Hip-Hop Turns 50: Reconciling the Love of a Culture That Promotes Misogyny
As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of hip-hop, I think about something I’ve thought about ever since the death of beloved rapper Earl “DMX” Simmons in 2021. Every time I hit shuffle on my 90s playlist, or someone strikes up a rap GOAT debate, I think about it again.
DMX is easily one of the most memorable hip-hop artists of the past five decades. After feeling the shared shock and sadness of learning he died from a cocaine-induced heart attack at age 50, I ran through a mental list of my favorite songs from the legend’s discography. The first to pop into my mind was “What these B*tches Want” — a mid-tempo track featuring R&B singer Sisqó and one of DMX’s biggest mainstream hits.
Here’s a sample:
I f*cks with these ho*s from a distance
The instant they start to catch feelings
I start to stealin’ they sh*t
Then I’m out just like a thief in the night
I sink my teeth in to bite
You thinkin’ life, I’m thinkin’ more like, what’s up tonight?
Come on ma, you know I got a wife
And even though that p*ssy tight I’m not gon’ jeopardize my life (aight?)
Cringeworthy, right? Disheartening and possibly enraging to anyone who considers themselves a feminist or simply rejects such casual disrespect and disregard of women. The lyrics don’t get any better.
Granted, this track came out when I was a teenager in an impoverished city. It was in my rotation well before I grew wise enough and diversely experienced enough to understand the reasons it might offend me. This was common neighborhood language. Guys (and girls) referenced females as the b-word and the h-word all the time though no one ever spoke to me this way. The words were considered insulting in some contexts but not egregious. This was the accepted norm in music, especially hip-hop.
It wasn’t until I entered college and learned words like misogyny and patriarchy that my perception shifted. Because I learned the roots of and the why behind such language. Vile expletives serve to not only insult a woman but degrade her. The glaring proof of this is that there are no male equivalents. We don’t nonchalantly replace man with a label stripping him of nobility and humanity.
There are more, less disparaging, DMX songs that I like.
But my affinity for this one, along with the prevalence of misogynistic degradation in hip-hop as a whole, stuck with me as an idea to be reconciled.
How can I sing “What these B*tches Want?” in one breath, and shout Who you calling a b*tch? along with Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” in the next? How can I and so many women who wouldn’t stand for such callousness in our physical presence accept it when delivered over a nice beat with a catchy hook?
In a candid emotional recount, as most of DMX’s recounts were, he revealed that an adult mentor tricked him into smoking crack at 14-years-old. “Why would you do that to a child?” he asked. Still searching for the impossible answer to an unfathomable question.
According to DMX, he’d never even smoked a cigarette before this incident, let alone did any type of hard drug. After the event, he said, “a monster was born.” So ensued a life-long, public, admittedly debilitating battle with substance abuse that was amplified by wealth and proven fatal.
Most who knew the artist considered him a tortured soul with a soft heart who was overwhelmed by his demons. He could captivate a stadium full of people the second he appeared on stage. But his inner commotion was much more unruly.
You could see it through the tears he shed during interviews. You could feel it in the anxiety with which he spoke so honestly about his struggles. When detailing a childhood spent living on the streets to escape his mother’s abuse, the agony piercing through his signature raspy voice would tug at your very last heart string. A relentlessly turbulent childhood destroyed him.
How can you make songs about joy when you’ve only known pain?
DMX couldn’t pen 16 bars about sunshine when it seems all he had was rain. Even the tremendous favor of becoming a famous rapper and actor was tainted by the forced introduction to a violent addiction. Certainly, he WISHED he had more positive, nicer things to talk about.
Fans were all rooting for DMX, who was just as likely to unleash a savage freestyle as he was a passionate prayer — pleading for help from every God listening. We wanted him to win. We wanted him to find peace here on earth and live to enjoy the other side of trauma.
To understand how something came to be isn’t to condone its willfulness or offer justification. We’ve all experienced hurt. Some more than others. Some, still, find wholeness near inconceivable. Yet not all broken people go on to break people. Not all succumb to destructive behaviors and a reckless mindset. Some do. Some don’t. And we have no absolute reason why. Because if there were a one-size-fits-all formula to rise above our circumstances, I think more of us would.
DMX is a microcosm of hip-hop. At war with himself. The product of an environment whose people were taught to hate themselves. A beautiful disaster full of love beaten down by suffering. Hip-hop may be an enigma. Or a contradiction. Or an enigma because it’s such a contradiction.
Many artists shuffle between calling women queens and names far worse. In “Keep Ya Head Up,” 2Pac rhymed about the strength and beauty of women. Then on “Wonda Why They Call U B*tch,” he lyrically assassinated the character and dignity of women who don’t move in a manner he deems respectable. Just about every commercially successful rapper, including Jay-Z, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and Drake has spoken of the female species as good for nothing more than satisfying the desires of men.
And at one point, I’ve loved them all.
The idea that you can love hip-hop and hate its misogyny may seem paradoxical. But I believe you can. Because hip-hop is not its misogyny any more than a car is its stereo. This troublesome aspect is woven into its fabric but is not the foundation.
There’s immense talent and precise skill at the core of hip-hop, often overshadowed by its toxic components. There are poets and writers. Musical geniuses and creative masterminds. There is unique artistry unable to be replicated. No other genre holds the rhythm and bravado of hip-hop.
Here’s another sample of DMX lyrics from “Lord Give Me a Sign.”
I really need to talk to you Lord
Since the last time we talked, the walk has been hard
Now I know you haven’t left me, but I feel like I’m alone
I’ma big boy now, but I’m still not grown
And I’m still goin’ through it (What!), pain and the hurt (Yeah!)
Soakin’ up trouble like, rain in the dirt (Yeah!)
This is not to make excuses for DMX or absolve any artist of the responsibility that comes with influence. Nor to make exceptions for brilliance. Only to leave room for contrast.
Yes, he’s the guy who spoke about women with such vulgarity on “What These B*tches Want?” and many other tracks. He’s also the guy who made entire songs crying out for relief from incessant aching, in an industry that promotes sucking it up and “being a man.” I don’t know that either expression can define him.
I think that’s why I and so many other people loved X. He wore his heart on his sleeve, always authentic, even to a fault. You could tell this was a man in desperate search of solace that seemed just beyond his reach. Yet, he gave of himself freely and sought to instill in others the very hope he struggled to harness.
The older I get, the less tolerable I find the objectification of women in any form. I would love nothing more than to weed misogyny out of hip-hop, out of society. I’m tired of culture being weaponized and the predatory tactics of those who encourage it for personal gain. Sick of hearing rationalizations for the use of derogatory terms, hurtful undertones, and diminishing outlooks because, culture.
When searching for subject matter to utilize in artful expression, we naturally go to our memory banks. We form narratives around our life experiences and things we’ve learned. We talk about what we’ve seen, what we know. If you’re surrounded by violence, drugs, and a lack of respect for women, it’s likely to influence your creative direction. Bless the day when we have better stories to tell and grow more mindful of how we tell them.
I’d love for hip-hop to transcend the environment instead of resigning to be a product of it — to find a way to release the disaster and just be beautiful. I’d love to see it in the light these next 50 years. Something tells me Dark Man X would’ve loved to have seen it too.