On Election Day 2016, hordes of fresh Hillary voters — mostly women — lined up at the grave of suffragette Susan B. Anthony to pay their respects. But some who knew their history a bit better than others weren’t too pleased. Anthony, after all, was not best friend to black folks.
Many of us know the infamous quote “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ask for the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman.” But she didn’t seem too put-off by the idea of a racial caste system. “Even an oligarchy of race, where the Saxon rules the African, might be endured,” she said in an 1872 speech. “But this oligarchy of sex which makes father, brothers, husband, sons, the oligarchs over the mother and sisters, the wife and daughters of every household […] carries discord and rebellion into every home of the nation.”
Few among us would argue Anthony should be written out of history entirely; she and her even more racist buddy Elizabeth Cady Stanton (look up some of her quotes on black people and retch) presented Congress with what would eventually become the 19th Amendment. But is it worth praising her activism for the rights of women if her scope focused on only one group of people? Was she really a women’s rights activist or was she a white women’s rights activist?
It’s a tough question, and it extends to any historical human rights activist, many — perhaps most — of whom had their own prejudices. The Founding Fathers owned slaves, so did they believe all men were created equal or just white men? Fela Kuti thought women should serve men, so was he really a human rights activist or (gasp!) a men’s rights activist? By extension of that thought process, is it fair to call a rap group “progressive” if they have it in for queer folks?
In 2016 America, it seems we need A Tribe Called Quest more than ever. Has there ever been a rap group more openly, adorably, heart-on-sleeve-ly progressive? This is a group that wrote a song warning against STDs called “Pubic Enemy” as well as maybe the first rap song ever condemning date rape. Their love songs are amazingly fair to women. And even when their songs aren’t about social issues, Q-Tip tends to have community activism and safe sex on his mind. But they’re so skilled — and mischievously funny — they never come on as preachy.
Amid the looming threat of a Trump administration, Tribe and their new album We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service feel like a beam of light searching through the darkness. Indeed, it’s perhaps the first major piece of protest art to come out of Trump’s America. And even before anyone knew there was a single lyric on the album pertaining to The Donald, the return of rap’s long-gone saints (their last album came out in 1998) sparked acres of buzz.
One wonders if they’d have the same glowing reputation if Jive Records hadn’t begged them to leave “Georgie Porgie” — possibly the most homophobic song ever written by a respected member of the popular music canon — off their classic sophomore album The Low End Theory.
I’m not going to bother transcribing the lyrics. [Editor: I will.] These aren’t passive Eminem-style snarks. This is hatred. Either they expected their audience to buy into that mindset or they just wanted to spread the message about how dangerous and gross gays were to the world.
They haven’t mentioned it in interviews. They haven’t apologized for it. There’s a song on their new album, “We The People…”, that seems to mock Trump and Pence: “Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways,” chants Q-Tip. This seems to suggest they have at least some sympathy for queer folks at this point, but it’s in no way a confirmation. Elton John’s on their new album, but then again Elton did that joint with Eminem back in 2001, and if you think Eminem’s repented for his homophobia you clearly haven’t heard anything he’s done after “Not Afraid”.
Plenty of socially conscious musicians — perhaps most — end up saying shit at one point or another that contradicts their “message.” Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”, often hailed as ground zero for conscious rap, features an unfortunate passage about prison rape turning a ghetto casualty into an “undercover fag.” The saintly Common has used plenty of ugly slurs in the past, but he’s apologized. It’s one thing to casually drop words like “fag” or “dyke.” It’s another to straight-up write multiple verses about just how much you hate fags and dykes.
I’d love to see Tribe apologize, but I doubt they’re going to go out and make a statement on “Georgie Porgie” unprompted. Doubtless, they’d rather the world forget about it, and indeed, the world seems to have wiped it from its memory. I suspect they’ve repented deep down, even if they take comfort in the fact that that song is still obscure — and even if they still keep company with Busta Rhymes, who appears throughout We Got It From Here and whose history of anti-gay outbursts is long and storied. Maybe if this article makes the rounds they might finally talk.
I also doubt Tribe are scanning every thinkpiece about their return. More likely, fellow journalists are. So interviewers: If you’re ever face to face with Q-Tip or Jarobi, ask them about “Georgie Porgie”. We can judge how progressive they truly are by how quickly they run out of the room.
[Editor: Updated on 11/21 for clarification. Added second Anthony quote.]