In 2019, rappers idolize Kurt Cobain more than they idolize rap legends. The art form has been heavily influenced by SoundCloud rap; a subgenre which makes use of DIY aesthetics and shrill vocals—decades after Nirvana mastered those qualities without really caring to. Many of its stars see Cobain as an idol: Trippie Redd recently premiered a song on Instagram with the caption “R.I.P Kurt, I love your beautiful soul to death.” Today, rap is the most popular genre in the world, and its most popular figures idolize a deceased white man who wore dresses and made grunge music.
Cobain was the world famous drug-addled rebel long before Lil Wayne dropped a tape; he raged on stages before youthful devotees before Travis Scott ran his first soundcheck. He played with stylistic gender normativity before Lil Uzi Vert, painted his nails before Bad Bunny, and resented his listeners who engaged in poor politics—”Leave us the fuck alone!”—before Eminem trashed Trump voters during the 2017 BET Cypher.
Twenty-five years after his death, Kurt Cobain seems more embedded in global culture than ever. Perhaps suicide, as ugly as it feels to consider, adds an inescapability to a person’s legacy—especially as suicide rates grow in the United States. Watching a person be present, in a video or a picture or a record, and knowing they’ve killed themselves is gripping to us. We are forced to confront the dark places which social cues and conventional wisdom advise us to avoid, often at great costs.
These dark places are essential to the story of hip-hop. Chide the genre all you want for its mainstream appeal or its industry machination; it’s still dark, even when it isn’t dark on the surface. Your average club banger features the works of a black artist originating from ravaged environments. These environments are created by systemic oppression. The artist will often find glory in fulfilling his or her lust for money, violence, and sex. Every Future song is dark; nearly every Cardi B song is dark.
It’s no wonder Nirvana’s fallen frontman has been name-dropped and referenced ad nauseam in rap lyrics. The names of his invokers read like a top five list: JAY-Z, Eminem, 2Pac, Kendrick Lamar, Ice Cube. Many Cobain references aim for shock value (“My favorite color is red / Like the bloodshed from Kurt Cobain’s head when he shot himself dead”). Others hone in on his suicidality and drug use (“Most kings get driven so insane / That they try to hit the same vein that Kurt Cobain did”).
What’s more (or less) surprising is the rise of hip-hop subgenres tinged with elements of grunge, pop-rock and punk music to which Cobain represents an unreachable star; his songwriting prized catchy melodies above acute verbiage, a quality dominating hip-hop hits decades later. Take Long Island’s Lil Peep for instance. Peep visibly pioneered genre-blending hip-hop fueled by twangy, detuned guitar samples, which sounded ripped from ‘90s alt-rock hits. One of his earlier hits was titled “Cobain,” a moody trap anthem featuring the line “Call me Cobain, she can see the pain.”
Lil Peep died young as well; the cause was a lethal combination of fentanyl and alprazolam. After his death, his recorded lyrics about depression and drug abuse feel haunting in a fashion like his Seattle idol. His influence as part of a massively popular emo rap movement carries on: Juice WRLD and $uicideboy$ continue to amass more fame and fortune; the line “Rest in peace, Lil Peep” is featured on "Love It If We Made It," a critically acclaimed pop record by The 1975.
Lost in this cultural exchange is that Cobain’s story has more to offer than drug abuse, rabble-rousing, and suicide. Cobain was a feminist—an outspoken one—who would likely not take well to his worshippers penning songs deriding women. He would likely not take well to the prolific amount of hip-hop artists facing heavy sexual assault accusations; he once told NME, “What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there.”
Cobain, with Nirvana, held a benefit concert to fight a bill suppressing gay rights in Portland. He refused to tour with Guns-N-Roses after their controversial “One in a Million” lyrics, calling frontman Axl Rose “a fucking sexist and a racist and a homophobe.” He supported the riot grrrl movement and, in the liner notes of Nirvana’s final record, In Utero, wrote: “If you’re a sexist, racist, homophobe or basically an asshole, don’t buy this CD. I don’t care if you like me, I hate you.”
Cobain's feminism seems to grip his rapping worshippers less than his aesthetic; it’s 2019 and rap songs, rock-influenced or otherwise, are still often misogynistic. In his formative years, Cobain grew disdainful of popular rock bands for their sexist lyrics. He once told Jon Savage:
“Although I listened to Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin, and I really did enjoy some of the melodies they’d written, it took me so many years to realize that a lot of it had to do with sexism. The way that they just wrote about their dicks and having sex.” —Kurt Cobain
Lil Peep, a bisexual man, took uncommon lyrical and aesthetic approaches—often wearing slimmer, more “feminine” clothing, painting his nails, rocking a “Daddy” tattoo on his chest—but despite these progressive qualities, his songwriting still fell victim to misogynistic hip-hop tropes. Take the video for “Girls”; progressive in its representation of women with different looks and backgrounds, but the song still features the refrain of “girls like it on my dick.”
The rise of a new generation of woman rappers feels more in tune with his legacy: take an artist like Rico Nasty, who approaches hip-hop with a punk rock attitude, citing Nirvana as one of her favorites. Cobain’s comments from 1993 to Spin Magazine ring especially true as women push hip-hop forward 26 years later:
“Rock 'n' roll has been exhausted. But that was always male rock 'n' roll. There’s a lot of girl groups, just now, within the last few years... People are finally accepting women in those kinds of roles.” —Kurt Cobain
There is hope yet that in today’s age of information (and disinformation) the people who constitute hip-hop Culture at large, from the fans to the gatekeepers, can open their minds and their search bars to learn more about who Kurt Cobain was, and why he was who he was. Perhaps, they’ll be pleasantly surprised to know that Cobain himself was a fan of hip-hop decades before it was officially all that people listened to—of course, with caveats.
“I totally respect [rap] and love it because it’s one of the only original forms of music that’s been introduced,” he once told an Ontario radio show. “I’m a fan of rap music, but most of it is so misogynist that I can’t even deal with it. I’m really not that much of a fan.”
Correction: Kurt Cobain died in 1994. In a previous version of this article, his death was cited as occuring 15 years ago, not 25.