It’s Time to Confront the Erasure of Disability in Hip-Hop

It’s Time to Confront the Erasure of Disability in Hip-Hop 

 

 

(Above: Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen”, 2014)

​“When I was little…I had got into an accident and it gave me congenital glaucoma in both of my eyes,” rapper Fetty Wap stated in an interview with the Breakfast Club in 2015, after rumors swirled that his eye was shot out. “The doctor saved one, so I was blessed to still have my vision.” Fetty Wap’s disclosure of the loss of his eye was no small feat for hip-hop culture, as it directly challenged ableist norms and the erasure of disabled folks that is commonplace within the genre’s mainstream. While hip-hop is certainly not alone in its ableism, as the music industry as a whole heavily practices ableist, white supremacist aesthetic standards of perfection, it is particularly telling how these patterns have affected the culture. Despite arguably being the most influential culture world-wide, disabled folks are marginalized within a commercial industry that’s intent on marketing an ableist, patriarchal, and racist image of masculinity, particularly of Black masculinity.

(Left: Leroy Franklin Moore, creator of Krip-Hop Nation)

Aside from the massive commercial success of Fetty Wap, the appearance of physicaldisability is rarely visible in mainstream hip-hop, despite initially being heavily inclusive of disabled bodies in its humble beginnings in New York. “I remember when there were blind b-boys and b-boys with crutches in the park,” says disabled rapper and activist Leroy Franklin Moore, founder of the collective Krip-Hop Nation in the early 2000s. “You also had Rob Da Noize Temple [from Sugar Hill Gang] who was also disabled, too. They don’t teach you that history.” He pauses, then adds, “The ‘bling-bling’ [era] of hip-hop really changed all of that.”

​The initial egalitarian nature of hip-hop that provided a space for marginalized Black and Brown people living with disabilities was slowly eradicated, as mainstream labels and media favored presenting able-bodied people as the embodiment of the culture. Rob Da Noize Temple, who is a part of the Krip-Hop Nation with Leroy, recalls, “Naturally, the cards are stacked against me, being Black, being disabled, being old, arises questions of my masculinity. When we view images of perfection on TV, in movies, in print and especially in the music business, we never stop to ask ourselves, who set the standards for this perfect look, this perfect body, this perception of beauty that society has placed so much emphasis on? For forty years, I have struggled in the music industry for acceptance, respect, and perhaps a bit of humanity. However, [I was] constantly told by music executives, ‘We can’t market you because of your disability.’ Once again, [I was] not fitting into their scheme of things, not matching that ‘sexual’, ‘macho’, ‘masculine’ image of perceived perfection. The culture of racism is able to hide itself behind many “isms” and stereotypes.   However, I challenged the status quo, never letting anyone limit my possibilities or hinder my inherent potential capacity.”

(Right: Rick Ross, “John” video, 2011)

Aside from the massive commercial success of Fetty Wap, the appearance of physical disability is rarely visible in mainstream hip-hop, despite initially being heavily inclusive of disabled bodies in its humble beginnings in New York. “I remember when there were blind b-boys and b-boys with crutches in the park,” says disabled rapper and activist Leroy Franklin Moore, founder of the collective Krip-Hop Nation in the early 2000s. “You also had Rob Da Noize Temple [from Sugar Hill Gang] who was also disabled, too. They don’t teach you that history.” He pauses, then adds, “The ‘bling-bling’ [era] of hip-hop really changed all of that.”

The initial egalitarian nature of hip-hop that provided a space for marginalized Black and Brown people living with disabilities was slowly eradicated, as mainstream labels and media favored presenting able-bodied people as the embodiment of the culture. Rob Da Noize Temple, who is a part of the Krip-Hop Nation with Leroy, recalls, “Naturally, the cards are stacked against me, being Black, being disabled, being old, arises questions of my masculinity. When we view images of perfection on TV, in movies, in print and especially in the music business, we never stop to ask ourselves, who set the standards for this perfect look, this perfect body, this perception of beauty that society has placed so much emphasis on? For forty years, I have struggled in the music industry for acceptance, respect, and perhaps a bit of humanity. However, [I was] constantly told by music executives, ‘We can’t market you because of your disability.’ Once again, [I was] not fitting into their scheme of things, not matching that ‘sexual’, ‘macho’, ‘masculine’ image of perceived perfection. The culture of racism is able to hide itself behind many “isms” and stereotypes.   However, I challenged the status quo, never letting anyone limit my possibilities or hinder my inherent potential capacity.”

(Left: DMX, 2014)

​While physical disability is not regularly seen, mood disorders and developmental disorders aren’t regularly spoken about. DMX, whose unpredictable behavior alienated his fan base and those in the industry for the past decade, finally spoke about living with bipolar disorder in 2011, “I’m not the person the media portrays me to be. X is the bad guy. That’s not who I am. I’m not the person the media portrays me to be.” While hip-hop media outlets often discuss X’s downfall, rarely do articles and interviews mention how his struggle with bipolar disorder shaped his undoing. Rather, X’s extreme behavior is attributed to the “troubled artist” mythos, instead of discussing how people living with the disorder often medicate with drugs and alcohol, and become addicted as a result of trying to cope with extreme mood swings.  Kid Cudi in recent years has also spoken out about his experience with depression. Christ Bearer, an affiliate of WuTang, is said to be diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, while Chief Keef is rumored to have Asperger’s Syndrome (falling along the autistic spectrum).  Despite admissions and rumors about mental and developmental disorders, there is still hesitancy to de-stigmatize the conversation in the en masse in the hip-hop public sphere.

 

(Above: Zulu P)

While hip-hop has been co-opted by an ableist industry, disabled artists are fighting back by taking up creative space. Leroy Moore is adamant on making the experiences, history, and rights of disabled hip-hop artists into a reality. Moore also regularly writes on Black disabled people who are victims of police brutality, seeing poetry and hip-hop as tools for liberation. Zulu P, a group of Black disabled emcees, is fronted by Marley G (who is said to have grown up with WuTang affiliate in New York). “The four,” says writer Shawn Hazelett, “have creative disagreements and aspirational differences. Most of them want money. One seems content creating sick beats. Another talks about bringing back old school hip-hop, tired of rap denigrating women and celebrating violence. They joke around and dance and tease each other and have egos and offend. Everything they say and do is without inhibition or fear.”

It is time for able-bodied people to question why there is lack of physically disabled people participating in formal cyphers at the function, and specifically, our own complacency in this. It is time for us to question why we are hesitant to discuss the topics of mood and developmental disorders in reference to Blackness in hip-hop. We must continue to challenge ableism by making our spaces more accessible for those who are continually erased from hip-hop history.

Moore, Leroy. “Rob Da’ Noize Temple & Leroy Moore talks about their song, Strength of a Man.” 2/25/2015. http://kriphopnation.com/rob-da-noize-temple-leroy-moore-talks-about-their-song-strength-of-a-man/

“DMX Talks about his Bipolar Disorder”. http://mentalhealthtreatment.net/blog/dmx-talks-about-his-bipolar-disorder/

Hazelett, Shawn. “Meet the Rap Group Challenging Our View On Disabilities.” http://elitedaily.com/entertainment/meet-rap-group-challenging-view-disabilities/1295956/

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