One of the most eye-popping tweets to come across my timeline last week was Kanye West’s public declaration that “Perfect B----,” a song from his soon-to-be released album, was written for his reality star girlfriend, Kim Kardashian. Incredibly, Kardashian said she was “honored,” “loved it” and didn’t take offense to his use of the word.
Indeed, the dedication of the song to Kardashian is not only an offensive and degrading statement to make about the woman he’s in a relationship with, but it’s also a slap in the face to the rest of us.
Yet, feedback to the song posted by a MTV reader also gave me pause. Responding to a sarcastic post about how unromantic the song dedication is, a commenter instructed the previous one to “know the culture” and understand “it’s surely not meant to dis[respect].” That also got my attention.
It did so because without even knowing it, commentator “Whitney” reflected a pervasive sentiment about the world of “love and hip-hop.” It led me to think about how dynamics of romantic intimacy play out in it.
The implication is that Kardashian, in signing up to date West, has to play by the rules of a game with an already fixed outcome: By loving a man immersed in hip-hop culture, she must be willing to embrace her constant commodification and dehumanization.
“Know the culture” is an ill-informed and dangerous sentiment to embrace.
It dismisses the full breath of hip-hop’s inception and evolution. It makes no distinction between the art form’s mainstream, underground and international strands and treats hip-hop as one monolithic culture.
This justification instead defines the culture, which has historically been situated within African American urban contexts, as intrinsically misogynistic. But it’s impossible to make that claim without suggesting that black men, who are the dominant gatekeepers of the genre, aren’t intrinsically misogynistic themselves. Knowing any culture requires knowing the people who birthed it and sustain it.
“Know the culture” also suggests that a grown man like West should not have to be held accountable for the dehumanization of a romantic partner. But he can’t simply delete away his mistakes, as he did the tweet. What excuses him from having to be socially responsible? At what point are black celebrities no longer challenged to be attentive to the greatest social ills plaguing the communities that support them? And what’s the limit on what the culture allows them to get away with?
These same questions came to mind when news broke Sunday that NFL star Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson had been cut from the Miami Dolphins. The star wide receiver had been arrested Saturday evening for allegedly head-butting his wife, “Basketball Wives” star Evelyn Lozada, who was later taken to the hospital.
If hip-hop artists get a cultural pass by many for degrading the women in their lives, then should athletes who are immersed in often violent sports get the same pass when a domestic violence incident is reported? Absolutely not. Johnson’s release from the Dolphins makes that clear.
There will unfortunately always be those who place blame on the victim for “provoking” such treatment — whether that may be an act of physical or verbal abuse. Finding compassion for women like Lozada and Kardashian may not come easy for us all because of the lives that they’ve crafted for themselves. But incidents like this should humanize the women involved and elicit compassion — even if they are highly criticized and not strangers to having their bodies and love lives commodified for public consumption.
Don’t many of us know women — and men — who go from relationship to relationship seeking to fill an infinite void? Don’t many of us know someone who ignored early “red flags”? Haven’t many of us looked and found love in hopeless places? The constant search for validation is a never-ending juggling act of self-abasement and self-glorification.
This isn’t to say that these women aren’t accountable for their own life choices. They absolutely are. While nothing justifies abuse of any kind, both Kardashian and Lozada will have to stop participating in their own disrespect in order to produce healthier outcomes for their lives. Only they know their limitations and when circumstances have crossed the point of no return. I would hope that they would also evaluate their far-reaching influence on millions of young girls feeding off of what pop culture dishes out daily.
In the end, I hope that “knowing the culture” doesn’t mean that they and we can’t rise above it, because there are some things that should always rise above culture. And self-preservation, as much as love, is without a doubt on that list.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter: @RahielT.
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