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"I met this girl, when I was ten years old/And what I loved most she had so much soul" — Common, "I Used To Love H.E.R."
Back in 1994, before Common Sense dropped the "Sense" from his stage name, before he was appearing in Sprite commercials and landing major acting roles, before his music was earning Grammy and even Oscar nominations, the Chicago-bred wordsmith recognized that the music he'd grown up treasuring was in the midst of an existential crisis. In the now-classic "I Used To Love H.E.R.," Common lamented rap's moral deterioration, its growing inauthenticity and gimmick-y antics, cleverly using the metaphor of the genre as a woman adrift, hip-hop being the increasingly fickle "H.E.R" in the song's title.
But Common never gave up hope that she'd find her way, a message he brought home in the song's final bars: "But I'ma take her back, hopin' that the shit stop/'Cause who I'm talkin' bout, y'all, is hip-hop."
For a long time, I too, held out hope that hip-hop would outgrow what I hoped were simply growing pains, the recklessness of adolescence. My yearning became all the more pronounced during the many years I spent working as a hip-hop journalist for major national magazines. I wanted to believe that my work was important, that I was as much a journalist as a historian, documenting a musical and cultural movement birthed by my fellow Latinos and by my African-American brothers and sisters, honoring an art form rooted in struggle yet radiating with beauty and promise. In my estimation, hip-hop was the rose that grew through the concrete. It was the early 2000s, though, and even I couldn't deny that the introspective street poetry I'd listened to as a youngster was becoming disturbingly absent from airwaves, replaced by crunk anthems about booty-clapping, sippin' syrup, and making it rain at the club, along with bass-heavy trap rap chock full of lyrics that glorified (or at least justified) crack sales.
Sure, objectionable and downright offensive hip-hop lyrics were nothing new. Back in 1986, 2 Live Crew was kickin' up controversy with the sexually explicit "We Want Some Pu**y." In 1992, Dr. Dre released the female-bashing "Bitches Ain't Sh*t," which, much to feminists' dismay, became a classic track. Self-proclaimed "pimp" Too $hort spent decades releasing such charming tracks as 1993's "Blowjob Betty." Over the years, there has been no shortage of sexist content within the rap milieu.
Nevertheless, in the 80s and 90s, for every ignorant and sexist rap song, there was one that promoted good ol' fashioned fun (Gang Starr’s "D.W.Y.C.K.," A Tribe Called Quest’s "Scenario," or DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince's "Summertime"), inspired listeners to follow their dreams (Notorious B.I.G.'s "Sky Is The Limit" or Mos Def's "Umi Says"), demanded equal treatment and promoted self-respect (Queen Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y." or Lauryn Hill's "That Thing"), raised awareness about the need for social change (Public Enemy's "Fight The Power," Eric B. and Rakim's "Teach the Children," or Nas's "If I Ruled The World"), declared love towards a special woman (The Roots' "You Got Me" or Black Starr's "Brown Skin Lady"), raised a mirror to the harrowing realities of inner-city life (as with 2Pac's "Brenda Got A Baby," KRS-One's "Sound Of Da Police," Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's "The Message," NAS's "NY State of Mind," or CL Smooth's "They Reminisce Over You"), or simply boasted about rhyming skills (like LL Cool J's "I’m Bad" or Special Ed's "I Got It Made"). For every song that made me grit my teeth, there was another one that inspired me or made me feel deeply understood.
By the mid-2000s, however, the diversity within rap (and, for that matter, R&B) began to dwindle. Songs that would've once raised eyebrows became increasingly accepted as the new normal.
For a while there, hip-hop was like my abusive boyfriend: it kept slapping me up, knocking me down, and calling me names, but I found a way to justify its behavior, to sweep it all under the he-didn’t-really-mean-it rug, to forgive the unforgivable.
And then, circa 2010, I finally had enough and kicked my boyfriend to the curb. Me, the girl who could speak about the distinct cadence, rhyme style, and signature ad libs of both mainstream and underground rappers, whose stack of mixtapes looked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, I stopped listening to hip-hop on the radio or on Spotify and other streaming services. My knowledge of contemporary rap waned as I deliberately turned a deaf ear to it.
Nowadays, the hope I once had that hip-hop would find its way again, that rappers would embrace the medium's power to impact positive change, has essentially dissipated. At the very least, it's buried under the soul-crushing weight of hundreds of songs debasing women, cuts like, UGK's "Pregnant Pu**y," in which the duo rhymes about the joy of fornicating with a woman carrying an unborn child; Rick Ross's "U.O.E.N.O," in which the portly rapper boasts about putting Molly in a woman’s Champagne, then taking her home and engaging in intercourse without her knowledge or consent (in other words, raping her); and Lil Wayne's "Rich As F*ck," in which the father of four brags about making the "pu**y tap out" and "knocking that pu**y out cold," like he’s defeating an opponent in a boxing ring. These, of course, are just a few cherry-picked examples; an expansive list would provide enough cherries to cover all 2,000 acres of Wisconsin’s Door County orchards.
While, in my opinion, modern-day hip-hop is of a much lower caliber than the musical output of the 80s and 90s, often relying on flashy production and shock-value lyrics, the dip in quality only accounts for part of my decision to essentially ban the music from my playlist. A much more significant factor transformed my way of thinking, heightened my self-awareness, and prompted me to reassess my choices: I became a mother.
In 2007, when my son was three years old, I watched in fascination as he repeated everything he heard on his favorite cartoons, singing along with Dora, Wonder Pets, and Blue’s Clues. Similarly, he parroted every funny or curious phrase he overheard me saying in passing conversations. Did I really want my baby singing along to Lil Wayne's "Lollipop" or asking me why Cam'ron wanted wet wipes? Not a chance. Like any good mother, then, I listened to the music privately, nodding along as I walked the New York City streets with my Skullcandy headphones. I still listened to the songs on rotation, but the fact that I had to be so surreptitious about it made me increasingly uncomfortable.
As my son got older, I began taking a harsher stance on contemporary rap. I hated the idea that my son could be so influenced by the music and the culture it breeds as to one day come to think of women as objects, brag about his many conquests and infidelities, or refer to us as "bitches" or "tricks." Hip-hop may not have invented misogyny, but it's certainly worked tirelessly to keep it alive.
People who don't believe that the media — TV, music, magazines, and so forth — have a profound effect on kids' psyches are either in denial or simply haven't experienced parenthood. Remember how boys started retiring their basketball jerseys after Jay-Z declared them passé in "What More Can I Say"? Recall the unfortunate period in the early 2000s when everyone was walking around with gold grillz on account of Nelly, Lil Jon, and Paul Wall? Kids are impressionable, so shouldn't we make sure they're exposed to something worth emulating?
Nowadays, in addition to offensive lyrics and questionable music videos, we also have a well-oiled assembly line of salacious reality TV shows like Love & Hip Hop, in which women debase themselves, argue with one another incessantly, and throw 'bows at every opportunity — all in hopes of claiming some trifling, two-timing, disrespectful man as their own. If young'uns watch enough of these shows and hear enough of these songs, eventually they're likely to begin mimicking these behaviors and appropriating these attitudes.
I want better for my kid. I want him to understand that manhood is about responsibility and character, not fancy cars and trophy wives. I want him to cherish his future wife and children, to enjoy relationships built on mutual respect and admiration. Setting him down the right path, for me, meant eradicating any potential negative influences from his life and looking inward so that I, too, could evolve and become the best example I could be.
During my moments of introspection, I came to some difficult but important realizations. I admit that, during a stage in my life, I shrugged when I heard the word "bitch" in rap songs — provided that the word was uttered in what I perceived to be an affectionate or endearing way, like in Biggie's "Me & My Bitch," or within a self-empowerment context as with Lil' Kim's "Queen Bitch." During that time, I tried to intellectualize the usage of the term, arguing that if we, as women, could somehow reinvent and reappropriate the word so as to give it a new and more positive meaning, it would only make the feminist movement stronger.
Eventually, I came to believe that the word "bitch" is never acceptable, that it can never be a positive affirmation, that it can't be "reclaimed," that it's too loaded with hate and contempt. Think about it: Even when men refer to each other as "bitches," it's meant as the utmost insult, as a suggestion of cowardice or pettiness, the implication being that to be a female means to possess these unwanted qualities.
All of these factors ultimately led to my decision: I would not invest time, energy, or money in music that chipped away at my very essence, nor would I allow it to pollute my son's ears and his tender heart.
Recently, while listening to iHeartRadio at the gym, the latest Big Sean song came on, a vile track with lyrics like "You little stupid a** bitch, I ain't f*ckin' with you/You little, you little dumb ass bitch, I ain't f*ckin' with you." I practically tripped over my own feet on the elliptical machine, wondering how this hateful (and lyrically subpar) song even garnered airplay — never mind climbed the charts. And then, I simply changed the station and jammed to Katy Perry. At least she's encouraging me to let the world hear me roar.
Occasionally, I see a glimmer of hope for hip-hop's future. When Common and John Legend joined forces to pen "Glory" for Selma, my heart swelled. But we need a lot more Commons in the world to take hip-hop back into my loving arms.
They say if you love something, you need to set it free, and that's what I did with hip-hop. Maybe it will one day come back to me, resolved to embrace its power, to treat me with kindness, to encourage me to become the best version of myself. And, if it doesn't, at least I’ll always have the memories of how I, too, used to love H.E.R.