There’s really no rebuttal to a line of thinking that blames hip-hop culture, rap music, and/or Beyoncé for rape culture, as Trump supporter Betsy McCaughey, among others, have done recently. The only thing that line of reasoning signifies is hatred for blackness. And well, there’s just no dialoguing with that.
To elaborate, this week former Lt. Gov. of New York, current Trump supporter, and forever white woman Betsy McCaughey spoke at CNN’s Don Lemon in defense of Donald Trump’s longtime sexism, this time as it relates to a leaked 2005 conversation in which he boasts about sexual assault. Betsy McCaughey, summoning the heft of white feminism’s past and present, declared rap music the storehouse for “lewd and bawdy language.” When asked for clarification—or, as I see it, invited to make a further spectacle of herself—Becky, excuse me, Betsy McCaughey threw in Beyoncé for good measure, quoting haphazardly from "Formation." For this white woman, Beyoncé's musically expressed desire for a soul-rattling fuck is apparently evidence against the dangerousness of Trump’s words.
Betsy McCaughey’s logic, if we can call it that, is familiar. The crib notes are plain to see, as if scrawled on her wrist in blue ink. And they are exactly that, crib notes, excerpted from an extended body of rhetoric that invokes black expressive forms, black bodies—blackness, period—as a scapegoat for white-on-white ills. In Betsy McCaughey’s case, the tome she cites is well-loved and oft-used by whites on either side of the party line. If I may be allowed to switch metaphors: Dear white liberals, the racism is coming from inside the house.
Blackness has long been the stand-in for white deviance. Music and its accompanying vernacular is just one particularly fraught venue where white discomfort with the existence of blackness becomes the means to criminalize our expressions, while simultaneously allowing white escape from the monotony of respectability. Black music is to blame for the widespread -isms that plague society; Black music helps y’all find freedom as a source of personal rebellion and artistic innovation.
Without even straying too far from recent memory, there’s a rich liberal feminist tradition that makes hip-hop culture and rap music the antagonist. White and non-black critics say hip-hop is the problem, neglecting black critics—including rappers themselves—offering more nuanced, and knowledgeable, appraisals of the genre. As a form of white saviorism, criticism from non-black voices often assumes that the femme and/or queer folk within our community are blissfully unaware of what oppression looks like, or that our analyses are insufficient.
Asking, “What we are really talking about when we talk about sexism in hip hop?” professor of Africana Studies at Brown and renowned hip-hop scholar Tricia Rose, in The Hip Hop Wars, answers: “It isn’t usually about sexual justice or gender equality for black women.” Despite the fact that black women and femmes have the most to lose, and do, at hand of black hypermasculinity, none of this pearl clutching is to our benefit. As a hyper(in)visible footprint on the development of American mass culture, black cultural forms are the low hanging fruit of feminist cultural criticism. Our bombasticy is an easy target. Meanwhile, real productive work on eradicating misogynoir and homophobia is interrupted and white women, too focused on “bitches ain’t shit,” neglect pervasive unsaids in white male misogyny.
there’s a rich liberal feminist tradition that makes hip-hop culture and rap music the antagonist.
“When hip-hop takes it too far, there are those of us who keep it in check out of love,” writes doctoral student Darius Scott on the mixed emotions and considerations that accompany loving rap as a queer Black man. Citing Feminista Jones and sociologist Andreana Clay, Scott notes that the prior work from the community, for the community, should supersede shallow accounts that don’t come from a place of real knowledge, as when writers leap to Taylor Swift’s defense.
There’s a weirdness in watching declarations on high from the outside. In an essay also working out love for, and disappointment with, rap, Brianna Suslovic cites the 2011 “Call For Change,” post by Sara Quin, of the Canadian indie-pop duo Tegan and Sara. Quin’s post—criticizing Tyler, The Creator for his depictions of rap and use of homophobic language in his music— is uncomfortable, and not because of its passion (a judgment often wielded against marginalized individuals speaking out), but for the hyperbolic contortions it must make—and wants us to assume—in order to lambaste its subject. Though Tyler, the Creator is Quin’s ostensible focus, he’s really a stand-in for hip-hop culture at large—his first mention even appears in quotations, “Tyler, the Creator.”
At issue is a “sickening rhetoric,” namely the “misogynist and homophobic ranting and raving” from rap music that, according to Quin, has gone utterly unchecked by mainstream society. “[R]acist and anti-Semitic offenses” are given a “seriousness” by comparison. Quin makes a lot of assumptions in her writing: that she is an exemplar, starting a conversation nobody else is having; that nobody “sticks up for woman and gay people”; that nobody black would be included in that grouping. “I don’t think race or class actually has anything to do with his hateful message, but has EVERYTHING to do with why everyone refuses to admonish him for that message,” she writes. In Quin’s logic, “the community of artists that doesn’t seem remotely bothered by it”—homophobia, sexism—then, is indisputably black.
Again, not a wholly unique set of deductions, though the similarity between scripts is uncanny. Betsy McCaughey, the Democrat turned Republican, and Trump supporter and Sara Quin, the queer, liberal feminist, both share a language and a logic. The imprecision of their criticism is telling—neither can quite keep their subject in view: for Quin, “Tyler, the Creator” blends into a fictional representation of an amorphous hip-hop and Black culture; for McCaughey, genre quickly slides away, making rap music synonymous with “Formation.”
We could also add to the catalog whatever the fuck feminist discourse was 2013-2014, the year a bunch of people apparently considered their thoughts on Beyoncé’s leotards had value (and I guess did, in terms of clicks).
IRONY ALERT: Kanye West became a multi-millionaire after singing songs about guns… freaks out when wife is robbed at gunpoint
— PatRiotChick (@HaikuVikingGal) October 4, 2016
The deep irony, of course, is that blackness, considered deviant and dangerous, is also the heuristic with which whites achieve maturation, artistically or otherwise. White girls rely on blackness to “come out” as sexually sentient beings—seen most visibly in the understood progression of a white female celebrity, from Christina to Miley to Kylie. Meanwhile, white boys allow rap to voice their emancipation and find a (hyper)masculine sense of self, giving mom and white respectability (temporarily) the finger. White male vocalists (or whatever) who enter the music scene as pop darlings use hip hop culture and R&B to find their sexuality, à la Jesse McCartney and the Justins.
This known fact of appropriative use doesn’t, however, evacuate the radical nature of black expression. That to emit a sonic signature so irrevocably black, whether underground or in public, is contention of a kind. When critics from the outside reach for rhetoric, “the f-word, the p-word, the b-word, the a-word,” they are really grappling for an existence they can’t reconcile or explain. They don’t care about the music. They hate us and they ain’t us. Betsy was sloppy, but know that the rest of y’all been seent.