In a recent interview with the celebrity news site Hollywood Unlocked, singer Kelis discussed her seven-year relationship with ex-husband, Nas, the legendary Queens rapper, with a level of detail she never had publicly. She described a mix of “intense highs and really intense lows,” including bruises from physical fights, alcoholic binges, cheating, and emotional abuse. Kelis also made claims that, since the divorce in 2010, Nas had been a difficult and unreliable co-parent to their 8-year-old son. At more than an hour long, the interview is a marvel of a testimony and rings with emotional honesty. Kelis seemed weary of keeping quiet about her past, saying she simply woke up and thought “not today.”
A few Twitter users predicted the interview and its revelations would usher in a #metoo reckoning for other famous rappers and men in power in hip-hop:
Coverage of Kelis’s interview cycled through the internet quickly, though. I saw only a smattering of pieces about it—mostly in the black press—despite Kelis’s long, brave account, and the presence of what appears to be a pattern: Another ex of Nas, Carmen Bryan, wrote in a 2006 memoir that the MC hit her so hard she saw stars.
The truth is, stories of violence against women in hip-hop have been steady and unyielding throughout the life of the young genre. Recent allegations of rape and physical assault against the producer Detail (known for his work with Beyoncé and Lil’ Wayne) come on the heels of released footage of an altercation between Fabolous and his longtime partner Emily B. The young rapper xxxTentacion was arrested in 2016 on charges of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness-tampering, due to the harrowing account of his then-partner. Less than a year later, his first album “17” debuted at number 2 on the Billboard 200. Lil’ Kim has spoken openly of the cruelty of late 90s phenom Notorious B.I.G. Liza Rios, Big Pun’s widow, co-produced a documentary film after her husband’s death in 2000 that in part talked about his alleged violence, and included footage of Big Pun hitting her with the handle of a gun. A few years later, in 2005, Rios told her story again in “Love Hurts: Rap’s Black Eye,” an article for Vibe penned by journalist Elizabeth Mendez Berry. Further back, in the 1990s, we have accounts of Dr. Dre’s violence towards rapper Tairre B., journalist Dee Barnes, and his one-time girlfriend, singer Michel’le. The stunning new biopic about Roxxane Shanté, hip-hop’s first female solo act, turns heavily on the story of Shanté’s abusive relationship with an older boyfriend in the 1980s.
This is by no means a comprehensive accounting. You can find documented allegations of misogynistic abuse committed by Busta Rhymes, DJ Funkmaster Flex, 50 Cent, Damon Dash, among others. Of course, are the stories that have been covered up, left unrecorded, and those that haven’t even been told.
I expected the reckoning to come, finally, in November of last year when allegations against Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records, came to light in the L.A. Times, Hollywood Reporter, and the New York Times. It was little more than a month after the bombshell reporting on Harvey Weinstein, and less time than that since the #MeToo viral moment. Simmons’ accusers, women he’d met at work or through industry connections, alleged rape and sexual harassment. The mogul denied most accounts, and last month, one of the lawsuits brought against him was dropped.
In Vibe, Mendez-Berry talked about a broad “phenomenon of violence and denial” in hip-hop. It does feel like rappers, especially, are Teflon; accusations of mistreating women are an annoyance, at worst, but sometimes they can be crudely authenticity enhancing and career-boosting. I’ve been surprised by allegations surrounding a newer crop of hip-hop men, like xxxTentacion, and NBA YoungBoi, and the tolerance audiences seem to have despite what they do. They are my nieces’ generation, born in the late 1990s, and this is all proof for me that the problem of misogyny won’t simply wash away as the old legends die. It’s more entrenched and intractable than I realized.
I should say this: Hip-hop isn’t a uniquely misogynistic subculture and rap isn’t a uniquely misogynistic musical medium. Its excesses mirror those of the entire music industry and the whole of American life. “Though accusations of sexual misconduct and assault have repeatedly rattled Hollywood, they have been less common in the music industry,” says Rolling Stone, reporting recently on singer Jessie Reyez and the sexual misconduct of her producer, Detail.
Yet Mendez-Berry wrote that Lil’ Kim may have made worn large bubble sunglasses, one of many looks that would become iconic, to “shield black eyes.” And a catalog of lyrics from important, formative artists such as Kool G. Rap, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Biggie (I treat you right, you talk slick, I beat you right, from 1994’s “Me and My Bitch) blatantly describe hating and harming women. xxxTentacion and other young artists express a kind of vulnerability where they speak openly about anxiety and depression and suicidal ideation, and it seems their misogynistic abuse syncs up with that image, uncomfortably explaining itself away as just another item in a list of problems for the troubled and talented. We say, in other undercooked explanations, that the music is simply a record, an attempt to narrativize our lives. Something tells me it’s both: a representation of our woman-hatred and one of its main conduits.
Nearly twenty years ago, scholar Joan Morgan wrote a feminist analysis that took on the culture of hip-hop from within. In When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, she called for a feminism that dealt “with the grays,” allowing for nuance, the possibility of enjoying and being part of the culture while staying critical and self-loving. Thinkers like Reiland Rabaka, Traci D. Sharpley-Whiting, Aisha Durham, Shani Jamila, Brittney Cooper and scholars of the Crunk Feminist Collective along with many others, have added to this remixed narrative, suggesting alternatives and futures that allow for a “queering” of hip-hop, liberating it where it is rigid and stuck, making space for the most marginalized among us.
There was a time in the 1990s when more than one woman rapper made albums and had enough cachet for music videos and marketing campaigns. Missy, Lil Kim, Trina, Eve, Foxy Brown, Left Eye, and Lauryn Hill existed as stars together, creating dense texts that offered revisions to the same old masculine narratives. Corporate consolidations and demands in the music industry have narrowed the field, but the current crop —among them, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B., Rapsody, and Azealia Banks — carry on the tradition. In “Ex-Factor,” Hill flips Wu Tang’s “Can It All Be So Simple / Intermission,” a song with a traditional hero’s journey, replete with images of gunfire and robberies, into an excavation of emotional turmoil and a reckoning; Cardi’s “Bickenhead” borrows Project Pat’s battle of the sexes anthem to claim agency and joy in her body.
Which brings me back to Kelis, who remains underrated and unsung. Part of this is because she came of age as an artist in a pre-social media world — her first album debuted late in 1999. It was also a time when record labels were still confined to strict codes of what black and white music should sound like, and ultimately, executives didn’t really know what to do with Kelis. TLC and Lauryn Hill were the only acts of black women in the Top 20 Billboard’s list of top-selling albums of 1999. The next year saw the rise of Destiny’s Child, whose The Writings on the Wall was number 13. On the singles charts were Aaliyah and Toni Braxton, both singers of fairly straightforward R&B, who wore their hair straight and had music videos and album packaging that looked conventionally sexy.
Kelis was one of the earliest artists to work with the Neptunes, and her work back then was punk-influenced, especially in its vocal stylings, with screaming on the hook of her first single. She wore her big, natural curls, sometimes in primary colors. She covered Nirvana at live shows. It was all such a big deal then that now I can only laugh. It would be nearly a decade after Kelis that Nicki Minaj appeared, fully embracing whimsy and quirky characters, and then, in the late 2000s, Lady Gaga came out experimenting with glam rock and extravagant hair and makeup. From the beginning, Kelis tried a variety of looks like every pop star does, but somehow the idea stuck that she was weird or wild or crazy — often code for deviating from a racialized or gendered script. Her second album, Wanderland, which I loved, came out in 2001. It didn’t get even get a North American release.
Kelis continued making music. She had pop hits (“Milkshake” and “Bossy”) in the early and mid-2000s, appeared on the second and last hip-hop album to win Grammy Awards in the major categories (Outkast’s 2003 Speakerboxx/The Love Below), and made a living touring. Her six studio albums range from traditional pop-influenced R&B to electronic, and she’s a Cordon Bleu-trained chef with a cookbook and line of sauces. Still, “she definitely doesn’t get the credit she deserves as the OG alternative black girl of our generation,” said BbyMutha in a 2017 interview with The Fader. Today, I see so much of Kelis in the fashion-forward imagery of “carefree black girls.” And don’t think you get to Janelle Monáe without going through Kelis first.
When will hip-hop have its reckoning? I’d argue that it has already, time and time again. It’s a question that is anachronistic and imprecise. Because there is a literature, a host of documented critique of misogyny in hip-hop, and a history of powerful testimony of women who have spoken up about mistreatment. What we’re really asking is when will the mainstream #metoo movement take notice? When will they lock arms and take up the cause for the largely black and brown women who have spoken up? I noticed how the #muteRkelly campaign, which is gaining notice from the industry, benefited from use of #Time’sUp branding. Though it was the “women of color” in the initiative who fronted the latest petition to industry leaders. Will #metoo be a true multi-racial alliance? I love the talk given to ideas like intersectionality in the mainstream discourse, but is it anything more than talk? Are we taking into account all voices and truly building from the knowledge of the women who have been most vulnerable to patriarchal abuse?
What happens after survivors speak up? Because women in hip-hop have been doing it a long time.