The Abortion Rights Fight Is a Hip-Hop Fight

Hip-hop is not merely an art form to be consumed; it’s a lens through which we can look at the world around us.
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The news is inescapable. Anti-abortion legislation has been passed in Georgia, Alabama, and Ohio, with Missouri among a group of states to potentially join them. The laws, which criminalize abortions “after a heartbeat is detected,” meaning the six-week mark wherein most women have no idea they’re pregnant, often make no exceptions for rape victims and women whose lives are endangered by their pregnancy. As expected, men and women around the country have taken to social media to denounce these laws—even hard right wingers have taken an exception to their exceptional inhumanity.

What so many do not realize—as is usually so—is that racism is deeply sewn into these laws. As outlined in the title of Renee Bracey Sherman’s article on Vox from March 18, “Recent abortion bans will impact poor people and people of color most.” Black women have been found to be four times as likely as white women to have an abortion in their lifetime. These laws are being passed in states with high POC populations who often, through systemic inequality, have little in the way of time and resources.

Black and brown women, who account for a combined 53 percent of abortion patients in the United States despite their minority status, will now be forced to carry on unwanted, unsafe pregnancies or risk becoming felons, which would strip them of voting rights and career prospects. Actions must be taken; legislators must be contacted, donations must be paid, volunteers must be recruited, voices must be heard. Those who claim to stand for black lives and women’s lives now have to demonstrate how serious they are.

This means hip-hop—from artists to writers to listeners—is on the clock; in particular, male partakers have an obligation to stand against the misogyny that fuels these legislative movements. On May 18, Migos rapper Offset tweeted in outrage, comparing the laws to slavery; he was clowned for a simple spelling mistake. Others, like Dreamville emcee J.I.D, have spoken out as well. By the time this pivotal moment in national discourse is over, there should be a long list of outspoken rap artists who have made their voices, and their positions, loud and clear.

This also means non-black male listeners, who represent perhaps the majority of hip-hop’s global audience, have an opportunity to help protect the culture and the people who created it by standing against this racist legislation. The genre has a long, strenuous history with misogyny and conservatism itself—recently social media was bigging up Lord Jamar, again, for essentially being less ignorant than DJ Vlad—and if we are to move through the 21st century in a positive direction, we are all obligated to empower the black women who have helped carry the genre since its inception.

Leading by example are underground legend Jean Grae and mega-star Nicki Minaj, who both have written songs either in part or wholly about their experiences with abortion as young women. Jean Grae’s “My Story” is a window into a heartbreaking room: 

“You don't know what it's like in waiting rooms / And outside their picketing pictures could slay you / They’re screamin' “Victims!” and spitting till they shame you / I hold my head low and shiver push my way through.” —Jean Grae, "My Story"

In a 2006 interview with Village Voice, Jean discussed writing the 9th Wonder-produced track: 

“The whole idea of it was, no, I wanted to do a song that was this real about it. Taking you into the room. The anaesthetic. You’re going through the whole process, especially experiencing it as a teenager. And not having anyone to share that with.” —Jean Grae, "The Trials of Jean Grae"

Hip-hop is also home to songs like Noname’s “Bye Bye Baby,” which discusses abortion not from a place of personal experience but from empathy and a love of others. In an interview with The FADER, the Chicago native shared its origin story:

“It’s a personification of a mother who has had an abortion, and the baby... I feel like whenever I hear people talking about abortion, they typically take the love out of it, as if it can never be a loving act — as if it’s only done out of hate or desperation. I know women who have gone through that experience. And there hasn’t been like, a song for them, or a moment of catharsis and healing for them in music…That shit was just important to me as a woman, as someone who cares about these women.” —Noname

On the soothing and melodious track, Noname paints the act of abortion as an act of care; an act of love from a mother to a daughter. “Before you leave, don't look down / God will help you spread your wings,” she croons. “My baby needs some milk and honey,” repeats the chorus. The mother refuses to bring a child into a wretched circumstance, like an Egyptian born into slavery; she opts instead to send him to a better place, making reference to the Biblical “Land of milk and honey.” The second verse, written from the perspective of the unborn child, depicts not suffering but appreciation for the sacrifice being made: “Some give presents before they're even ready / I could see that she loves me, I know her heart is heavy.”

Even if hip-hop largely caters to men, to masculinity, and to a largely white male audience in 2019, it's still an art form engineered to give a voice to the voiceless, to the oppressed. As a non-black man, this is, in part, why I fell in love with hip-hop. In fact, without it, I’d be far less equipped to truly understand an issue like abortion, and I’d have less of an emotional foundation for activism. Hip-hop has given me the opportunity to listen to the stories of black and brown people, of women and men and the non-gender conforming, of people who have been through things I am privileged enough to know nothing about.

A better, more helpful and articulate article can and likely will be written on this subject by a woman. In the meantime, though, it is my sincere hope that my words can set an example for non-black men like myself to loudly oppose inhumanity. Hip-hop, after all, is not merely an art form to be consumed; it’s a lens through which we can look at the world around us. Hip-hop culture has sprung up in parts of the world so distant from the New York neighborhoods in which it originated, but the connection is unchanged; it’s a platform for the oppressed to express themselves. It’s the most powerful storytelling art form of our generation.

This is not a time to debate personal views; it is time to understand and empathize with the stories of others. It's time to listen. We must listen to Jean Grae, to Noname. The acts of listening and possessing empathy are sorely lacking in modern cultural discourse, and it shows. Hip-hop is giving us the opportunity to empower those ideas. We need to take it.

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