We attack the symptoms of our illness and not the root of its disease.  We attack our artists and not the executives that sign these artists or the corporations that perpetuate the negative images of us, or the conditions in which they are raised to be. While we are all rallying around Rick Ross losing his Reebok deal, issues of abortion rights, marriage rights, student debt, food/agriculture injustice, prison industrial complex are left largely unaddressed by our communities with the same fervor and protest, with little to no organized response from Black folks.

I started this piece with the acknowledgement of my mother, a Black woman. She is an integral part of my story and everyone has a story. Everyone has an upbringing that has shaped him or her to exist in the world as they are. To neglect this upbringing is to neglect your own. Of course neither of us is more important in human history than the other. None of us are exempt from critique. However, love is what informs our ability to get along and to make the effort to recognize someone’s story so that we can better address our issues with solutions. Love implies that we have no other choice but to forge new paths, new methods, and to decolonize our hearts. May we live by example to create a better vision and world through our actions.

May I conclude with a quote by Audre Lorde:
“As we move toward empowerment, we face the other inseparable question, what are we empowering ourselves for? In other words, how do we use this power we are reaching for? We can’t separate those two. June Jordan once said something which is just wonderful. I’m paraphrasing her—that her function as a poet was to make revolution irresistible. Well o.k. That is the function of us all, as creative artists, to make the truth, as we see it irresistible. That’s what I want to do with all of my writing.”