Hip-hop hour: More than its mistakes

It’s Dec. 31, 2014. I’m sitting at home, on my laptop, because all my plans for New Year’s Eve have been canceled.

But you know what? My night could not have been better. The clock struck 12, and I was ushered into 2015 by the sweet light of Kanye West.

“As I lay me down to sleep, I hear her speak to me …”

The song? “Only One” — a lullaby for his daughter and a tribute to his late mother. It was an appropriate celebration of January, a month named after the Greek god Janus, who had one face looking forward and one face looking backward.

Tonight, as I write my last column, I stand at the same precipice between future and past. I’m supposed to wrap up my past thoughts, but there are so many new things I need to say before I say goodbye. So, raise your glasses, fam — this is one last call for alcohol.

Let’s get back to “Only One.” With Paul McCartney on those soothing organs, this was Kanye’s “Let it Be” — a song of remembrance and a song of spiritual healing. During our times of trouble, Mother Donda came to us, speaking her own words of wisdom: “No, you’re not perfect, but you’re not your mistakes.”

“You’re not your mistakes” — it’s a simple adage, but sometimes we forget to honor the spirit of this song. We often get hung up on shaming the ugly sides of things, such as Kanye’s stage antics. How is that ever a productive discussion?

For instance, lately, I’ve been trying to reconcile my love for hip-hop with the more problematic side of its culture. Yes, I’ve talked a lot about the importance of the genre — its messages of self-love, empowerment and community. Yet I’ll be the first to admit that it’s far from perfect, and it can be troubling sometimes.

Two weeks ago, my former editor disagreed with one of my columns that claimed all hip-hop is protest (“Waka Flocka Flame? That’s protest, too.”). As a woman, she couldn’t approve of an artist who sings, “Gotta main bitch, gotta mistress / Gotta couple girlfriends, I’m so hood rich.”

Waka Flocka definitely is not the first rapper to treat women this way. Misogyny is a shocking mainstay of hip-hop. Even when it’s done in jest — on Yeezus, Kanye sings “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign”  — it’s pretty cringeworthy.

But it’s often a dangerous position to dismiss hip-hop for its misogyny. A month before I wrote my protest column, Waka Flocka expressed that he was personally offended by the racist actions of students who had previously welcomed him to perform at their fraternity. The action? A leaked video that depicts the University of Oklahoma’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon engaging in a racist chant.

Waka Flocka was thoughtful in his interviews: “To me, I really can’t blame the kids. To me, I feel like that’s passed down.”  Personally, I was mortified by people’s opinions on social media. I read one girl’s defense of the fraternity on Facebook, which, to paraphrase her words, said: “I don’t see how we can defend Waka Flocka Flame when he writes such misogynistic lyrics.”

I’m not condoning sexism. Of course it’s not OK to rhyme about “bitches.” Yet too often, we misuse the topic of misogyny to deflect more uncomfortable debates about race. I don’t think it’s OK to condone SAE’s chant, no matter the reason.

I ask you think more critically before you form your stance on these controversies in hip-hop culture. Many academics have argued that the misogyny in hip-hop only reflects a wider patriarchal attitude across pop culture. It’s a bit unfair to single out hip-hop. Academic Leola Johnson writes, “The misogynist lyrics … do not represent a new trend in Black popular culture, nor do they differ fundamentally from woman-hating discourses that are common among White men.”

I’m still stuck on my stance, to be quite honest. As I try to rationalize the misogyny in hip-hop, I myself come off as a misogynist. Yet anyone who is too harsh on his or her stance against hip-hop unintentionally sides with a racist attitude. You really can’t win in this situation.

I don’t have the answers tonight — I don’t think anyone does — but we can love hip-hop and work to improve it at the same time. These aren’t mutually exclusive.

Thus, I end this column by asking for a more productive, thoughtful conversation on hip-hop. Let’s not condone its problems, but let’s not dismiss hip-hop for these problems, either. We don’t have to shame hip-hop — it’s not perfect, but it’s not its mistakes.

Jason Chen writes the Monday column on hip-hop. Contact him at [email protected].