As a hip hop artist, I was always afraid to freestyle battle against men. Freestyling is improvisational hip hop; the best artists can develop an extemporaneous, coherent, narrative -- complete with rhymes -- that wows any audience. However, when artists battle, they often go for blood, using any perceived vulnerability to shame and humiliate their opponent.
I was scared to face off with men because they could always pull the misogyny card, use various epithets against me as a woman, and tell the audience, in clever rhyming detail, what they would do to me sexually. I knew that my skin wasn’t thick enough to prevail. I didn’t have the skills to maintain a creative mindset for freestyling with my ears full of hateful speech and images of sexual humiliation. Especially not in front of a jeering crowd.
But some women can do exactly that. A 36-year-old black woman took on three young Atlanta rappers at a house party on New Year’s Eve, 2014. According to the online news and entertainment magazine, Rolling Out, “During the freestyle battle she matched all three men, rhyme per rhyme, topping them each time.” But these men were not to be bested. In response, they abducted her at gunpoint, took her to a vacant lot, gang-raped her, doused her with gasoline, set her body on fire, shot her while she was burning, and left her to die.
According to The Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, GA, the charges against the three men include: “kidnapping, hijacking a motor vehicle, rape, arson, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery, aggravated assault, aggravated battery, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.”
Although the attack took place over nine months ago, it only received limited media coverage when the men were arrested in February. Recently, however, a series of articles have appeared online and social media interest in the case is increasing. Last month in Ebony, Jamilah Lemieux lamented the lack of coverage in other cases of brutality against black women. I hope the renewed interest in this Atlanta rap case is a sign of increasing public outcry against this type of violence.
To that end, I claim this attack was a lynching. Historically in the U.S., lynchings have been primarily understood as Southern white men targeting black men. But black women were lynched as well.
Anti-lynching Activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) wrote an early pamphlet on lynching. In the introduction she cites two Georgia cases from 1899, in which one man was hanged and the other burned alive. Lynchings frequently included torture, hanging, burning, desecration, and sexual violence. In cases with female targets, white attackers sexually assaulted them. With male targets they would sometimes cut off their genitals.
White attackers often justified their violence as necessary to protect white women from black men as sexual threats. In the famous Civil Rights Era case of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, he was visiting Mississippi from Chicago in 1955, “when he reportedly flirted with a white cashier at a grocery store.” Several days later, two white men kidnapped Till, tortured and shot him. The men were tried for murder, but an all-white, male jury acquitted them. Till's murder had an open casket funeral revealing the brutality that he had suffered.
In the period in which Wells-Barnett was active, she noted that a dozen men were victims of lynching in a six-week period in 1899. She writes, “Of the twelve men lynched during that reign of unspeakable barbarism, only one was even charged with an assault upon a woman. Yet Southern apologists justify their savagery on the ground that Negroes are lynched only because of their crimes against women.”
This sexual justification for violence was often a thinly-veiled pretext for Southern white targeting of black people who were an economic threat to established white businesses. Lynching was about keeping Southern black people in their place, to keep them from getting “uppity” notions that they could be equal to or better than whites.
My own great-grandfather left the South to avoid lynching in the 1930s. A white man came to his tailor shop and was threatening and abusive. When he refused to leave, my great-grandfather pulled a gun. My family was out of that Southern town and on the road to New York City before sundown. According to Wells-Barnett, “The real purpose of these savage demonstrations [lynchings] is to teach the Negro of the South that he has no rights that the law will enforce…no matter what a white man does to them, they must not resist.”
Heartbreakingly, in the very same state about which Wells-Barnett wrote, this legacy continues in the brutalization of this black woman by these three black men. I claim these Atlanta rappers’ violence as a lynching because it follows the established pattern of violence: abduction, removal to an isolated location, dehumanizing brutality, sexual assault, shooting and burning. They were only missing the final insult -- not possible today -- stringing the body up on a tree and having a family picnic on the scenic grass below.
This lynching history -- the fact that black people were brutalized in this way -- is incredibly painful. The fact that black people would treat each other this way is even more painful. As I researched this story, I read bloggers calling the attackers “scum” and “animals,” but these black men are neither of those; they are human beings, acting out the precise pattern of brutality that was acted on our community during the Jim Crow era. I can only imagine the level of self-hatred that each of these men must personally carry that they were prepared to gang-rape and murder a woman simply in order not to lose face in an informal rap contest. I will not dehumanize them by looking at this crime outside of the historical lynching context in which it belongs, the racist system that originally installed the self hatred in our community.
Like racial lynching from the Jim Crow era, these rappers’ vicious attack on this woman reveals a corollary truth about misogyny in rap culture. Black sexual objectification of women in hip hop is purportedly about being sexy, about creating a climate of sexual arousal and gratification. However, this act reveals how the pervasive sexual objectification of women is not really about black women being sexy, but the use of sex as a weapon to maintain male domination. We, as women, are to be mute objects in hip hop.
According to hip hop artist Coco Peila, when women do have lyrical genius, the industry makes it clear that the price of stardom is to channel our skills into X-rated material, and to compete with other women for male approval. An unspoken rule is that we must never to compete directly with male rappers for status. In a recent tweet, she said, "Insecure male #Rappers whose confidence is based on #maleprivilege LOVE 2 see Women who #Rap fire shots @ eachothr."
Certainly hip hop has always had a thriving underground with women artists who rap about a range of topics. But the alliance between the white-dominated music industry and sexist black male artists and producers leaves little room for diversity of mainstream women rappers in the increasingly corporate-controlled media.
Hip hop began in the ’70s, as a movement of low-income young black and brown people’s expression. In hip hop’s beginnings there was sexism, but also progressive possibilities and strong resistance to racism. Today, rap music has become a site for transmitting values of materialism, misogyny and brutality, for the profit and amusement of a white-dominated recording industry. Like the postcards of lynchings that were photographed, copied, and distributed, rap music has become a contemporary form of black self-hatred as entertainment.
To be certain, misogyny does not have its epicenter in hip hop, and many male hip hop artists oppose sexism and violence. But misogynist posturing has become utterly commonplace in hip hop, and some rappers are prepared to live out those lyrics.
Which is why I was afraid to battle against men in hip hop. Like my great-grandfather, I knew to leave town by sundown. I grieve for this black woman rapper who believed in herself and her rap skills, who didn’t let rap misogyny tell her what her place was. She had thick enough skin to face these men on a freestyle battlefield. She even had thick enough skin to survive their unspeakable revenge attack. According to The Atlanta Daily World, she “was discovered and rushed to a local hospital, barely alive.”
In February, she was reported to be in“extremely bad shape….She may never walk again. She may never have the use of her left arm…She was in a coma for three weeks. They had to remove part of her lower intestines.” In a recent update, Sergeant Hart of the Columbus, GA police department told me that “she has been released from the hospital and at this time she is doing relatively well” considering the extent of her injuries, but he did not specify further.
However, even if these men haven’t extinguished her life, they have extinguished her voice. And left her story, like a body hanging from a tree, as a cautionary tale for uppity women in hip hop that we need to know our place.