All Your Music Men Will Disappoint You.
Stacia L. Brown
By the time you’re old enough to study it, I do not know what you will be taught about ‘90s hip-hop and soul and how both were once the protest music of the impoverished, the battle cry of the broken and belligerent, the hope that felt less like an opiate and more like pure adrenaline. I don’t know if the genre will even be alive when you’re choosing your college electives. Maybe any hip-hop course for the freshman class of 2028 will simply be the history of a long-cooled fire. But you should know that, in 1995, CeeLo Green sat next to an actor playing a homeless man in the video for Goodie Mob’s single, “Soul Food,” and sang the opening lines of a spiritual:
Lord, it’s so hard/Living this life
A constant struggle/Each and every day
Some wonder why/I’d rather die
Than to continue living this way.
Then, the beat dropped.
It may not have been much to many other listeners but this meant something to your mother, whose knowledge of hip-hop had always been cursory at best. CeeLo was one of a select few rappers who sang as well as he rhymed and part of an even smaller subset of singer-rappers who made you sit up straighter when you heard him. He seemed to be delivering something important. A courier swimming upstream, he rhymed about gratitude and loss and finding the lessons in hardship. He would sing to young men about refraining from calling women bitches and whores (“What if one day someone feels the same way about that daughter of yours?” he wondered on wax). And he would write songs that felt like stratagems for maturing. What was “Gettin’ Grown,” if not a shoulder-squaring game plan for adulthood?
I was naive, hitting high school between late 1993 and early 1997, when MC Lyte, Yo-Yo and Queen Latifah were becoming better known for their Hollywood work than any womanist, anti-misogyny anthems they might’ve produced as emcees — and when the biggest women rap stars of the moment, Li’l Kim and Foxy Brown, were repurposing the bitch/ho labels rather than outright rejecting them. It was a strange time to be a teen girl, navigating musical messages about her worth. Teetering on the cusp of a moment when Latifah’s “Who you callin’ a bitch?” was swiftly being displaced by the “bad bitch era” felt a little like being thrown to wolves.
What I thought then was that we’d all outgrow it. Our favorite misogynistic music men (and women) would find themselves, at wealthy middle-age, mellowed by marriage and parenthood or else simply by having the piss taken out of them often enough. In short: I thought the whole of the hip-hop community would, by age 40 or 50, resemble Jay-Z in the audience at this year’s VMAs or Rev. Run in an episode of Run’s House.
But we don’t age out of our contradictions. We don’t age out of misogyny.
In the earlier days, it seemed CeeLo’s preachier “positive” music outweighed any woman-objectifying misanthropy that may’ve been creeping in. He still felt like an anomaly. You could listen to him for awhile back then without feeling the rug burn of hypocrisy you did with other male artists who’d pay lip service to women up one side of the disc and denigrate them all down the other. Consider Tupac’s “Keep Your Head Up” and “Brenda’s Got a Baby” next to “I Get Around,” “All About U” and “Fake Ass Bitches” Consider his whole oeuvre next to the time he served for sex abuse. Think of what the women who loved and/or parented with Biggie would say about how they were treated by him. Conjure the image of Snoop in his prime, pimping women and taking to stages with women wearing collars as he controlled their leashes.
In 2002, CeeLo’s first solo album seemed to provide a much-needed break. He was, in some ways, billing himself as a family man, featuring his then-wife in a video, then appearing with her and his stepdaughter on MTV’s Super Sweet Sixteen. Though rappers and soul singers publicly performing marriage and parenthood was nothing new (LL, Dr Dre, Snoop, Ice Cube and others did it first), Ceelo appeared to be be set apart, one of the few who didn’t lead a public double life: married but fetishizing pimp culture, parenting impressionable sons and daughters, while constantly grabbing chunks of young girls’ asses in videos.
But if your future hip-hop professor is keen, here’s where she will interject that the hip-hop fan knows little of her fave’s interior life, except what he or she is caught or convicted of doing and whatever gossip slaloms through suburb and slum. We’re never quite sure how much of the seediness or criminality recorded on a track is also evident in the artist’s personal life.
It’s when when we are made aware that we grapple with the question of complicity. Our ticket and album sales and word of mouth helped the artist’s star rise and now he is using that celebrity to abuse the people he attracts with it. When we vow to delete an artist’s music or boycott all his future endeavors, we are renouncing our role in his success. We are saying his actions have given us no choice.
Last weekend, CeeLo took to Twitter, after pleading no contest to drugging a woman, and defended himself against accusations of rape by using some nonsensical reasoning about unconscious women and “implied consent.”
Public response was quick. Fans washed their hands of him. They tweeted his own lyrics against him. And TBS announced cancelation of his reality show within 24 hours of his (deleted) incriminating tweets.
It’s been 12 years since his first solo album, a decade-plus of gimmicky, kitschy pop hits — and apparently, a steadily emboldening sense of entitlement to women’s bodies and agency. It’s nauseating and disappointing.
The truth is: all the music men will disappoint us. They’ll make exceedingly wack albums or be rude and dismissive in person. They’ll abandon art for commerce or go into hiding. They’ll catch the most absurd, unsettling cases. You’ll live. Sometimes, if you’re a die-hard fan, you’ll give them the widest berth, remembering the good album, the great guest verse, all that as-yet-unrealized promise.
But a time may come, as that artist approaches midlife, when you realize he has let the ugliest parts of himself go unchecked. He has shirked rehab, reason, or the idea of reckoning. And if he’s anything like CeeLo, nothing he’s ever done will disgust you and chill you clear to the bone like knowing that despite your patience, despite his vast exposure to the extravagance and cruelty in each corner of the world, despite the eventual responsibilities to the next generation that come with advancing age, your favorite music men could hit 40 still believing and imposing as rule of law that respect, tenderness, decency and even acknowledgment of women’s humanness is some sort of meritocracy, individually earned, publicly debatable.
If that artist is stiff-necked and insincere in his “apologies,” he should not be forgiven. He should be left to watch his once-hot albums languish in CD bargain bins at Walmart. But if he is willing to take responsibility for his wrongheaded ideas about consent, it could make more sense to engage him.
Take Too $hort, who just two years ago said indefensibly disgusting things in an XXL video, “jokingly” instructing young boys about how to molest girls without their consent. It was horrifying, as was his initial apology. But then something more productive happened: he responded to the public shame being directed at him, not with a defensive mouth, but an open ear. He sat with a woman who took him to task and allowed himself to be challenged, chastised and instructed. Before long, he began to learn: his ideas about healthy interaction with women had been perverted long, long ago. Too $hort, then 46 years old, learned that we don’t age out of our misogyny.
The next few weeks need to result in a similar awakening for CeeLo. Men are never too old not to be taught not to roofie, never too old to disabuse themselves of the notion that unconscious women can consent. It’s work they should do, not to retain their celebrity, but to reconnect with the better aspects of their humanity. Perhaps, in doing so, we former fans may someday be able to the same.