The Debate About Rap, Misogyny, and Homophobia

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Ashley Judd / Lil B (Photo: Rob Kim/FilmMagic, Judd; Erik Voake, Lil B)
Brandon Soderberg WRITTEN BY
Brandon Soderberg

The complex relationship between rap music, misogyny, and homophobia forever stays a talking point for hip-hop's chin-stroking faction. But in the past few weeks, such issues have crept into even the most casual discussions of the genre. There's just been a whole bunch of strange, freaky shit going on with hip-hop and sexuality lately, and much of it relates to what I've been trying to parse out here in the past few columns.So this week, I'm going to revisit some of those earlier ideas, throw out a few new ones, correct myself in a couple of places, and just generally trace how this discussion is evolving -- or in some ways, devolving.

ASHLEY JUDD: RAP CRITIC
Earlier this month, Radar Online posted a curious couple of paragraphs from Ashley Judd's memoir, All That Is Bitter And Sweet, in which the actress inexplicably critiqued hip-hop. Judd recalls a concert for AIDS awareness featuring, among others, Snoop Dogg and Diddy.

Those two names were "red flag[s]" for the actress, due to rap's "rape culture," and the music being, in her opinion, "the contemporary soundtrack of misogyny." There's a fascinating Catch-22 here -- Snoop and Diddy being called out for lending their names to the cause of promoting AIDS awareness -- and a really lunkheaded view of how misogyny is represented in popular music. As always it seems, hip-hop loses out because of its explicit language and lack of propriety. If only Snoop could think of subtler ways of being misogynous, like the country musicians and rock stars Judd undoubtedly listened to growing up.

The rap community was justifiably annoyed by the whole thing. Global Grind did its best Huffington Post impression and got Judd to type up an apology (that has since been removed); but the mea culpa was pretty frustrating, due to her complaint that she was being judged on just two paragraphs of an entire book. Of course, even if it was only one paragraph, blaming a perpetually stereotyped and maligned genre for "rape culture" is inexcusable. That said, it speaks to the power of the hip-hop generation -- and more accurately at this point, generations -- that Judd felt the need to clarify herself.

FRANK OCEAN VS. THE WEEKND
In the comments section of last week's column, "Female Trouble: Is Rap More Mature Than R&B?" reader "illz" rightfully called me out for skipping over an up-and-coming R&B sweetheart: "I'm surprised you didn't mention Frank Ocean; it's ironic that out of all the R&B singers out, the one who's in the Odd Future collective might have released one of the most mature R&B records [Nostalgia, Ultra] this year." Yes! And to further muddle this debate, the Weeknd are co-signed by rapper turned rapper/singer and all-around nice guy Drake, via his blog October's Very Own. As is often the case, this rap shit's complicated.

Drake was also left out of last week's discussion. Like Ocean, he's a rap/R&B hybrid heavily influenced by hip-hop's truth-telling and attention to detail. For Drake, it manifests in his old-school (by current R&B standards, at least) come-ons: How a girl looks sporting a ponytail and sweatpants, the specific type of blush she wears (NARS Cosmetics' Orgasm Blush). Ocean is a storyteller, which locates him as more of a singer-songwriter than a typical crooner, but plenty of MCs fit this mold, and there's no doubt that rap's macrovision is an influence on Nostalgia, Ultra. "Novacane" finds Ocean bemoaning R&B's "zero emotion," and narrating a story of him getting in over his head with a girl he first met at the drug-fueled outdoor festival Coachella. It's the anti-Weeknd song.

MISTER CEE: THREE WEEKS LATER
It was only a matter of time, right? A video interview has appeared with the man caught in a compromising position with legendary DJ Mister Cee. "Brooke-Lynn," as he calls himself, runs through all the grim, gossipy details of that fateful night as two knuckleheads chuckle and throw questions at him. It's like that Elliot Spitzer documentary Client 9 that had all the prostitutes talking about the type of dude he was and whether he liked to bang it out with his socks on or not, and how he liked to hear their opinions on politics. Yikes. Beyond all the obvious reasons one might stay away from this sort of activity (health/morality/career), the idea that these are the people who will paint the media picture of your character and life should be enough!

Despite this salaciously depressing video, the controversy and discussion around Mister Cee's arrest hasn't really gone anywhere. The DJ hasn't commented further, simply continuing his DJ sets on Hot 97 like nothing ever happened (a tribute to Gang Starr's Guru on Tuesday was excellent). Perhaps that will change when he goes to court in June, but by then, there inevitably will be some new controversy for gossip blogs and morning-zoo types to obsess over. Follow-up stories rarely have the same impact, anyway. Mister Cee's arrest may be well on its way to becoming a non-issue. Though that doesn't constitute the kind of homophobia-crushing "story" hip-hop progressives might be looking for, it certainly throws a wrench in further critiques of the genre's close-mindedness. The simple fact that rap has responded pretty maturely to the situation is comforting, and another welcome baby step towards understanding.

LIL B'S NEXT ALBUM: I'M GAY
During his performance at Coachella last week, Lil B told the crowd that his next album would be titled I'm Gay. Whether this was an onstage whim or something with a genuine plan behind it remains to be seen. But he does seem to be sticking with the statement, boasting that it will "change" the rap world, and getting the backing of producer Just Blaze during a radio interview with Sirius/XM. Rather strangely, GLAAD has even responded, challenging the rapper to actually take this seriously. Their statement's tone is more than a little condescending, but there's legitimate supportiveness too: "We hope that Lil B's album title is not just a gimmick, and is really a sincere attempt to be an ally. He has the platform and the voice. We hope he uses it in a positive way."

Lil B thinks in memes, so whatever gets people talking about him and encourages pageviews and retweets is the stuff he's serious about, but how this all actually manifests itself will be interesting. If GLAAD approves or not really doesn't matter. Lil B is many things, but he's not insincere -- whether he's rambling over an M83 song or confronting homophobia, it's clear that he's genuinely interested in ripping apart hip-hop conventions. The internet-obsessed rapper is also in a special position, unique to the rap scene in 2011. Lil B is popular -- he played Coachella, after all -- but he isn't signed to any kind of label, and therefore isn't beholden to the concerns of record executives or shareholders or the people who decide whether to stock his album in Wal-Mart. That means the only thing stopping Lil B from dropping I'm Gay is the Based God himself.

Even the death threats Lil B says he's received aren't changing his mind. On Thursday, he told MTV: "I'm a keep pushing for the human rights and for people to be happy and the people to speak and you know what, I'm not gonna stop and I'm not scared of anybody on earth."

All these events point to hip-hop at a crossroads moment right now, which is as nerve-wracking as it is exciting. Every one of these new controversies brings with it anxiety about the other shoe dropping -- what rapper will bust through, say something stupid or cruel or opportunistic, and be allowed to dominate the conversation? But as of yet, that hasn't happened. And in the case of Lil B, the controversy itself hinges on something progressive being spouted and not run-of-the-mill ignorance. Even R&B's date-rape creepiness has its corrective figures (Drake, Frank Ocean). The most close-minded person in this series of hip-hop talking points is a white second-generation celebrity, which isn't surprising, and is its own kind of problem, but at least it takes the onus off hip-hop for a minute.

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