Originally published at Opine Season
When I teach classes on poetry, one of the tools we talk about is the “so what?” test. The most powerful art, at least for me, strives to answer that question. It doesn’t just say “war is bad;” it says “war is bad and here’s what we can do about it.” It doesn’t just present a tragedy or outrage for us to gawk at; it puts it in context and allows us to learn something or understand it in a new way. The best art educates, inspires, or calls us to action—sometimes all three.
I was reminded of the “so what?” test when I heard about hip hop artist Rick Ross casually dropping a few bars about raping a woman on a new song: “Put molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.”
The “so what” in this case doesn’t refer to the lyrics themselves; they’re awful, and anyone denying that he’s talking about rape here (as Ross himself did), is delusional. The “so what” refers to what we do with this information. How can this be a teaching moment? How can this be something more than “hey, some rapper said something f’ed up?”
A few voices out there have some great thoughts. Jamilah Lemieux at Ebony writes:
What’s so scary about Ross’ line is that this is something that a good number of men and boys actually do. Maybe a rap lyric won’t inspire an impressionable young dude to go and try to flip a couple keys, but normalizing this sort of rape? I see it. I see it and it scares me…
…If there is any takeaway from this whole miserable mess, I hope that there are some men and women who will soon understand that sex sans consent is rape—no matter how many pills the victim pops on a regular basis, no matter how many times she’s had sex with her rapist or anyone else in the past. It sounds awfully simple, but how much evidence do we need to see that for many folks, the culture of rape is readily accepted and sustained?
Hip hop artist and self-proclaimed “whiteboy blogger” Adam Levin analyzes his own positive review of a Rick Ross album and breaks down the mental gymnastics that many of us do to excuse our favorite artists even when we know they’re creating work that hurts people:
Even if what I said helped Ross move only one album, it aided in validating what he does with his music, and contributed to the idea that he could get away with it. I can’t claim that I was fooled by anything–I’m not naive, I KNEW his music was misogynist, I KNEW he said homophobic shit on the record, and I still gave it a really good score. This is a problem that a lot of us, as straight white male music critics, have to acknowledge—that ultimately, what we overlook in our positive reviews of harmful music, is what we’re cosigning.
I really appreciate how both pieces go beyond the easy critique. Because it’s easy to just criticize Rick Ross. Necessary, sure, but easy. If we really care about dismantling rape culture, we have to use this controversy as a gateway to talk about the larger issue—and do something about it. Our racist, classist society already looks down on Rick Ross; criticizing him is important, but can only move the conversation so far. Let’s make connections—how do Ross’ lyrics relate to what Todd Akin said, or what happened in Steubenville, or legislation aimed at chipping away at survivors’ rights, or to our own daily practices?
Because another thing we talk about in poetry classes is how the most powerful work often turns the magnifying glass on the self. It’s one thing to write a poem about racism, for example; it’s something else to write a poem that explores your own complicity with a racist system. With this Rick Ross controversy, I think the question has to evolve from “how does what he said make me feel?” to “in what ways am I supporting rape culture too?”
Because even the most progressive, feminist-minded folks among us can unknowingly support this system—through our dollars (buying products that use rape imagery in their ads, supporting an artist who minimizes rape, etc.), through our words (telling rape jokes, blaming the victim, etc.), and through our silence (refusing to challenge the status quo, shutting down when this topic comes up, etc.). And we can all—myself definitely included—do better.
Related: How Men Can Take an Active Role in Disrupting and Dismantling Rape Culture