For David Perez, Hip-hop was a means of acquiring an identity, but it came with baggage that he still finds himself lugging around.
I guess that what I would say about why misogyny persists in my private life is that, at times, it feels really good. Misogyny sells because it is the default social mode, but also because it can feel deeply satisfying in abstraction. Yelling “bitches ain’t shit but hos and tricks” is a particularly cathartic expression of masculine id, most especially because it is so obviously removed from reality. Escapism is vital as a release from conscientiousness, because moral crusading, though necessary, is tiring and tiresome.
There are times where I just want to put on “Slob on My Knob” or “Put In Her Mouth” on full blast and laugh my ass off at the sheer audacity of the lyrics:
Slob on my knob, like corn on the cob
Check in with me, and do your job
Lay on the bed, and give me head
Don’t have to ask, don’t have to beg
It’s different to me now that I’m not 15 anymore, but I feel like I’m 15 when I hear it. Most of the time, dealing with the contradiction between this and what life is actually like is quite simple. There’s what gets played by myself or with my domino buddies, and then there’s how I treat the various women in my life. It is easy to compartmentalize because it doesn’t feel important.
And yet it is difficult to reflect and say that this is particularly healthy. I’m 26, and can separate fantasy from reality, but I recall it being far more difficult to do so as a teenager and even into my college years. Projecting masculinity to my male peers was just as important as trying to court females, sometimes more so. I didn’t want to hear about respecting women and honoring mothers and peace and bullshit. That shit was boring. I wanted to hear about guns and drug running and “Yous a Hoe” and “Hoochie Mama” because that life sounded like fun. Sometimes, it still does.
As always, my brain and my balls disagree about what’s best: a world of fairness, respect, and equality, where women can lead dignified lives unhindered by discrimination, or a world of disposable, supplicant nymphomaniacs solely designed for my pleasure. I know that this division between my testicular impulses and intellectual desires is a false dichotomy, but allow me the delusion. Such tucking away impulses into discrete parts of life is simply a matter of convenience. Upon close examination, consistency is difficult. Perhaps that’s one reason politicians of all backgrounds and persuasion have imploded with such regularity: how can we ask them for constancy and solidity if we can’t offer that for ourselves?
To be sure that I wasn’t just being lazy, I asked my friend Justine, an ardent fan of hip-hop and dyed-in-the-wool feminist, what she thought:
Just as you recognize the different forces pulling on you, so do I, a young woman who is nothing if not a feminist and a lover of music—especially rap and hip-hop. The forces pull on me too – the unimaginable allure of a knocking beat and clever lyrical references paired with the cringe that contorts my face when the inevitable sexist and homophobic showcases of hypermasculinity boom through the speakers. The way only way to avoid cognitive dissonance and a complete breakdown about one’s belief system is to compartmentalize the most problematic words and phrases—as you pointed out, this is sometimes easy thanks to their sheer absurdity.
However, the misogyny that is so clear in rap lyrics (positive, life-affirming hip-hop hereby excluded, of course) doesn’t always stay in its place and does impact our daily lives. At its worst, it is a culture that devalues women, excuses rape, domestic violence, and bailing out on fatherhood. Even though I place a high premium on truly living one’s beliefs, I just can’t seem to pry the Lil’ Wayne album from my own hands.
Justine is obviously as bright and insightful as they come. She expressed hesitation at passing judgment over hip-hop lyrics as “a white girl from New Mexico,” and this gave me pause. It brought up some unpleasant memories and thoughts about the issue of legitimacy.
As a Puerto Rican kid who grew up in a predominantly African-American and West Indian neighborhood in the Bronx, plenty of what I listened to on Hot 97 or on my CD player (dating myself here) reflected my experiences quite powerfully. I can vividly recall a man with no eyes and exposed sockets begging for change on the train, the Wild West feel and crumbling buildings of East Harlem when I went to spend the night with my cousins, and the panic parents felt when a kid lost his shoe on the jungle gym for fear of stepping on an empty crack vial. The violence never touched me personally, but those early experiences shaped and, sometimes, warped the world-views of my peers and I.
Keeping all this in mind, I recall never quite feeling legitimate as a hip-hop head. I liked to read, enjoyed Nirvana and Green Day as much as I did Wu-Tang Clan or Biggie, and was constantly reminded in school and on the street that because I was fair-skinned and studious that I was a “sellout,” a “fake Puerto Rican,” even “white.” The single quickest way to get me to throw a punch at someone during my formative years was to call me “whiteboy,” which generally came from people who didn’t know me. That all stopped when I entered high school, as much because of my size and willingness to fight as because I finally found a comfort level balancing my nerdy, private-school days with my nights and weekends smoking blunts and talking shit with the older dudes on White Plains Road.
Hip-hop at that age, then, wasn’t so much about “living one’s beliefs” as you put it—it was a means of acceptance and fitting in. Certain albums, like Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides and Nas’ It Was Written, finally opened the possibility to me that it could be more than utilitarian. In a high school where the student body was roughly 50-percent white and 50-percent black and Latino, the lunchroom social dynamics said it all: the white boys sat among themselves, while I sat with a group that was basically black and Latino with a few Serbs and Albanians thrown in. I was friends with guys on either side of that divide, but that was my place, and it would’ve been unnatural if I didn’t sit there. Hip-hop was what we listened to, and we listened to it at an extremely high volume because that was hilarious and sounded good.
The misogyny, the glorification of ostentatious displays of machismo and borrowed wealth, were all incidental because hip-hop was a badge of identity that I needed. Now that my identity isn’t as in flux and that my musical tastes have broadened, it feels strange to assign overarching importance to something that is just a means of entertainment and artistic expression. I’d just as soon listen to Pet Sounds as My Dark Twisted Fantasy these days, but that’s because I’m old(er) and music’s now an accompaniment to life. But there was a point where it was my life, and that period helped shape my worldview into what it is now.
Whether we are fit to pass judgment because of our experiences, then, is irrelevant. It belongs to you, it belongs to Justine, it belongs to me, it’s horrid, it’s wonderful, and perhaps the entire notion that it somehow must stay at the vanguard of urban music and culture is now outdated, just as nonsensical and outdated as the notion that white men can’t jump or rap. Whether one’s tastes veer toward Drake (shame on you) or Tyler the Creator, it is an inescapable fact that hip-hop, and notions of race and class in America, is not at the same place it was back when KRS-ONE wrote “You Must Learn” or when Mos Def wrote “Mr. Nigga.” The lesson remains correct and relevant, but the context has changed radically. Legitimacy to discuss the brilliance and pitfalls of hip-hop and the culture that’s grown around it is moot: if you have a well-considered opinion, then you should be part of the debate.
—Photo Por Puro Amor Al Rap/Flickr