At the Grammys, Domestic Violence is Cause Célèbre, But Black Women Rappers Are Uncelebrated

Leading up to last night’s Grammy Awards, controversy centered on what a victory for the white, Australia-born rapper Iggy Azalea would signify, as she would have been the first solo woman artist to collect the Best Rap Album award. Assessments of Azalea’s authenticity (her “blaccent” works with an on/off switch—she speaks differently than she raps) and chops (viral video revealed her inability to freestyle) abounded, with commentators poignantly asking, what if a white woman broke through the Grammys rap album glass ceiling during a historical moment when chants of “Black Lives Matter,” ring out across the country?

But then Azalea did not receive the trophy—Eminem did.

Although the much-anticipated Best Rap Album Grammy was announced ahead of the televised gala, the show, otherwise packed with high-production live performances, also contained a surprising departure into feminist consciousness: President Obama delivered a taped PSA about rape, followed by a powerful personal account from poet/activist/survivor of domestic abuse and human trafficking, Brooke Axtell. Her speech came to a dramatic close with singer Katy Perry performing “By the Grace of God.”

Eminem’s upset, coupled with the Grammys spotlight on domestic violence, inadvertently brought together two seemingly disparate issues—Black women’s marginalization from the industry’s top rap accolade and the disproportionate numbers in which they suffer from domestic violence.

In the 1990’s culture wars, rap music was frequently critiqued for glorifying violence against women, a genre trait that Eminem employed throughout his career to signal his authenticity (early examples like “The Real Slim Shady;” his recent Nicki Minaj duet, “Roman’s Revenge;” and in multiple cuts from the now Grammy-winning Marshall Mathers LP 2). But while male rappers were taking both the heat and the acclaim, Black female innovators such as Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa, Missy Elliott and Eve never took home the Best Rap Album trophy. Lauryn Hill came closest when her group, the Fugees, won the award in 1997.

Consider Eminem’s now 6th win (he has more Rap Album Grammys than any other artist) on the heels of last year’s shocker: White rapper Macklemore claimed Best Rap Album even though Macklemore himself conceded that Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City was better. The 2014 Grammys social cause was marriage equality, with Macklemore performing “Same Love” while Queen Latifah officiated a wedding for 33 same-sex couples. Latifah, who gave popular voice to Black women’s marginalization and objectification with songs such as “Ladies First” and “U.N.I.T.Y,” served to legitimize both Macklemore and marriage equality, but she was never deemed worthy of the genre’s top Grammy honor. Indeed, if the last two years are any indication, the Grammys seem to reward White male rappers, whether they contest homophobia or condone gendered violence.

Eminem’s win came one week after Missy Elliott’s show-stealing turn during Katy Perry’s Super Bowl halftime performance. Borrowing from sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant, our heads should explode with the cognitive dissonance of reconciling Elliott’s indisputable talent with the fact that she never won the best rap album Grammy. Those who remembered Elliott’s innovative artistry from the ’90s delighted in her triumphant return, while those too young to remember her revealed just how avant-garde her work is by pondering where this great “new” rapper came from.

A few of us contemplated the implicit racialized patronage by Perry at the Super Bowl—a white woman artist showcasing not one but two African Americans as her second billers (Lenny Kravitz also appeared). This type of patronage has historical foundations that stretch far beyond popular music—think of Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston’s reliance on white female patrons such as Charlotte Osgood Mason. But what does it mean when whites don’t just act as patrons but actually eclipse Black women in arenas in which the Black women have painstakingly carved out meaningful artistic and cultural contributions?

What chance do we have of mobilizing hip hop’s power to champion the needs of Black women and girls if we routinely reward male artists who glorify violence against women? Granting the rap Grammy to a Black woman artist—say, Nicki Minaj, who will almost certainly be nominated for The Pinkprint next year—would not have necessarily constituted a victory for Black women’s causes. But consistently marginalizing or demonizing Black women in national discourses about Black culture artistry and violence means that both their talents and their struggles go unnoticed.

Shutting Black women out of a category that they helped pioneer is analogous to sidelining them in the social movements of our time. Although #BlackLivesMatter is the brainchild of Black female activists, Black women still remain at the periphery of current debates around violence and racialized inequality. Groups like African American Policy Forum have highlighted the neglect of Black girls in initiatives such as “My Brother’s Keeper,” noting that Black girls have the highest rates of interpersonal victimization from assault.

Surely, rap is not the only arena in which condemnations of domestic violence should be couched, and recognition of Black women’s artistry should be bestowed. But recalling Chris Brown’s notorious violence against then-girlfriend Rihanna forces us to question how the Grammys this year could, without a sense of irony, feature Brown as a nominee and Rihanna as a performer within minutes of its anti-violence message. And as current culture wars around feminism, family and role models seem all of too often to hinge on demonizing Black women artists—consider Mike Huckabee’s recent criticisms of Beyoncé—we are especially remiss to ignore Black women’s contributions to hip hop.

Eminem’s ascendency as the most Grammy-decorated artist for rap albums pushes Black rappers, both male and female to the sidelines. Surely, Black male artists are losing here, too. But neglecting to award Black women rappers means that Black women still can’t find a place at the table even in venues where Black creative artistry is the main course, and domestic violence the cause célèbre.

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Photo of Missy Elliott via Shutterstock


Oneka LaBennett is associate professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University. She’s the author of She’s Mad Real: Popular Culture and West Indian Girls in Brooklyn and editor of Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century. Twitter: @OnekaLaBennett