At the end of May, a petition was launched and circulated by a Toronto activist to remove Action Bronson from a free, public performance at Yonge-Dundas Square. The Square is City-owned property thus is subject to comply to a human rights code for the public's protection. The story went viral and Bronson was subsequently removed from the public show and declined to appear at NXNE at all. I agreed with the jist of the petition, because I think Action Bronson is a terrible human who gets away with misogynist, glib behaviour and benefits immensely from his whiteness; he should be stopped. But I didn't sign the petition, and this is where it gets tricky.
I didn't sign the petition because to do so would be to consent to the petition's language that Bronson's lyrics constituted hate speech. I don't know how to reconcile hate speech with art. I don't have the answer to that, but I do know that Ty $ — who performed as scheduled at that same free, public show w/o a peep — has lyrics that might not be deemed violent, but could be interpreted as questionable or anti-woman. This piece isn't about reconciling sexist and misogynist messaging in music though. I want to go there, and we need to go there, but it has to happen on certain terms. And hopefully what I'm about to write explains why: Here, I want to make clear why the petition's line of criticism, which often comes up vis a vis rap, is troubling for a certain demographic of music fan and critic. It's about ownership of black art and the infringing of white voices in black and brown spaces.
I tried to elucidate this, or at least tone-set, at the NXNE talk on Sunday that was meant to unpack the controversy. (You can watch it if you'd like, even though *cringe.*) But I wanted to jot it down publicly after reading Nikki's piece for The Guardian, about white people walking out on black panelists at a Kanye West talk. I think she gets at the presumptive ways in which white people often try to strip Kanye — and rap, by extension — of a very real and active racial subtext, one that denies any ownership of black art by black people.
The Action Bronson controversy makes talk of ownership a bit more complex because he's white, but it is still worth examining who mainstream critiques of rap serve and why. There is a healthy canon of analysis, journalism and activism rooted in exploiting misogyny in hip-hop — Rick Ross losing his Reebok endorsement over a rape lyric in the "U.O.E.N.O." is a recent, high-profile example of this, but the work has been happening since Roxanne Shante dropped "Roxanne's Revenge" in 1984. This is important to note, because when incidents like the Bronson controversy happen, it's in a vacuum: white activists, white media, white critiques.
When it comes to policing/dictating rap misogyny in mainstream music spaces, how does that conversation look? It is impossible for me to separate hip-hop from the fact that a majority of its makers represent a demographic that is marginalized and terrorized. However fraught, it is a source of empowerment; the music was borne out of having little to no voice. And rap music being co-opted by global capitalist culture hasn't diminished the fact that psychic and systemic oppression of black people continues to exist. Black voices continue to be marginalized, so no, I don't think it's okay for outsiders to come in and shut them down without any intersectional examination of their action. Misogyny in hip-hop is real, and I think we are getting closer to addressing it outright — and we need to, we really do — but it's my hope that these conversations either originate from within and/or include the stakeholders. To do otherwise is to depoliticize and decontextualize the black (and brown) bodies that make, occupy and consume hip-hop.