By Joel L. Daniels | @JoelakaMaG
TW: Sexual abuse, Sexist/Homophobic Language
Rape culture and homophobia has long been a prevalent staple in Hip-Hop lyricism. It is as popular in usage as misogyny. Name any one of your favorite rappers or rap groups - Tupac, B.I.G., N.W.A., Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, Tyler the Creator. Shit, even Common; all have stuck their hand in the metaphorical homophobic and/or sexist jar.
“Suck my dick.”
The implications run rampant: sexual assault and very implicit sexual abuse to women right along with those who are deemed soft or not masculine enough to thrive in the coliseum are almost par for the course. That is the art of rap words. Those so fond of the golden era of Hip-Hop may be too awestruck to recognize the belligerence of some of our greatest heroes, many of which, if we played their lyrics out loud in mixed company, may invoke a few throat scratches and seat shifting. The LGBTQ community, women (specifically, women of color) and our young people, who are so often the victims of abuse, for years, have been calling for support of their voices and empathy for their hardships. And we have, in return, offered them empty rhetoric, and KRS-One.
I loved KRS-One. Growing up a young, nappy, Hip-Hop headed Bronxite, Chris Parker was Noah meets Che Guevara meets Amiri Baraka. When speaking on the elders, the pillars and foundation of the soil, bones, and infrastructure that is Hip-Hop as a culture, a music, and movement, Chris Parker could easily fall in the same category as Kool Herc, Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash, Grandmaster Caz, and the Sugar Hill Gang — legends. If you are a student of the roots of the music, you know his story. He was homeless, writing raps in the shelters of New York City, and teams up with Scott La Rock. From there, he creates the Bronx anthem (“South Bronx”), beefs with MC Shan and The Juice Crew, and proceeds to create one of the greatest diss records of all time (“The Bridge is Over”). He loses his D.J., Scott LaRock, to gun violence, makes a shift in ethics and begins making more socially conscious records. KRS-One becomes a Hip-Hop teacher, preaching the gospels and pillars of Hip-Hop which are deejaying, b-boying, graffiti, and emceeing.
KRS-One defined my experience as a budding emcee for years - the tapestry of the learnings, bobbing and weaving seamlessly into the day-to-day. Mine consisted of ducking gangs, bus stop razor blade scuffles, and chain tuckings on trains. These were the things that made up New York City in the early 90’s. This was the living for a majority of us in the inner-city; what we had grown accustomed to. I was never a Five Percenter or Zulu Nation member, never could identify with Israelite brothers bunched on corners dressed like afro-futuristic ghetto warriors spouting Whitey and anti-semitic views, but the lyrical content of the KRS-One’s and Poor Righteous Teacher’s of the world, that of knowledge of self, and supreme mathematics, colored my days, and made me want to be as Black as I possibly could be, and led to a desire for self-discovery and evaluation in a way that seemed non-existent before their arrivals.
Rape victims face many issues when attempting to go public with their abuse:the possibility of fear and ridicule at the hands of their community and peers, ostracization from the public, potentially even family,not to mention the victim shaming that can occur. During the month of April in 2016, The New York Daily News ran a story on Ronald Savage, a former congressman, who sat and told the paper that the Hip-Hop legend known as Afrika Bambaataa, had molested him. He spoke of being led into a room and asked to do things that an impressionable 12-year-old, who admired and respected one of the architects of the sound that helped create what we call Rap music, would do because he was simply asked Ronald to do it, and was told that it was normal. Ronald spoke about his interactions with women in his adult years, the difficulty of impotency, of hiding the past; Ronald expressed a need for New York to lift the statute of limitations on rape and sexual assaults. Ronald mentioned meeting with Bambaataa and members of the Zulu Nation, expressing a need for closure, and an admission of guilt by Bambaataa. He was, allegedly, given assurances that a public apology would be issued. He received neither. Countless men came forward following Ronald’s admission of what happened while touring with Bambaataa, one of them being Bambaataa’s former bodyguard They circulated in and out of Bambaataa’s tour-room. There are countless stories of inappropriate touching involving Bambaataa and boys who placed their trust in their idol.
The Zulu Nation offered its own verdict. The Nation described those who decided to come forward as ousted members who were seeking attention. By this time, KRS-One had already gotten on the radio, made a semi-fool of himself, and followed it up with an open letter on his site making more of a fool of himself, all the while plugging some upcoming projects. KRS’ suggests the victims are operating from a place of “hate”, and “revenge”. The posturing is endemic of the hip-hop community as whole, especially when it comes to the ramifications of admitting that pedestal in which someone such as a Bambaataa has been lifted upon may be a false one. KRS’ stance fall is in line historically with what has, at times, plagued hip-hop’s progression: we have long touted being the voice for the underserved, and yet remain stoically silent when addressing the concerns and grievances of our brothers and sisters who may need our voices the most. Our silence on matters of rape culture, on homophobia, on patriarchy, makes us just as implicit as those who carry out violence and use language that vilifies victims, as opposed to supporting them.
Even in a sensationalist news cycle, full of paparazzi fanfare and political farce, it seemed the noise had quieted. But KRS-One was not done. KRS-One would proceed to call the leaders of our community infallible (also, whether intentionally or unintentionally, throwing his name in the proverbial hat) and that greats such as Bambaataa deserve a pass. It is this, this act of blatant male privilege that lets Ray Rice back on the field, Chris Brown back in a booth, and Dr. Dre back running a record label. We are all flawed, yes, with no exceptions or exemptions, but where do those who feel unsafe and unheard go when systems created to protect no longer serve the greater good of the victims, but rather play the role of accomplice to our most popular and revered perpetrators? It is this that has brought us here. The implications are far-reaching — because if our leaders are untouchable, where does this leave us with the Bambaataa’s of the world, and how and where are the lines drawn?
The Sanctuary, Studio 54, 12 West, The 10th Floor - the clubs that housed Gay culture in New York City, and the sounds that would form the foundations of Hip-Hop which are reggae, R&B, rock, and afro-beat; have co-existed within arms reach of each other since the days of disco. The music and the creators of said music, danced, sweated, deejayed and emceed grooves in many of the same and more popular night spots in New York City, which so happened to be frequented by those in the gay community. Fab 5 Freddy sharing space with Boy George, Melle Mel rubbing shoulders with Sylvester. The surprise and shock of our current state of affairs have less to do with the deplorable actions of Bambaataa or the outlandishness of the words of KRS, and more to do with how outdated and backward we as a community can be, and proof of how far we have yet to go. It is the idea of homophobia, the fear of Black gay culture, and in particular the outing of Black gay celebrities, that keeps the conversations that deserve our attention, in their respective shadows. Whether it is the rhetoric of respected elders like Lord Jamar or any of the comments under a Frank Ocean YouTube video, old prejudices and ideas surrounding homosexuality still exist, and so does victim-shaming.
Legends, idols, prophets, leaders - all will fail, will wilt, die, deceive, and fall. And with them, the ideals and ideas tacked to their memory often fall along with them. Hip-Hop is changing before our eyes, becoming more inclusive, bridging more gaps, opening more doors for the voiceless in ways that were unheard of in the days when Boogie Down Productions was an affiliation and namesake a little kid from the Bronx could be proud of. From the androgynous rap stylings of Young Thug to the recent success of the openly gay, Young M.A to Pusha-T and Kendrick Lamar both being invited to the White House; Hip-Hop seems to have grown up. Unfortunately, when times change, sometimes the people do not. Hip-Hop is for the people. Some of Hip-Hop’s icons need to be reminded of such.
Joel L. Daniels is a writer, actor, father, emcee and dreamer, and story-teller, born and raised in the Bronx. He was the recipient of the Bronx Council of the Arts BRIO Award for poetry, and his work has been featured in the Columbia Journal, The Boston Globe, Thought Catalog, The Smoking Section, Blavity, Huffington Post, BBC Radio, RCRD LBL, URB, BRM, AllHipHop, The Source, RESPECT, and HipHopDX. He's spoken/performed at the Apollo Theater, Joe's Pub, Rockwood Music Hall, Columbia University, The National Black Theater, NYU, Webster Hall, Pianos, and Brooklyn Bowl.