For the last few years, I have observed a prevalence of images of prison in rap and r & b songs and videos. Certainly this trend mirrors reality because so many men of color (and increasingly black women) find themselves implicated in the criminal legal system. In fact, one in ten black males aged 25-29 was in prison or jail in 2009 as were 1 in 25 Latino males in the same age group. Black males have a 32% chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives; Latino males have a 17% chance; while white males have only a 6% chance (Bureau of Justice Statistics). Nearly one in three (32%) black males in the age group 20-29 is under some form of criminal justice supervision on any given day – either in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.
Some popular past hip hop videos such as Alicia Keys’s “Fallin’” and Eve’s “Gotta Man ” show women dutifully supporting men who are incarcerated. The performers longingly sing about the day when their partners will be released from the pen.
One classic illustration of the “prison love” theme from a female perspective is Da Brat’s song “Ghetto Love” from her album “Anuthatantrum” (1996).
The following is a key excerpt from the song:
Hey nigga, ain’t shit gonna ever change
Between you and your boo.
Put a hold on me ever since I held you.
What compelled you to be my nigga besides passion and love?
You ran up on a real bitch with understanding and trust.
Fuck the others, none of them compare to us.
And under covers, you my muthafucka nigga.
When you stickin’ my stuff,
You laid pipe unlike any other plumber.
Took me shoppin’ all day and at night you kept me cummin’.
Made dinner – collard greens, candied yams, and steak –
Taught me how to measure grams, cook rocks, and chop weights.
Caught a case ‘cause your boy ran his mouth too much
And it’s a disgrace, how the pain felt to miss your touch.
But as the days keep passin’, keep it actin’ with stacks of letters.
Hit you so you don’t forget us
When you’d rather not be livin’ in the cellar.
Hella muthafuckas want your occupation
But they can keep pacin’ ‘cause I’m gonna be waitin’ on my baby.
And all this love is waiting for you,
My baby, sweet darling.
And all this love is waiting for you.
Don’t worry ‘bout a thing, nigga, stay down.
As long as you can hang, I’m-a be around.
Ran into your boy, had heard he’d spread the word
That you was soft, braggin’ he collectin’ your cheese
And pissing me the fuck off.
The first thought of committing a felony never left,
I missed the big breaths you took when we was puffin’ an L.
Just the little things you do with the bigger ones I saw better
SL five-hundreds, colorful Gucci sweaters and leathers, diamond letters.
Girl you broke, I saved the sugar for you,
Keep the business runnin’, droppin’ off keys in Cancun.
Cash rules and you remain to be the king of my throne.
Position taken, flippin’ calendar pages ‘til you get home.
Wanna blast your boy for snatchin’ up my happiness.
But I regret what’ll happen to this dollar foundation
If I’m incarcerated, too.
You can make it through.
We bail on the jealous who tell us the opposite of that.
Forever you and Brat.
I tried to take the blame, but you preferred to handle my fame,
So I’m waitin’ with open arms to rekindle the flame.
These lyrics illustrate Da Brat’s initiation into a life of drug dealing and her boyfriend’s subsequent arrest and incarceration. She takes over the business while he is away, all the while waiting for his eventual release. This is supposed to embody true love and devotion. While this may indeed be the reality for some young women, this and other songs perpetuate the idea that in order to exhibit true devotion, girls must put up with all manner of negative and detrimental behavior. This notion is also articulated by male performers.
For instance in his song 21 questions, 50 cent asks:
If I fell off tomorrow would you still love me?
If I didn’t smell so good would you still hug me?
If I got locked up and sentenced to a quarter century
could I count on you to be there to support me mentally?
If I went back to a hooptie from a Benz
would you poof, and disappear, like some of my friends?
If I was hit and I was hurt would you be by my side?
If it was time to put in work would you be down to ride?
I’d get out and peel a nigga cap, you chill and drive
I’m askin questions to find out how you feel inside
The video for the song picks up on the “prison” theme and expands upon it. We watch as 50 cent is talking to the beautiful Zoe Saldana from jail. In another scene, she is helping him to hide a stack of money as the cops move in to apparently make an arrest. The unequivocal message is that black women need to prove their loyalty to their “men” by putting themselves at risk of incarceration by participating in criminal activity or aiding and abetting said man. These girls are implicated in the crime either because they actively take part in it or because they harbor the person who is committing the crime.
Cole and Guy-Sheftall (2003) correctly assert that “the women many hip-hop songs celebrate are valued primarily for satisfying their men sexually and providing whatever support they need. Tragically, many young women even pass the ultimate test of loyalty by endangering themselves and their futures, including the risk of incarceration, through drug use, burglary, or prostitution, all in the name of ‘love’ (p.198).”
So this brings me to the most recent example of a “stand by your locked up man” rap song. The popular rapper T.I recently married his long time girlfriend Tiny after having served a one year prison sentence. He has talked very lovingly about the fact that she stood by him while he was in prison. While this is great for Tiny as this was her choice, I don’t want the message going out to young black women that they have to spend years “waiting” for men they love to get out of prison for the promise of marriage. T.I. served less than a year in prison and he is a rich rapper. Many young men who are locked up are unfortunately there for much longer sentences and also do not come out to a successful entertainment career. The stresses imposed on young women whose partners are incarcerated are incalculable and I really feel queasy that the message in hip hop is that they are expected to patiently wait for incarcerated men to return or worse yet to pick up their criminal enterprises while they are on the inside.
To be fair, T.I’s “Got Your Back” is really more of a love letter to his wife rather than an encouragement to engage in a life of crime. However it seems important to highlight the issues raised by this and other songs that feature women being expected to have their partners’ backs while they are incarcerated. These are not uncomplicated decisions. I want young women to find happiness in their lives and if they make a choice to wait because this is a clear headed decision, then great. However, if they are making the choice because of social pressure and the weight of expectations, then this is necessarily destructive.
Here are the relevant lyrics from the T.I song and also the video:
This is for the women who man caught a sentence
Who gonna be there for a minute but they didn’t keep their distance
They stayed home waiting on the phone.
And on visit day show up looking good smelling better, playing kissy face
Just wanna let you know we appreciate
Everything you do for us on a day to day
And I know we don’t show you all the time but we lucky that you ours
No bouquet of flowers could ever show how much we know we need you
We do all that’s in our power just to please you
See boo, fuck them girls I would leave the World ‘fore I leave you
For one young woman’s response to this post, click here.
For my response to a particular e-mail that I received about this post, click here.