I’m taking this class because I want to love Hiphop. I thought I fell in love with Hiphop during high school. I had always listened to and liked the music, but at some point during sophomore year I actually started listening—not just hearing—and engaging with the music. I fell in love with its artistry, its lyricism, its ability to affect people with both its significance and its sound, and to unite people with its story. Nevertheless, at the same time, I wasn’t listening closely enough. I had become numb to the dialogues about black women that treated them as though they were sexual objects. Occasionally I would be a bit taken aback by a line, or a title. But if the beat was good and I enjoyed the rapper’s flow, I could bypass the multiple bitches giving them head in their bed.
When there was a critical debate about Tyga’s misogynistic music and his performance on campus, I took the side of “it’s just music.” When I heard Chris Brown’s Loyal I once again came back to the “it’s just a song! And a good one!” argument. And while I do still believe the song is good, I realize that I was refusing to critically engage with it and its issues. And my refusal to do so meant that I could not truly love it, in the same way that my refusal to grapple with Hiphop’s misogyny meant that I did not truly love it yet. I believe that art is art, and that artists are under no ethical obligation to be role models for children, or abide by the morals of their fans. However, I believe that at the same time art has powerful consequences for the broader society in which it exists, and that it is important to understand and engage in the conversations about those consequences. I believe that to truly love Hiphop is to grapple with the questions it raises, and come out on the other side with a nuanced viewpoint. I can still love Loyal as a song, and understand its context and implications in a patriarchal society that devalues women as materialistic and promiscuous.
It’s bigger than an individual issue with a song. It’s bigger than Hiphop. It is about the relationship between art and culture and sincerely engaging with the art form, and even loving it despite itself. To love something is to critique it. To accept it with its flaws and still seek to understand it, believing that it can always better itself. I’m taking this class because I want to truly love Hiphop, not just because I ignore the bad parts, but because I know them well.
Zakiya Lewis is a Harvard College senior concentrating in Sociology and African American Studies.