Lil Wayne, Emmett Till and the Long Shadow of the Civil Rights Movement


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Porter is the author of this essay.

Recently, a firestorm has erupted over a lyric Lil’ Wayne rapped on a remix of the song “Karate Chop.” The offending lyric: “I’m gonna beat that pussy up like Emmett Till.”

Story continues below.

Emmett Till & Lil WayneThe song was leaked online, and it didn’t take long for the world to notice. As you might imagine when someone creates a simile that conflates rough sex with a whiff of misogyny and adds a dash of sacred history, the backlash was instant and visceral. Stevie Wonder, Jesse Jackson, and even Emmett Till’s surviving relatives have weighed in and piled on the condemnation. Jesse Jackson even succeeded in having the offending lyric removed from the recording after reaching out to Epic, the record label that is releasing the song.

This reaction is not surprising. For those who are reading this and who might not know who Emmett Till was (and shame on you if that’s the case, or at least shame on your school system), a quick reminder. Till was 14 in 1955 when he traveled from his home in Chicago and visited family in Mississippi, where he was accused of whistling at a white woman. The woman’s husband and his half-brother kidnapped Till, tortured him, killed him, tied a cotton gin to his body and tossed him in a river. When his corpse was recovered days later, it was swollen beyond recognition. At the funeral in Chicago, the family had an open casket, and later, photographs of the deformed corpse were published in Jet Magazine and the Chicago Defender. These photos, along with the subsequent acquittal of Till’s murderers, contributed significantly to galvanizing the civil rights movement, which was then just beginning to catch steam. Till’s role in the civil rights movement was so quickly and firmly established that he (and his story) have become sacrosanct, beyond comment and reproach. That there would be such a backlash against the lyric from within the African American community at large (many members of which were alive and remember Till’s murder vividly), is not surprising.

Nor is it surprising that a lyric conflating sex with famous black victims of white hate crimes would come from Lil’ Wayne.

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