Vic Mensa isn’t known for biting his tongue. The outspoken Chicago rapper has been noticeably vocal on subjects from drug abuse to gun control to police violence, even when his own personal actions have run seemingly counter to his statements — a recent arrest for possession of a firearm led him to defend his views about banning “assault weapons.” In fact, like a certain other Chicago-based rapper, he often finds himself explaining or expanding on prior statements to incredulous fans and press, despite being so much better at doing so than Kanye West (and having generally more coherent and defensible views in the first place).
That was the position he found himself in this week as he posted a video to Instagram defending himself from criticism of an as-yet-unaired BET Hip-Hop Awards Cypher verse which has sparked an online controversy. On Sunday, Miami-based rap impresario DJ Scheme, who is best known for his work with up-and-coming area artists like Wifisfuneral, Ski Mask The Slump God, and the late XXXTentacion, posted a tweet calling out a line from Vic’s verse, which Scheme heard in person during the taping.
“Yo bro, how u gone say ‘Your favorite rapper is an abuser’ and then follow it with a line saying ‘some sh*t X some sh*t so I won’t live long’ u can deny it but everyone who was there heard that sh*t,” he wrote, clearly aiming this comment at Mensa, despite not tagging him in the post. The tweet generated an online furor akin to the “F*ck Russ” and “F*ck J. Cole” movements that have swirled around so-called conscious or woke rappers as social media and alternative rap continue to grow in popularity and influence.
This led to Vic posting the video defending his verse, wherein he states he stands behind the line and supports women by doing so. “Recently, I did a freestyle for the BET Award cypher addressing and condemning rappers who unabashedly abuse women and those who stand up for them and even call them legends,” he said. “I stand behind those statements.” He also denied knowing that XXX’s mom was in attendance and apologized to her, saying that he meant no disrespect.
However, the line itself, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, is categorically true. However you feel about XXXtentacion’s music, the man himself was awaiting trial on some truly egregious charges of domestic abuse against his then-pregnant ex-girlfriend. Among other heinous acts like beating her unconscious, reports given by the victim also include an instance of XXX threatening her with barbecue utensils.
Rap fans and the industry itself have long given truly unfortunate leeway to men who are accused of abuse. I’ve already run down all the reasons why that’s just straight up wrong, but we’ve entered a truly dangerous era of defending these men online which has included artists using their industry clout to protect the standing of abusers’ music, such as when Kendrick Lamar’s management threatened to pull his catalog from Spotify for removing XXX’s songs from promoted playlists.
But why are rap fans so much quicker to call out the perceived disrespect of a deceased star than that deceased star’s actual wrongdoing? Those fans who support XXXtentacion after his tragic shooting death in Florida this summer (and yes, it is tragic anytime a human being is gunned down before their 21st birthday, regardless of what kind of person they were) supported him before it as well, despite his flagrant and vulgar refusal to even acknowledge the severity of his actions — although at the time of his death, he did seem to be at least trying to work towards changing his public perception, if not his actual behavior.
There are a few reasons, but chief among them is the deeply ingrained sexism of American society. This isn’t a hip-hop issue, this is a universal one. As we’ve seen all too recently from current events, women are rarely believed in our culture while men are protected, and that’s because we still have yet to acknowledge women as human beings worthy of respect and equitable treatment. Rap music may have an unforgivable misogynistic streak extending back to its inception, but rap music is also a reflection of the world around it.
Besides sexism, though, there seems to be a very real shift in the perception of stars. When I was growing up listening to Snoop Dogg and Tupac, their talk of acts of violence against women seemed exaggerated, cartoonish, like the rest of their hyperbolized rap personas. I may have used this analogy before, but the rappers of yesteryear were superheroes, larger-than-life, bolded and overstated so that their outlandish violence on record and in real life seemed surreal and patently untrue.
For rap fans who’ve grown up with 24-hour social media access to their favorite rappers, it can seem more like those stars are their friends — or could be, if only in the fans’ minds. Those fans, then, perceive anything like an attack on those stars as an attack on their friends. They naturally want to defend their “friends” from those attacks, even if their “friends” were in the wrong in the first place. Furthermore, with the barriers between our aspirational ideals and ourselves being chipped away by our shared digital experiences, we can see ourselves as them more than we would in the past.
It goes beyond just defending friends in some cases. Listeners see themselves in their favorite stars — their own shortcomings, their own victories, their own flaws, and their own dreams — and any criticism of said star becomes a criticism of the listeners themselves. They see XXX struggling with anger issues they may feel and so they want to see him triumph, even if it sets (or rather propagates) dangerous precedents in the treatment of a marginalized group — in this case, women — because they want to win over their own adversities.
In that mindset, critics become “haters,” holding artists accountable becomes disrespect, and taking a clear moral stance is seen as unrelenting rigidity and gatekeeping. Never mind that in all likelihood XXX did exactly the things he was accused of; in a penetrative profile in the Miami New Times, XXX bragged about slapping and kneeing a girl who had a crush on him in middle school and while on an interview with popular podcast No Jumper referenced in the same profile, he detailed hospitalizing a fellow inmate during a stint in juvenile detention.
So when Vic Mensa says “your favorite rapper is an abuser” in a rap verse and “domestic and sexual abuse are not excusable because you have talent or you are troubled” in the caption of his Instagram post justifying the line, he is expressing two things and two things only: An incontrovertible fact about who XXXtentacion was in life and his position on violence against women. The response to his statements reflects more strongly on those expressing outrage against him than his statements do on him.
It says that XXX’s fans still look to XXX — even in death — for license to do what they want, when they want, without regard to consequences or collateral damage. It says that they do not want to be called out for their own bad behavior, just like those senators and judges and television talking heads and United States presidents who rushed to defend Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his controversial confirmation hearing. Or, just like those individuals who could not stop themselves from flinging invective at Colin Kaepernick for calling out police violence against people of color (especially Black people). It says that those individuals believe that pointing out destructive actions is worse than committing them.
Which is exactly why hip-hop — and America as a whole — needs those with platforms like Vic Mensa’s to continue to call out that negative and toxic conduct. Because someone has to call abusers and oppressors and bigots and bullies to the floor for their actions and hold them accountable — even when it’s uncomfortable for their fans and friends and family. The devil has enough advocates; someone needs to be his antagonists, or things will never change for the better.