Lil’ Wayne, Emmett Till, and the Long Shadow of the Civil Rights Movement
Recently, a firestorm has erupted over a lyric Lil’ Wayne rapped on a remix of the song “Karate Chop.” The offending lyric: “I’m gonna beat that pussy up like Emmett Till.”
The song was leaked online, and it didn’t take long for the world to notice. As you might imagine when someone creates a simile that conflates rough sex with a whiff of misogyny and adds a dash of sacred history, the backlash was instant and visceral. Stevie Wonder, Jesse Jackson, and even Emmett Till’s surviving relatives have weighed in and piled on the condemnation. Jesse Jackson even succeeded in having the offending lyric removed from the recording after reaching out to Epic, the record label that is releasing the song.
This reaction is not surprising. For those who are reading this and who might not know who Emmett Till was (and shame on you if that’s the case, or at least shame on your school system), a quick reminder. Till was 14 in 1955 when he traveled from his home in Chicago and visited family in Mississippi, where he was accused of whistling at a white woman. The woman’s husband and his half-brother kidnapped Till, tortured him, killed him, tied a cotton gin to his body and tossed him in a river. When his corpse was recovered days later, it was swollen beyond recognition. At the funeral in Chicago, the family had an open casket, and later, photographs of the deformed corpse were published in Jet Magazine and the Chicago Defender. These photos, along with the subsequent acquittal of Till’s murderers, contributed significantly to galvanizing the civil rights movement, which was then just beginning to catch steam. Till’s role in the civil rights movement was so quickly and firmly established that he (and his story) have become sacrosanct, beyond comment and reproach. That there would be such a backlash against the lyric from within the African American community at large (many members of which were alive and remember Till’s murder vividly), is not surprising.
Nor is it surprising that a lyric conflating sex with famous black victims of white hate crimes would come from Lil’ Wayne. On the track “Mrs. Officer,” from his 2008 album Tha Carter III, a fantasy song about Wayne having sex with a female cop, he raps: “Then I beat it like a cop. Rodney King, baby, yeah beat it like a cop. Beat it like a cop. Rodney King, baby, said beat it like a cop.” In terms of the context of the song, Rodney King as a choice for simile makes sense. In terms of how it is constructed, it’s essentially the same as the Emmett Till lyric. To paraphrase: Lil’ Wayne fucks so hard, it’s like he’s beating his partner’s vagina as though it were a notable victim of a brutal crime.
It’s completely understandable and mostly appropriate for the reactions to be what they have been. And much more could and should be written about the misogynistic and potentially pro-rape underpinnings packed into such a controversial lyric. But this is not the part of the controversy that has most interested me.
I like Lil’ Wayne, I’ve bought his albums and listened to them repeatedly. And often, he says things that are in extremely poor taste. It comes with the territory, and you either deal with the stuff you find problematic, or you don’t. But Lil’ Wayne is not Chuck D, nor should he be. He’s more punk rock in how he approaches music than many in the rap game, meaning, he tries to offend and often succeeds. Considered in this light, Wayne has more in common with the myriad examples from the punk world, from the Crucifux’s line from “Hinckley Had a Vision” (about the Moral Majority and Ronald Reagan’s would be assassin): “I want to take the pre-si-dent, chop off his head, and mail it to them in a garbage bag,” to the Sex Pistol’s “God Save the Queen” (“She ain’t no human being”), to the Meatmen’s “One Down Three to Go,” about the assassination of John Lennon (“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck the Beatles”). The examples are manifest and limitless. Are they offensive? Of course they are (and I’m sure were even more offensive at the time of their release). They’re meant to be. They are also targeted expressions of dissatisfaction by people operating outside of the perceived mainstream toward figures who are largely symbolic and who represent something that is supposed to be sacred: the President, the Queen, the co-head of one of the greatest rock bands ever.
This begins to approach what I find so interesting about the Lil’ Wayne/Emmett Till controversy. One difference between Lil’ Wayne and the examples from the punk bands above is that the punks are white, as are the figures they’re attacking, and Wayne is black. Where white artists might deeply offend, especially when they attack white figures of authority, they tend to be given more leeway and support (though I’m sure Johnny Rotten in 76/77 might have a different perspective on this). Black artists, on the other hand, are often not given this leeway, especially when their targets are revered black figures.
Case in point: Outkast. One of the hit songs on their 1998 album Aquemini was “Rosa Parks,” which featured the lines: “Ah ha, hush that fuss, every body move to the back of the bus,” which was a sly reference to the real life Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, an event for which she was arrested, and which ignited the fire that had long been burning and to which Emmett Till’s murder had also provided fuel. The line from the song also referenced the reality in the Jim Crow South that blacks had to sit in the back of the bus, not the front. Though the song never referenced Rosa Parks directly (except for the title), she still sued Outkast over it. Other notable African American figures, like Oprah Winfrey, soon joined in to denouncing the group.
What is interesting in both Outkast and Lil Wayne’s cases are the generational intersections between younger African Americans who did not live through the turmoil and victories of the civil rights movement, and the long shadow that that movement continues to cast on African Americans as a whole today. The unspoken message in Oprah or Jesse Jackson’s rebukes is this: These people suffered (or died) for you and for your freedom, and you owe them some respect.
What is not addressed in this or similar controversies is the role that social class within the African American community plays. When you listen to the lyrics of Outkast or Lil’ Wayne, one thing is clear: the victories that attended and emanated from the civil rights movement did not trickle down to many in African American communities. The message that the Jesse Jacksons and Oprah Winfreys have not heard back, or at least not acknowledged, is this: You might have worked to achieve and benefit from the victories and sacrifices of the civil rights movement, but those victories never came to my neighborhood. It’s not that Jesse Jackson or any other prominent African American is at fault for this reality — many of these folks have spent their whole lives fighting against racial injustice, in essence, fighting to see that the victories do apply to all African Americans regardless of class. Rather, these types of reactions tend to reinforce the problematic notions that the black experience in America is monolithic. It is not. It never has been. And when figures who have made it scold those who express an opinion that strays outside the main narrative, the reality of the diversity of black life and opinions is diminished.
And this is not the first time that such tensions have arisen, especially when it comes to artistic expression and institutions of black life in America.
Blind Bogus Ben Covington is not a name that many will be familiar with, even those who are fans of the blues. A banjo and harmonica player from Mississippi who made his living performing in medicine shows, minstrel shows, and as a busker on the streets, Covington is only known to have recorded four to six tracks during his life (he is also thought to have recorded under the name Ben Curry). He acquired the name “Blind Bogus” because of his penchant, when performing for tips on street corners, of pretending to be blind in order to engender greater sympathy and then, perhaps, greater tips. In 1928, he recorded the song that he is perhaps best known for: “I Heard the Voice of a Pork Chop.” To most contemporary ears, this song is an odd, if humorous, curiosity:
I was walking down the street today, just as hungry as I could be./I walked right in a swell cafe, this is what they said to me./”Hey, won’t you have some chicken?” O no, I’ll have some beef./Every time a man refuse chicken, he have to pay before he eats./I heard the voice of a pork chop say, “Come unto me and rest.”/Well you talk about living, stewing beans, but I know what’s the best./There’s pork chop, veal chop, ham and eggs, turkey stuffed and dressed,/But I heard the voice of a pork chop say “Come onto me and rest.”
What the modern listener wouldn’t hear, at least not at the outset, are the deep satirical underpinnings of this song. The black listener of the late 1920s would have instantly understood that this song is, in part, a parody of the gospel song, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” They would have connected the sentiment of a pork chop providing salvation with Christ’s words from Matthew 11:28: “Come unto me and rest, all ye that labor and are heavy laden.”
In order to understand why this is satire, other than parodying a popular gospel tune, we have to try and imagine what life for a black Southerner would have been in 1928. In a time of great upheaval and change for African Americans, with more than 3,000 being lynched between 1882-1968, and 1.6 million leaving the rural South during the first Great Migration, it is no wonder that one of the bedrocks of the black community at the time — the church — would also go through an upheaval. During the late twenties, there were great frustrations with what were perceived by some in black communities to be “respectable” black churches that had begun to neglect the reality in which some of their parishioners found themselves. And hence, the satire inherent in a song like “I Heard the Voice of a Pork Chop,” where the church puts your spiritual welfare before your physical needs. (It’s also useful to remember that this was also the same era in which, some 10-15 years earlier, Joe Hill wrote the song “The Preacher and the Slave,” which parodied the gospel song “The Sweet By and By,” and has the more confrontational chorus ending, “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die — That’s a lie!”)
None of this is meant to equivocate — expressing dissatisfaction with a church community is quite a bit different from equating rough sex with the torture and murder of a 14 year old boy. It’s also not meant to place judgement on Lil’ Wayne or his critics. But rather, it is to point out the diversity of black thought and experience and to advocate for a space where people can question and express dissatisfaction with the monolithic, “arc of justice” narrative about black life in America that has been advanced by certain prominent African Americans.
If one thing is clear from listening to Lil’ Wayne’s music and lyrics, it is that he is a man who is very much of his time and culture, though a man who is also very often out of step with both. For a black man who, at times, shows a certain amount of irreverence for the mainstream figures of black life and history, the question that remains to be answered is just how much space his thoughts and presence are permitted to have.