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Louder Than A Riot: Season 2


How the double standard became hip-hop's standard

March 16, 2023 5:17 AM ET
Sidney Madden Rodney Carmichael

Megan broke a rule.

It's a rule built into the hierarchy of rap, a rule that explains why men remain at the top and women in this business get treated like bottom b******. The tale is older than the genre itself, but this particular story begins in 2020. The same year that Black women single-handedly saved American democracy from turning on itself, Megan Thee Stallion was busy bodying hip-hop. She beat out Drake and DaBaby for the BET Hip Hop Awards' artist of the year, dropped a bomb a** "Savage" remix with Beyoncé and linked with Cardi B to baptize the global pandemic in some "WAP."

Megan shot her way to the top of the charts. Not once, but twice. Then, she got shot. In both of her feet.

To protect the Black man who shot her from becoming a casualty of police in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder, she didn't snitch when police arrived at the crime scene. But being a ride-or-die chick backfired, too. What hurt worse than the bullets Tory Lanez let loose was the disbelief, the disregard, the disrespect Megan suffered at the hands of the culture once she refuted his lies about what took place in the Hollywood Hills that night. It amounted to a particular kind of violence, reserved especially for Megan and others like her, and it proved to be more tragic than the actual shooting. "I don't feel like I want to be on this earth," she said from the stand during her assailant's criminal trial. "I wish he would have just shot and killed me, if I knew I would have to go through this torture."

From Black Twitter to the white halls of justice, Megan's reputation got dragged for filth. The character assassination she publicly endured over the course of the next two years may have culminated in a guilty verdict for one Tory Lanez, but it firmly upheld the unspoken rule Megan Thee Stallion had the audacity to challenge with her unbridled talent and truth: Being exceptional doesn't make you the exception.

Whether Megan actually broke any code is arguable. The backlash she received is not. And Megan's Rule is not exclusive to Megan alone.

Every culture has its norms and hip-hop is no exception. Whether they're recited in lyrical litany, printed and posted outside studios, or debated across comment sections, there are rules for submission and success in this game. But the rulebook doesn't read the same for everyone.

Often unspoken but behaviorally reinforced, certain rules of hip-hop only apply to women and queer artists. Rules about how you should look, sound, act, perform and rap. Rules about who you should make your music for. Rules about who you'll be pitted against. Rules about who you should and shouldn't sleep with. Rules about what kind of harassment you should be willing to accept. Rules about what kind of respect you're allowed to demand (hint: not too much). Rules about doing more with less for fear of not getting the chance to do anything at all.

As within all cultures, the rules are set by hip-hop's most dominant group. In this case, that's straight Black men, and these rules reinforce hip-hop's power structures, ones that always leave Black women — and those read as Black women — at the bottom.

Megan's Rule is one of the building blocks of the genre, the capitalist music industry that envelopes it and the larger society that consumes it.

The imbalances that have cemented hip-hop's most misogynistic norms mimic the inequality in larger, patriarchal society. Institutional racism and disbelief of pain thresholds has led to Black mothers experiencing the highest rate of maternal mortality in the U.S. Black women are three times more likely to die from domestic violence incidents than any other racial group. Black transgender people face the highest rates of discrimination of anyone in the queer community, affecting their employment, housing stability and health care. Even when fighting for the lives of all Black people, it can cost Black women their own mortality.

The irony in this imbalance, of course, is that this is the genre The Bronx built from the ashes. This is the music that was created to escape oppression, to interrogate social inequity at its core and help us imagine bigger, better, more beautiful realities than we'd be given. But even as hip-hop ballooned into a money-making machine, it continued to replicate what it was created to break free from.

Hip-hop is 50 now. And despite its full-throated glorification of capitalist rhetoric and conspicuous consumption, rap still wields the power to scare America. But that power no longer sits with the genre's most successful men. Instead, it belongs to everyone historically marginalized in their wake. Black women are running this rap s***.

The disbelief and disrespect Megan Thee Stallion suffered at the hands of the culture after being shot by Tory Lanez proved one of the rules of misogyny and racism within hip-hop: Being exceptional doesn't make you the exception.
/ Amanda Howell Whitehurst for NPR
Amanda Howell Whitehurst for NPR
The disbelief and disrespect Megan Thee Stallion suffered at the hands of the culture after being shot by Tory Lanez proved one of the rules of misogyny and racism within hip-hop: Being exceptional doesn't make you the exception.

The current race not even being close — and Meg being a clear frontrunner — makes the Houston rapper's continued abuse seem paradoxical. Think about it: Her lyric skill is unmatched, just the right amount sly, snarky, salacious and surgical. (Ah!) Her party-starting confidence, bionic stage presence, Southern-rooted sex appeal and body-ody-ody balance out a giggly personality beaming with the reliability of marketers' dreams. All the necessary ingredients of a 21st century rap superstar. The total package. An "it girl" by pretty much any definition. Except for the fact that she's Black. The genre's ascendant monarch. Except for the fact that she's a woman.

In reality, Megan's experience of ridicule and harassment is one misogynistic moment in a world of many. In its five-decade lifespan, there have been many others who've tried to find freedom in rap only to be harassed, suppressed, opposed or silenced. Even when occasional revolutions tip the scales toward Black women and femmes, the boomerang effect activated by the boys' club pulls things back toward the status quo while thinly veiling the power trip as an act in defense of "the culture."

The culture denied Roxanne Shante the title of best MC at 1985's rap battle for world supremacy. The culture failed to protect Dee Barnes from Dr. Dre and Liza Rios from Big Pun. The culture paints some of its best with the broadest and blandest of strokes — Lil' Kim is always nasty, Lauryn Hill is always late, Nicki Minaj is always a b****, Azealia Banks is always crazy — while giving men who are known abusers, tyrants and manipulators the benefit of the doubt. It stuffs the girls' sex-positive bars under the pejorative umbrella of "pussy rap" and attempts to shove queer rappers into other genres completely.

In a way, this is always how it's been. And yet, it's never been like this. By putting Meg on trial, the culture revealed its misogynoir like never before. By tweeting, memeing, live-streaming and flat-out disbelieving her trauma to the point of it being a punchline, the culture never felt more secure in its misogyny. It never felt more hubris in its racism.

This tipping point became the impetus for Louder Than A Riot's new season. This is why we're unpacking how the double standard became hip-hop's standard: because quiet as it's kept, this imbalance of power and protection is holding us all back.

Throughout its history, hip-hop's strength has always been wielded by those whose voices railed loudest against society's fixed powers. Now those voices are coming from inside the house, and they belong to everyone who's been shut out but refuses to shut up. If hip-hop is to thrive another 50 years, it'll require the same fighting spirit that once made the unheard sound off louder than a riot.

It's time to celebrate the rulebreakers who refuse to play nice. It's time for an essential audit of the culture. Time to give those unwritten rules names that speak the truth of their cruelty, so we can begin to erase them.

Louder Than A Riot hosts: Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael
Louder Than A Riot podcast team: Gabby Bulgarelli, Sam J. Leeds, Soraya Shockley, Mano Sundaresan, Cher Vincent and Rhaina Cohen
Louder Than A Riot interns: Jose Sandoval, Teresa Xie and Pilar Galvan

Digital editing: Daoud Tyler-Ameen, Sheldon Pearce and Jacob Ganz
Design and development: Connie Hanzhang Jin, Jackie Lay and Mike Fussell
Marketing design: Sasha Fominskaya
Illustrations: Amanda Howell Whitehurst

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Sidney Madden
Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.
Rodney Carmichael
Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.