Given its well-documented and inexcusable problems with sexism, hip-hop might not seem a wise place to look to start making that change. But that fact actually makes the medium more ripe for reformers. Moreover, as one of the dominant, storytelling-driven art forms consumed and made by young people, rap provides a way for survivors and allies to testify, argue, and change hearts and minds. And as a song released this past week by the promising young rapper Angel Haze proves, rap’s potential as a weapon against rape culture isn’t merely academic.
In recent years, hip-hop controversies have produced some of the most powerful conversations and activism around sexual violence. Last year, Ashley Judd made waves by calling out hip-hop’s “rape culture,” to the dismay of The Roots drummer ?uestlove and others who are tired of one genre of music being blamed for all of society’s ills. More recently, rapper Too $hort caught criticism thanks to shameful comments in a video blog post at XXL Magazine, which included instructions for adolescent boys about how to sexually assault girls under the guise of playfulness. After a tepid apology and mounting pressure from a coalition of black and Latina women called “We are the 44 percent” (44 percent of sexual assault survivors are under 18 years old), Too $hort sat down for a candid interview published by Ebony. He emphasized his previous ignorance, but also seemed genuinely remorseful and shaken, admitting he made a serious and harmful mistake, apologizing, and calling the controversy a “wake-up call.”
Into this battleground enters Angel Haze, the acclaimed Michigan-born 21-year-old, who recently released a brilliant and devastating track about her own story as a rape and abuse survivor, called “Cleaning Out My Closet.” This is not the first rap song that addresses sexual violence against women. Ludacris’s “Runaway Girl” and Eve’s “Love is Blind,” are two of the more commercially successful examples, though there are countless lesser-known songs, like Immortal Technique’s “Dance With the Devil,” that critique rape culture unflinchingly. But Haze’s song is amplified by the current political context, and differentiated by both tone and content.
The objectification of women and depictions of sexual violence are commonplace in hip-hop, as they are across the landscape of entertainment culture. The vast majority of artists with substantial commercial backing show little public concern for the cancer that is rape culture. But Angel Haze is proof that hip-hop can be both a warzone and a weapon in this fight, especially for young women of color. Despite the sexism they face, engaging rap music is one of the ways these young people come to know themselves and build political consciousness.
Without warriors like Haze, the baseness and sickness of sexual violence remains muffled, and the conversation proceeds on the deranged terms set by Mourdock, Akin, and others who benefit from the status quo. Survivors’ stories move us away from clarification and apology, towards righteous anger and action, and hip-hop can help."