On Tuesday, in an interview with Marc Lamont Hill, rapper Nelly was questioned about being challenged by women at Spelman College years ago for his controversial video Tip Drill. Nelly, who at the time planned to have a bone marrow drive at the college for his sister, incorrectly claims that Spelman canceled the drive. He then uplifts his frustration around the entire conflict, feeling that Spelman women prioritized politics over lives, particularly that of his sister, who has since passed away. He states:
“Why do you wanna talk about that now when I’m trying to save lives?…Here I am losing time, trying to save someone special to me, and you wanna talk about a video…”
There is a part of me that cannot ignore Nelly’s hurt and pain. While his perceptions of the events might be flawed and myopic, at the core of his misperceptions was a deep and abiding love for his sister, another Black woman, whose life he feels was minimalized and flattened for the sake of a “video.” Many of us know the pain of losing a loved one. However, I also realize, as the brilliant Moya Bailey lifts up in her open letter response, Black women have always had to be silenced and ignored for the sake of “Black men hurting.” So while we must have compassion for Nelly, our compassion must be critical and not fall into the illusory trap of sentimentality.
And here’s where I must be critical of Nelly, because the rift he tries to draw between what might be considered radical politics and “life” is one that is disconcerting, and is a diversion tactic that is particularly viral in this country. Often many people, usually those who have stakes in ignoring the real injustices of this country, try to put those of us who do anti-oppressive work in this sort of imaginative box of self-righteous ne’er-do-wells. As if those of us who are committed to eradicating racism and misogyny and homophobia merely have nothing better to do with our lives but be professional agitators of an otherwise happy world. Nelly’s statement reminds me of how Newt Gingrich accused Obama of “making” Trayvon Martin’s death a racial issue by mischaracterizing Obama’s statement that Trayvon could have been his son.
To both Nelly and Newt, I would offer this: People who are engaged in anti-oppressive work and discourse understand that there are no divisions between “politics” and our lives. Therefore when a Black woman has to be subjected to seeing a credit card slide down another Black woman’s behind, or when white singers continue to use Black women’s bodies as props, their lives are deeply impacted. And we all should be grievous and indignant when the self-perceptions of Black women become distorted and untrue for the sake of profit. We are not just talking about “videos” and “music,” we are talking about intertwining systems and structural realities that are responsible for the dehumanization of Black women. To riff off the endlessly generative genius Audre Lorde who said “poetry is not luxury,” I would state that neither are radical politics. What Nelly, and what all of us must understand, is that anyone who wants to critically discuss gender in hip hop is trying to save lives in the same way as someone organizing a bone marrow drive. It is not a matter of whose work should be given priority, but rather how we can continue to work with one another for a greater future for the freedom of all peoples. Rather than trying to place his challengers into a box of dispassionate opportunists, I would think that Nelly could see how the life of his sister is also deeply connected to the lives of the women of Spelman College. Or how his life as a Black man will always be in danger, physically and spiritually, as long as Black women continue to be ignored, silence, and subjugated.
I have no doubts, that anyone who is tired of seeing injustice would much rather be at home reading a book and sipping a glass of wine. But at the end of the day, these are not the options we have. Instead, we are out organizing communities, creating art, working at not for-profits, governments, schools, clinics, and the academy, and any other place where we can do anti-oppressive work. We have “conversations” not to be self-serving, but because we do not see lines where radical politics begins and our lives end. We are all saving lives, including our own, in our own ways.