Every so often, battle rap goes viral. It could come in the form of a naked Crip, a crying opponent, a pulled gun, a punched face or, quite simply, a really good battle. Leagues have become increasingly savvy with the way they push these battles out, giving the videos titles meant to pique the interest of even the most casual of Internet trawlers, as they jostle for space to be THAT distraction.
Ever since Mark Grist donned a suit and battled the wonky-faced tyke that was (and still is) Blizzard in a fabricated “teacher-student” relationship, Don’t Flop has had more viral success in the U.K. even though leagues like Jump Off have been around longer. Each viral hit has been achieved through varying degrees of talent, presentation, SEO and titling wizardry, controversy, luck, trolling and sheer force of will. Brands like AHAT and WorldStarHipHop have long flown the banner for the “Rapper X Does Outlandish Thing Y in Rap Battle” style of circulating clips, and it seems like that wave has been influencing foreign shores for a few years, mostly because it works.
The video making the rounds this week is a Jump Off clip snappily dubbed “Battle Rapper Threatens To Rape Female Opponent Then Hero Judge Steps In.” Here it is if you haven’t seen it:
It’s a snippet from a battle where LightE the Boombox Genie (a man) threatens rape on his opponent K’lastro (a woman). Before the latter can respond, a challenge is thrown out to the crowd and Nihal, a popular Radio DJ who is judging at the event, steps into the fray to defend the woman’s honour/vent at the perpetrator. The crowd is aghast when LightE drops the initial line, and goes mad with cheers when Nihal intervenes. All-in-all a hero situation, right?
It’s not as easy as that. As a battler, I’m a proponent of lobotomising discrimination and needless offence from the bars I use, not only because it’s not what I represent as a person but also because it’s uncreative and lazy. I’m writing this as someone who has had opponents threaten to sexually approach and/or assault my partner (who also battles under the name Rapunsell). I’m incredibly proud of her desire to put herself in the firing line so as to stand up for herself and women in general, and pretty successfully at that.
So when I say that I thought Nihal stepping in was uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean that I support any aspect of rape culture or the unfortunate and destructive undercurrent of misogyny in battle rap and a lot of hip-hop music. Nihal standing up for his views and publically slamming ignorance is a positive thing. My issue is with the video as a whole, and with Jump Off for trying to make a quick buck from the situation.
Every battle video is a package, with the company’s identity stemming from the bars themselves and trickling down to the cinematography, the venue and the demographic in the crowd. The problem with this video is not the throbbing misogyny, but the fact that the material itself is absolutely terrible and the whole incident would’ve (and should’ve) passed quietly without the forced exposure.
The rape bar was only as offensive as it was because it didn’t have the veneer of ANY kind of technical skill, lyricism, wordplay or wit to disguise poor taste under the mask of ability. It was controversial without any kind of creative argument to back it up. And, in honesty, I’d rather it were laid bare in all its ugly horror than disguised in theatrics like Lunar C’s fake-choke rape joke against Micky Worthless. It’s a touch more reassuring to see a room full of shocked people than a colossal cheer going up when faced with a good performance laced with similar material.
Now, if I’m judging a battle, and hear a line that rattles me in this fashion, I have a few options:
1) I stop the battle. I am a judge. I have that power, however much fuss it would cause. Or I simply give the battle to the other person afterwards, although this doesn’t exactly send that strong a message.
2) I go and punch the guy. When Soul felt Caustic had crossed the line against Jefferson Price, that’s the route he took. But if I were the size of Nihal, and the only people I could convincingly knock out were Woody Allen and maybe a child, then this isn’t necessarily a wise choice, especially with a target like LightE who, for all intents and purposes, is a blimp with knees. But the option is there.
3) I step onstage and battle him, making him look not only like a terrible person, but like a rapper even worse than he made himself look. Someone like Dekay, who is one of the best freestylers in the U.K. (and a female to boot), could make mincemeat of the guy and it would go viral for all the right reasons.
The problem is, Nihal went up there and delivered lines that were as weak as LightE’s, if not worse. The two bits that had anything to do with the situation didn’t rhyme, and the bits that sort of rhymed were lame filler bars that had nothing to do with the situation. No, Nihal is not a rapper (anymore), which is why he received an ecstatic reaction for even trying to do what he did. All that being said, as one of the figureheads on the BBC Asian Network, he stands firm ground for minorities on issues like immigration and seems to fly the flag for the little guy/girl, so you can at least argue that his actions come from a place of genuine concern. It was a poorly managed interjection though.
Rapunsell asked me what I would do if someone said that to her in a battle, and, in all honesty, I stalled a little. The natural temptation would be to step in and rebuttal everything, but I would probably just end up shouting at her opponent in natural, guttural anger which, contrary to popular belief, I am capable of. I certainly wouldn’t stall her opportunity and outlet out of fear that she couldn’t defend herself verbally. When asked how she would respond, she simply said: “I’d get to the end of my third round, finish my material, and then punch him square in the face.” Which makes my entire point for me.
Then there’s the other side of the coin, which argues for battle rap’s position as a soapbox for free speech and the shattering of taboos. It’s often argued that there isn’t a crossable “line,” and the only boundaries of taste are self-imposed. To some extent it’s true: this is a medium gratifyingly free of censorship. Complaining about offensive content in battle rap is like complaining about the violence in Die Hard. It’s an ugly side of it, but it’s part of the package and it’s an element that forces some performers to step up their content beyond the lowest common denominator, based on their own value systems. It’s not that people shouldn’t be able to say what they want to say in a battle. It’s that people shouldn’t want to say that, ever.
Those that choose not to choose their words wisely … well, to be frank, it’s their call. Realistically, a white guy COULD go up and drop the dreaded n-bomb all over a verse if he were willing to risk what would undoubtedly be dire consequences. But those consequences are imposed by onlookers protecting societal values and are not a part of the medium. They’re not saying “those are against the rules of battle rap,” they’re saying “that’s just not okay to hear.”
There are numerous Don’t Flop MCs that resort to describing sexual violence and acts of violation (Enigma springs to mind, then immediately springs away because he has a terrible face) and no one bats an eyelid – in fact, they sometimes garner pretty rapturous applause.
My point so far is that in battle rap, LightE was entitled to say what he said. He wasn’t justified morally in doing so, but he was entitled to, just as Nihal was entitled to challenge him. He simply did it wrong.
Should there be any difference in the perception of degrading content just because it’s being delivered directly at a female? I don’t attend Jump Off events, but going by the likes of regulars like Dotz (who limits his subject matter largely to dragons and penetration) and Innuendo (who has actively said “I’m not racist, but … ” in a battle) Nihal has seen that kind of material before. Probably much, much worse. If he let it slide then, why should this situation be any different?
If the argument is defence against the normalisation of rape imagery, then surely that should apply to every fictional/real mother and female family member that isn’t present to defend themselves, as well as to the women confronted directly with it. I’m fully aware a rape threat takes on a new, vile life of its own when delivered straight to the theoretical victim’s face, but if you haven’t stepped into a male’s battle to defend his mother’s honour, then by no means should you intervene after a poorly-constructed insult just because the MC it was directed at is female.
If Nihal is the “hero” of this piece, then the “villain” is most definitely Jump Off for tying the video up neatly with a ribbon and trying to milk drama and exposure from a situation that should, really, speak for itself. The full battle has, at this point, been uploaded, so there’s more context. However, in the original clip, they didn’t show K’lastro expressing anything – not a word, and barely a facial expression or reaction shot. According to Nihal’s Twitter she “wasn’t v good,” but wackness doesn’t exempt you from having a voice, especially in this situation.
I do think a positive example should be made of these kinds of moments, but not with an underlying thirst for more views or exposure. By removing her voice and perspective from it, and by proclaiming hero status for Nihal from the outset, it simply serves to undermine K’lastro’s position in what’s being presented.
Jump Off did better for themselves with this outrageously awkward auto-humiliation of Luke McQueen, a comedian who appeared on the British comedy show Live at the Electric specifically to demean himself in the vain hope of trying to win back an estranged ex-girlfriend. It was the right approach to take: it was different, hilarious and broke down the boundaries of targeting women outside of battles. He earnestly requests this of his opponent, Dotz:
“Look … this is about me … just don’t mention my girlfriend, alright?”
Dotz actually struggles to get anything out after this point, which validates the point that, without targeting girlfriends/sisters/mums, some rappers don’t actually have that much to say in a battle. This, to me, speaks louder about how women get constantly pushed under the Battle Rap Bus than any outspoken mid-battle intervention could.
On a simple human level, the reason repackaging this moment as a viral video stings is this: A MAN SPEAKING OUT AGAINST SEXUAL ASSAULT SHOULD. NOT. BE. THAT. REMARKABLE. People should be standing against it in any and every context they can. We should be in the 21st century. A company shouldn’t be able to promote this as anything more worth viewing than “Man Walks To Shop And Buys Three Apricots.” This is simply an example of a stillborn video: a situation that shouldn’t have happened on any level, that was well-intentioned but handled badly, and that is now having viral status forced upon it.