Dessa, Tupac, the Roots, and the rap misogyny problem

The mere announcement that Doomtree rapper/poet/writer Dessa is giving a lecture/performance at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum this evening has already stirred up a bunch of debate regarding her qualifications to give the talk.

"Mic Lines: Art, Ethics, and their Contested Connections," is expected to delve into the question of whether or not rappers have social responsibilities for their words, or if they can pull a Charles Barkley. And, it seems that she's giving us a taste of what she'll discuss in an essay published via Star Tribune today.

In the piece, titled "Free speech and hip-hop: When talk is cheap," she centers in on the idea that:

"Some rap music does trespass upon basic standards of human decency. The problem is bigger than sexual objectification -- it's real misogyny."

The writer of this blog is a white, male, non-rapper, and I couldn't agree more. Misogyny (and sexist and homophobic language that defiles males as well) cuts across all genres of pop music, and certainly finds a home within the personal tales in country music and R&B's .

An all-or-nothing unconditional pledge of allegiance is not what rap should ask of listeners. It is, rather, the signature tactic of witch hunts and totalitarianism.

Besides, the industry refrain "it's just entertainment" has worn thin. If rap music didn't affect public opinion and behavior, advertisers wouldn't pay for product placements.

And again, this is not difficult to agree with -- to a point. The part of the argument that is still up for debate is why a particular rapper (or any type of artist) gets popular in the first place.

Let's take a young fan of 2pac who was listening to All Eyez on Me back in the mid-'90s as an extremely hypothetical (and not at all autobiographical) example. "All Bout U" is one of the more sexist, degrading songs that the late Tupac Shakur ever released -- and there are many to choose from. The also-departed Nate Dogg chorus goes "Every other city we go, every other vi-de-o/ No matter where I go, I see the same hoe."

And this follows the premise -- that was completely autobiographical -- that as the song's collaborators Shakur, Dru Down, Nate Dogg, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Hussein Fatal, and Yaki Kadafi traveled to film promotional music videos, they'd often happen upon women that they'd met before at previous music video shoots.

For this listener, who defers to the also-dead, also-sexist Notorious B.I.G. in terms of East-vs-West wordplay anyhow, this song is not the first thing that any young person should hear when figuring out how to approach gender roles in the world. It's certainly not the first song a person should hear when developing a glossary of terms for addressing fellow members of the community either.

Does that mean that someone is attracted to this song because of its misogynist lyrics in particular? I would argue no. Honestly, I'd be just as happy, if not happier, if Nate Dogg's hook celebrated the joys of artichoke dip, or he was just singing names from the phone book. His melodious delivery and the Johnny J-produced beat are both that catchy. For better or for worse, this song represents the vernacular of Tupac's community, and true situations possibly enhanced by a bit of hyperbole. Because come on, was it always the same woman?
On the opposite end of the consciousness spectrum, we've got "Return to Innocence Lost" from the Roots' 1999 album Things Fall Apart. Featuring Ursula Rucker on vocals, the song graphically details a brutal rape, and it certainly doesn't come off as anything triumphing the values of the misogynist in her story.

For different reasons altogether, this is not song for young ears who can't process it and place it for what it is, and its bloody content arguably remains a tough song for anyone to listen to -- in spite of the excellent instrumentation -- at any age.

So, yeah, the white guy can sit through a song that uses a bunch of gender put-downs, but can't stomach one that's more graphic. Big shock. This is partly because one song places more emphasis on the lyrics than the other, and most likely because I have found enough positive role models in my life that I never had to look to Tupac and Nate Dogg for that piece in the first place. 

So where do we draw our line for rappers' behavior and language? How much poetic license and personal experience will we allow to flourish in the marketplace, and what is the solution?

My hope is that's where Dessa's discussion goes this evening. She freely admits in the essay, "I don't have a swear jar at home. I have a bottle of inexpensive whiskey at home." And perhaps there are some Minnesotans who shuddered at that moment, patted their swear jars with a firm hand, sipped their Ovaltine, and turned the page.

Still, misogyny, homophobia, and racism are bigger than hip-hop. Rappers want to be heard, and rappers want to get paid. (So do bloggers, come to think of it.) But with YouTube and short attention spans running amok, the average person really doesn't need to do either anymore to experience rap music or the hateful language it often espouses.

A carefully constructed song like "Alibi" from her own catalog proves Dessa does have the ability to analyze the voice of someone telling her something in a rap lyric, and an ear for musicianship. In spite of what some commenters have said, for those of us who believe we're "informed, but are too scared to join a cypher on a North Minneapolis corner," this is a conversation that should go on somewhere. Frankly, naysayers should be mad at themselves for being too scared to start talking about it so publicly first.

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