On Friday, June 24, the Supreme Court officially overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that had protected access to safe abortion nationwide since being decided in 1973.
In August of 1973, that same year, an entrepreneurial young woman from New York named Cindy Campbell and her brother Clive threw a back-to-school party near the corner of Sedgwick Avenue and Cedar Avenue, in the Bronx. When Clive, known as DJ Kool Herc, dropped the needle on some funk and soul breaks, mixing the blends while getting on the mic, a new form of American music was born. We know it as hip-hop.
Over the past five decades, hip-hop has been a platform for shouting out neighborhoods, shaking asses, celebrating success, clowning wack rappers—and simultaneously addressing the major issues of the day.
Hip-hop is often criticized for demeaning lyrics about women. But it also has a track record of speaking on abortion—no surprise, seeing as the concepts of sex, body politics, power dynamics and governmental control are steeped in this culture. (Not to mention the multiple studies that show the overturning of Roe v. Wade will disproportionately affect Black women.)
Given the way reproductive health, or lack thereof, impacts the Black community, hip-hop has seen all sides of the issue. And while folk and punk songs about abortion tend to be more sloganeering, hip-hop as an art form has a particular capability for nuance, and can tell stories that address many different considerations around the issue. At least that's what I found when I spent some time with songs addressing abortion from the past 50 years of hip-hop across America.
But first, I talked to people right here in the Bay Area.
“It was a deep collaboration,” Coco Peila tells me during a call, noting that each person poured their personal expertise into the song. “Aima did some crazy research… pulling up documents and articles and podcasts.” They then took the info, condensed it, and put it into bars that they laid over kick drums and snares.
Peila, founder of The Black Gold Movement, says the goal was to use a “big bullhorn and say, ‘Yo, something is happening over here! Y'all need to stop what you’re doing and get folks to pay attention!’” If the group could mobilize folks while making something melodic and empowering, they’d consider it a success.
Even with all their research, they didn’t find many songs as a blueprint for what they were going for. Sexism plays a major role in the reasons why this real-life experience remains invisible to so many people, Peila theorizes. “And when we do try to address it in hip-hop,” she adds, “it gets dismissed—‘That’s corny’ or ‘That’s weak,’ or whatever.”
Dawn-Elissa Fischer, the San Francisco State University professor, author, hip-hop researcher and scholar, echoes the sentiment that women and non-binary artists often get overlooked—not just in hip-hop, but across the artistic landscape. Fischer, who helped found the Harvard Hip-Hop Archive, says that even though hip-hop songs about reproductive health and abortion exist, the subject matter isn't always immediately apparent.
“If one were to look into lyrics, as I have,” Fischer tells me during a call, “we can find references in work of artists of all genders, referencing threats to reproductive rights, along with critiques of policing, economic injustice, assault, you know?” Fischer says that it’s not always obvious—there isn’t a popular “Where is the Planned Parenthood?” song—and instead, the topic is usually woven into stories about everyday life.
“In the 50 years since hip-hop was created,” Fischer says, “we can find samples from each decade.”
I began digging.
“And since a man can't make one / He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one.” That's Tupac Shakur on the 1993 track “Keep Ya Head Up,” a song about uplifting women in the face of all of society’s ills.
Pac penned other tracks alluding to different aspects of reproductive health, like “The Good Die Young” as well as “Baby Don't Cry (Keep Ya Head Up II).” In 1991, he also recorded “Brenda’s Got A Baby,” which depicts a fictitious but all-too-real story of a young woman, pregnant at a young age, who gives birth to the baby by herself and then abandons it.
From there I dug deeper into the archives, beyond the songs that I’ve known since I was a kid. I simultaneously turned to social media to ask for recommendations—after all, hip-hop is a community-based art form. I got so many responses that I created a whole playlist.
I won't get into every song on the playlist, but some stand out as an example of hip-hop's nuance. Both the lyrics and visuals to Jean Grae’s 2008 song “My Story” are a raw journal entry and a public statement all in one. It does what hip-hop is supposed to do: brings the audience into the MC’s world, and then leaves them with new critical thoughts about the world we all live in.
Noname’s 2016 track “Bye Bye Baby” takes the poetic approach to the conversation around abortion and the aftermath thereof. Poetic license and word choice cause the listener to lean into the speaker for further understanding; it’s an example of how hip-hop isn’t always explicit.
In Lauryn Hill’s 1998 track “To Zion,” the luminary lyricist writes about choosing motherhood over the music industry, because she’s told these are conflicting identities. Ms. Hill is also featured on Common’s classic 1997 track, “Retrospect for Life.” That same year Organized Konfusion dropped “Invetro,” which deals with the topic of abortion in the context of a dysfunctional relationship while shedding light on the real-life impact of the crack epidemic.
“... still can't believe I used to fuck with ya / Popping Plan B's 'cause I ain't planned to be stuck with ya,” raps Houston’s Megan Thee Stallion on the 2022 track “Plan B.”
Here in the Bay, Oakland’s Conscious Daughters’ 1994 song “Shitty Situation” puts the conversation about abortion in full context. Narrator CMG chooses not to get an abortion—"I got a baby on the way, and I can't afford it / But I ain't givin it up, no, fuck that / Cause it's a part of me, and ain't nobody destroyin' that"—but soon realizes the amount of work and money it takes to raise a baby, and resents the child's father for disappearing.
“Happy Birthday,” from 2005, is a reflection by Flipsyde on the personal impact abortion has on the man involved. And there’s the highly produced video to the 2021 Locksmith track “Planned Parenthood,” which explores the concerns that come when family members are involved in the decision-making process.
Hip-hop, like our community, isn’t a monolith; there are plenty of tracks that are anti-abortion. Some are more explicit than others.
“That belly blows up, it's gonna be trouble / I'mma have to play like a pin and come pop that bubble / Find Chucky if you want child's play / I'll give your ass a hanger and drop you off in an alleyway,” raps Akinyele on the 1993 track “I Luh Huh.”
Nas, who penned “Fetus,” a 2002 song which takes the perspective of the unborn inside a mother’s womb, also writes “Hoodrats, don’t abortion your womb, we need more warriors soon,” on the 2002 track “One Mic.”
Oakland legend Too Short has plenty of examples, but the line “Like a mack, I surprised her / Dropped her ass off at Kaiser,” from the 1993 song “Way Too Real,” stands out. Not only because of its blunt insensitivity, but because it reflects the real-life experience of so many people—and, in a way, illustrates how access to abortion also benefits men.
As I dug through the archives, the most prophetic track as it pertains to Roe v. Wade was the 1993 song “La Femme Fétal” by Digable Planets. In it, emcee Butterfly raps:
If Roe v. Wade was overturned, would not the desire remain intact
Leaving young girls to risk their healths
And doctors to botch, and watch as they kill themselves
So no, this dive into the hip-hop archives at a moment of this magnitude in American history isn’t one of those “Where is Ja Rule?" instances. This is about looking at one of this country’s most influential art forms and asking: what it is lending to one of the most contentious conversations of our lifetime?
The answer is: a lot.
Fischer tells me I'm not the first to broach the subject of hip-hop songs about reproductive rights: "There are some collections that exist online," she says, noting student projects in the form of blogs, Tumblrs and Prezis. But "those types of things are hard to find, you’ve gotta know where to look."
Perhaps they would be easier to find if we had more voices speaking about the topic openly and honestly.
After all, says Coco Peila, hip-hop loves authenticity. "We have fake shit going on in hip-hop, but at the end of the day, no matter where you’re from, if you come as your authentic self, in hip-hop people can’t really deny that," she says.
"We get the clearest picture and the richest picture when everybody comes to the table."
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