Over the weekend, I watched Lifetime’s television movie Surviving Compton, a production of which was based on the real-life abuse of Michel’le at the hands of both Dr. Dre and Suge Knight. As one could reasonably expect from a Lifetime movie, it was not very good. The directing was terrible, history wasn’t as accurate in certain instances, and the all-around acting (save for Rhyon Nicole Brown [who plays Michel’le]) was dreadful. My main issue revolved around the film’s pacing, given that the film gave 1 hour and 20 minutes to cover over two decades of Michel’le’s life, career, and relationships. It didn’t allow us to see the person that Michel’le was beyond the abuse. Had it been given at least another hour, or split into two parts of an hour and thirty minutes each (totaling three hours across two nights), Surviving Compton would have made an even more powerful and haunting impression on the viewers – which is the purpose of great art.
Critical reception aside, the flick drew 2.3 million viewers on its premiere night. This attention was reflected in its trending on Twitter during its initial broadcast. The reactions on social were varied, with some making fun of the film’s faults to the hoteps crying the usual “conspiracy against a powerful Black man by Black feminists.” On a positive note, many users were (rightly) disgusted with both Dr. Dre and Suge Knight’s abuse towards Michel’le. The outrage helped spurred more conversations on the nature of misogyny within the hip-hop industry and the Black community at large.
In the film, Michel’le references the connection between “rap and rage,” particularly how the art form had evolved from anger within young Black people during the 70’s onward. This rage was a result of (to quote Peter Tosh) “400 years” of brutal White supremacist oppression of the Black community; especially during the height of the War on Drugs, the rise of mass incarceration, and destruction of our neighborhoods that took place during that time period. Songs such as “Fuck tha Police,” “Fight the Power,” and “Holler if Ya Hear Me” reflected the larger anger towards the pillars White supremacy. Yet, as Michel’le also noted, this rage wasn’t just directed towards racism. Plenty of Black male artists made it a mission to direct their anger and hostility toward Black women through their lyrics and behavior. Michel’le, along with plenty of others, experienced this horror firsthand and it nearly destroyed her life for good.
Now, there are two competing thoughts when it comes to understanding hip-hop and misogyny – both of which are insufficient when understanding this problem. The first thought belongs to the hip-hop apologists who would assert that rap has no misogyny (which is utterly ridiculous) or that the art did not start sexism and thus should not be criticized for such. They would point to the misogyny within other institutions and art as being on the same level, if not worse, than hip-hop. The second thought belongs to the cultural Puritans or the “Doomsdayers,” who claim that hip-hop is responsible for inspiring the worst excesses of sexism within the Black community. These same people would point to some track as being the inspiration for some crime or, even worse, a mindset that will lead to our self-destruction. Needless to say, both these modes of thoughts have valid points but are limited in their individual approach.
For the apologist argument, it is certainly true that hip-hop neither started misogyny nor is its worst purveyor. Weitzer and Krubin’s content analysis of rock music reveals a similar prevalence of sexism in that genre’s music. The Rolling Stones wrote lyrics for songs that celebrate rape and murder. Most organized religions spread their holy book’s hatred of women as well as attempt to control their sexuality for far longer and to a much wider audience than NWA did at its peak. The Black Christian church, a key institution within our community, has spewed Madonna/Whore nonsense that rivals Kanye West’s own rhetoric. States like Texas have limited women’s reproductive rights more so than Nelly ever could (assuming he would want to). To their credit, hip-hop apologists at least understand that artists lack the Weberian notion of power – which is the ability to directly inflict (or influence) force upon an entire population. Instead, they reflect the larger culture of sexism and patriarchy that exists both within and outside of the Black community.
As such, the doomsdayers’ arguments are even more ridiculous when they posit the so-called cancerous danger represented by hip-hop, especially as crime continues to decline throughout the US. Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson tried to do just this by deflecting her fuhrer-in-running’s rhetoric onto that of hip-hop. She, and other doomsdayers, are part of the same anti-intellectual tradition that claimed that shock rocker Marilyn Manson inspired White kids to shoot up schools during the 90’s and 2000’s. They’re the same class of morons that helped Patricia Pulling form a foolish 80’s advocacy group to blame Dungeons and Dragons for violent crimes and Satan worship (which is not what you think it is anyway). And of course, there was Jack Thompson’s campaign for government censorship over 2 Live Crew lyrics and Dan Quayle’s efforts to get Warner Bros. to drop Ice-T for releasing “Cop Killer.” These Puritans (many of whom are right-wing conservatives) use(d) their own version of political correctness to try to kill (or at least limit) the art altogether whenever it made them uncomfortable.
However, to claim there’s no misogyny in hip-hop is to ignore almost 40 years of art. In this sense, the doomsdayers and Puritans diagnosis of sexism within the music is correct, even if their prognosis is totally wrong. One can’t dismiss the lyricists who frequently slur women as “bitches” and “hoes.” We can’t ignore NWA spittin’ about raping and killing black women on Niggaz4Life; Eminem rapping about killing both his mom and girlfriend; Rick Ross’s date rape lyrics; or the industry’s degrading treatment of women in music videos. It also does very little good to deflect onto other institution’s sexism. After all, there’s too much literature, such as Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, and documentaries, such as Byron Hurt’s Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, that present ample evidence of the medium’s pervasive misogyny.
In addition to abusing Michel’le, Dr. Dre once brutalized a well-respected music journalist named Dee Barnes. Her crime? She dared to do her job by interviewing his then-rival Ice Cube. He pleaded no contest to the charges and settled out of court. Though he disputes Michel’le’s accusations, it is a well established fact that he beat up a woman without provocation. Nowadays, Dre enjoys the legacy of being one of hip-hop’s all time greatest producers, as he helped establish superstars such as Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar. He is also responsible for the ironically named Beats by Dre headphones – which is the catalyst behind his net worth of over $700 million. Unlike other domestic abusers such Ray Rice or Greg Hardy, his career has not taken a tumble since Universal Music Group and Apple Inc have a substantial investment within him.
Conversely, through her own admission, Dee Barnes’ own career as a journalist never recovered. To this day, public imagination knows her as the one “who got slapped by Dre.” No one wanted to hire her in fear of ruining their relationship with Dre and his bosses. This is a testament of the religion of sexism spread by the pulpit of the industry towards its congregation of fans. Rappers, particularly the great ones, are gods and preachers; the women they mistreat and abuse are not to be respected or taken seriously. Mentioning their stories is a heresy, one that should be dismissed as soon as the gospel choir sings their hymns.
True critical thinking requires not only that we blaspheme against the scripture, but also necessitates an atheistic stance against the fans’ (or stans) unyielding worship of flawed human beings. Many people (myself included) who love and listen to the musice already practice this. Last summer, commentators (including Dee Barnes) rightly derided the biopic Straight Outta Compton for failing to include or (even mention) both Dre’s abusive behavior and NWA’s general misogyny. They challenged the mythological narrative of NWA as largely being superheroes against police brutality, as opposed to a nuanced presentation of how their virulent sexism was a massive a selling point to the audiences. However, more hip-hop fans are going to have to confront the reality of many of their artists – particularly as online writers and cultural critics continue to remind people exactly how their favorite rappers hated women.
Their rage against Black women is toxic for our community because it shamefully normalizes sexist violence, even if their music isn’t directly responsible for it. Black women suffer alarming rates of gender based violence, including domestic abuse, sexual assault, and murder. For the most part, the men who commit these crimes share the same skin color as their victims. Though we cannot devolve into useless doomsday demagoguery, we need to be more vigilant in challenging harmful behavior and ideology that shames and degrades women.
For all its aesthetic faults, Surviving Compton reminds us of the ugly history behind the art and culture. This history requires us to continue to be more nuanced in our approach of analyzing the culture and its representatives. To ignore the sins of the past is to allow them to fester in the present without regard for the people whom it affects the most.