The rapper Action Bronson, whose major-label debut came out recently, is mostly known for his love of food, his large frame, and the fact that he sounds so much like Ghostface Killah that even Ghostface Killah gets confused sometimes. He will likely now be known by more people for one particular lyric of his, due to a headline-making petition asking Toronto’s NXNE music festival to kick the artist off the bill because, in its words, he “glorifies gang-raping and murdering women.”
The lyrics in question come from the 2011 song, “Consensual Rape,” which has a verse that mentions giving a girl MDMA and then having very rough sex with her. The petition also calls out a 2011 music video that portrays Bronson happily disposing of a woman’s corpse.
Though the protest has attracted enough interest for the festival to respond to it, it’s also been met in the rap world with a good amount of eye rolling. Part of the reason is that the materials being discussed are relatively obscure entries in Bronson’s back catalogue. “It's so funny the song that is causing these Torontonians to have their panties in a bunch literally has never been performed, ever,” Bronson tweeted. “5 years ago a lost track. That's what u base UR argument on? HOW ABOUT THE 9 PROJECTS THAT HAVE COME OUT SINCE? Don't single me out.”
Don’t single me out. It’s the natural first thought when anyone attacks a particular rapper’s particular bit of nasty wordplay. The entire genre is so suffused in misogyny—not just rape, but emotional cruelty, insults, and the portrayal of women as sex objects to be collected—that the topic has its own Wikipedia page. “Man, if you're upset about Action Bronson lyrics wait until you hear about rap music,” tweeted music critic Gary Suarez.
The truth is, though, that rapping about date rape may be one of the few topics that will actually get people in trouble. In 2013, Reebok dropped Rick Ross from an endorsement deal after he rapped the line, “Put molly all up in her Champagne, she ain't even know it, I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain't even know it.” The outrage was such that, after a few botched attempts at excusing himself, Ross apologized, saying the lyric represented “one of my biggest mistakes and regrets.”
The Bronson lyric, which resembles the Ross one in its mention of giving a girl MDMA, is slightly more open to interpretation. A counter-petition, which has as of this writing … 11 … signers, argues that there’s no reason to think that the drug use in the verse was non-consensual—see the song title—and that, “None of the sexual acts described are illegal, and in a court of law this would not stand as proof that a rape has occurred.”
Still, it’s sort of bizarre that legal definitions, release dates, and close readings are the means by which it’s determined whether a rap lyric has gone “too far.” The conversation over sexism in rap can quickly become tedious because it’s hard to parse one rapper’s words without indicting the entire genre. Every so often, a public figure will snipe at rap for its lyrical content, starting a predictable cycle in which the person overstates their claims and hip hop’s defenders paint the critic as being clueless and, worse, using a double standard. Rock and roll is full of women-degrading, violent, and racist lyrics, too, and yet no one’s protesting outside Rolling Stones concerts.
Other defenders point to the genre’s history of reflecting broader mores—blame society, in other words, not the art it documents. Or they cite how rap’s identity as escapist art is inextricably tied to provocation, and the idea that rapping about something isn’t the same as endorsing it.
The NXNE festival has released a statement saying that it will not drop Bronson, noting that he performed at the same event in 2012 without controversy, and that attendees will have plenty of other musicians to choose from. "NXNE will also present a number of rap artists at various venues, such as Tink and Kate Tempest, who have be lauded for the undisguised feminist viewpoints in their music,” NXNE managing director Sara Peel said in the press release. “That being said, in the interest of moving forward in a positive manner, we are engaging in discussion with our community about this important issue, and looking to provide opportunities for concerned voices to be heard."
It’s a pretty good response, one that highlights the many different kind of artists and ideologies that exist within rap. One way of being a hip hop fan is realizing that you can enjoy a song in spite of its messages, just as you can enjoy any work of art in spite of some flaws. Another way is to decide on a case-by-case basis who you can stomach listening to and who you can’t. This isn’t the first time someone has called Action Bronson out for his attitudes towards women, and he’s neither apologized nor repudiated his 2011 work. So even before the petition made news, there may have been rap-listening NXNE ticketholders who’d planned to skip his set.
But it’s hard to not feel a little preemptive fatigue at the festival’s call for another public discussion of the topic. Not because the matter shouldn’t be discussed or that hip-hop shouldn’t change, but because the conversation has been happening for decades. Every few years, there’s a new flashpoint for widespread condemnations and defenses of the genre—2 Live Crew, Eminem, Odd Future—but most popular rappers’ treatment of women has barely altered at all. In 2013, when Kanye West released Yeezus, the rap critic Brandon Soderberg wrote a searching essay on the matter, asking whether the West album and the Ross controversy marked “the tipping point for rap misogyny.” But just this week, A$AP Rocky released a bound-to-be-successful album featuring a casual hint of violence towards a woman and a verse dissing a female pop star by name for refusing to swallow during oral sex.
Lots of other things about rap have evolved over the years. The word “fag” isn’t heard very often anymore. The number of commercially viable female rappers appears to be on the rise. Political lyrics seem back in style, with artists like Kendrick Lamar discussing the same problems that led to the Black Lives Matter movement. Then again, you could make similar observations about art forms from film to literature right now. That sexism persists probably says something about just how deeply ingrained it is, both in rap, and everywhere else.