In 1992, Dr. Dre was 22 years away from being rap's first billionaire. He was, instead, busy making one of rap's most important records: The Chronic. He wasted no time introducing a note of sexism on his album. In the intro, Snoop Dogg rapped, "If that bitch can't swim / She bound to drizzown." That was the year Tipper Gore, the vice president's wife, penned an infamous editorial titled "Hate, Rape and Rap." To this day, it's one of the most frequently cited take-downs of rap.
In the years since, hip-hop and misogyny have become inseparable. In Gore's piece, she directly links rising rates of sexual assault to the rising popularity of hip-hop music, arguing that rap music teaches children that violence against women is okay. That complaint is a constant thorn in any rap fan's side — one that isn't helped by the brutal misogyny of Odd Future or the thoughtless, often racialized sexism of many mainstream rappers like Jason Derulo. It's gotten to the point where modern critics have tried to drag Michelle Obama into the ring, asking her to call on rappers to take more accountability for the way they treat women in their lyrics. She has yet to do so.
Critics are quick to point out the numerous regressive examples, but are slow to praise and encourage the hopeful signs. The sheer volume of criticism has glossed over two fundamental truths: rap, at its best, enables individuals to express their own beliefs and stories — it isn't just a sounding board for society's terrible attitudes. Even more importantly, rap has an incredibly strong history as a force for social change — social change like progressive attitudes about women.
Rap does indeed have a misogyny problem, but our best rappers are the first to acknowledge and fight that. The more those artists are promoted and supported, the more dominant their attitudes will become. Here are 13 times hip-hop took down sexism and preached equal rights:
1. Common taught us that friendship is the foundation for all lasting relationships.
"So I pray every day more than anything / Friends will stay as we begin to lay / This foundation for a family"
Common is usually praised as a "socially-conscious" rapper, which is a label attached to any MC that doesn't constantly rhyme about how great he is/exaggerate how many guns he owns. Common resisted the label in the past (it is sort of code for "soft"), but has since realized how powerful it's made him as a voice for changing rap's most devastating attitudes.
On "The Light," he spits about how important it is that relationships be built on respect and understanding. If a romantic relationship is a friendship first, then it's all the better because respect is guaranteed. "It's important that we communicate," he raps. And it sounds damn good.
2. Wu-Tang Clan demonstrated how to woo with respect.
"She elegant, pretty eyes, glasses, intelligent / Whispered in my ear that she's celibate / Whispered back to her ear we don't have to go there / As I grab the hand set her politely in the chair / As we stopped to stare at one another / Black sister to brother / I'm thinking all the time how she could be my lover"
The Wu-Tang Clan is one of the most versatile rap crews in the game. The ease with which the group moves from songs about hot-blooded revenge killings to a song about flirting with dignity and respect only attests to their mastery.
Each of the verses on "Camay" is like the opposite of a club banger — every one shows how to woo a woman with respect. None of the women in the song's three verses are hoes; they're all noted for their intelligence and poise, not for their sexuality. It's like the inverse of "Bandz a Make Her Dance."
3. Kanye preached respect for mothers.
"Seven years old, caught you with tears in your eyes / Cuz a nigga cheatin, telling you lies, then I started to cry / As we knelt on the kitchen floor / I said mommy I'mma love you till you don't hurt no more"
The name Kanye West has become synonymous with arrogance, braggadocio and combativeness. Fair enough. But something equally undeniable about Kanye West is that he loves his mom and it's really tender.
He wrote this track to thank her for her unwavering support and praise her as a caretaker. In a genre that often embraces an individualistic model of success, Kanye West was willing to give all the credit to his mother.
4. Nas warned other rappers that every woman is someone's daughter.
"They grow fast, one day she's your little princess / Next day she talking boy business, what is this / They say the coolest playas and foulest heart breakers in the world / God gets us back, he makes us have precious little girls"
Nas is street rap aristocracy. This year, on the 20th anniversary of his classic Illmatic, everyone from cultural critics to Georgetown Professors have stepped up to celebrate his incredible social commentary as a work of great literature.
In his unbelievable career, he's taken on everything from race relations to gun culture. But he's equally notable in preaching gender equality. "Daughters" takes a strategic approach to discouraging sexism. Beginning with a baby girl's cry, the song explores his struggle seeing his daughter grow up in a sexist world. He urges all men to consider how they treat women in that light — one day, they'll have daughters who'll be subjected to every attitude mainstream hip-hop encourages.
5. The Beastie Boys showed it’s never too late to change.
."I want to say a little something that's long overdue / The disrespect to women has got to be through / To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends / I want to offer my love and respect to the end"
Three albums into their stunning career, The Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication opens with “Sure Shot,” a classic hip-hop party track that’s mostly lyrical boasts about how awesome all the rappers are.
But, ever the activist, MCA’s verse kicks off on a different note — those powerful lines quoted above — which helped immortalize him as a feminist rapper. Some have speculated that these lines are an atonement for previous disrespect like their hit song “Girls” ("Girls — to do the dishes … Girls — to do the laundry.”)
But with that one direct and powerful statement, MCA began to completely rewrite the way he’d be remembered by history and encourage a legion of young men to do the same. It’s never too late to for men to change their perspective on how women should be treated — never to late to cut against the trends in rap.
6. 2Pac argued for a woman’s right to her body.
“Time to heal our women, be real to our women / And if we don't we'll have a race of babies / That will hate the ladies that make the babies / And since a man can't make one / He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one”
2Pac is the most socially-conscious rapper ever, but he never got the credit he deserved because he came up right in the midst of early hip-hop sexism.
His “Keep Ya Head Up,” though, is one of the most epic anti-misogyny raps in the history of the genre. He speaks directly to women telling them to stay hopeful and establish independence rather than relying on abusive men. He even ventures into the pro-choice debate — just as men have no “right” to abuse women, they also have no “right” to tell them how to use their bodies. The cycle of gender violence starts with the individual, if one can change; many can change.
7. Mykki Blanco took down homophobia and brought respect to hardcore rap.
"Maybe she born with it, maybe it was Maybelline / All white Blanco give your heathen ass a christening"
Mykki Blanco is the female performance name of Michael Quattlebaum Jr., a gender non-conforming rapper operating out of NYC. She is an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ and women’s rights, and she outlines his mission boldly and broadly: “Homophobia comes from misogyny, the hatred of women. If you can’t see the connection between homophobia and the hatred of women, you’re blind.”
Her art is as intimidating, grimey and disturbing as any gangsta rap or horrorcore song, except without any of the misogyny or homophobia that usually marks those genres. She takes down her haters with an unbelievable strength, and her work is already opening the genre up to counter-narratives to what aggressive male rappers have pushed for decades.
8. The Roots taught us how to let a relationship dissolve peacefully.
"We knew from the start that / Things fall apart, intentions shatter / She like that shit don't matter / When I get home get at her / Through letter, phone whatever"
“You Got Me” gave the hardest working band in hip-hop their first taste of mainstream success. That's impressive since the song is an ode to treating a romantic relationship with respect. Horror of horrors!
The song is a duet about a relationship that goes south. Rapped by incredible female rapper Eve and Black Thought, the song is a story of two lovers who watch their relationship dissolve when they begin to suspect infidelity. That's typically ripe territory for a horribly misogynistic banger. For example, if this were a Too $hort or a Dr. Dre song, this kind of scene would set off a cascade of horrific (and creative) swears condemning all women as hoes.
But Black Thought shows us how to take the high road. This is the grace that all men and women should strive for at the end of their relationships. The song's lesson is very clearly that this kind of conclusion is only possible if a relationship is based on respect and admiration — not lust and a desire to dominate.
9. Outkast showed what it takes to be a "real" man.
"One moment you frequent the booty clubs and / The next four years you & somebody's daughter / Raisin' y'all own young'n now that's a beautiful thang / That's if you're on top of your game / And man enough to handle real life situations (that is)"
Outkast has one of the widest vocabularies in rap. They’ve been responsible for bringing some of the most unique and infectious slang into hip-hop — “skeet,” “crunk,” and (this song's contribution) “spottieottiedopalicious.” Big Boi describes the word as a “Southern slang term for a girl that is superfine, bad, sexy, intelligent and jazzy all at the same time.”
In this song, Big Boi and Outkast take on the young gangbangers of hip-hop and challenge them to treat their women with respect. Being a “man” is handling “real life situations,” being good to your woman and standing by your family no matter what comes.
10. Ab-Soul took down double standards for women.
"My auntie told me always treat my lady right / My uncle told me only love 'em for a night / You can see the immediate disconnection / Between a man and a woman, the reason for regression"
Ab-Soul is a West coast rapper affiliated with Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q’s Black Hippy crew. Most of the time, he’s out rapping about obscure spiritual concepts and conspiracy theories, but when he makes time to take on our society's ridiculous sexism, he speaks all too clearly.
On “Double Standards” he points out the different expectations our culture holds for women and men. Men are expected to be promiscuous, but when women conform to those appetites they get called "sluts." One verse after another, he lists out double standards (we know Amber Cole's name because she was publicly shamed, but nobody talks about her boyfriend). His song takes these on, one by one, sizing each up as utterly ridiculous.
11. Angel Haze showed that victims of sexual violence can heal.
"Now I'm just saying this to tell you there's a way from the ground / The makings of a legend are often hidden in trials / Just be strong and just move on and just accept what you can / Because it makes your story better when you read at the end"
FemC Angel Haze, a Detroit native, used the beat from Eminem's "Cleaning Out My Closet" to tell an equally disturbing story with a completely opposite message.
From ages 7 to 10, Angel Haze was repeatedly sexually assaulted. She paints that scene in disturbingly vivid detail in her own "Cleaning Out My Closet," and describes the fallout: years of physical and mental trauma. But she completely resists all victimization in showing how she was able to emerge a stronger person nonetheless. She attempts to share this strength with other women: No matter who they are and what kind of abuse they face, they too have the strength to overcome and no woman is alone.
12. Lauryn Hill called for women to play a part in improving gender relations.
"It's silly when girls sell their souls because it's in / Look at where you be in, hair weaves like Europeans / Fake nails done by Koreans / Come again"
Lauryn Hill, the reclusive hip-hop and R&B queen, only released one solo album before she quit the music industry, but the impact of that album (and this song in particular) was great enough to make her an instant legend.
"Doo Wop" deals with men and women equally, arguing that neither sex is blameless for the terrible state of gender relations. She admonishes men for not being man enough to stick by a woman and raise a family, but she devotes a lot more time to calling out women for encouraging the problem. She admonishes women for putting too much time and effort into their looks and not developing their personality and intelligence. She tells women to play by their own rules; not by a man's.
13. De La Soul shrunk the importance of sex in love.
"My destiny of love is brought to an apex / Sex is a mere molecule / In this world of love that I have for you / It's true"
De La Soul opened up completely new possibilities for what rappers could sound like with their 1989 debut 3 Feet High And Rising. Their lyrics are soulful and lighthearted and entirely about peace and love.
In their love songs they talk about how there is more to love than lust. Their music constantly attests that there is an unmatched thrill in real romance — the kind that stems from respect and care, not simply from sex.