Underground Underdogs 'Sound Bites' Mixtape Is Changing Rap's Rape Culture Problem In A Big Way
As a feminist and a hip-hop fan, I always experience discomfort participating in the genre of music I love. It’s not just the textbook misogyny and homophobia that attack my queer womanhood, although I could go on for days about that. My discomfort has come from rape culture — environments and behaviors that normalize sexual assault — and how it’s often overlooked, and even upheld, in the hip-hop scene. Every argument I have with friends, family, and co-workers about its severity leaves me disheartened by the community. It’s why I was pleasantly surprised to come across hip-hop publication Underground Underdogs’ mixtape, Sound Bites, benefitting RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
The mixtape, available exclusively in CD form, features 26 unsigned artists, and is a collaboration between Blackhouse Records and Underground Underdogs (UU). One hundred percent of the proceeds go to RAINN. Since its release at the end of 2018 — pre-orders started on Dec. 12, 2018 and shipped the weekend of Dec. 28, 2018 — the tape has raised about $1,000, says UU founder Jack Angell. (RAINN did not return Elite Daily's requests for comment on the donation amount.)
The idea for the mixtape came together in 2018. Both Angell and Scott Rozell, the owner and general manager of Blackhouse Records, had wanted to put together a benefit mixtape for some time. “We were originally going to do a charity for dogs, because [of the magazine's name,] Underground Underdogs, which also would have been fine,” Angell says. But the more he thought about it and talked to Rozell, a different direction for the mixtape emerged.
With the prominence of Tarana Burke's #MeToo movement and Time's Up, the issues of sexual assault and harassment dominate pop culture conversations in 2019, and it's helping drive conversations in R&B, too — think the #MuteRKelly movement, the buzz from the six-part Lifetime documentary Surviving R. Kelly, and Kelly's Feb. 2019 charge of 10 counts of alleged aggravated criminal sexual assault, to which Kelly maintains he is innocent. From Rozell's perspective, it's time that the hip-hop world reckons with its history of sexual assault and violence. “It’s good that this stuff is being called out. When it's brought up, the more people realize that it can't be simply ignored," Rozell says. "Accountability has to exist there or things will never change.”
After working for about 18 years in the music industry — booking and promoting bands, playing in bands and touring with them, and running Blackhouse Records simultaneously — Rozell says it's not just hip-hop that has a sexual violence problem. “Coming from punk rock bands, touring for years, and releasing records and/or working with bands of all genres, I think it's safe to say that these issues [of sexual violence] exist in all walks of life, whether within a music scene or not,” Rozell says.
The New York Times' detailed Feb. 2019 report of sexual allegations against Ryan Adams — namely that he allegedly offered career opportunities for women in exchange for sexual favors and that he allegedly sent explicit messages to an underage girl — bolsters that fact. Fellow indie rock musicians have responded to the claims against Adams, and some of Adams' fans are seeking refunds or buyers for concert tickets in droves. In response to The New York Times article, Adams tweeted: “To anyone I have ever hurt, however unintentionally, I apologize deeply and unreservedly. But the picture that this article paints is upsettingly inaccurate. Some of its details are misrepresented; some are exaggerated; some are outright false. I would never have inappropriate interactions with someone I thought was underage. Period.” His lawyer, Andrew B. Brettler, shared in a statement with the Times, “Mr. Adams unequivocally denies that he ever engaged in inappropriate online sexual communications with someone he knew was underage."
Looking at the empirical evidence, it's clear that sexual harassment and assault are pervasive in the entertainment and media industries. A July 2018 study from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) surveyed 3,213 people across eight white-collar industries: media, technology and telecommunications, consulting and management, health care and social assistance, architecture and engineering, research and pharmaceuticals, finance, and legal services. CTI found that 22 percent of men and 41 percent of women in media reported being sexually harassed by a colleague to CTI, whereas 7 percent of men and 22 percent of women in legal services reported the same claim. The center's co-president, Ripa Rashid, pointed out that the media industry in particular is one where money, visibility, and influence are controlled by gatekeepers. And therefore, as Rashid told Variety, "[Powerful media figures] have abused their power in these ways, because ultimately we find that sexual harassment is about power." (CTI is considering conducting a separate study on sexual assault in the retail and service industries, after it acknowledged that people who work in blue-collar environments are even more vulnerable to sexual harassment.)
When it comes to music, like Rozell, Angell — who, at 20 years old, has been writing for UU for about two years and The Fader for about one year — notes that sexual assault affects all music genres. “But it feels like, as of recent, it’s really been a huge problem within SoundCloud rap [musicians]," Angell says. For the uninitiated, SoundCloud is an audio streaming platform used primarily for music. Founded in 2007, SoundCloud is the go-to platform for fresh, up-and-coming or underground artists because there are no barriers for entry. You simply make an account and start uploading. (There are tricky rules for getting your music on Spotify or on Apple Music, especially as an unsigned artist. And while a SoundCloud subscription does exist in the form of SoundCloud Pro, the free listening experience isn't as drastically different as, say, Spotify and Spotify Premium.)
The genre born and bred on this platform, SoundCloud rap, is an underground strain of trap often tinged with an emo or punk flair. Icons from this scene who've crossed over into the mainstream include Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Pump, the late Lil Peep, and Rico Nasty. Unfortunately, some of its other biggest stars are facing sexual assault allegations and charges. (SoundCloud did not return Elite Daily's requests for comment about how it handles sexual assault allegations against artists for this piece.)
A prime example is Tekashi 6ix9ine. The SoundCloud rapper pleaded guilty to using a child in a sexual performance back in 2015, but he violated his plea deal twice in 2018. He was arrested twice for allegedly choking a teenager in a shopping center, and was arrested once for allegedly driving without a license, allegedly assaulting a police officer, and allegedly obstructing governmental administration. (Elite Daily reached out to a rep for 6ix9ine about the all the criminal allegations against him and did not hear back.) After those two incidents, Vulture reported in Oct. 2018 that the judge ruled that "[6ix9ine] will remain out as long as he stays out of trouble and does 1,000 community service hours."
Regardless, his collaboration with Nicki Minaj on "Fefe" hit number one on Billboard's On-Demand Streaming chart. On an episode of Queen Radio, Minaj claimed 6ix9ine was barred from performing "Fefe" at the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards. She said she wanted him to do so but that "he didn't get approved to perform by the powers that be," a comment which MTV has never agreed with or denied. Minaj even came to his defense: "I don't want anyone to think for a second that I wouldn't invite him to perform his hit record. I want everyone to know my character. I really fought. It is what it is. When I know somebody there's nothing you can tell me about [them]. That's just how it is," Minaj declared. (Elite Daily reached out to a rep for Minaj about her comments but did not hear back.)
In 2016, Kodak Black was accused of alleged criminal sexual conduct — a charge in South Carolina that covers sex with aggravated force, during a kidnapping or while someone is physically helpless due to a controlled substance — and ordered held without bond. Black was released from serving time in 2018 for other charges (marijuana possession, child neglect, grand theft of a firearm, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon). Black's sexual assault case is still awaiting trial, with the date set for April 2019. (Elite Daily reached out to a rep for Black about the sexual conduct charges, but not hear back at the time of publication.)
And despite Black's alleged rape charge considered "common knowledge" in the hip-hop community, Black's "ZEZE" with Travis Scott and Offset debuted at number one on Billboard's hip-hop chart. (Scott and Offset have not commented on why they worked with Black in light of the allegations; Elite Daily has reached out to their reps for comment.) Black's "Wake Up in the Sky" with Gucci Mane and Bruno Mars peaked at number eight. (Neither Mane nor Mars Mars has commented publicly on their decision to work with Black in light of the allegations, nor did they return Elite Daily's requests for comment.)
In April 2016, Kanye West protegé and hip-hop stylist Ian Connor was accused of alleged rape and multiple women have since come forward with sexual assault allegations against him. (Elite Daily reached out to a rep for Connor about the sexual assault allegations and did not hear back by the time of publication.) To date, no formal charges have been made against him. And there's the late rapper XXXTentacion, who was charged in 2016 with alleged aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, alleged domestic battery by strangulation, alleged false imprisonment, and alleged witness tampering — and responded with sexually aggressive vitriol on his Instagram Stories to hip-hop fans and critics who called out his history of alleged domestic abuse. This came shortly after Pitchfork reported extensively on testimony against XXXTentacion, which recounted graphic descriptions of XXXTentacion's alleged physical violence, alleged daily death threats, and alleged sexual intimidation. And while people acknowledge that XXXTentacion was mired in controversy, the conversation tends to be overshadowed by praise for his post-humous musical legacy.
Sexual allegations against Adam Grandmaison (a.k.a Adam 22, a YouTuber and hip-hop critic known for his No Jumper podcast and video series) came to light in March 2018. Pitchfork published the accounts of two women who claim they were allegedly raped by Grandmaison. The first incident allegedly happened in the mid-2000s and Grandmaison addressed it on his blog in a post entitled, "The Time a Girl Accused Me of Rape." The second incident allegedly happened in 2009, which Grandmaison addressed on his blog in 2010. He also shared semi-nude photos of the second woman, which she claims were taken when she was 14 years old and 17 years old, respectively. To date, no formal charges have been made against him. Shortly after the Pitchfork story, Grandmaison took to Twitter, saying, "I've done plenty of stupid sh*t in my life. But I've never raped or hit a woman."
The allegations against Grandmaison served as the catalyst for Angell to take action. From that, the UU mixtape was born. “I’m sick of women and people in general getting abused,” Angell says. “So I decided, ‘What better way to make a mixtape than to donate to a cause that’s really important to me personally?’”
When Isabella Amarga, an artist featured on SoundCloud and other streaming platforms, heard that UU was putting together a benefit CD, she knew she had to be a part of it. Amarga has been involved with UU since it began and is best friends with Angell. But that wasn't the only reason she felt it was important to be a part of the mixtape.
“As a survivor of [sexual violence], I felt like being part of this would help give solidarity to any survivor out there,” Amarga says. It would give fans an opportunity to donate to a good cause that maybe they otherwise wouldn't have. She picked her song “Can’t Buy My Love” for the compilation because it’s about entitlement and people who think they can force or coerce others to love them.
Many argue that rape culture remains such a big issue in rap and hip-hop because these scenes are hyper-masculine, and therefore, permeated by toxic masculinity and gendered violence. If there's ever any doubt that the rap game is dominated by men, look at the charts. At the time of publication (March 13), the only female rappers that have a track on Billboard's Top 25 Hot Rap Songs are Cardi B with her Bruno Mars duet "Please Me" at no. 1, Cardi with "Money" at no. 11 and City Girls ft. Cardi B at no. 19 with "Twerk." The other 22 songs are male-dominated. Still, Amarga says, “I do see a lot of good people in the community who want to stop it and mend the community, and make it a safe place for all."
Orion Lake, a dark-pop artist whose track “Hell with Me" is on the tape, asked to take part in UU’s mixtape because she heard that 100 percent of the proceeds would go to RAINN. “It's incredibly important in every way to raise awareness for sexual violence,” Lake says, “And [to give] a voice to those who have none.” “Hell with Me” tells the story of the two years she spent in an abusive relationship, feeling stuck and unable to evolve. “I honestly believed my life was over. I woke up one day and decided that I could not live like this anymore, and I left. My entire life changed. Of course, it wasn't easy, and not every survivor's situation was like mine."
"I wholeheartedly believe that doing cool things like this UU tape and [working with] the RAINN organization [will] help bring more awareness to rape culture,” Lake says.
When it came to bringing the mixtape to life, UU partnering with Blackhouse Records was key. Apart from Rozell and Angell finally making the benefit compilation they'd dreamed of, UU could offer its supporters something unique in return for giving to RAINN: SoundCloud rap in a physical form. The album art, which was designed by London-based artist Seclude, used elements of a dog, plastic wrap (meant to look like rain), and a woman's mouth to reference "the dog" in Underground Underdogs (and in turn, "how veracious and nasty sexual abusers are"), RAINN, and survivors speaking up about sexual assault.
Often, when faced with problematic artists, music fans — including myself — say, “We’re just one person. How much impact can one nostalgic YouTube view or one Spotify stream make?” But Angell says, "You’ve got to remind yourself that your support — even if you’re one person — matters and it helps keep that artist in power.”
Though Angell understands that some artists just want to “focus on the music” and “not make it political," he counters that "there also comes a point where you’re associating with people who associate with [alleged] abusers. I feel like you’re indirectly supporting that by normalizing that behavior."
Seeing something like UU’s RAINN mixtape come to fruition reminded me of all the ways I can take a stand against sexual assault — whether it’s the political silence of a boycott, my purchasing power as a consumer, or my gifts as a creative that help me in self-expression or by raising up the voice of others. It’s good to know that even when you may feel isolated by your own community — in this case, the hip-hop and rap communities — that there a people who will have your back when championing what’s right.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.