NEW ORLEANS – On July 2, 2023, at the Essence Festival of Culture, three of hip hop’s elites, Michael “Blue” Williams, an entertainment manager at Family Tree Entertainment, Drew Dixon, a former A&R executive at Arista and Def Jam, and Shanita Hubbard, a professor and author of Ride-Or-Die: A Feminist Manifesto for The Well-Being Of Black Women, came together to discuss the interconnected issues within hip hop and how we as a collective can change the narrative. From toxic masculinity to where hip hop is going, moderator Donye Taylor, a creative philosopher, asked questions many are afraid to answer. Hubbard and Dixon’s perspectives as women in the world of hip hop proved timely as female rappers are growing in prominence, showcasing a positive transformation recognized by the both of them. Hubbard’s book seamlessly connects to the past and present landscape of hip hop, while Williams, an influential entertainment manager, offered insights in the past that shed light on possibilities for the future.
In reflecting on hip hop’s evolution, Shanita Hubbard expressed her satisfaction with the growing trend of young female rappers normalizing support for one another. Contrasting with the past where women in hip hop were often sexualized or confined to the “ride or die” stereotype, Hubbard emphasized the need to challenge these limitations. She recognized that while hip hop has historically embraced the concept of “ride or die,” it has burdened Black women with caring for everyone except themselves for generations. Today, female rappers are breaking that mold and centering themselves reminiscent of the Lil’ Kim era.
During the panel discussion, moderator Donye Taylor asked “Blue” Williams for his perspective on how Black men can support their female counterparts in hip hop, considering the experiences shared by fellow panelist Drew Dixon, a former A&R executive at Arista and Def Jam, who left the industry due to toxic environments and sexual exploitation.
“I left the industry. I was at the top of my game. I only said ‘Me Too’ because two other women came forward about Russell Simmons. I felt if I didn’t say something, I was an accessory after the fact,” said Dixon.
Williams’ solution to today’s issue with sexual exploitation is to speak up and hold individuals accountable for their actions. “I tell new artists when I start working with them that as much as you want this fame, you have to understand that this fame shines a spotlight not just on you in the way that you want it. It’s also going to shine a spotlight on all your flaws,” said Williams.
Despite being just 50 years old, hip hop’s future looks bright as long as love is reinstated in the music, as emphasized by Williams. While panelists Dixon, Hubbart, and Williams have high hopes for hip hop to be in a better place creatively and socially, spaces like AFROPUNK are still pushing a better and more inclusive narrative in hip hop and Black music in general. hip hop today, in the panelist’s eyes, is in a spot where a specific formula is being used to sell, and rather than centering money, they’d rather center the love of the art form. Williams reminisced, “I watched Outkast make six albums and never care what anyone else was doing. Artists used to put their music out, and either the fans found it, or they didn’t, but they were willing to ride on their art.”
As the panel concluded, it sparked essential conversations about the trajectory of hip hop and the necessary steps for addressing its challenges. The panelists’ insights shed light on the industry’s evolution and reinforced the significance of cultivating an environment that supports and empowers all artists. Looking ahead, the collective vision resonates—a return to the core of hip hop, where love and authenticity reign supreme, inspiring creative and social progress.