Hip-Hop Won’t Stop Protecting Alleged Abusers

The industry has been proclaiming the importance of Black lives while continuing to ignore Black women.

Getty / The Atlantic

After more than a month of nationwide protests against police brutality, many entertainers are finding ways to speak out about racial injustice. This past week alone, the hip-hop world loudly celebrated Black voices at the BET Awards, in popular interview podcasts, and during Monday night’s Verzuz battle. But the industry continues to be silent on its own transgressions: Those same platforms have also conspicuously amplified the voices of men accused of abusing Black women.

In reflexively offering praise and visibility to such figures, hip-hop institutions implicitly condone their alleged behavior. This support reflects a pattern apparent across the music industry of protecting, and even uplifting, men facing serious allegations of assault against women—particularly against Black women. Under normal conditions, that tacit approval would be upsetting. Now, though, as Black women around the country once again so prominently lead efforts to curb racist violence, it’s stunningly hypocritical to affirm Black lives while ignoring the mistreatment that Black women endure.

Take the rapper Fabolous’s appearance in the latest edition of the popular Instagram Live series Verzuz. Started by the music producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, Verzuz battles have become a mainstay of cultural production in quarantine—a bit of friendly competition to stave off boredom. But Monday’s battle between Fabolous and Jadakiss was notable for what it didn’t acknowledge.

Last December, Fabolous spoke for the first time in a Hot97 radio interview about a domestic-violence case that had come to light in March 2018, when it was reported that he had assaulted Emily Bustamante, his girlfriend and the mother of his children. Court documents alleged that Fabolous punched Bustamante seven times; the damage to her face was so severe that she needed to have teeth replaced. He was indicted on four separate charges, but ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of harassment as part of a deal with prosecutors. (In the radio interview, he expressed remorse—notably, not to Bustamante, but “for coming across in the light I wouldn’t want to be represented in.”) Though the case has been covered extensively, Fabolous has yet to speak about it other than to briefly discuss his reputation. Still, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland invited him to co-star in Monday night’s battle.

Amid a national reckoning on racism, hip-hop titans accused of abusing Black women have been given many opportunities to recast their public image. Fabolous appeared on the hit radio show The Breakfast Club to promote the battle, shortly after the program’s widely scrutinized decision to invite the Def Jam mogul Russell Simmons to speak about Black Lives Matter. Simmons’s episode aired two weeks after HBO Max released a documentary detailing his alleged sexual assaults on several women in the industry.

In the Breakfast Club interview, Simmons, who has always denied the accusations of assault, defended himself at length and without significant pushback from the hosts. “It’s just shocking that a credibly accused serial rapist was tapped by one of the biggest nationally syndicated Black shows to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement,” Drew Dixon, one of the accusers spotlighted in HBO’s documentary, On the Record, told me. “There’s about 100 people you could think of before you would think of Russell Simmons. How did you make your way down your Rolodex to land on [him] unless your goal was to give him a platform to defend himself?” (A week after the original interview, The Breakfast Club aired a follow-up segment with another Simmons accuser, the writer and activist Sil Lai Abrams, who is also featured in On the Record.)

Simmons’s attempt at image rehabilitation comes at a time of industry-wide upheaval. Celebrities of all backgrounds are stepping up to “take responsibility” for the entertainment world’s culture of racism and discrimination. Some are donating to funds meant to help protesters; others are finally relinquishing roles that they admit should have gone to people of color. But even with these baby steps toward progress, Black women in this industry remain vulnerable to systemic violence.

In hip-hop, as ever, Black men’s stories of vulnerability and pain receive consistent attention, while their conduct toward Black women is either ignored or defended. That dynamic garners them sympathy from fans. “It’s how we treat celebrity and our heroes. We would much rather turn the other way than lose that,” Joan Morgan, the author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down, told me. She added that sometimes the decision to support an artist accused of assault doesn’t even require believing that he’s innocent. It just requires an indifference rooted in misogynoir, a term that describes the misogyny and racism directed at Black women. “We’re particularly more willing to turn the other way if the person who that crime was committed against or who has been assaulted or who has been wronged is a Black woman,” she said.

This culture of indifference is only reinforced when men such as Simmons receive carte blanche to publicly besmirch their accusers—especially under the guise of social justice. The record-label executive, who has no new work to promote, was invited to speak on yet another hip-hop-focused platform—the podcast Drink Champs—to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement last week. Other guests included the rappers Talib Kweli, Mysonne, and Bun B, as well as the political commentator Marc Lamont Hill, who has since apologized for his appearance. An all-male lineup sends a strong message: that Black men are the sole arbiters and beneficiaries of racial-justice activism. Framing anti-Black racism as a problem that mostly hurts Black men, despite all measures of reality proving otherwise, lends further credence to the idea that they should be elevated at all costs.

No wonder, then, that efforts to curb the effects of racism stop short of imagining justice for people affected by gender-based violence too. Hip-hop largely saves its protective energy for the Black men who occupy its upper echelons, the small handful who made it in an industry still dominated by white people. “What we’re seeing with the spate of collective voices of Black women who have been systematically exploited, abused, harassed, and pushed out … is something long overdue,” Abrams told me. Society still does not “hold Black men, irrespective of their social status, accountable for their crimes against Black women.”

Even those who admit to causing women grievous bodily harm still seem to enjoy widespread acclaim. Consider, for example, the fact that Chris Brown earned two trophies at Sunday’s BET Awards, a ceremony spent reminding viewers that Black Lives Matter, in signage and in speech. Brown infamously assaulted his then-girlfriend Rihanna in a brutal 2009 incident and pleaded guilty to a felony assault charge. (That Rihanna would later go on to collaborate with Brown and that Bustamante remains in a relationship with Fabolous do not negate the men’s actions.) The producers of the awards show, along with many viewers, didn’t seem to see how Brown’s inclusion contradicted the ceremony’s premise that Black entertainers are instrumental to social change.

And now, against the backdrop of sweeping demonstrations decrying injustice against all Black people, displays such as the BET Awards are all the more disappointing because they paper over Black women’s specific pains. “We roll up our sleeves as Black women to fight for every cause under the sun,” Dixon said. “We are so consistently on the front lines, and then we are left to twist in the wind when it’s our turn to be protected and defended.” But that betrayal doesn’t have to be an inevitability. No Instagram battle or radio broadcast is worth it.