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What Did Hip-Hop Do to Women’s Minds?

What Did Hip-Hop Do to Women’s Minds?


Few celebrities in the aughts embodied the American dream more than the music mogul Sean “Puffy” Combs. He was one of the most powerful men in music; you could argue that he single-handedly pulled hip-hop from the fringes into mainstream pop. Now he has a very different distinction: He has been accused of what sounds like some of the most vicious domestic abuse I have ever encountered in celebrity news. On Thursday, the R&B singer Cassie, Combs’s longtime romantic partner, filed a civil lawsuit against him. Cassie (whose real name is Casandra Ventura) alleged that Combs, who was also her boss, had, over the course of their decade-long relationship, subjected her to repeated instances of domestic violence. In 2018, the lawsuit claims, he raped her.

Combs’s lawyer said in a statement that he “vehemently denies” the allegations. For six months, the lawyer said, Combs had been “subjected to Ms. Ventura’s persistent demand of $30 million, under the threat of writing a damaging book about their relationship, which was unequivocally rejected as blatant blackmail. Despite withdrawing her initial threat, Ms. Ventura has now resorted to filing a lawsuit riddled with baseless and outrageous lies.” Protests aside, Combs settled with Ventura within 24 hours.

The suit was filed in the sunsetting days of New York’s Adult Survivors Act—a law signed by Governor Kathy Hochul that gave survivors of sexual abuse who were over 18 years old a one-year window, from November 2022 to November 2023, to file civil suits, regardless of any criminal statutes of limitations. Ventura’s suit came just in time; the window closes this week.

Reading through the filing, I found myself weeping. Ventura alleged not only that Combs kicked and beat her on frequent occasions, hiding her in hotels while her bruises healed, but that he forced her into sex acts with strangers, and that he recorded them. Further, Ventura claimed that he often kept her drugged and “on multiple occasions” had her “personal medical records sent directly to his email address.” Not long before she finally left him, in 2018, Combs allegedly forced his way into her home and raped her. The allegations were horrific. Yet this was not why I wept.

I wept because, despite Cassie having been in my consciousness for nearly two decades, this was the first time I saw Casandra Ventura. Ventura was only 19 years old when Combs “discovered” her in 2005 and signed her to his label, Bad Boy. When they officially began dating—after rumors of a long pursuit—she was 21, and he was a 38-year-old man.

I wept because no one, including myself, had thought this relationship was weird. I wept because, if anything, we’d probably thought that she was lucky. I wept because I’d never seen her as a person. I wept because she had existed for me solely as a product and an accessory to Combs’s male genius.

I wept because I felt that somehow in all of this, I’d been complicit.

“When did you fall in love with hip-hop?”

This is the provocation that begins one of my favorite rom-coms—Brown Sugar. The 2002 film is a will-they-or-won’t-they about two childhood friends: a boy who grows up to be a disillusioned music executive and a girl who becomes a respected hip-hop journalist. The question is her trademark opening line, and it kicks off a now-classic montage, in which for two minutes, musical legends wax romantic about the song, the verse, the moment that made them fall. Hard.

I never could pinpoint when I fell in love with hip-hop; it had simply always been there. But I remember, distinctly, the moment when I realized it had been a dysfunctional and perhaps even abusive relationship. I’d been working on a playlist for a friend’s birthday, compiled exclusively of rap tracks considered classics of the genre, and was giving it a listen while on a run. I’d heard these songs hundreds of times over the years, but that day—as a woman in her 30s making a playlist for a man who’d recently had a baby girl—I was suddenly hearing them anew. The volume seemed turned up for every mention of “hoes” and “bitches,” like someone had taken a sonic highlighter and run it over every verse about devious, promiscuous, and generally disposable women.

Hip-hop had undoubtedly shaped my worldview, my politics, and my sense of self. I’m sure that, by then, I’d skimmed over countless think pieces about misogyny and sexism in the music. But only that day did it dawn on me that I’d spent my formative years with hip-hop whispering into my headphones that I, as a woman, was worthless—that women were interchangeable accessories, extras in songs and videos, not to be trusted, certainly not to be believed.

I didn’t stop listening to hip-hop. I mean, come on. But I did find myself turning songs off on my walks, avoiding certain artists, gravitating far more toward R&B, old soul, and classic salsa. There is much in hip-hop music and culture that I loved and still love. But after that day, it’s never been the same.

It’s not just that I hear the music in a different way; I look at my past in a different way. All the girlfriends I used to hit the clubs with now look back and wonder: What choices did we make because we’d been listening to that message for years? What judgments did we cast upon other women because of it, because we’d been conditioned to be indifferent to one another? What didn’t we notice?

These questions weighed on me when I read about Cassie’s lawsuit. Despite the vehement denials and a lot of defensive bluster from Combs’s camp, the two parties “amicably” settled within a day. Now the only people who can know whether the allegations are true are the people named and identified in the lawsuit. A settlement, Combs’s lawyer said, “is in no way an admission of wrongdoing.” But in my opinion, Cassie won; her version of the truth has seen the light of day.

I can imagine how, in the deeply materialistic and misogynistic world of aughts pop culture, what seemed like a “dream life” could be a nightmare. I can imagine how a teenager, on the wrong side of a power balance, could see a relationship as normal at first, and only over time realize that it was not. Perhaps the revelation came to her suddenly. Or perhaps it was a series of moments. Or perhaps someone who witnessed her suffering brought to her attention the Adult Survivors Act and, as the last grains of sand ran through the glass, she was moved to come forward.

More than 2,500 lawsuits have been filed under the auspices of the Adult Survivors Act. The past year, Mariann Wang, a lawyer who has represented many victims of sexual abuse, told NPR, has been a “remarkable period of time.”

The law acknowledged that many victims needed more time to come to terms with their experience before they were ready to hold a perpetrator to account. Because of the legislation, E. Jean Carroll was able to have her day in court with Donald Trump. Perhaps unsurprisingly, cases have been brought against a number of high-profile men—the flurry increasing as the clock ran out. Just this month, cases were filed against the music executive L.A. Reid; Neil Portnow, the former head of the Grammys; and the comedian Russell Brand. (Portnow denied the charges; Reid and Brand have not publicly responded to the lawsuits, though Brand has denied previous allegations.)

The law also brought to light a massive case against the gynecologist Robert Hadden, who had been abusing patients for decades. Hadden’s former patients and victims also sued Columbia University, New York Presbyterian, and many other institutions and individuals, accusing them of helping to cover up the abuse. (In 2016, Hadden pleaded guilty to abusing 19 women, and he has since been sentenced to 20 years in prison.) Columbia and its affiliated hospitals recently settled two similar lawsuits and this month, the university established a $100 million victims’ compensation fund.

Without this law, the bad behavior of many individuals as well as the institutions that protected them would have gone unaddressed. And yet the law also imposes its own arbitrary timeline.

How many women, when the law expires on Friday, will wake up and wonder if they should have taken action? How many men will wake up and breathe a sigh of relief, grateful that they will never be exposed in court for what they did?

My revelation about the lyrical content of some of my favorite rap music happened about six years ago. But only when writing this piece did I notice that, although Brown Sugar begins with a woman asking a question, all the answers in the famous montage that follows are provided by men. It’s one of my very favorite movies about heterosexual relationships, and I’ve watched it dozens of times over the years, and that had never seemed strange to me until now.

Immediately after news broke about Ventura and Combs settling their suit, the comments sections of hip-hop gossip accounts were flooded with people judging Ventura. They said that it was all a money grab (Ventura’s lawyer has told reporters that the settlement was an eight-figure deal); that she should have helped more women by going to trial; that she’d probably made the allegations up, because otherwise she wouldn’t have settled so quickly.

Or perhaps this was all that Casandra Ventura could manage. Perhaps if she’d had another three months, or another six months or another few years to process and heal, she would have walked into a courtroom and dragged him for filth for all the world to see. Or perhaps no amount of time would have made that kind of inquisition appealing. Perhaps it was simply enough to feel heard and acknowledged.

What we know for certain is that, after this week, if other women have similar complaints about Combs’s alleged past behavior—or about the past behavior of other powerful men and institutions in New York—they will have one less way to come forward. And a lot of bad actors with shady pasts will sleep easier because of that.





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