Yesterday, hip-hop cultural critic Dream Hampton publicly challenged Talib Kweli, her friend and an MC with a reputation for a politics of resistance, via Twitter, saying that she was disappointed with what he had to say about the Rick Ross rape raps issue in a guest appearance in this HuffPo interview. She said although Kweli denounced the lyrics where Ross talks about drugging and raping a woman, and challenged Ross’ half-ass “apology”, his criticism was weak and that he could have – and should have – come stronger.
She critiqued the fact that Kweli said that the way to address the problem was to “embrace” problematic artists, essentially, to love them into understanding, not to make sure that they listened, as this petition to Reebok, Ross’ new sponsor, aims to do. Kweli immediately went on the defensive, reiterating that his opposition to the lyrics was clear as could be. And while claiming to be an ally, he expressed anger with Dream for speaking to him about this publicly, because as he and all of his fans kept reminding everyone, he was the “only MC” that actually dared to speak out about the issue. Problematic, but true. Which is exactly the reason why there was so much pressure was on him to say the right thing. And when he didn’t, Dream picked him up on it. In the same public arena where his allyship is most needed, and where she felt he had failed to come through.
There were some good points to the interview: Kweli reminded viewers not to place blame on the shoulders of any one artist or even artists in general, and drew rough linkages to “community,” society and the educational system. Yet although he denounced the lyric and deemed Ross’ apology to be unacceptable, his suggestion of how to address the situation – by loving Ross into understanding – was off point. His hardest hitting phrase was that Ross is “a misguided 40 year old.” This is being heralded all over the Internet as “strong words” with which he is supposedly “taking Ross to task” or calling him out.
Calling someone “misguided” (with the age reference implying that he is old enough to know better), telling them to apologize, and telling us to embrace him, doesn’t sound so strong to us. Twitter user @noniknown made a useful analogy when she said “she would not applaud an antiracist white person who asked me to love the misguided artist who condoned violence against a black man.” As an ally, Kweli could have said more, and reached further. Because as producer @eroctober put it, “Kweli is one of the most respected people in our community. If he throws a punch it should be a hook, not a jab.”
However, the very fact that Kweli was the only male MC to publicly speak out against Ross’ lyric is in itself symptomatic of the silence that surrounds and supports rape culture. As is the fact that it is his criticism that is receiving the most attention, despite the masses of women, including at least three who were on the HuffPo segment with him, who challenge rape culture explicitly but whose voices are downplayed or ignored. As @noniknown so eloquently said, “What’s actually being violated is being lost in the discussion. The female body is still taking 2nd place to an idea of this man coming forward to defend it.”
Kweli’s insistence, and that of his fans, that he is not the “bad guy” and deserves deference and respect for having spoken out at all comes from a place of privilege, and sets the bar low. Although it may have seemed like he was coming under fire for what he did/did not say, rather than adopting a heroic or savior attitude (Oh, what a good man! He dared to speak out against rape!) it would have been more effective to publicly question why he was the only so-called “conscious” male voice in hip-hop to weigh in on the issue. In a situation like this, where are people like Dead Prez? Where are KRS-One or Chuck D? Where are Mos Def, Common, Black Thought, Lupe Fiasco? We know Immortal Technique won’t be there, because his sexism is blatant. But we ask, and think Kweli could have taken the opportunity to ask as well: Why is there not a chorus of critical male voices chiming in to condemn Rick Ross’ rapey bullshit? How can we “change the community” as Kweli mentions so that next time something like this happens (and there will be a next time), we can expect a collective response from “ally” men?
In addition, his complaint that Dream should not have approached him publicly is a silencing tactic intended to prevent women from critiquing those who claim to be our “allies” and challenging them to do better with their allyship. It is akin to white people who do not want to face up to their privilege and racist beliefs saying “Don’t look at me, I’m a good white person!” Her critique came in the public eye because she felt it needed to. In light of the recent Steubenville trial that galvanized a national conversation about rape culture, Dream’s public callout of Kweli continued the conversation by checking us on our response to rape raps and rape culture, as well as what it means to be an ally. His defensive pushback, as well the fact that his was a lone male voice with so much weight in the conversation, remind us just how much work there is left to be done.
Sista Resista’s Top Tips for Allies
1. Learn to listen – before responding, before filtering, before making it about you.
2. Let down your defenses. They are of no use to you here.
3. When something gets your back up, you are probably getting called on your privilege. Take a deep breath and pay attention .
4. Being as an ally means believing us and not trying to prove us wrong. Take our feelings seriously and start from there.
5. Consistently check yourself for oppressive behavior, such as silencing tactics, singling yourself out as a hero/expecting acclaim for being a “good person,” or turning the conversation towards the dominant point of view. Recognize that although these actions may be unintentional, they are still oppressive.
6. Stand up and speak out against oppressive behaviors even if you are not the source or cause of them.
7. It is not the responsibility of members of the oppressed group to teach you how to unlearn your oppressive behaviors. We can point you in the right direction, but only when we are able and willing to do so.
8. Remember that the burden has always been on members of the oppressed group to fight our oppressions/oppressors. Try to do things that take some of that burden off of us, like asking us how you can be an ally and really listening, speaking out in an informed way but not speaking “for” us, and encouraging other people from dominant groups into allyship. Help us to not have to do all of the work.
9. Be aware of and accountable for your privileges. Use them to reject oppressive behavior, even if it poses risk to self. This is what it means to stand with the oppressed.