Trigger Warning – How to Love?: Thoughts on Wayne’s “Emmett Till” Lyrics and More

By CFs Moya and Whitney

We’d initially planned to post this the monday after the Oscars but other things were more pressing.

*Trigger Warning for expletives, misogyny, and violent lyrics*

Side by side image of Emmett Till and Lil Wayne with the words
Courtesy of FAAN Mail


In the remix to Future’s Karate Chop, Lil Wayne sings the “very unfortunate” (really, Fader?) lyric that compares sex to the beating of Emmett Till.

Pop a lot of pain pill’

‘bout to put rims on my skateboard wheel’

beat that pussy up like Emmett Till

“I just couldn’t understand how he could compare the gateway to life to the brutality and punishment of death,” said Aricka Gordon Taylor, Spokesperson from the Till Family. We can though. It’s happened before, from Wayne, and friends.

People are mad. Real mad. They’re even talking about it on the radio here in Atlanta, while simultaneously continuing to play the song with Emmett Till bleeped out. Folks are calling for a boycott of Clear Channel and the removal of the song from the airwaves. There’s Twitter activism in motion as well from Dream Hampton to shame LA Reid (who should be shamed, for this and more) because he should know better. Epic, Future’s label not Wayne’s, has apologized saying that this lyric won’t appear on the final version of the song and the Family has written an open letter to Wayne.

We understand why folks are mad and in no way want to diminish this important call to action. One of the things Moya hated about other media activism she’s been involved in is the question, “why you mad about this and why now?” We want to think about these lyrics in the context of calls by feminists of color to interrogate the problems of violent sex metaphors before the name of a slain civil rights icon was invoked. With this in mind, we want to add some thoughts to the growing conversation.

1. We need intergenerational conversations- “beating the pussy up” is a hip hop metaphor for sex that’s not new. We need and have been trying to have a conversation about the violence this metaphor (and others) conjures but folks using it don’t understand themselves to be talking about intimate partner violence when they use it. It is used by men and women to describe sexual prowess, not violence, despite its employment of the violence of “beating”. In reading the framing of the outrage we see elders taking issue with Till being compared to the “anatomy of a woman” and “domestic violence.” That’s not quite what’s happening and we wonder if intergenerational strategies can help alleviate some of these misreadings. Rather than domestic violence, perhaps we can shift our frame to think about sexualized violence and violent sexualities more broadly, which, to be clear, are not always practiced in the context of traditional understandings of intimate partner violence or under duress or coercion.  Patricia Hill-Collins already hipped us to the violence that undergirds many discussions of black sexual prowess in her incisive reading of black colloquial usage of the term “booty” and it dual meaning/invocation as both the spoils of war and conquest (i.e. violence) and as the long standing icon of black women’s sexual desirability.  Too much connection to be coincidental, no?  This framework might allow us to see how violent sexual prowess acted out on the bodies of women of color is a staple of hip hop and popular culture more generally.  The issue is not just the ill-informed invocation of Till’s brutal murder but the normalization of brutality acted on women’s bodies.

Additionally, what does bleeping out words on the radio do? Particularly when it’s part of a rhyme scheme? The absurdity of radio editing is just more than we can fathom sometimes. You want to protect children from hearing the words “Emmett Till” and “pussy” but not the “beating up” they are used in conjunction with?  Not to mention any other songs that have other violent metaphors that don’t have curse words in them that are perfectly fine for radio play. Can we talk to children as opposed to shielding them from certain words? Why are words bleepable but problematic concepts aren’t under review?

2. Is it because it’s Emmett Till? Perhaps we are bugging but doesn’t it disturb people that sex= “beating the pussy up” in the hip hop landscape already? Like “beating the pussy up” is only offensive insofar as Emmett Till is implicated through Wayne’s simile? In no way are we excusing this lyric but it’s interesting to us that the invocation of Till seems to move people in ways that regular misogynoir does not. Perhaps it’s because folks understand the dangers of the US’ ahistorical forgetting, a result of which is that many younger folks might not even know who Emmett Till is (even MTV had to assume the ignorance of their young audience when they first reported the fiasco). What a shame for those who will first come to know of Till through Wayne’s verse.  Yet, what shame for us all that we are yet again confronted with violence to women bodies and our outrage seems limited only to the context of its description.   We are not surprised by the lyric as it seems to follow the logic of “shock” that we see in verses by Wayne, Odd Future and others. Perhaps this outrage is a way to capitalize on people’s reverence for the freedom struggles of Black people but it makes us incredibly sad that the most women can hope for are comparative politics that attempt to equate our humanity to someone elses for it be understood as valuable. I shouldn’t have to be your sister, mother, cousin, daughter, Emmett Till for you to care when I say your words grate on people’s understanding of me as a person.

3. We don’t like the way people apologize for their critiques of hip hop and hip hop artists. We are conscious of the ways hip hop is denigrated but shouldn’t our work and carefully crafted statements be enough for folks to understand that a critique here is not a wholesale condemnation of the genre? We too find some of Wayne’s lyricism captivating but we shouldn’t have to say that before we say, “Dude, WTF?!” In the radio interview speakers go out of their way to talk about their critiques coming from a place of love and not from a place hate (while simultaneously calling the music poison; y’all should listen to this; there are layers). It reminds us a bit of what we are attempting to do with Feminist Care Packages. But it does make us wonder what do you do when you’ve said it all? When you’ve tried to remind people of your humanity and the humanity of other marginalized people and folks refuse to listen? Are there limits to the strategy of affirming before a critique is levied? Does that help artists hear their audience better?

We recognized that Hip Hop gets singled out for misogyny. But as Seth McFarlane, The Onion, and many others have let us know, white folks can handle that all by themselves.

4. Can we talk about what else is happening in these lyrics? Hip Hop’s love affair with weed isn’t news nor is its relationship to crack as means of commerce. However, the types of drugs referenced are changing – We’ve moved from Mary Jane to Molly, crack to codeine.   Where is the collective concern over these new narratives of addiction and the ways in which they might point to depression, PTSD, apathy, nihilism, etc.? Recreational drug use seems to be replaced with self medicating and binge activities. Moya is looking at some of these questions in her work on nihilism in the music and the ways in which Black mental health concerns are prevalent but go unacknowledged. In Wayne’s latest track, “pussy, money, weed, codeine” are rattled off as equivalent substances, raising more questions about the reduction of women to anatomy and object, consumable goods for self medicated consumption.

What do you think about this moment in music? What questions do you bring to the conversation?

We are always interested in the creative ways that hip hop fa(a)ns engage the music they love. Check out the latest such engagement from our friends at Colored Girls Hustle, with their version of All Gold Everything.

10 thoughts on “Trigger Warning – How to Love?: Thoughts on Wayne’s “Emmett Till” Lyrics and More

  1. Maybe the Till analogy just rendered visible the “invisible” violence that’s been inherent in those references. The image of Till’s beaten face is both so horrific and so indelibly ingrained in our collective psyche that putting it face to face (if you will) with this supposedly innocuous slang makes all too clear what has been being said for far too long.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Erik. Agreed. It’s just unfortunate that women’s voices were not enough to make the violence visible.

  2. I really appreciate the conversation about intergenerational knowledge exchange. I didn’t realize that some elders have been thinking that Wayne took the verse more as Wayne calling Emmitt a Pussy rather than the converse (referring to a pussy as Emmitt), which is a critical and important distinction.

    Also, more recently it seems like Wayne had gotten away from using the beat that pussy up metaphor since he’s so into cunnilingus. So I also wonder if this metaphor, while certainly being all about Black male braggadocio and misplaced sexual prowess, does inherently in some way acknowledge Wayne’s desire to do violence to the pussy. Or I guess I’m trying to say, he hasn’t been talking about vaginas in this very phallocentric way, so it’s interesting that when he does, he takes the violence to the extreme. Not sure what that’s about.

    Also I really liked the convo about new drugs. For months now, I’ve been struck by Wayne’s verse on this Nicki Minaj track “Roman Reloaded (My Shit Bang”: “Kush on my breath, cocaine on my tongue, eat that pussy make it numb, she can’t feel herself cum, got a body on my gun, fuck the world with my thumb, pop the molly, smoke a blunt…”

    So much going on here, but suffice it to say, the connection between drugs, sex, and violence is deeply intertwined.

    Anyway, thanks for this post that has given me a whole lot to think about.

    1. Thanks, Crunktastic! That lyric is doing all of the things!!! Seems like there is definitely more to say here. You are making me think about how gun violence is seen as its own self-medicating act, maybe self medication for other violence which is deep!!! I really like the move you make in thinking about his love of eating over beating (wow, one letter difference and such a different thing!). I do wonder when these lyrics are penned versus when we hear them because I wonder if they might not be such a linear difference.

  3. Thank you for writing on this and bringing up so many interesting points. It’s very aggravating to learn that a rapper would use the murdering of a black boy to compare sex just to make some money. To draw on the third thought about the critiques made about hip hop and hip hop artists, I didn’t know Lil Wayne could stoop any lower than he already has in terms of furthering the stereotype of black male hip hop artists. Lil Wayne represents the black male who society is taught to fear, when he uses a historical reference (to make a rhyme and a dime) relating to a white hate crime against a black person he is telling society that crimes against black people are okay because he is willing to make a rap about it in a violent, unapologetic way. Lil Wayne’s rap also speaks volumes about his respect for himself, the history of black people in the United States and women. We already knew that he doesn’t respect women but did he really have to take a hit at a history that is already under appreciated and overlooked? To me, this was just plain ignorance because there’s no way an educated person could rap something so offensive and not realize how unacceptable it is. Lil Wayne didn’t just offend women with that rhyme; it’s offensive to all black Americans and I’d bet my last dollar that black Americans are his largest audience. I want to know why blacks in the U.S. still have to sell themselves, their history, their morals to be somebody in this country.

  4. Thank you for this post. Like many other people I was immediately disturbed by Wanye’s lyric. However, I did not take the time to examine the many layers to it. I was unaware that there might be multiple interpretations of this; I wrote it off as another ridiculous, disrespectful, and sloppy rapper simile. Despite the connection that was made between the lyric and black sexual prowess, I can’t help but think that Wayne must have known that this was not the way to package his “sex metaphor.” The fact that he used a line such as “beat the pussy up like Emmitt Till” for shock value, makes me question the direction hip-hop is going in. Is it all about shock value? Who can say the cleverest line, no matter how disrespectful or insensitive it is? I hope this is just one ill-fated moment in hip-hop and not a catalyst for more of the same or worse.

  5. Very good and very necessary post.

    “Is it because it’s Emmett Till? Perhaps we are bugging but doesn’t it disturb people that sex= “beating the pussy up” in the hip hop landscape already? Like “beating the pussy up” is only offensive insofar as Emmett Till is implicated through Wayne’s simile?”

    This is a critical question and I appreciate you raising this point. When juxtaposed to how the myriad critiques of hip hop’s virulent sexism and misogyny are underappreciated and oftentimes ignored, the outrage that Wayne’s Till allusion manufactured further demonstrates the masculinist and sexist contours of the civil rights project and its meaningless in the current historical moment. I was saddened by this 16, but not any more than any other {insert whatever rapper’s name here} verse. Ain’t nothing we can do for Emmett Till now so I think it think best that we let the dead bury their dead while we keep fighting for and with those currently crushed under capital’s bloody thumbs.

    Love and Struggle…Work and Study,
    D. Noble

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