In February of this year, 20-year-old rapper Pop Smoke was shot and killed in Los Angeles. A then-rising star on the precipice of global fame, he was a crucial figure in New York’s growing drill movement whose song “Dior” was adopted as a protest anthem at Black Lives Matter marches across New York City after his death. Once again, the industry had lost a promising young artist just as they were beginning to share their talent with the world. In the past few years alone, Nipsey Hussle died at age 33, Marlo at age 30, and Jimmy Wopo at age 21—all to shootings—and artists like Mac Miller, Lil Peep, and Chynna to drug overdoses, each death a tragic loss for music and the communities in which they thrived.
It feels like the industry has been in a state of unprecedented, constant mourning, as posthumous releases become a depressing norm and online communities turn into spaces for collective grief for young fans. Which is why when it was reported that Megan Thee Stallion had been shot in the feet in mid-July, TMZ’s intrusive coverage leading the charge, it was a triggering reminder of the violence so many artists have endured in the past few years, but also of how carelessly the music industry could fumble the story of a star in danger. Given what the industry has experienced and Pop Smoke’s death just a few months ago, you would think that Megan Thee Stallion would be granted compassion. Instead, her shooting was meme’d into jokes.
Soon after the shooting, Basketball Wives star Draya Michele joked that Megan and rapper Tory Lanez (who was arrested on gun possession at the scene of the shooting but has not been confirmed as the shooter) had gotten into a sort of “Bobby [Brown] and Whitney [Houston] love.” Draya said on the Weed and Wine podcast, “I’m here for it... I want you to like me so much that you shoot me in the foot, too.” In a blog that was picked up by rap outlets, podcaster and accused rapist Adam22 blamed Megan for “having an ego,” even as Megan held off on addressing what happened. “I have a Megan Thee Stallion joke but it needs to be twerked on,” Chrissy Teigen tweeted and later apologized; and comedian Jess Hilarious posted a “reenactment” of Tory Lanez shooting Megan. 50 Cent apologized to Megan after posting a meme about the shooting, and Cam’Ron posted a transphobic joke about Megan that’s still up on his Instagram.
“Black women are so unprotected & we hold so many things in to protect the feelings of others w/o considering our own,” Megan tweeted. “It might be funny to y’all on the internet and just another messy topic for you to talk about but this is my real life and I’m real life hurt and traumatized.” The memeification of the shooting called to mind the whittling down of Breonna Taylor’s death on social media as women watched Taylor’s story turn into “clever one-upmanship typically rewarded by social media,” Cate Young wrote for Jezebel. And the callousness directed at Megan, coming after the death of Black Lives Matter activists like Oluwatoyin Salau, served as a reminder of how movements fail to protect Black women, A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez noted in an op-ed for Teen Vogue.
But the response to Megan Thee Stallion’s pain also highlights who is afforded compassion in a music industry that recognizes the fragility of its young artists but seems to draw a line when it comes to ensuring their protection. The violence and struggles male performers endure are taken seriously, while the shooting of one of the genre’s most beloved contemporary female performers is made into a punchline. Megan Thee Stallion is a dominating, supremely confident artist, her discography a manifesto espousing all the ways you cannot and will not ever be able to fuck with her. Her music is full of joy, party music for hot girls that define summers and dance routines on TikTok. She’s so on top of her game that she can get Beyoncé to step out from behind the curtain to appear on a remix. Jokey responses to the shooting seem born from an idea that Megan is undeserving of help, her playful music persona clouding her humanity.
“People look at an incident like this and balk at the idea that she would need or deserve the kind of concern that would be readily offered up for anyone else in her situation,” Tayo Bero wrote for The Guardian. Yet Megan has also been transparent with her fans about what’s happening in her life behind the scenes; her mother Holly Thomas, who managed Megan and whose own rap career inspired her own, died last year and made her struggles with trying to get out of a bad record contract public. “It’s nothing to joke about. It was nothing for y’all to start going and making up fake stories about,” Megan said in an Instagram Live addressing the shooting. “What if your motherfucking sister got shot? What if your motherfucking girlfriend got shot? What if your motherfucking best friend got shot? Would you be cracking jokes then?” After the live, she posted a photo on Instagram of three Post-It notes tacked to her wall, reading “take care of skin,” “write music,” and “pray.”
The support Megan has gotten in the past few weeks has come from Black women in the industry. Rihanna sent her flowers (Megan is a spokesmodel for Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty line), and Janelle Monáe tweeted about feeling “livid” over the jokes. But the response feels eerily silent. The collective lack of concern for Megan Thee Stallion is just the tip of the iceberg in an industry that has continually failed to protect and support women. For decades, music critics and journalists have asked where are women rappers, but the truth to anyone actually paying attention is that they are here but are too often pushed to the sidelines of a male-dominated industry that continually undervalues them, objectifies them, and tries to mold them into the constrictive shape of the women who’ve reached critical and commercial success before them.
While the rest of the entertainment industry grapples with MeToo, the popular music industry hasn’t even tried. Accused rapist Russell Simmons still gets to join The Breakfast Club for a sit-down even as his accusers, many of whom were forced to leave the music industry over the abuse, continue to detail their experiences, and Dr. Luke is as successful as ever producing for Doja Cat and Saweetie.
What’s happening to Megan Thee Stallion is what drives women out of the industry and what has driven them out for decades. If the industry cannot rally around one of its rising stars to protect her after a shooting, when they have claimed so many young artists’ lives in the past few years, then there is little hope for the young women who come up after her.