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After Roe: Can hip-hop rise to this moment?

Male rappers have a history of speaking out against racial injustice, but what about women’s rights?

Two days after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, effectively making abortion illegal in half the country, Kendrick Lamar took the stage at England’s Glastonbury Festival to plant his flag firmly in solidarity with women.

With a crown of diamond thorns (provided by Tiffany & Co.) around his head and fake blood dripping down his face, staining his shirt, Lamar closed his show repeating these words: “They judge you, they judged Christ, Godspeed for women’s rights.” 

The moment found Lamar positioning himself firmly on the side of women in their fight for reproductive justice. But, of course, it’s not that simple. Immediately after the video hit the internet, fans and critics questioned his sincerity, pointing out what they said were Lamar’s transgressions against women, such as threatening to take his music off Spotify if it removed R. Kelly’s catalog in light of the singer’s sexual misconduct. The entire situation is a microcosm of where hip-hop has fallen short and what it needs to do to show up for women in these pivotal moments.

This story, of course, is bigger than Lamar, but his performance — and the reaction to it — informs the larger picture. Lamar is rap’s golden child: His ability to mix street tales with uplifting stories has made him the standard-bearer for those trying to infuse substance in their raps while also being a pop culture mainstay. But his elevation isn’t without faults, particularly his inclusion of Kodak Black on his most recent album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. Black was convicted of the first-degree assault of a 16-year-old girl in 2021. While it’s great to declare onstage that women’s rights are being infringed upon, he’s going to have to face people calling out the ways he’s failed women so far.

And if Lamar, the prodigal son of progressive rap music, can’t pull together a statement in support of women without getting the infamous “this you?” response from social media, then who can? Pick just about any popular male rapper and you’re likely to find something in his recent history that promotes or is at least complicit in misogyny. And I’m sure some rappers know that.

Hip-hop has managed to be effective as a conduit for social justice advocacy when it comes to Black men being killed by police — and it’s used that same blueprint to stand up for Black women like Breonna Taylor of Louisville, Kentucky, who were killed by police. The criticism when rappers would stand up against racial violence was that their own music was so full of violent imagery that any demand for nonviolence was contradictory. However, it’s become understood that many rappers’ lyrics about murder and guns are exaggerations and parts of characters they’re playing. No one believes Rick Ross is still out selling drugs or Vince Staples is participating in drive-bys. We know most rappers don’t live their raps when it comes to violence.

But the same can’t be said for their misogyny. There’s no plausible deniability for, say, Future, who has spent the better part of the decade degrading the mothers of his children, or proudly anti-gay DaBaby or Kodak Black or any number of other rappers who either have been publicly accused of mistreating women or know that those secrets are one exposé away from being publicized. These men live out their lyrics of being harmful to women.

It’s like the white allies I’ve heard from over the past few years who tell me they want to speak out about racism, but when they do they’re challenged (or, from their perspective, “attacked”) over their complicity in perpetuating the problem they profess to want to fight. Which may explain why most male rappers have been silent about Roe v. Wade — no rapper broached the topic during the BET Awards, for instance, though the network clumsily added the decision to the “In Memoriam” section of the show.

Of course, the fear of dealing with backlash is just a cop-out. The only way rappers can fully show up at this critical moment is to address their own misogyny. To face their own lyrics and the ways they’ve harmed women. It’s scary for them, but it’s really the only way this works.

If male rappers aren’t going to stand up at this moment, they’re doing what far too many men have done in the past: leaving the defense of women up to women themselves.

So far, we’ve seen rapper Cardi B share resources and speak out about how to help pregnant women, Lizzo pledged to donate $500,000 to Planned Parenthood and the National Network of Abortion Funds, and Megan Thee Stallion called out the Supreme Court and used some of her stage time at Glastonbury to deliver a monologue about the injustices that come with overturning Roe. The women are ready for the moment, but they’ve also been calling for men to stand by them. While she’s not a rapper, singer Jazmine Sullivan used her time at the BET Awards to demand that men stand up. “I want to speak directly to the men,” she said. “We need you all. We need y’all to stand up. Stand up for us. Stand up with us.”

Male artists have discussed abortions for decades, of course, with Tupac Shakur delivering the most famous abortion-rights line from 1993’s “Keep Ya Head Up,” when he rapped, “Since a man can’t make one, he has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one.” J. Cole’s “Lost Ones” and Common’s “Retrospect For Life,” for instance, focus more on either the man’s feelings about their partner choosing abortion or the sadness and remorse about the unborn child. TV host Nick Cannon — who’s spent the last few years seemingly getting as many women pregnant as humanly possible — made “Can I Live,” which is an anti-abortion anthem about how he was almost aborted. But songs about a women’s right to choose from male rappers that center on women — or defend their rights — are rare.

For rap to rise to this moment it needs to embrace an intersectional ideal of freedom that includes women and the LGBTQ+ community. Doing so requires its stars to face their pasts and how their actions have contributed to the state of the world. The road will be uncomfortable and, at times, costly. But the overall greater good is worth it. The fellas just have to realize that.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.