Since middle school, I’ve been a big hip-hop fan. Specifically, I’ve always gravitated toward the dense, articulate crime narratives of artists like Ghostface Killah and Nas. Given my fairly sheltered, more-than-fairly-suburban upbringing, gangsta rap fascinated me in the same way heist movies did. The grit of a fearless, law-breaking underdog protagonist willing to take on all comers to achieve his goals was (and still is) one of the most gripping forms of entertainment for me. In a strange way, it also (counterintuitively) taught me a lesson about personal health and safety.
My sex education in high school can best be described as “shock and awe.” It certainly wasn’t abstinence-only. It was almost the opposite. Our teacher sat us down one day (well, technically we were already sitting, it wasn’t like Dead Poets Society all up on desks and whatnot) and trotted out every conceivable form of birth control from diaphragms to pills to IUDs to condoms, the last of which our teacher rolled on over her clenched fist up to her elbow, proclaiming: “Girls, if a boy ever says a condom is uncomfortable or too tight, remember this and know he’s lying. Also blue balls are a myth.”
The next class, she brought out “The Book.” In reality, it was probably called something like “The Massachusetts Department of Health Photographic Guide to Sexually Transmitted Infections,” but everyone knew it simply as “The Book.” It had a plain white cover and was filled with written descriptions and, yes, pictures of as many strains of communicable sexually transmitted diseases as they could get their lenses on. All the nudes that’s fit to print, and then some. It got pretty grizzly. We all saw things we couldn’t un-see that day. It felt like how veterans describe their experience at war.
That said, neither the opulent display of prophylactics nor the graphic examples of their non-use proved the biggest factor in my staunchly pro-safe sex attitude. The tipping point, strangely enough, proved to be gangsta rap.
The nihilism of gangsta rap often manifests as a false sense of invulnerability. The rapper expresses no fear in the face of gunplay, drug use, or incarceration. Meanwhile, in high school, I was afraid of having to dance in front of pretty girls or not making enough time to finish my homework after drama club rehearsal. I didn’t “escape” into the music as much as I marveled at the existence of anyone who qualifies a “good day” as one that does not necessitate the use of an automatic weapon. I settled for tater tots at lunch.
The point is, nothing seemed to phase the gangstas. Nothing except the thought of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. A rival gang was just a roadblock on the way to dominating the local drug trade. A police officer was just an inconvenience during a high-pressure robbery. A woman with a visible cold sore was a force to be reckoned with. And as monogamy was apparently out of the question (“We don’t love the hoes,” – Doggy Dogg, Snoop), the best option was consistent use of a condom.
So right alongside boasts about firearms discharged, drugs sold, and competitors bested, came rhyming caveats about the necessity for the consistent practice of safe sex. The Notorious BIG closes his verse on “The What” by proclaiming “I squeeze gats ‘til my clips is empty/So don’t tempt me.” That’s pretty hardcore. But the first lyric of the song is: “I used to get feels on a bitch/Now I throw shields on my dick/To keep me from the HIV shit.” Put aside for a moment the hilarious image of Biggie ordering “Shields up!” like Captain Jean Luc Picard and think about that. His topic sentence is: It is important to use condoms so I don’t get AIDS.
The Wu Tang Clan, known for their love of Kung Fu and smoking weed, devote an entire verse of the song “Tearz” to the importance of proper condom use. Ghostface Killah and his friend Moe are discussing their plans to have consecutive sexual encounters with the same (clearly very obliging) woman. Ghostface raps: “Moe said he’ll go first, I said I’ll go next/Here take this raincoat and practice safe sex/He seemed to ignore, I said be for real/It ain’t even worth it to go raw deal.” Moe fails to heed Ghost’s warning and he contracts the human immunodeficiency virus.
Snoop Doggy Dogg espouses a similar point of view in the classic west coast jam “Nuthin But a “G” Thang;” women aren’t worth the risk of leaving yourself open to infection. “Before I dig out a bitch I have to find a contraceptive/You never know, she could be earnin’ her man, learnin’ her man, and at the same time burnin’ her man/Now you know I ain’t with that shit, lieutenant/Ain’t no pussy good enough to get burnt while I’m up in it,” he says with a casual candor that is enough to make me never want to have sex with anyone ever.
There’s a clear pattern of young rappers who have demonstrated a readiness to die (see: Ready to Die by BIG, the Notorious) violent deaths who have an incongruous (but sensible) aversion to risking the transmission of STDs. The smug, bleeding heart, liberal arts side of me wants to see it in part as a comment on the lack of access to health care facilities in the inner cities from treatment all the way down to testing. And sure, that’s not an unreasonable reading.
More likely, though, is that the insistence on contraception is a self-preservational form of evolutionary misogyny. A crime related death seems almost inevitable on the hustler’s road to glory. Think about all the Scarface posters you’ve seen on MTV: Cribs. That’s how that story ends. The gangsta lifestyle comes with risks. But those risks are accepted on specific terms. The violence described in the drug trade in hip-hop music is almost always inflicted by men against men. Or, less frequently by men against women. The idea of a woman inflicting mortal injury against a man rarely surfaces. And, according to Snoop and Ghost, while getting caught in a gun fight may come with the territory, a simple cost/benefit analysis rules unprotected sex too risky for the rewards it promises, especially in light of Eazy-E’s tragic death after a struggle with AIDS.
Regardless of its genesis, the fear rappers had for what Ghostface would call “go[ing] raw deal” made an impression on me. Rappers were my comic book heroes in a way, so their insistence on condoms was like if Superman, Batman, and Spiderman were all vegans. It would have made me strongly consider the lifestyle. So despite the horrors of my own health class, nothing made more of an impression on me than the vivid and visceral response of the hip-hop community to the AIDS epidemic. And for that, I’m grateful. It led me to a generally healthy and risk-averse lifestyle (not that I need a lot of help being risk-averse). But that, added to my general play-it-safe attitude, has saved me a lot of grief and anxiety.
As Coolio might say: “I’m 26 now, but will I live to see 27, the way things is going… probably, yeah.”