Masculinity, Rap, and the Modern World
A look at how Black men have changed by using Rap as the lens
The word ‘rough’ used to be a part of our daily vocabulary.
If you saw some boots that you liked, “those are rough.” I was looking at the Ford Raptor the other day, my first thought was, “that’s rough.”
Rap fans from my era can recall several songs using the word, the most notable being “I speak for the hardcore, rough, rugged and raw.”
It was a word that needed no definition but essentially, it meant masculine. It was a word that wasn’t controversial to my teen self anymore than feminine was. But a lot has changed since Chuck D dropped the line “smooth, not what I am, rough, cuz I’m a man”on perhaps one of the greatest B-sides in the history of the music.
I would never proclaim to be a feminist, I grew up in America — the child of southern raised parents. But I can say that men aren’t what they used to be. Nor do they strive to be. And no place is that more evident than in Rap music.
I have no desire to walk you through the evolution (really, devolution) of Rap over the past 30 years. I’m just going to point some things out, hopefully not piss you off, and move on.
If it wasn’t for the words of Minister Farrakhan, I would be calling this dude everything but the child of God.
He blew on SoundCloud. He got arrested. He made the XXL Freshman Cover 2017. Got knocked out. Did insane stage dives. Made a controversial video. And he makes shit music. Well, to me.
I often look at things through the lens of my father now that I’m running up on middle-aged and he’s yelling out senior discount everywhere we go. He looked at me and my older brother’s generation, Gen X, as soft.
We didn’t work with our hands — funny, coming from an Air Traffic Controller — we didn’t fix and build things. In his mind (and words), and I’ve heard it from other men of his generation, we were ‘delicate.’
When he sees young men like the Post-Rap artists above, he’s confounded. He can’t even form the right questions and instead starts with words like, “and you know what I can’t stand to see..”
“But he’s young…”
That’s the argument. And that’s where this saga begins.
Chuck D had to be convinced to Rap.
Already comfortable as a successful Radio host, Chuck felt he was too old to rap. He was 26. That was 1986. As recent as 2004, instead of Record Execs trying to convince someone to be a rapper, they were discouraging my brother, telling him, “he was too old.” He was 27.
I always measure life by comparing my generation to my father’s with an age to age comparison. My Dad had already been in the military for four years when I was born. He had his last child well before he was 40. By the time he was my age, he had been retired from the Air Force for five years and was deep into his second career at the FAA.
The world is different.
Up until the 90s you could graduate with a high school diploma, get a job at a department store, work there for 25 years, get promoted up to being a manager, and retire from there, accumulating all the things that the American Dream promises: car, 2.5 children, the house with the white picket fence, and Rover.
It was common (if the parents stayed together — it was the beginning of divorce culture) to see men that provided for their family. These men would be seen throughout Park Hill, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, cutting grass on a Saturday or we could hear them shouting at the television on Sundays.
That was being a man.
You knuckled down. You sacrificed. You were the Dad on Everybody Hates Chris or Wonder Years, grumpy, tired, and just wanted a bit of peace. These men didn’t speak much, rarely expressed their emotions, bottled everything inside, dealt with it.
Generation X was the generation of dreamers. If you’re talking cultural expression, the world that you live in now, we shaped and made it. There’s nothing that you do now that doesn’t harken back to Gen X.
When I was 16, almost every rapper was 18 or 19. A young rapper for us was someone 9 or 10, someone whose voice hadn’t undergone the awkwardness of puberty. All the so-called Golden Age Rap records? Those were made by teens or people barely out of their teens. Which makes sense if you consider that recorded Rap started in 79.
So Chuck was old.
We wanted to be older. We wanted jobs and responsibility. We wanted to own things and create businesses and change the world. Many of us left home at 18 never to return.
But even within generations, there’s a generational divide. The same way that an older Millennial can relate to Gen Xers and have a bit of disdain but still better understand younger Millennials, that divide exists within Gen X.
The older members of Generation X were blessed with mentoring and guidance from the last bastions of Independent Black Entrepreneurs — the ones that flourished during the days of Jim Crow. They were able to take that guidance and build your Uptown Records or your Def Jams.
They were also the last group to have a constant presence of Black males in their lives. Many of them grew up in two parent homes. Black men were teachers and coaches. They were realtors and worked in car dealerships. And they lived next door. We wanted to be like them. We wanted to be grown.
Then came crack.
Talk baseball to a Black man or woman and watch their eyes go all Jack the Opossum like. Ain’t nobody trying to hear shit about no baseball.
Even my older brother who I so happily brought over to the force that is world football REFUSES to entertain the thought of watching a game with me — playoffs be damned.
The MLB, somewhat coyly in this writer’s opinion, has sought to explain the Why of it for years now. I say coyly because a part of me feels that white folks are relieved that Black people haven’t taken over the sport like we’ve done the NFL and the NBA.
Hell, teams like the Braves don’t even pretend to want Black fans, moving their stadium to north Bubblefuck where even MARTA can’t carry you.
I don’t know who commissioned the Austin Institute but they did a “study” that attributes the decline of Black baseball players to the absence of the Black father. That report came under attack and can no longer be found online but my brother Isma’il Latif, an avid Yankee fan, has long held that same belief.
Being an active parent with several of his sons playing Little League Baseball, Latif watched as Black men disappeared, so too did their children.
Nobody cares about Baseball. Got it. But we all care about education, right? Well, go into your Googles and type “The need for Black male teachers” and witness the deluge of articles, think pieces, and essays dedicated to the topic.
I’ll save you the time by summarizing. The majority population of students in Public Schools are Black and Latinx. Students thrive when their teachers have high expectations of them. White teachers often don’t. Black ones do.
Children are highly influenced by images and perception. Black men are perceived to be athletes, entertainers, but rarely educators and nurturers. Black men teachers alleviate that. School systems are trying to heavily recruit Black men.
There. Saved you a ton of reading.
The absence of Black men has an adverse affect on Black boys and girls. Single parenthood ain’t new but the numbers have increased exponentially since the crack epidemic took hold.
The Rappers from the so-called Golden Era, the ones that started this whole thing. That first group Rappers up until 1990 were the pre-crack Rappers. If we’re talking about the men, they were masculine but comfortable with their sexuality. We’re still talking about children here and we’re talking about the 80s so a lot of songs were regressive in regards to women.
Many of these Rappers got married. Bought homes and are still married to their wives since back when.
The rappers that appeared from the mid-90s on — whole different crop. These are the post-crack Rappers. They were hyper masculine, overdoing it masculine. Regressive views on women? Shiiit, they had oppressive views on women. Younger than me, they were still children age-wise, but they were hardened.
These dudes made me feel old.
Then came the next wave of rappers. Highly sexualized, and paradoxically, homoerotic, feminine, yet toxically masculine. When men from my generation look at them — wearing extremely tight pants or dresses and extolling love for only their male friends (love for women is seen as weak) — we’re often baffled. To these men, women are to be used and discarded. While they’re also young, many of these men act out their violent tendencies on women like that dude in the pic up there.
First time I read the term Toxic Masculinity, like many men, I was a bit taken aback. It was around the time that Dr. Wesley Muhammad began lectures based on his book Understanding the Assault on The Black Man, Black Manhood and Black Masculinity. If you’re unfamiliar with this particular work, Dr. Muhammad’s book is packed with information surrounding the governments chemical attack on Black Masculinity supported by a fifteen page Bibliography.
Men be acting up so much I have no idea what started the whole hashtag and subsequent discussions, forums, and thinkpieces. But I had never heard the term Toxic Masculinity before that.
Upon investigation, seeing that it went back to the early 90s, perusing several pieces, I kinda got it. Kinda. The term sort of speaks to itself but the theory can be above my mental pay grade.
Nonetheless, there are several types of Masculinity with Toxic Masculinity being the worst of the bunch (what is unclear is there such a Feminine equivalent and is the source of this toxicity chemical based).
So we’re clear — when we talk about the Black man and woman in America — we’re talking about a MADE PEOPLE. That’s not to say that how we related to each before being enslaved was romantic and holy. But it was natural. Our sojourn here in America is anything but (natural).
A large part of our problem is our growing disconnect from the injustices that were done to us by slavery. We’ve forgotten that our men were studded like horses or calves, that our women were raped — that both sexes had to watch these actions, powerless.
We’ve forgotten that in many instances it was criminal for us to be together, to have a family, to have community. Having these things gives one something to fight for. Something to live for. And our lives in America had only one purpose — serve white people.
We were “allowed” to marry only if served the needs of those who enslaved us. And that marriage could be destroyed simply by the selling off of either the husband or wife. The same thing held true for any children that were had.
This went on for over three hundred (300) years. For perspective, our enslavement equals the age of this country. The mores of surviving slavery were passed down from generation to generation. Followed by…the mores of Jim Crow…that’s the behaviors that I was brought up under.
Even as a child I loved A Raisin in the Sun. For whatever reason, I related to that 1961 filmed version of Lorraine Hansberry play of the same name, in particular, Sidney Poitier’s portrayal of Walter Younger.
Hansberry wrote Black men that I knew. Black men were either: like my father, the quiet, stoic, stable, long-suffering men (he would be Walter’s dead dad in this narrative), like Bobo, the gullible, naive, always being used by someone, the user, Willy, who is always looking to take advantage of someone’s vulnerability, and Walter, the kind of man who is tired of settling, tired of working day in and day out with little return, the man looking for the quick come up (I ain’t know no Georges or Josephs — wasn’t no college educated folk or Africans of any sort in Park Hill).
Even if you don’t know the story, you know how this is going to go down. Walter’s dead dad left $10gs in life insurance money, Walter’s trying to come up on it, gives the money to Bobo, Willy runs off with it.
The victims in all of this — the women. The money was left to Walter’s mother, Lena, she portioned some off for Walter and his sister Beneatha whose portion is for her college tuition, and Walter’s wife Ruth who has to balance between being a support for Walter and a voice of reason.
Walter’s actions, accompanied by Bobo and Willy betrayed them all. There’s a little feel good coda at the end but by and large, it’s a sad story.
Did I mention that Walter and Ruth had a son? Well they did, Travis…and Travis would be of my generation. Had Ms. Hansberry not died so young (at 34), it would have been something had she lived to write a play from Travis’ perspective.
Young Travis, never seeing his dad succeed at anything, watches as his Dad becomes a shell of his former self. Travis also watches as the once pristine suburb that his family moved to turn into a ghetto.
Travis graduates high school with no real prospects for work but learns of this new drug that he can sell for cheap and make a fortune off of. It’s called crack. Travis, along with his other Woodlawn hustlers, turn the Southside into Night of the Living Dead.
But Travis rakes in that wealth that his Dad desperately wanted. Like most boys, he wants to make his Dad proud. Instead, Walter is ashamed. Travis has several children from many different women, all girls and one boy (from his ‘main one’).
Walter only knows the boy and cherishes him. Which is good because when Travis is murdered by his associates (likely Willy’s children), Walter has to raise the boy. The stress is too much, however, he dies, and now Ruth, well into her 70s is stuck raising a five year old.
That five year old, you guessed it, “grows up” to become a Drill Rapper. And now we’ve arrived at our conclusion.
Ok. Tell me if this sounds familiar:
…massive unemployment caused by neo-liberal reforms have led to a growing number of young men basing their authority vis-à-vis women on bodily powers, understood as abilities and physique of the male body, rather than on economic powers and social status.
Sounds familiar, right? Fits what’s going on in America to a T, right? Well guess what? That quote ain’t talking about Umerica. That quote is from a study Hegemonic and Subordinated Masculinities: Class, Violence and Sexual Performance Among Young Mozambican Men done by Christian Groes-Green for the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. I stumbled upon it reading up on Toxic Masculinity and the similarities were startling.
That study argued that the typical forms of Masculinity (Hegemonic) could be linked to social privilege while Subordinate Masculinities (Toxic being one form) “often express themselves through dominance, violence or sexuality in relationships to female partners.”
The Black men, whom the quote above is attributed to in Mozambique suffer from the same thing — underemployment — that Black men in America do and as time has gone on have been slipping through the cracks of progress.
The education system as it is set up, is not conducive to how Black boys learn. Just type ‘Schools fail black boys’ into your search engine and check the results, not from conspiracy sites, but major universities and publications, all trying to wrap their collective brains around the how and why of it.
I would suggest reading Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu’s Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys and Pedro Noguera’s book The Trouble with Black Boys, both of which address the problem and offer solutions.
But suffice it to say, if one were to trace the disparity that exists between Black men and women, education is a great place to start. When education is not the means to the end…but “college” or “a job” are, Black boys aren’t dumb. They see college grads and they know what working a job is. They are like Walter, they want more.
And this is why there is a disproportionate amount of male rappers. The Rap Industry, like athletics, is viewed as producing the greatest return on investment…which nowadays is low unto itself. If the investment is simply a laptop and a camera that has HD to shoot a video, damn near everyone has that.
If lyrics are of no importance, one doesn’t have to prove themselves in front of an audience first, etc. etc, that’s a low investment. Loading your music unto SoundCloud as a virtual nobody on Monday but by Friday, you have a million streams, fans, and record labels pursuing you, is the modern fairy tale that most new rappers live by.
Although terms like grinding and struggle are used, they’re more virtual now. The grind of a person in the 80s and 90s was physical. You had to travel to a studio and studios were expensive. You had to either impress someone there that would record you with hopes of you becoming successful or you had to have a neighborhood backer.
Thus, rejection was real. You had doors literally closed in your face. You opened for acts, and depending on where you were, had to dodge real projectiles and had to suffer through real boos.
You had to do your own promotions, handing out physical flyers, putting up physical posters, and dealing with real-life physical objections. Doing all of that produced a different type of person. In order to be a rapper in earlier eras one had to have a certain amount of GRIT to succeed. There wasn’t one rapper that you’ve heard of from the 80s or 90s that got there by luck…not even Vanilla Ice.
When I started writing this article, my sister Mewelau B. A. Hall MSW, LCSW, a Ph.D. Student at Howard University suggested that I let a LCSW contribute…so I suggested that she do it.
Because I had questions.
In the early days of Rap, it was all about “blow, blow, and more blow” and the ever present, never out of style “cheeeeeba.” Coke was done because it was “high fashion” drug. Coke meant success. And people been smoking weed. While it may have been self-medicating, it was done in “fun.”
But now, you have hooks like “I been drinkin’ syrup seein’ demons” (21 Savage), and Lil Uzi Vert’s “all my friends are dead (which is likely a reference to only loving money…still disturbing but not as…). The drugs of choice are now either synthetic and made in China or prescription. Both are used to (as it’s often stated) drown the pain. Both have a body count on them.
So my question for Ms. Hall was what affect do these drugs have on the user? I have to include a large portion of her answer as it was given because she says that when you look at drugs and their use you have to look at the age the user is when they begin taking said drug…and so much more:
Did the person have a mental health issue because they used drugs or was there a mental health issue that started and whatever substance they chose, that they click with, became the means of allowing them to at least navigate their communities as best as they can?
The relationship you have with a substance and using it verses working on the internal defects or the traumas or anything like that that you need to be working on, ultimately if it’s not worked on, no matter how much you drink it, or pop it, or snort it, or inject it through your skin, it’s truly never going to help. It’s just a band-aid over a larger, ever-growing wound.
Ms. Hall goes on to say:
I’ve noticed that a lot of young, Hip-Hop/R&B artists, especially those in their teens, their early 20s, a lot of these folks have not finished puberty — they have not finished growing. And when I say growing, let’s look beyond their height and the amount of hair on their face, let’s also talk about brain development.
Up until the age of 25, maybe 27 depending on if you’re male or female, your brain, especially the pre-frontal cortex really is developing (which is) pivotal when it comes to inhibitions and learning your personality.
If it is stunted, or if it is affected by the use of external chemicals it could possibly lead to other implications:
you may physically grow up to be an adult but the ability to moderate your emotions, the ability to moderate your moods, the ability to think things through, the ability to plan ahead and also your personality itself — how you display your self to others can be greatly stunted.
Meaning whatever age you started (the drug abuse) your (growth) can stay there.
You don’t need me to cite the hundreds of cases in our community that illustrate this point. At first, we make jokes about them. Young Bobby Brown was the most prominent example of my youth. Then we shake our heads in disappointment as they repeat the same offense over and over again. DMX, anyone?
Ms. Hall insisted that not getting the abuse (and the trauma that induced it) treated, that the affects could be “insidious,” that not only will the trauma still exists…but that it will only spawn more trauma. She made it a point to express that trauma doesn’t even happen to be something that happens to us. That it could be something that we witness or hear about.
And oh the things that 21 Savage & Lil Uzi Vert’s generation have witnessed. Just as bad as what they’ve witnessed is what they have NOT witnessed.
Growing up in a world before Rap and before crack, Generation X witnessed the last bastions of “the strong Black man.” Most Black neighborhoods were still intact and safe. And as I’ve written about here and here, Black businesses were still intact.
Growing up a Gen X’r, we were still witness to the rise of consciousness (which I spoke of here). The oldest of the Millennials may have experienced some of the same things. But the younger ones, the children born in the late 80s and beyond have never known a world any different than the one we live in.
The music that we Gen X’rs grew up on was based on infatuation, crushes, love and romance — Millennials speak of 90s music with reverence — the days of 12 Play and getting married because “we ain’t getting no younger, we might as well do it.”
From this world, the modern rapper was born. Growing up in a world devoid of love, a failing education system, a music industry that neither requires, encourages, or teaches grit. A world where the common drugs are easily accessible, affordable, and celebrated. A highly sexualized world where sex comes first, and perhaps a relationship follows.
If these men are unrecognizable to my generation and my father’s generation, it’s because we aren’t paying attention to the environment, we aren’t paying attention to the role that we’ve played in producing them. Some of the old ways — like not being able to communicate your feelings and emotions — needed to change. But the pendulum didn’t need to swing all the way to other side either.
Because of damn Drake, I see folks post “it’s a wonderful time to be alive” all the time. But knowing what I know, and growing up when I did, I’m glad I’m not in my teens or early to mid 20s right now. Baby Boomers have destroyed the economy and ecosystem, the cost of living is sky rocketing while wages are stagnant, and Black men continue to fall further behind. Hell, if you’re active on any social media, you’ll begin to question what being a man is. You ask me, that’s far more rough than being able to change spark plugs or brake pads.
I don’t have the answers. I gave you two books that may help. I just know that when it comes to Rap, if the Rapper is a man, I still prefer for him to sound like Barry White, and if he’s a singer for him to be more Teddy Pendergrass (lyrically) than Keith Sweat. I often say that if you want to learn about how Rap has changed study two songs: M.O.P’s “Ante Up” and Drake’s “I’m on One.”
See. If I had of given you that example from the beginning, you would have understood my point before I even wrote 4,255 words.