Lil Wayne has set social media ablaze once again. But this time, he’s done more than insult the morality police who often take him to task for his controversial rhymes.
On a leaked version of the rapper Future’s remixed “Karate Chop” song, Lil Wayne raps that he would “beat that [expletive] up like
Emmett Till.” His record label, Epic Records, was forced to release a statement Wednesday night offering its regrets and vowing to go to “great efforts” to remove the version from the Web, as the Till family and African American leaders expressed outrage. Lil Wayne has yet to issue a public comment.
The artist is notoriously vulgar, but his lyrics in “Karate Chop” crossed a line that demands accountability. Through that line, Lil Wayne managed to disrespect black history, the female body and hip-hop as an artistic form, suggesting that very little — if anything at all — is sacred to him.
Lil Wayne’s blatant disrespect for the civil rights struggle and for Till’s incomprehensible suffering shows that he has little reverence for history. His contemporary success would never have been possible without those ancestors who paid for freedom with their lives. Till is one of them, as his innocence and life were stripped away with no protection from the law. Because of this, Till should be rendered untouchable to punch lines and lyrical play on words.
This isn’t about artistic expression or respectability. Artists must know that there are some wounds that never fully heal within communities, no matter how many decades have passed. To peck at that wound is to do harm to the very people who have helped you get to where you are in life.
But history is not the only thing that Lil Wayne seems to have little regard for. His music is often devoid of respect for women and love, as he reduces intimacy to pornographic descriptions of wild sexual escapades. Although some may applaud him for his unabashed lyrics about pleasuring women via oral sex, he seems to take greater pride in being violent and vulgar than he does in being sexually liberated.
His obsession with female genitalia reminds me of this prolific Def Poetry Jam performance by Sarah Jones, in which she declares that hip-hop’s creative revolution cannot take place between women’s thighs.
“To compare his murder and how beaten and how bullied, beaten and tortured he was to the anatomy of a woman was really very disrespectful,” said Airickca Gordon-Taylor, the founding director of the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation and cousin of Till, in a video posted on RapRadar.com.
“We found it dishonorable to his name and what his death has meant to us as a people and as a culture. It was offensive not only to us, but to our ancestors and to women and to themselves as young, black men,” Taylor said. “I just couldn’t understand how you could compare the gateway of life to the brutality and punishment of death. And I feel as though they have no pride and no dignity as black men.”This isn’t the first time Till has been referenced in a rap song in a demeaning manner; Kanye West did it in his breakout hit “Through the Wire.”
This is, unfortunately, the state of affairs of mainstream hip-hop. Very little is held sacred within the music these days. It’s disheartening to think that a tool of resistance could be co-opted to mock the African American struggle for freedom and self-determination. I would like to think that Lil Wayne and artists like him have a reverence for hip-hop itself and honor the cultural form’s legacy, but this is rarely the case these days.
It is, however, important to point out that Lil Wayne has been more politically progressive than many of his counterparts. He has, at times, used his celebrity platform to draw attention to issues that matter to him. Particularly, he has shed light on the class stratification in his home town of New Orleans and was very outspoken about the Hurricane Katrina disaster, donating generously to relief efforts and releasing the very touching song “Tie My Hands” in collaboration with Robin Thicke.
Unfortunately, many hip-hop artists tend to limit their compassion to things that they have intimate ties to. This is why so many release songs paying homage to their mothers while simultaneously denigrating millions of black women in their lyrics and videos.
I challenge Lil Wayne to view Till’s tragic death in light of the countless men, women and children whose corpses floated through the Ninth Ward of New Orleans for days in August 2005, only to be placed in unmarked graves. The circumstances and historical context are different, but the African American struggle for human dignity remains the same.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post. She is the founder and editorial director of Urban Cusp , an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT .