Since the opening lines of Grandmaster Flash’s 1982 single, “The Message”, rappers have been peppering their rhymes with reflections on their reality. Like any biographical writing, there’s a little bit of drama and bravado mixed in. However, since there’s a premium put on being legit and having actually lived the experience you write about, rap is always tangentially related to reality.
As rap music now accounts for one in every four pieces of music bought, streamed, or viewed live, the grip that rap music has on culture is no better illustrated by when recent presidents have addressed them directly. When a president addresses someone, their concerns are elevated to a public and nationwide concern, for better or worse.
Even when a politician is conspicuously using rappers and singers for their own political ends, the power still rests on the shoulders of the artists, as it’s their influence being called in as an aid.
During the trajectory of Snoop Dogg’s career, marijuana has gone from menace, to punchline, to a matter of public health with full legalization on the horizon nationwide. There’s no doubt that giving a voice and face to the industry has helped the public talk about the subject in less hysterical terms than in the past. It leads one to wonder what other conversations could be ushered into the public sphere by popular artists.
Flipping The Script
For the first few years that rap found its way into the cultural lexicon via MTV, there were laws created explicitly to regulate it. Although country music had long traded in stories of depression, anxiety, murder, and drug use, only the extremity of heavy metal and the forwardness of rap caused senate hearings.
In hindsight, one can draw all sorts of conclusions regarding the anxiety that rich or suburban whites felt about music that resonated with poor whites and people of color. But in the moment, the fight united everyone from Prince to Twisted Sister and 2 Live Crew. Spearheaded by Al Gore’s wife Tipper, with the help of her husband as then senator from Tennessee, rap music was blamed for gang violence, drug use, and suicide.
It’s only years later that we’re addressing systemic issues that made so much “story rap” from people like Eazy-E and Notorious B.I.G. so powerful in the 90s.
Whether because these stories had never been told or because they were so easy to relate to, story rap became a window into the American psyche. Biggie’s first gold single, and his first solo introduction to public consciousness begins:
This album is dedicated
To all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin’
To all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustlin’ in front of
Called the police on me when I was just tryin’ to make some money to feed my daughter
It’s all good
This indictment coupled with forgiveness spoke to the resignation that everyone in that same struggle had grown accustomed to. Being asked to be on the wrong side of the law and having to forgive the powerful was the nature of the game and a destiny to some. However, with one short intro, Biggie began a story that humanized the reality of the drug trade for millions of people.
Hunger and Passion and Ambition
If rappers were able to help us to understand the human beings behind the moralistic legislation that fueled the drug war, we might have hope for other industries. As Cardi B has become one of the surprise best-selling artists of 2018, the only one with 3 gold singles this year, she’s been fighting a culture that disrespects her validity because she used to strip for a living.
Much like Biggie did almost 25 years ago, Cardi raps from her own experience as a sex worker. In interviews, she’s constantly asked about her experiences as a dancer and how they relate to her work, not in an effort for interviewers to understand her, but in order to titillate audiences. She says, on repeat, that stripping allowed her to go back to school and to escape domestic violence.
If economic independence is such a common refrain from the feminist “leaning in” of people like Sheryl Sandberg, why don’t we hear them running out to support women like Cardi B? Cardi B has done more to give validity to an intersectional feminism that includes sex workers than a powerful CEO who lives off of speaking fees supposedly to address the very same concepts.
The perceived “ickiness” surrounding the work they’ve done is what contributes to their silence. It’s what keeps us from taking Stormy Daniels as seriously as the man who paid to keep her from ruining his precious reputation.
Because Cardi is open about her work in the sex and entertainment industry and unafraid to talk about how it helped her, she is humanized to suburban white women across the country.While Cardi can’t be expected to single-handedly reform years of puritanical legislation, her openness, honesty, and the quality of her work help to give a palatable voice to women in the sex industry.
Even for women working at high-end strip clubs, the work can put women at risk due to the entitlement of patrons. When a sex worker is assaulted, raped, or killed, their work is brought up as an excuse. We acknowledge with one side of our mouth that their job is risky but then blaming them for that risk with the other side.
Off the Clock
There’s a concept that Melissa Gira Grant brings up in her book covering sex work Playing The Whore that most people outside the industry take for granted. When we encounter a sex worker, we not only assume they’re always on the clock because we assume they don’t have control over their own bodies. Even some feminist legislators make the mistake that sex workers’ bodies belong to the world.
Recent bipartisan legislation supported by liberals ranging from Carolyn Maloney and Bernie Sanders put sex workers back in the dark. A recent package of legislation, titled SESTA/FOSTA, led Craigslist and Backpage.com to shut down. Where sex workers once had the ability to screen clients and get more information through these channels, they’re now put back into the hands of middleman “pimps” or other male powerbrokers in the sex industry.
Studies showing these channels were used for sex trafficking were flawed, with many of the reports relying on ads that researchers themselves created to bait would-be traffickers. Sex trafficking most often takes place on the dark web, through encrypted channels, hard to trace and unlikely to be accessed by standard browsers. This concept is completely unrealized by aging and disconnected legislators.
Sex workers, often already marginalized in other ways, have now been thrust into panic mode because they’ve lost a buffer for safety and support. Instead of being able to self-promote and find better clients, they’re stuck choosing between starving and dealing with abusive and dangerous clients. This is all because the class of people making decisions in Washington failed to consult sex workers and, with all of the resources they have access to, didn’t think to learn the difference between sex work and trafficking.
Sex worker Ginger Banks was quoted in a recent Salon piece, saying:
“Conflating sex trafficking with consensual adult sex work does so much more harm than good…Decriminalizing sex work is what I believe is the answer to protecting not only people who choose to do sex work but those who are forced into it.”
Two Options, Stripping or Lose
As we’ve learned with the rise of the pot industry, all vices are not created equal. As black men still sit in jail for possession in marijuana decriminalized states, white communities and tech entrepreneurs are making huge profits.
Similarly, there’s a dichotomy between what’s made between men and women in the porn industry. Men often make more of the 15 billion dollars in profit every year, even as women bring in crowds and act as talent. Pornography and stripping are the only two branches of the sex industry where any sex workers have any rights at all. The fight for unionization is brand new to the industry around the world.
Hopefully with the help of artists, we can see that sex work is real work that deserves fair pay, protections, and autonomy. All American workers deserve a fair and even comfortable living, yet we use moralism to push people to the margins.
Many of the same people who would call sex work immoral still consume pornography for free. Many consumers, especially cis-hetero men, even feel entitled to free pornography on the internet despite how those ethics conflict with their feelings on worker’s rights.
The moralizing mental gymnastics of despising or pitying sex workers while also consuming pornography for free is dangerous. With the lack of autonomy in the sex trade, our shame directly impacts the living they’re entitled to through their work.
If we have the courage to stand up for marginalized people, abandoning our cheap and flawed moralism, we can protect all workers and make sure that our democracy leaves no voices behind.