As a self-described feminist and a fan of hip-hop, I often feel torn between two lovers. It’s hard to ignore my self-deception when I blast music by Tyler the Creator, a rapper with incredibly misogynist lyrics, while typing up a paper for my Women’s Studies class.
How could I do this?
It’s because I am morally inconsistent — and I’m convinced many other people are, too.
On June 20, I took to the 72 Hours Twitter account and set up a poll asking readers: “Should the misdeeds a musician commits in their personal life affect the cultural value of their music?” 71 percent of voters answered “Yes,” while 29 percent answered “No.”
As a young college student, I’ve noticed how we quickly vilify entertainers and their fans while failing to recognize the moral inconsistency of which we, like any human being, are guilty. In an age of hashtag movements, publicized crimes can make rappers irredeemable to many progressives, but this is inconsistent with the compassion they now call for those with troubled backgrounds.
We have seen throughout history how supposedly good people can still do bad things. Social psychologists have shown how people do harm when social context allows for this behavior (think: mob mentality). They’ve also shown that one’s proclaimed moral intentions cannot be taken at face value. Simply put, we care about maintaining a positive self-image and sometimes ask others to meet higher moral standards than we expect of ourselves — or even others when pushed.
While looking at the poll’s results, I thought about the entertainers who had their music pulled from Spotify in May: Tay-K, R. Kelly and, perhaps the most controversial rapper of 2018, the recently deceased XXXTentacion.
Dubbed the “hardest n— in Florida” by A$AP Rocky, XXXTentacion achieved stardom with sexually aggressive, violent and self-assured lyrics despite facing scrutiny for allegations of domestic violence in 2016. The fascination into his private life extended to his music, as a rapper’s image of malice and apathy frequently predicts their appeal. While he was on house arrest, his album “?” debuted at No. 1.
With stardom before he even reached legal drinking age, XXXTentacion became a source of inspiration to many kids. But after his allegations of domestic violence were publicized, Spotify pulled his music from playlists for “hateful conduct,” briefly appeasing social justice warriors. This was a shallow act of political correctness as they targeted three actors in an entire culture and genre with rampant misogyny.
Now, look: I want to make clear that his disturbing list of charges, including domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment and aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, are heinous crimes. If he were alive and proven guilty, he should be penalized.
But I don’t understand how we got here. People were shocked that another young rapper who released music after serving a jail sentence may have acted violently. Why are we judging artists — especially rappers, performers in a genre of music that often romanticizes crime and a lack of respect for authority — on their morality instead of their art?
Professor Becky Blanchard wrote that violence in rap is a manifestation of the history of oppression that gave birth to hip-hop and subsequent brutal rappers. Gangsta rap, unfortunately, reflects daily life in racially and economically stratified ghettos. Like many forms of art, rap gives a voice to those whose worldviews are shaped by the experience of economic inequality. Is this worldview inherently morally correct? No. But art, often functioning as a means to cope, should not be policed.
Rapper Kodak Black once rhymed “Growing up with no father, it’ll make you evil / How he gon’ learn to be a man when you ain’t never teach him?”
Claiming that a problematic rapper’s work is culturally invaluable because they are a criminal ignores the circumstances that led to the work. Rappers achieve success without having to negotiate their language or upbringing, as their connection to the hood inspires successful and relatable music.
But this has its limits, as many young rappers hailing from rough neighborhoods still get caught up in crime that deters their ability to move through social classes.
After facing scrutiny for broadcasting an Instagram Live video of a woman performing oral sex on him and his entourage in January 2017, Kodak Black tweeted, “If I could change I swear I would … I tried everything but I’m just so hood.”
Keep in mind that only rappers with highly reported crimes are being discussed. What kind of hip-hop community would exist if we consistently policed artists for their misdeeds? Eminem, another rapper with an unsteady childhood, has lyrics with themes of domestic and sexual violence. His ex-wife — a frequent subject in his music — once attempted suicide and sued him for writing a song that described her violent death.
Interestingly, I don’t recall any major boycotts of him.
Many college students call for compassion for individuals from communities plagued by crime, violence and a lack of strong parental figures. The documentary “13,” which focuses on mass incarceration, is frequently shown on my campus to prevent students from viewing the disadvantaged with hollow judgment. Instead, students today attest their privilege. Some go as far as equating prisons to a broken mental health system; sometimes even slavery. But when another young black rapper with a troubled past is accused of continuing a violent legacy, it’s as if this call for empathy vanishes.
As we move toward a more progressive society, it seems like the stigma around the word “criminal” is being replaced with a vague, mystified idea: a product of a broken community. Quick judgment of these communities is seen as ignorant on my campus as it ignores the history of inequality. It’s inconsistent to demand understanding for those from broken communities while condemning problematic music that may alleviate their frustration or, like in XXXTentacion’s case, help move them out of their social class.
According to a paper by researchers at Stanford University, people can feel as though their good deeds can liberate them to engage in problematic behaviors, an effect known as moral licensing. Feeling confident that one is moral allows them to give leniency to immoral or otherwise problematic acts.
I struggle understanding how, during discussions of mass incarceration, some of my peers grant empathy to the underprivileged for crimes like drug trafficking and gang violence. Yet many of these progressive students still feel compelled to boycott XXXTentacion’s music. When children from broken communities grow up, their misdeeds can be as ruthless as his allegations.
I wonder if empathizing with poor black youth in this country while still upholding the dignity of other people is possible, or just a progressive ideal. Understanding a criminal’s psychopathology may help prevent another generation of troubled youth, but I struggle believing that this is meaningful as many people, regardless of age or political identity, will understandably pass judgment when another troubled black youth does harm.
Born in Plantation, Florida, XXXTentacion was mostly raised by his grandmother, as his mother experienced financial burden far too great to raise him. It was his mother, he said, who told him it was acceptable to hit a woman at times.
“I used to beat kids at school just to get her to talk to me, yell at me,” he told the Miami New Times.
Decades of research show that an unstable home is a predictor of hardship for a developing child. Children without fathers are more likely to experience mental health issues and less likely to do well in school. Shot and killed during an apparent robbery, XXXTentacion had the same fate as other men from broken homes.
A high school dropout who found success rapping about his feelings, XXXTentacion achieved stardom despite having so many predictors of a hard life and showing symptoms of the mental illnesses about which he rapped.
“If worse thing comes to worst, and I … die … and I’m not able to see out my dreams, I at least want to know that the kids perceived my message and … turn it into something positive and to at least have a good life,” XXXTentacion said in a video fans say foreshadowed his death.
XXXTentacion refused to compromise his authenticity to achieve success. He admitted to depression, rare in a genre where machismo flourishes, and his music spoke to people who dealt with the struggle of living with profound sadness. The allegations, while vicious, do not negate this effect.
Before we harshly judge XXXTentacion and other artists like him, consider the reason his fans didn’t judge him. Perhaps they understand how the misdeeds of the most misunderstood do not define them.
Lillian Andemicael is a student at the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter @ LAndemicael.