It was one of the biggest moments in hip-hop history. Two former friends, now bitter enemies divided by the machinations of the music industry and various misplaced loyalties, finally reunited on the stage, shook hands and put to rest years of animosity. It was a promise of a new era in hip-hop, the culmination of a healing process undoubtedly begun behind-the-scenes but coronated in front of thousands of fans.
I’m referring, of course, to the 2005 reunion between Jay-Z and Nas at Continental Airlines Arena during that year’s Power House festival. The infamous beef between the two New York rap giants had fractured hip-hop along battle lines drawn between the two and their perceived positions within the culture. Their peace treaty showed that rap could be bigger than petty beef and that rappers could grow up and reconcile their differences, even after the salty exchange of diss tracks like “Ether” and “The Takeover.”
You thought I was talking about Drake and Chris Brown, didn’t you? No. That was a disaster. While many celebrated, others — those who examine and think about the effects of such moments on the greater culture surrounding them — shook their heads in disbelief and disappointment. Drake giving that moment to Chris Brown of all people? In this year of all years? That was nothing short of a massive L for hip-hop and for those of us who know how much further our culture has to go before it’s truly equitable and safe for women. We know because that moment showed us how much further we have to go. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
2018 has seemed like the year we learned not to have heroes. Kanye West seems to believe that slavery is a choice and capes for abuser ASAP Bari, Kendrick Lamar (or at least, his business team) threw his considerable, Pulitzer Prize-winning weight behind accused abuser XXXTentacion, and addictions have prematurely ended the lives of both up-and-comers like Lil Peep and burgeoning living legends like Mac Miller. The last thing that hip-hop culture needs at this point is more high-level stars co-signing abusers, yet that’s exactly what it got with Chris Brown’s appearance on Drake’s stage at Staples Center Friday night.
Yes, it represented a significant moment of reconciliation between the former rivals. Their days of chucking bottles at each other in crowded clubs would appear to be behind them, but should they be? Chris Brown is still the man who sent Rihanna, the woman both he and Drake claim to have loved so much, to the hospital in a fit of pique, and very little he’s done since then has indicated that he has learned or grown from the experience, not even the crocodile tears he shed during his 2010 BET Music Awards performance after only spending a year in the industry doghouse.
It’s a frighteningly familiar story to anyone who’s devoted a bare minimum of attention to current events this year, as the legislative branch of the US government voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, who had been accused of sexual assault, to the Supreme Court despite credible testimony from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford (and numerous outright lies during his own testimony), comedian Louis CK returned to the stage to triumphant applause after openly admitting last year to cornering female comics and masturbating in front of them for a lengthy portion of his career, and Bill Cosby was only just convicted of several counts of drugging and raping young women for literal decades. It feels like forward progress in women’s equity has become a game of wack-a-mole; swat down one predator, another pops up to take his place, despite campaigns like #MeToo making it so evident how widespread men’s malfeasance is even after three generations of organized feminist movement.
That’s why it’s discouraging as all hell to hip-hop — a culture that includes just as many women as men, even if they aren’t quite as visible — to see one of its most prominent figures embracing one of its most notorious abusers, particularly as that abuser has been prone to fits of violence and emotional manipulation even after supposedly asking for forgiveness. It’s also incredibly disrespectful to the woman that those two men started their disagreement over in the first place, as it rhetorically states their working relationship is paramount to Brown’s treatment of her; they framed Rihanna as a plot device in their buddy narrative, conveniently glossing over the fact that Rihanna ditched Brown because of the physical violence he enacted upon her.
So, you won’t find me celebrating because I see a different route — one where Chris Brown goes more than 12 consecutive months without being arrested for assault or harassment, where Drake uses his considerable clout to advocate for the protection of women, and where women aren’t sidelined in their own abuse survival stories. Hip-hop sets so many trends and has so much influence over the broader culture surrounding it, that if a huge shift were to come from anywhere in American society, it would be the progressive community that has spoken up for marginalized voices for so long. Hip-hop empowered a generation, gave voice to a voiceless mass of people who were taught never to expect anything better. It can do it again, but only if its biggest stars hold each other accountable and set better examples than the one Drake did on that stage.