On March 28, 2013, the Harvard College Events Board announced that the rapper Tyga would be the headline performer for the College’s annual
Yard Fest concert. Within days a petition was posted on the grassroots organizing website change.org, demanding that the Events Board rescind the offer to Tyga, contending that his music “promotes sexism and rape culture” and that as a performer he “amplifies misogyny and violence.” The petition garnered hundreds of signatures within a few hours and over 1,000 by morning, triggering a storm of debate across campus and coverage from college and external media outlets. Students quickly took sides across a spectrum of articles and op-eds, heated conversations in dining halls, and proclamations posted on social media.
The petition failed, and not simply because Tyga remained the Yard Fest headliner. At first draft, it failed to acknowledge the historical, cultural, and musical nuances of hiphop as a genre, and Tyga as an artist. A year in retrospect, it failed to galvanize a lasting conversation about structural changes to combat rape culture within Harvard’s community. These failures implicate more than a concert. The petition, though controversial, presented a moment around which our student body could have constructively reflected upon issues more deeply embedded within our own community—from implicit racial biases to explicit gender subjugation. Instead, the performance ended, and our conversation died. A year later, it’s time to talk.
The Petition in Context
Debates regarding hiphop and misogyny or rape culture—particularly the Tyga incident—rest within the intersection of simultaneous histories of oppression. These are histories wherein women have been victimized, wherein Black men have been ostracized, and wherein harsh stereotypes, social norms, and American pathologies have tarnished the political agency, social capital, and psychological well-being of both groups.
We are forced to reconcile these histories and contemporary realities when we engage in a debate about rape culture and choose a Black male artist as the target of critique. As Harvard Kennedy School professor Timothy McCarthy explained to the HPR, “the historical baggage of race and gender debates go back to the founding of the republic.” The historical disenfranchisement of both women and African Americans has predicated lasting vulnerability for both communities within political and economic spheres, and often, unfortunately, dichotomized the interests of each group in efforts ranging from the battles for suffrage, through the civil rights and feminist movements, to our modern day agenda-setting. “These are historical divisions that carry a lot of weight that we drag into debates whenever we have them in a contemporary moment,” McCarthy explained. “Sometimes we are re-litigating the past whenever we are debating in the present.”
Choosing Our Battles, Choosing Our Targets
As students, we choose the debates with which we engage. We choose when they begin and when they end. We choose our tactics of protest and where we point fingers. “On every level, from the most global to the most local, it’s easier to project than to look in the mirror and shine a light, and that’s certainly true of Harvard, on a whole range of issues,” McCarthy said. “I think it’s much easier to choose Tyga as a kind of screen to project all of our stuff, than it is to deal with all of our baggage before, during, and after he is on campus.” It is easier to scapegoat Tyga than to look within ourselves. It is easier to criticize lyrics than challenge pathologies. “We want to be able to identify what the issues really are, and how we might address them,” Professor Marcyliena Morgan, director of Harvard’s Hiphop Archive and Research Institute, shared with the HPR, “But that the issue is never about us but about them, is always going to be problematic.”
While it is certainly a problem if our community stays silent on issues regarding violence, misogyny, and sexual assault, it is also a problem if activism regarding rape culture at Harvard begins and ends by accosting a rapper’s lyrics instead of introspecting about our own cultures of misogyny. It is a problem rooted in the implicit endorsement of the stigmas of threat manufactured about the Black male body. It is a problem rooted in neglecting hiphop as art. These are problems we need to address.
Hiphop’s Woman Problem
Hiphop is multidimensional, yet critics often target one singular dimension—lyrics. This was case in point in the student protests against Tyga and has been intrinsic in a long history of hiphop critique. For decades, individuals and institutional actors, primarily from outside of the Black community, have attempted to censor hiphop music and have admonished hiphop artists for the provocative lyrical elements of the music. As Professor Laurence Ralph of Harvard’s Departments of Anthropology and African and African American’s Studies described, “Oftentimes rappers aren’t given credit for being metaphorical or artistic in the same way that other artists are. People are not reading hiphop lyrics as art or poetry, they’re reading them as an indictment of what that particular rapper thinks about women.”
When hiphop is reinterpreted within the same standards that we afford other art forms, the lyrical elements that are seemingly misogynistic speak more thoroughly to the complexity of art, and quite explicitly to the salience of cultural “–isms” in the United States, from sexism to racism and so on. From Shakespeare to contemporary crime dramas, these realties exist quite palpably in other art forms without incurring the same indictments that hiphop so often faces. It is hiphop alone that has been criticized like this—from the stage of Yard Fest to the halls of Congress.
In 2007, hiphop was literally called to testify as Congress ordered hearings regarding the explicit content and degrading imagery propagated throughout the industry. During his testimony, the rapper David Banner contended, “Traditional multibillion dollar industries have thrived on the premise of violence, sexuality and derogatory content. This capitalistic trend was not created nor introduced by hiphop. It has been here. It is the American way.” Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson extended Banner’s argument in his testimony: “There are deep roots in American culture when it comes to demonizing women. It didn’t start with Snoop Dogg. It didn’t start with anybody who has been associated with hiphop culture. That is white supremacist ideology predicated upon capitalist expansion of opportunity.”
These logics extend to our own debate. Rape culture at Harvard did not start when Tyga took the stage, nor has it vanished since the lights of Yard Fest faded. “I can admit that there are some problems in hiphop,” Banner testified, “but it is only a reflection of what is taking place in our society. Hiphop is sick because America is sick.”
Hiphop is sick; so too is America. Hiphop is misogynistic, so too Harvard, from our forefathers to our final clubs. Yet these are bigger targets than Tyga. These are harder conversations. While rape culture didn’t start with Tyga, the protest did. “Tyga becomes this spark for us to have this larger conversation. It’s the trigger or the catalyst, the push that opens up or activates a whole set of conversations that were longing to be had,” McCarthy said. “We have deeper issues here around rape culture at Harvard, around patriarchy and misogyny that we have to deal with and that we should deal with.”
A year later, it remains a problem that we so easily scapegoated a Black male artist for depicting through lyrics the realities we perpetrate as a student body through apathy, inaction, or silence. As McCarthy explained, “A critique that a number of students of color—women of color—were making was ‘where is this outrage more broadly, more systematically, and more regularly? Why aren’t we having petitions to challenge all sorts of things at Harvard?’ In many ways, that’s a legitimate question.” It is a question that remains.
If we want to have a conversation about rape at Harvard, let’s have one. If we want to have a conversation about misogyny at Harvard, let’s have one. If all we are going to do is sign a petition, boycott a concert, and then fall silent for a year, we’ve perpetuated more problems than we have solved.