When I was a young girl, I fell head-first into a sexy, sometimes one-sided but always thrilling love affair with hip-hop. My love for the genre grew a lot deeper when a handsome, young rapper from Queens, New York, came on the scene: Nas.
The first song I listened to was “One Love” from Nas’ debut album “Illmatic.” In this open letter written to his incarcerated friends, Nas gives an update on what’s going on with the woman an incarcerated man has a child with. He raps “Why don’t ya lady write ya? Told her she should visit, that’s when she got hyper, flippin, talking about he acts too rough, he didn’t listen, he be riffin while I’m telling him stuff. I was like yea, shorty don’t care…”
I continued to listen to Nas. ... To all the other implied and direct musical messages that tell black women that our love for our brothers is measured in the depth of our sacrifice. ... To the implication that if we are what some call the “truest type,” then we will support and love our men to a level that may sometimes require us to ignore our own needs or safety.
“Black women are expected to show love in ways that are killing us.”
This message is deeply woven into the hip-hop community. Consider the song “Ryde or Die Bitch” by the L.O.X. featuring Timbaland and Eve. According to the lyrics, some of the things that qualify a woman as a “ride or die” is the willingness to literally kill for her man. She’ll do a lot more than just write or visit her man, she will find a way to have sex with him while he is in prison. Sure, these examples stated in the song might be considered hyperbole. Yet the clear implication is that there is an expectation of “love” being demonstrated by endless, reckless loyalty.
For all my years of loving hip-hop, I can find no example of a ride-or die man. Is there no expectation for a man to love us so hard that he will risk personal safety, freedom and unredeemable years of his life? Yet we see so many examples of ride-or-die women in television, in music and even in real life public relationships.
The concept of being a ride-or-die is just internalized misogynoir ― misogyny directed toward black women ― by another name. It’s a way to control women’s actions and strip them of agency and power in their interactions with men. A ride-or-die, no matter how brave or hard she may be, must still be submissive to her man, thus keeping patriarchal powers in place. This internalization creeps in slowly, but holds on tightly and its hold is dangerous and deadly for black women.
Studies show that black women are four times more likely than white women to be killed by domestic violence. The conversation around why women stay in abusive relationships is far too nuanced to limit to a single attribute. However, according to the Department of Justice, many black women stay in such relationships out of a strong sense of loyalty and a strong identification with patriarchal elements, the same concepts that constitute a ride-or-die.
Black women are expected to show love in ways that are killing us. The expectation starts early, in our introductions to music, in our observations of our family and in our conversations with our friends. It pours out of the mouths of the women we know more often than we realize. It hides behind words like, “I’m gonna stick by my man, no matter what!” A “no matter what” type of mentality is dangerous in any relationship. However, the danger is especially heightened when domestic violence is involved.
“The concept of being a ride-or-die is just internalized misogynoir -- misogyny directed toward black women -- by another name.”
On April 26, the hip-hop world watched as singer and businesswoman Kelis finally shared her story about the dissolution of the marriage to one of the most conscious and notable rappers of our time, Nas. She spoke of the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of the man that was my personal barometer for what I considered hip-hop. I had to remind myself to breathe as she spoke.
Through her interview, I was being reintroduced to Nas, the rapper I’d fallen in love with. My thoughts swirled and landed on the first time I heard Nas rap about his divorce from Kelis. In the song “Bye Baby” from his album “Life is Good,” Nas never mentioned physical abuse, but he noted her distrust of him and he shared a few lines about the money he spent on her. He ended the song by rapping:
“Next go round I hope I pick the truest type, and watch me do it all again — it’s a beautiful life. Goodbye.” These words hold new meaning for me now.
The idea that a woman can endure so much ― abuse, infidelity, cruelty ― and still not be considered “true” is an infuriating and endless cycle of manipulation that traps women in one-sided love affairs with men who will always demand more of them, but who will never be satisfied. Commitment, dependability and loyalty in relationships are important and necessary. But the often-rapped ideology that devotion must come up-front, with no questions asked and no expectation of reciprocation, is dangerous.
“No one ever told me love doesn’t require a person to ride me until I die.”
As Kelis spoke her truth about why she stayed, I revisited mine. I was once someone’s ride-or die. I was loyal and protected him at all cost. I stayed far longer than I should have, because I was “the truest type.” I wasn’t like those “other girls.” I wasn’t killing anybody for him, but I damn sure killed a bit of my soul in the name of our “love.” I said all the words most ride-or-die women say. But no one told me love doesn’t require a person to ride me until I die.
Hip-hop ignored the opportunity to explore this conversation around abuse and manipulation when Tarana Burk shook the world with the Me Too movement. When videos surfaced on rapper “Fabolous” terrorizing his child’s mother, hip-hop remained relatively silent. When reports surfaced of rapper XXXtentacions beating his pregnant girlfriend, the silence rang loud. When Chief Keef rapped about murdering girls who won’t perform oral sex on him, we ignored yet another opportunity for a huge public reckoning about abuse.
Will Kelis’ bravery open the doors for more women in hip-hop to speak their truth about the abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of the men we help make rich? Will the fact that we are talking about one of the most notably conscious rappers of hip-hop impact the projection of this conversation? This is another opportunity for the hip-hop community to do something different for black women. Perhaps this time around hip-hop can be the truest type, and not do it all again; it can still be a beautiful genre. If not, then ... goodbye?