Take it back: Rick Ross, Sister Fa and the fight for the soul of rap

by Anne Ream | Voices and Faces Project
Saturday, 14 June 2014 20:29 GMT

Photography by Natalie Naccache

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By Anne Ream

I believe in anger.  Righteous anger, justified anger, the kind of anger that leads to real change – because there has never been, and probably never will be, any major social movement without it.  

I believe in anger, which is one of the reasons I believe in rap.  And though the genre has grown older, arguably tamer, and infinitely more mainstream over the last thirty-plus years, its best beats are often angry ones.  We live in a world characterized by inequality and injustice, and the musical mirror we hold up to that reality needs to be a gritty, jagged one.  This is something that the most evocative rappers – think Public Enemy, The Roots, Lauryn Hill – seem to understand instinctively.  Their songs aren’t just lyrical.  They’re political, and they make demands.  

I believe in anger, and I believe in rap, and that’s why I can’t stop thinking about Rick Ross, the Miami-based rapper and Reebok spokesperson whose musical seemed nothing more than an extended shout out to his favorite brands - punctuated by regular references to guns, gangstas, and bling - until he released  “U.O.N.E.O,” a single that celebrates a drug-facilitated rape.  “Put molly all in her champagne/She ain’t even know it/I took her home and enjoyed that/She ain’t even know it,” Ross raps on his newest release.

Ross is rightly being condemned for his rape-glorifying lyrics, and Reebok is facing a slew of on and offline protests, as well as calls to terminate the rapper’s contract.  In the face of a firestorm that has the potential to engulf his pocketbook, he issued the inevitable apology, one that wasn’t so much a mea culpa as a “maybe you misunderstood me.”  "Things like date rape shouldn't be glorified," Ross clarified for his fans, "[but] with that being said, I don't think taking rap lyrics as straight facts is ever the way to go … In reality some people do these things, and shouldn't it be brought to light so young women can protect themselves? The term 'rape' wasn't used … you know I would never use the term rape in my records.” 

The implication of Ross’s statement – that a rape that that goes unnamed isn’t a rape at all – is only part of the problem.  The truth is that Ross’s lyrical celebration of violence against women isn’t really shocking.  It’s a symptom of a particular, and arguably particularly American, strain of misogynistic rap music, one in which musical rage against the politically powerful has been replaced by rage against, or indifference to, the powerless.  Call it bully rap.

But there is another world out there, and another way.  I’m writing this piece from Dakar, Senegal, where I’ll be spending the next week with Sister Fa (real name:  Fatou Diatta), a woman who is the very definition of a rapper with the right to rage.   The hip hop scene in Senegal is active musically and politically – many of its musicians have strong ties to local human rights groups and NGOs - and Fatou is at the forefront of that community. Her music is a sort of fusion-rap that marries soul, hip-hop, dance, and just a hint of reggae.  Her lyrics address race, class, poverty, and female empowerment (and they still make you want to dance).  But it is her mission, Education Sans Excision(Education without Cutting) - a concert tour and Art Works for Change workshop series created to educate Senegalese villagers on the consequences of female genital cutting - that has encouraged a countrywide conversation about a practice that was outlawed in Senegal in 1999, but continues in far too many regions even today.  

Female Genital Cutting is a subject that Fatou knows heartbreakingly well:  she was a victim of FGC before she went to primary school. “I feel that I am not a total woman now,” says Fatou of the experience that has scarred her in both literal and figurative terms.  “And I am angry that this still is going on.  Just weeks ago I learned that they cut a girl, in my own village, who was not yet one year old.  So I use my voice and music to tell the truth, to make people think about what is still happening.  When we (Education Sans Excision) go into the villages in Senegal, we are doing more than making music for music’s sake.  It’s not just about the words – it is about taking action.”  

“Hip-hop, rap, they are supposed to be about protest,” adds Fatou. “That’s the history.  I’m a rapper, but when you ask me how I define myself, I have to say that I am a human rights activist first.  Music is how I put my beliefs into action.  It can bring people together, get people talking about things that they have been silent about.  It reminds people that they can be a part changing this.”

It’s an old school, purist’s definition of rap, and a vision of music-as-changemaker that feels worlds away from Rick Ross’ particular brand of self-expression.  But on a clear night in Senegal, with the sound of Fatou and her band rising up from the courtyard below, it’s a definition that seems, and sounds, exactly right.

Anne K. Ream is a founding board member at Art Works for Change and the founder of The Voices and Faces Project.  She will be blogging from Senegal during Sister Fa’s Art Works for Change-supportedEducation Sans Excision concert tour.