June’s wave of protest songs and statements of solidarity with Black Lives Matter among artists, activists, journalists, celebrities, and brands in and around hip-hop and beyond spoke to the ability of the community at large to mobilize around important issues. We’ve seen leaders called to the floor for their records on policing, organizations like the “Washington Football Team” reckoning belatedly with historical insensitivity, and renewed calls for representation in film, publishing, and journalism. Overdue milestones are being met. Vanity Fair had its first cover shoot by a Black photographer; the Emmys just hired its first Black executive producer, and Simon & Schuster its first Black publisher. The NYPD finally criminalized choke holds (27 years after banning the move and six years after the death of Eric Garner). As the tumultuous summer beats on, though, it hasn’t been easy keeping everyone on the same page. Old schisms spark fresh animus, while the president maintains that Black Lives Matter is a hate group. His Operation Legend initiative aims to use federal force to stamp out protests in blue-state hot spots like Albuquerque, Chicago, and Baltimore, under the guise of fighting gun violence (after flip-flopping on a proposed assault-rifle ban). Meanwhile, he and his allies maintain that demands to defund police departments are a clandestine Democratic plot to unleash chaos in cities and blight suburbs (when in New York, a Democratic mayor, governor, and City Council seem unable, or unwilling, to cut even a little of the NYPD’s multibillion-dollar budget). It is a tightly wound propaganda loop necessitating savvy, unified messaging, not infighting.
But the summer has been marred by avoidable squabbles in the hip-hop community. J. Cole got into it in June with Chicago rapper and activist Noname, after he released “Snow on tha Bluff,” in which he criticizes an intelligent woman he believes to be lording knowledge over men who desperately need it. Noname replied succinctly with “Song 33,” a minute-long track in which she wonders why a man would try to direct a woman’s outrage so soon after the murder of 19-year-old activist Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau, as Black women mourned the loss and called for greater respect and protection. The reaction to the two songs was split between people (mostly men) who agreed with Cole, citing Noname’s sometimes prickly social-media manner as a reason she needed to be taken down a peg, and people wondering why Cole’s first public statement at a crucial historical juncture was a finger wag. The dialogue was fueled in part by a long-standing characterization of feminists as man-hating miserables, an unfair portrayal whose chief value is pawning off reasonable criticism as simple misandry. Like “Snow on tha Bluff,” it asks nothing of men and everything of women.
When news broke that Megan Thee Stallion had been shot during a night out with Kylie Jenner and Tory Lanez, the internet exploded with jokes, reinforcing Noname’s frustrations just a few weeks prior. Model, author, and actress Chrissy Teigen landed in hot water by cracking wise about Meg twerking on Twitter. Reality-TV personality and Savage X Fenty ambassador Draya Michele came under fire after a podcast appearance where she suggested that Stallion and Lanez — who, according to TMZ, was arrested for felony possession of a concealed weapon after the incident — had a “Bobby and Whitney love,” saying, “I want you to love me so much you shoot me in the foot.” Harlem rapper Cam’ron weighed in on Instagram, saying “Tory saw that dick and started shootn,” parroting vile rhetoric that portrays trans women as deceitful figures who prey on unsuspecting cis straight men and are, therefore, deserving of retaliation. It’s the same rhetoric fueling LGBTQ-panic defenses, valid in all but ten states, to ease punishment for hate crimes if defendants can prove they were motivated by the shock of learning that their victim was gay or trans. Cranks will say nothing’s off-limits when it comes to humor, but try to recall another time when a rapper went into surgery for multiple gunshot wounds and it became instant gag fodder. You’re likely to come up lacking.
The flip attitude toward Meg comes during a summer where women in rap and in hip-hop journalism are speaking out about mistreatment at the hands of employers and other artists, while many men couldn’t take a night off cheering for Fabolous, who allegedly took a plea deal to resolve a 2018 felony domestic-violence case, and who recently received a warm welcome at Verzuz from brands and personalities that, days earlier, could be seen online supporting pledges to do better by women of color. All July, Brooklyn rap vet Talib Kweli has put on a terrible show that began when he entered a Twitter user’s thread that named artists who married light-skinned women, first objecting to that characterization of his wife but abruptly devolving into ugly insults and targeted harassment. Several weeks and thousands of tweets later, he announced that he was leaving Twitter, though the URL where his account used to reside says it was suspended for violating Twitter rules. Kweli picked up the dispute on Instagram. His target says she’s received death threats.
While a rally in June for Black trans lives drew monumental turnout in Brooklyn, signaling an increasing commitment to equal rights and protections for one of our most marginalized groups, a year full of crass, transphobic rhetoric and appalling rights violations underscores the amount of work still needed to unclog minds and erase stigma. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s loud courtship of trans-exclusionary thinkers is the marquee story on that front, but the flagrant disrespect for NBA veteran Dwyane Wade and his daughter Zaya — who came out as trans in February — from artists like Young Thug, whose flamboyant style of dress once earned him (preposterous) renown as a leading light in nonbinary fashion in hip-hop, was disappointing. The list of artists voicing open contempt for trans women grows by the day. Griselda Records co-founder Westside Gunn recently posted (and abruptly deleted) a message of support for Kanye West on Twitter that came off more angry about West’s children having Caitlyn Jenner as a grandmother than concerned about Kanye’s well-being.
Rapper, actor, and reality-TV staple Nick Cannon was fired by ViacomCBS this month, losing his show Wild ‘N Out after an episode of his Cannon’s Class vlog and podcast where he sat with Professor Griff (who was famously forced out of Public Enemy in 1990 for anti-Semitic remarks) calling white people “savages” and “acting as animals,” and mirroring Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan’s rhetoric about Jewish control of media. (Cannon was one of the many guests in attendance at the minister’s July 4 address, called “The Criterion,” a solid synthesis of why he’s both revered and reviled. Farrakhan criticized the president’s mishandling of the pandemic and the country’s history of racism, but he also referred to Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt as “Satan,” citing a contentious Bible verse warning of satanists “which say they are Jews,” and later advised listeners not to trust vaccines, calling the virus a “pestilence from heaven.”) This week, U.K. grime vet Wiley got banned from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and dropped by his manager and distributor after an anti-Semitic diatribe likening Jewish people to snakes and the Ku Klux Klan; his posts targeting specific British-Jewish celebrities led to pressure on the social media sites to take quick action.
Volatile speech carries with it the potential of inspiring volatile action — they’re branches of the same tree. Activist Shaun King’s brash tweet calling for the destruction of statues, murals, and stained-glass windows depicting Jesus as a white man was treated by right-wing media as a direct edict from Black Lives Matter. The net effect of speech that closes ranks; that reinforces misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia; that draws wedges between groups that ought to be allies in the struggle for justice is the disintegration of communication. Activism that ignores the concerns of the most vulnerable people in the community only reinforces the lines that divide us. If this generation is to overcome the flaws of the last one, the selfishness and fearfulness cleaving the country in half, it’ll be as a functioning unit, not as a network of bickering interest groups. The price of failure this time is the future.