The earliest rap song I remember loving was 50 Cent’s 2003 single “21 Questions.” Growing up, I enjoyed its breezy melody and jingling guitar strings. The song felt like riding with the windows down and crisp summer air caressing my cheek. Even with the feel-good production, I mostly appreciated “21 Questions” for 50 Cent’s humor: “I love you like a fat kid love cake,” he quipped. “You know my style / I say anything to make you smile.” My kid self certainly smiled whenever I heard those lyrics. I also adored Nate Dogg’s irresistible hook: “Girl, it’s easy to love me now / Would you love me if I was down and out? / Would you still have love for me?”
I did not scrutinize the record’s “ride-or-die” theme back then. But now, as a Black woman who has witnessed hip-hop’s misogynoir innumerable times, most recently with the Tory Lanez trial, I have questions. And I want to pose them to the same culture that muted Meagan Good’s voice in the “21 Questions” music video but amplified the demanding queries of men. I want to pose them to the same culture that forced Megan Pete, aka Megan Thee Stallion, to endure the sexist interrogation of her shooter’s attorney in a Los Angeles courtroom. I want to know, hip-hop: How can I love you without hurting myself? How can you love me while healing yourself?
Like many Black women, hip-hop defined my childhood. Every day after school, I watched “106 & Park,” a countdown show of the most popular rap and R&B videos. I even channeled my love for hip-hop in the classroom, where I wrote a Rosa Parks rap to retain lessons on the Civil Rights Movement and mouthed the chorus to Webbie’s 2007 song, “Independent,” to ace a spelling test.
In a way, the genre nurtured me. But hip-hop also hurt me. It promoted a beauty ideal of mixed-race women with voluptuous bodies—a standard I internalized and aspired to. It also coaxed me and my fellow fangirl cousins into proving our love for problematic men. Sometimes proving that love meant fighting each other. My cousins Kevonna and Shay once convinced me to battle them over their favorite rapper, T.I., the same self-proclaimed “Trouble Man” who was, years later, accused—alongside his wife—of drugging and sexually assaulting multiple women.
The stereotype that Black women are envious of and vindictive toward each other—particularly in their purported pursuits of male attention and validation—shows up in the Tory Lanez trial narrative from December 2022. In the summer of 2020, following a roadside dispute with fellow rapper, Megan Pete, Pete was shot in both of her feet. It was alleged by Lanez’s defense that Pete and her former assistant and friend, Kelsey Harris, fought over Lanez. Lanez’s defense also suggested Harris shot Pete after discovering the two rappers hid their sexual relationship from her. The court case resulted in Lanez’s conviction, but these sexist antics pitted two Black women against each other to divert attention from Lanez’s culpability.
Despite the considerable evidence that would lead to Lanez’s conviction, rap artists, internet personalities and hip-hop fans alike tactlessly debated the truthfulness of Megan’s allegations. In November, Drake referenced the case in the song “Circo Loco,” rapping, “This bitch lie ‘bout gettin’ shots / but she still a stallion.” And 50 Cent perpetuated online skepticism of Megan by sharing a meme comparing her to actor Jussie Smollett, who was convicted of lying to police about being the victim of a hate crime.
While reading Megan’s heart-wrenching trial testimony alongside this callous commentary, I thought of author and journalist, Joan Morgan. In her seminal 1999 book, “When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost,” Morgan addressed a letter to rap music.
“Yeah, sistas are hurt when we hear brothers calling us bitches and hos,” Morgan wrote. “But the real crime isn’t the name-calling, it’s their failure to love us—to be our brothers in the way that we commit ourselves to being their sistas.”
Morgan’s words reverberate across time. I imagine Megan also experienced this quandary: loving the same vibrant piece of Black culture and community only to realize that it did not love her back.
The only way hip-hop can begin to love Black women and begin rectifying nearly 50 years of harm is by dismantling the misogynoir, violence and objectification within its culture. Hip-hop needs to hold its numerous abusers accountable instead of defending them online. It also needs to listen to Black women when they allege abuse or call for change. And when female rappers like Megan Thee Stallion own their sexuality while also sparking conversations about pleasure, politics and power, the rap community should champion these artists.
There is no love in hip-hop without liberation. Specifically, liberation from misogynoirist structures that harm the culture as a whole and its staunchest supporters: Black women. To put it more precisely, love is intimacy with Black women’s bodies, not fetishization of them in lecherous music videos. Love is a nurturing commitment, not the toxic transaction glamorized by gangsta rappers in rap ballads. And as a reminder to 50 Cent and other male rappers who have questioned Black women’s loyalty to them in those ballads, love is asking a Black woman questions, without issuing demands, and then listening when she asks her own.