How Rap Can Help End Rape Culture

Angel Haze speaks up about being sexually abused on her powerful new track, and her testimony couldn't have come at a more urgent time.

Angel Haze

Recently on the Tonight Show, President Obama had to point out that "rape is rape" for the second time in three months. This time, Obama was stating the seemingly obvious in response to Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who said he opposed abortions for rape victims because "even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen." Last time, the impetus was Republican Senate hopeful Todd Akin's proclamation that, "if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

We cannot reduce the ignorance of people like Mourdock and Akin to sound bites or place it in the category of election-season inanity. Their statements are the toxic runoff of our culture's failure to prevent and address sexual violence in all its forms. The statistics stun: The high estimate of the number of women raped each year in the United States is 1.3 million, 54 percent of rapes are unreported, and a woman's chance of being raped is one in five. The president's elementary stance is nice but won't fix anything on its own; what must change is the culture itself.

Given its well-documented and inexcusable problems with sexism, hip-hop might not seem a wise place to look to start making that change. But that fact actually makes the medium more ripe for reformers. Moreover, as one of the dominant, storytelling-driven art forms consumed and made by young people, rap provides a way for survivors and allies to testify, argue, and change hearts and minds. And as a song released this past week by the promising young rapper Angel Haze proves, rap's potential as a weapon against rape culture isn't merely academic.

In recent years, hip-hop controversies have produced some of the most powerful conversations and activism around sexual violence. Last year, Ashley Judd made waves by calling out hip-hop's "rape culture," to the dismay of The Roots drummer ?uestlove and others who are tired of one genre of music being blamed for all of society's ills. More recently, rapper Too $hort caught criticism thanks to shameful comments in a video blog post at XXL Magazine, which included instructions for adolescent boys about how to sexually assault girls under the guise of playfulness. After a tepid apology and mounting pressure from a coalition of black and Latina women called "We are the 44 percent" (44 percent of sexual assault survivors are under 18 years old), Too $hort sat down for a candid interview published by Ebony. He emphasized his previous ignorance, but also seemed genuinely remorseful and shaken, admitting he made a serious and harmful mistake, apologizing, and calling the controversy a "wake-up call."

Into this battleground enters Angel Haze, the acclaimed Michigan-born 21-year-old, who recently released a brilliant and devastating track about her own story as a rape and abuse survivor, called "Cleaning Out My Closet." This is not the first rap song that addresses sexual violence against women. Ludacris's "Runaway Girl" and Eve's "Love is Blind," are two of the more commercially successful examples, though there are countless lesser-known songs, like Immortal Technique's "Dance With the Devil," that critique rape culture unflinchingly. But Haze's song is amplified by the current political context, and differentiated by both tone and content.

"Cleaning Out My Closet" is a hurricane. Haze unapologetically and explicitly tells her story, and her jagged delivery makes listeners uncomfortable even as they appreciate her skills and flow. There are no words for the pain Haze endures, but she makes do, bending each phrase with fury and focus. She describes how the damage of abuse bleeds into every area of her life, including her relationships with future lovers, her family, and her personality, body image, and physical health.

The beat used for "Cleaning Out My Closet" is borrowed from an Eminem song with the same name. It's a subversive move, considering the way Em has depicted and in many respects trivialized violence against women in his music. Haze bravely details the torture she suffered, and importantly, she reveals personal violence as a social phenomenon—everyone knew, but nobody stopped it:

"And then it happened in a home where every fucking one knew/
And they ain't do shit but fucking blame it on youth/
I'm sorry mom but I really used to blame it on you/
But even you by then wouldn't know what to do."

Her tale is personal, but the upshot is wide. In order for rape to be as widespread as it is, it requires more than the actions of attackers. It requires the indifference of countless others, like those held accountable in the Jerry Sandusky case, who bury their heads in the sand as the terrorism continues.

The song ends on a triumphant note, as Haze celebrates her victory over fear and shame, presenting herself as living proof that "there's a way from the ground," and thanking the audience for bearing witness to her catharsis.

The objectification of women and depictions of sexual violence are commonplace in hip-hop, as they are across the landscape of entertainment culture. The vast majority of artists with substantial commercial backing show little public concern for the cancer that is rape culture. But Angel Haze is proof that hip-hop can be both a warzone and a weapon in this fight, especially for young women of color. Despite the sexism they face, engaging rap music is one of the ways these young people come to know themselves and build political consciousness.

Moreover, hip-hop has long rewarded artists who break the silence and speak truth to power, and that may end up being the case again. Groups like Public Enemy started a conversation about police brutality against blacks and Latinos long before data about the racism of "stop and frisk" policies made its way to the public sphere. LGBT hip-hop artists continue to carve out their own spaces and challenge sexism and homophobia, and when those connected to hip-hop communities come out, as Frank Ocean did, it provides fuel for more prominent figures like Common and Kanye West to challenge bigotry. And finally, during this election system, some of the most poignant critiques of our political system have come from rappers like Lupe Fiasco and Killer Mike. In their music and media appearances, these artists ask pointed questions about the usefulness of electoral politics and the two-party system for the urban poor, whose degradation and marginalization remain no matter who is in the White House.

Without warriors like Haze, the baseness and sickness of sexual violence remains muffled, and the conversation proceeds on the deranged terms set by Mourdock, Akin, and others who benefit from the status quo. Survivors' stories move us away from clarification and apology, towards righteous anger and action, and hip-hop can help.