wax Poetics
Artwork by John Jennings from When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost by Joan Morgan, published by Simon & Schuster.

Home to Roost

Hip-hop feminist Joan Morgan on hip-hop’s misogyny

published online
By Travis Atria

I. “Hip-hop and feminism are not at war.”

–Joan Morgan, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost

Sometime in the late-1980s, hip-hop began to take a turn from which it has never returned. This turn has been both lamented and defended thousands of times, in thousands of ways, but even the most strident critics couldn’t quite stop it, and even the most ardent supporters couldn’t quite justify it. And the turn was this: all of a sudden, an entire art form seemed to decide it hated women.

A random sampling through the years:

“Do like Ice Cube, slam her ass in a ditch / ’Cause a bitch is a bitch” –Ice Cube, 1987

“Are you the type who won’t put a ho in front of a trigger? / Then you’s a ho ass nigga” –Geto Boys, 1989

“And I’m gunnin’ for your spouse, tryin’ to send the bitch back to her maker / And if you got a daughter older than fifteen, I’m’a rape her” –DMX, 1998

“Slut, you think I won’t choke no whore / Till the vocal cords don’t work in her throat no more?” –Eminem, 2000

It wasn’t always this way. For young rappers, it might seem inconceivable that there was once a world in which LL Cool J could rap “I Need Love” and still be taken seriously (of course, LL was not without his share of questionable lyrics: his “Dear Yvette” is essentially a tamer version of the exact song that called this piece into being, which we deal with below). And though it has become a cliché to bemoan rap lyrics (it’s even hard to write this without feeling like a pearl-clutching scold—But why do they have to use such bad language?), the misogyny in the music remains an ugly open wound. 

Author-journalist-critic Joan Morgan remembers the days before hip-hop took its fateful turn. Morgan is the program director of the Center for Black Visual Culture at the New York University Institute of African American Affairs. She grew up in the South Bronx alongside hip-hop and watched the form rise from a local plaything to a global industry. “It was exciting,” she tells me, “having the luck and the timing of watching hip-hop transition out of something I really understood in the context of my hood to become the dominant musical form in the world. In the beginning, there was no turning on the radio to listen to hip-hop. I remember the first time I heard ‘Rapper’s Delight’ on the radio and it felt like something seismic was shifting.” 

Morgan did more than listen to hip-hop: as a journalist working for Vibe and The Source among other outlets in the ’80s and ’90s, she helped shape the genre’s growth and refused to ignore its descent into misogyny. In 1999, she wrote When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down, which remains among the most passionate, intimate, and enlightening explorations of misogyny in hip-hop ever written. In the book, Morgan coined the term “hip-hop feminism,” spawning an entire field of study; wrote about Black-girl magic long before CaShawn Johnson created the Twitter hashtag that launched a digital movement; but most importantly, she began to create a language and a space to speak about hip-hop’s trouble with women.

“In the beginning, I didn’t feel alienated by the misogyny because there was less of it,” Morgan says. “NWA marked a real shift. They’re not the first, but they were so incredibly commercially successful and they put gangsta rap and the West Coast on the map. I felt like it was attempting to push me out of a space I had not only a right to be but that I helped create. Black women were hip-hop’s sacrificial lambs. It was okay to make us targets for commercial gain.”

NWA, with the D.O.C. and Above the Law’s Laylaw, backstage at the Kemper Arena during their Straight Outta Compton tour, June 1989, Kansas City, Missouri. (left to right, standing: Laylaw, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, and the D.O.C.; sitting: Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and MC Ren). Photo by Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
NWA, with the D.O.C. and Above the Law’s Laylaw, backstage at the Kemper Arena during their Straight Outta Compton tour, June 1989, Kansas City, Missouri. (left to right, standing: Laylaw, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, and the D.O.C.; sitting: Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and MC Ren). Photo by Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

II. “I demand that black men fight sexism with the same passion they battle racism.”

Joan Morgan, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost

Morgan is right. NWA didn’t invent misogyny in rap music (see: Slick Rick’s “Treat Her Like a Prostitute,” Geto Boys’ “I’m Not a Gentleman,” Schoolly D’s “Pussy Ain’t Nothin’,” or anything by 2 Live Crew for just a few contemporaneous examples), but it was Ice Cube who ultimately led me to her book, and it was her journalism on Cube that I found most illuminating.

Though I was only six years old when Straight Outta Compton came out, and wasn’t allowed to listen to songs like “Fuck tha Police” or “A Bitch Iz a Bitch,” I remember the way hip-hop, and gangsta rap in particular, was greeted when it burst onto the world stage. I remember the night in 1990 when 2 Live Crew performed at a club called Pickles, eight blocks from my house in Hollywood, Florida, and was treated like an invading horde. I remember the racism lurking just behind most criticisms of hip-hop, the fear of Black men that was as old as the slave trade and as current as the five o’clock news. It made such an impression on me that, even as an adult, any criticism of the form, including criticism of its misogyny, felt inseparable from that racism. As a white man, I decided to have no opinion: misogyny in hip-hop was an issue for other people to debate.

But then I was driving with my music on shuffle when Ice Cube’s “Givin’ Up the Nappy Dugout” came on. It’s a deep cut from the classic album Death Certificate, released in 1991. Maybe it was the unexpected nature of the shuffle that made me hear the song differently, or maybe it was the strange ratio of greatness (the song is undeniable) to cruelty (the lyrics are hard to stomach), but whatever the reason, the song shocked me out of my ambivalence: 

She can take on three men, built like He-Men
Her little-bitty twat got gallons of semen…
Mister, mister, before you make me go
I’m here to let you know your little girl is a ho
Nympho, nympho, boy, is she bad
Get her all alone and out comes the kneepads
I know she is a minor and it is illegal
But the bitch is worse than Vanessa Del Rio
And if you decide to call rape
We got the little hooker on tape…

There was simply no way around it: the song was dehumanizing in ways I would call unacceptable in any other format. It was exactly the sort of slut-shaming, casual violence, and hypocritical double standards that made the #MeToo movement necessary. Ultimately, I couldn’t find a way to defend it, not even to myself. How could a man who railed so powerfully against oppression on songs like “Fuck tha Police” and “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” become the oppressor, seemingly without a thought? And how could I, or anyone, have accepted it so easily? As I began to seriously explore my own thoughts and feelings on the issue, Morgan’s book came to me.

Ice Cube, December 10, 1991. Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images.
Ice Cube, December 10, 1991. Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images.

III. “Things were easier when your only enemies were white racism and middle-class black folk who didn’t want all that jungle music reminding them they had kinky roots. Now your anger is turned inward.”

–Joan Morgan, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost

“It’s funny you mention Ice Cube,” Morgan says when I tell her about my experience. “I have a good relationship with him. We always got along. But people had a hard time imagining us in the same room.”

As a journalist, Morgan wrote several thoughtful, challenging pieces on Ice Cube. In July 1990, at the urging of the late, great Greg Tate, she covered Cube’s first solo album, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, for the Village Voice in a piece titled “The Nigga Ya Hate to Love,” and pulled no punches when discussing her misgivings about—and even aversion to—Cube’s music. “It’s no secret that I found NWA’s Straight Outta Compton nothing short of demonic,” she wrote. “[But] I’m still weirded out from last summer when I found myself singing the chorus to ‘Gangsta Gangsta’ in the kitchen long after I decided Straight Outta Compton was the most fucked-up, violent, sexist rap album I’d ever heard.”

And this is why Morgan’s writing is so powerful. She does the hard work. She holds two seemingly opposite thoughts in mind at the same time and examines them both. In the article, she recalled seeing her boyfriend coming out of the shower, dripping wet, rapping to himself a snippet of Ice Cube’s “You Can’t Fade Me”: “Why did I bang her? / Now I’m in the closet, looking for the hanger.” She admitted finding this oddly alluring, and she still loves the music, even when it doesn’t love her back. She still doesn’t want to change it, even while feeling hurt by the way it is. As she wrote in Chickenheads, “My decision to expose myself to the sexism of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, or the Notorious B.I.G. is really my plea to my brothers to tell me who they are. I need to know why they are so angry at me.”

When asked about these words, she explains, “I didn’t advocate for the abolishment of those lyrics. I said, This is what it is. It’s reflective of a whole lot of other misogyny. Maybe it gives us space to talk about it and confront it. Just because you don’t call me a bitch doesn’t mean you’re not a misogynist. I was arguing for a confrontation for a reality of some pretty fucked up gender dynamics and the ability to have real conversation about what it meant in context of the music, and what it meant in the context of being a Black woman.” 

Reading Chickenheads, I found myself hoping Morgan would give me the answer, would tell me what my position should be toward Ice Cube, a rapper I consider among the top two or three greatest of all time, and all the other greats like him who have said some truly heinous things about women. Of course, it wasn’t fair to expect her to provide that answer, and she had no intention of trying. Her goal was to create a language to talk about the problem, not to come up with the solution. “It also makes it so I’m not responsible for the whole conversation,” she says. 

Fair enough.

Joan Morgan. Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
Joan Morgan. Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

IV. “Continuing on our previous path is akin to demanding that a fiending, broke crackhead not rob you blind because it’s wrong to do so.”

–Joan Morgan, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost

In 1994, Morgan returned to Ice Cube for a cover story in Vibe entitled “The Devil Made Me Do It.” At the time, Cube’s wife was pregnant with his first daughter, and Morgan asked him directly what he would do when she began listening to the sort of lyrics he was famous for writing. She asked him about the need to “develop a value system that’s not based on the materialistic, or sexist, or patriarchal, or racist ideas,” which is a deeper and more daring question than most reporters were asking at the time, or now. And she asked about the movement to address hip-hop’s increasing obsession with guns, violence, and misogyny. Cube answered: “If rappers didn’t come out with ‘bitch’ and ‘ho,’ we would still not be addressing that issue at all. Now…we’re starting to address that. If everybody comes to the conclusion that ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ aren’t appropriate for the community, they won’t be used. Just like ‘Negro’ is not used no more. It’s not appropriate, it doesn’t fit, it has no meaning. But until somebody brings that to the table—here’s what’s going on, here’s what’s happening—you’re never going to address it.… That’s our whole purpose.”

That answer seemed self-serving and evasive. Plus, there is the obvious problem that everyone did not come to the conclusion that “bitch” and “ho” aren’t appropriate. Quite the opposite. It’s 2022, and misogyny in hip-hop is like a guitar solo in rock music: it’s accepted as part of the fabric of the genre. But Cube’s answer also reminded me of something Morgan wrote in Chickenheads, that even though hip-hop “holds some of fifteen- to thirty-year-old black men’s ugliest thoughts about me, it is the only place where I can challenge them…. Though it’s often portrayed as part of the problem, rap music is essential to that struggle because it takes us straight to the battlefield.”

This was easier to accept. The lyrics are an admission of a pain that needs to be examined rather than silenced. “What passes for ‘a 40 and a blunt’ good times in most of hip-hop is really alcoholism, substance abuse, and chemical dependency,” Morgan wrote. “The seemingly impenetrable wall of sexism in rap music is really the complex mask African-Americans often wear both to hide and express the pain. At the close of this millennium, hip-hop is still one of the few forums in which young black men, even surreptitiously, are allowed to express their pain.”

And maybe that meant Cube’s logic wasn’t as self-serving as it seemed. Or maybe it was, but the point he was making remained valid. Because never before has the dominant artistic movement of a generation forced such questions to be asked, not just among Black Americans, not just in feminist or academic circles, but in the experience of, say, a white boy listening to local news coverage of a 2 Live Crew concert in the suburbs of Miami. Jazz, R&B, rock and roll, disco—none of these made anyone I know curious about the experiences of Black women or made them feel those experiences were somehow related to their lives. Hip-hop made that happen.

This isn’t to say the issue wasn’t important until it reached white America, or that my personal conclusions and opinions are of importance to anyone but me, or even to accept that the conversation has taken place in such a hurtful way. Rather, it is to suggest that each of us has the responsibility to engage with the issue. This requires us to hold two seemingly opposing facts in mind simultaneously: hip-hop doesn’t get a free pass on sexism for any reason; and hip-hop pushed the conversation into realms it had never reached before and forced people to take that conversation personally. And the more we feel someone else’s pain personally, the less likely we are to ignore it.

Wax poetics

V. “Defining ourselves solely by our oppression denies us the very magic of who we are.”

–Joan Morgan, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost

Chickenheads helped spawn a field of academic study called, appropriately enough, hip-hop feminism, but academia was never as important to Morgan as speaking directly to the women she knew, the ones who didn’t trust feminism, didn’t see it as relating to their lives. “Like it or not,” she wrote, “hip-hop is not only the dominion of the young, black, and male, it is also the world in which young black women live and survive. A functional game plan for us, one that is going to be as helpful to Shequanna on 142nd as it is to Samantha at Sarah Lawrence, has to recognize hip-hop’s ability to articulate the pain our community is in and use that knowledge to create a redemptive, healing space.”

As she tells me, “Academia is isolationist by nature. I wanted to find ways to bring [pioneering feminist author] bell hooks to the average person. It’s the reason Chickenheads is written the way it is. I could have written it very academically, even though I had no interest in academia back then. But the academy accepted Chickenheads long before I accepted academia. I think those walls are trembling a bit.”

But what about the other walls? Violence against women is not just going to disappear, not it the real world, not in music, and Morgan is well aware of it. “Masculinity is so linked to patriarchy throughout the world,” she says, “and Black male masculinity has been so historically challenged and compromised, the access to power through patriarchy becomes extremely appealing. It’s a way to rebuild that fractured masculinity. You’re certainly not going to do that with white women because there’s a material cost and danger to that, but who gives a shit if you do it to Black women?”

Indeed, this concept of masculinity is so powerful that even when female rappers try to subvert it, or to claim it as their own, they often get trapped in the same dynamics of sexual dominance and physical violence. Is this truly subversion, or is it simply a mirror image of the problem? Does it matter if a woman dominates a man, rather than a man dominating a woman, if in the end someone still ends up being dominated? Is this the equality we seek?

These questions are not new. (They are also bigger than hip-hop, and perhaps the only racist thing about criticism like this is it often pretends the music is the whole disease rather than one symptom.) But we are still asking them, still seeking an answer. Morgan refuses to be what she calls a “superwoman,” the type who can take all the abuse and then turn around and offer the healing, but she does offer a solution in Chickenheads: “We gotta do what any rational, survivalist-minded person would do after finding herself in a relationship with someone whose pain makes him abusive. We’ve gotta continue to give up the love but from a distance that’s safe. Emotional distance is a great enabler of unconditional love and support because it allows us to recognize that the attack, the ‘bitch, ho’ bullshit—isn’t personal but part of the illness.”

But how do you do that without cutting yourself off from the very people whose love and support you need to survive?

“It means you have to make some difficult choices,” she says. “Queer people talk about this all the time in terms of family dynamics and parents and having to find the balance of what is the right emotional space for someone who I love but who hurts me. That does mean really difficult choices. But I think there are great things that have happened. There used to be speculation about who the gay rapper was, as if there was only one. Now you have these incredible public displays of gender fluidity that no one bats an eye at. You have people coming out on hip-hop reality shows. I think in some ways, hip-hop has caught up with the culture.”

In some ways it has. In others, it has a long way to go. Then again, so do we all. “For me, it’s not just about how hip-hop did or didn’t evolve,” Morgan says. That’s not a particularly useful metric in seeing its fullness or its limitations, or really a question we even ask of other forms or genres. I think what is useful is taking a pulse, asking where we are—or aren’t—this many years later, and what can we extract from that in this larger project of creating a better world than the one hip-hop was born into—or for that matter, the one we have now.”

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