A man approaches a woman on the street and compliments her on her looks. The woman responds, which leads to the two having some back-and-forth chitchat. The man then asks her out on a date, but the woman declines, explaining that she currently has a boyfriend. Not seeing how this fact is applicable, the man continues to pursue the woman; however, she continually rejects his offer. The man keeps at it, though the woman’s stance never changes.
This is the plot of Positive K’s classic 1992 hip-hop single, “I Got a Man,” an excellent slice of rap’s golden era. But is it also an example of street harassment?
With the current cultural discussion of street harassment, much of it stemming from last month’s “10 Hours of Walking Through NYC as a Woman” viral video, I wondered if “I Got a Man” would be controversial if released today. A year ago, we saw the internet rage in debate over the alleged sexism of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” so taking critical looks at pop songs isn’t just a trivial pursuit. Music is art and art holds weight, even if it’s intended purely as a lighthearted pop song.
But is it fair to scrutinize a 22-year-old song through our current lens? Or is it a welcome exercise to look back and see how our society has changed? I went to the artist himself to learn more.
Growing up listening to duets like those from Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, as well as Lionel Richie and Diana Ross’s “Endless Love,” Darryl Gibson, a/k/a Positive K, was inspired to create one of his own.
“I wanted to do something in rap that had never been seen before,” Gibson says. Co-written and performed with up-and-coming female rapper MC Lyte, the result was 1988’s “I’m Not Havin’ It,” a unique male/female rap duet whose rejected pickup attempt would serve as a prototype for “I Got a Man” four years later.
During the recording of his debut album, The Skills Dat Pay da Bills, Positive K wanted to revisit the subject matter of his previous hit and reflect the “intermingling” of the sexes that he says he experienced regularly in his hometown of New York City.
“I was telling you what my surroundings looked like when I was walking down the street,” Pos explains. “Understand, this was 1992 — there was no social media. There was no text messaging. If you got a person’s number, they wrote [it] down on a piece of paper or a napkin. ‘Can I get your number?’ ‘How you doing?’ It was kind of essential to meet somebody to say, ‘Hey, I think you look gorgeous! How are you?’ I made this provocative, artistic, flirtatious record because this was what we seen. It was done in an innocent and harmless way.”
That record was “I Got a Man,” another duet, though this time with himself. As a result of a record label change, MC Lyte couldn’t reprise her role on the song, leaving Positive K to record the female parts too, disguising this little-known fact by pitch-shifting his voice in the studio. Over a thumping bass and superbly funky guitar line, Positive K brazenly asks the object of his affection, “What’s your man got to do with me? I’m not trying to hear that, see?” Although the track wasn’t reflective of his other, more aggressive-sounding work, it was a clever and insanely catchy example of the brighter side of that era’s hip-hop. With help from its vibrant music video, “I Got a Man” became a smash hit, reaching No. 14 on the Billboard Top 100.
Though it’s obviously a piece of fiction and clear that there was no malice involved, in viewing the song today, some of the intended friskiness may seem a little objectionable. A few folks on the internet have recently voiced their concerns (here, here, and here).
Now a comedian and one half of the group Great Minds (along with fellow old-schooler Greg Nice), Positive K disagrees that the song is an example of street harassment. He describes the men in the viral YouTube video as “guys coming in a predator-style approach, so aggressive. What I did was something where we were intermingling, we were communicating. There was dialogue in what I was doing. When you have a woman that’s not talking and you’re berating her with these sexual innuendos, I think it’s demonizing.”
Asked if the song could be interpreted as a critique of street harassment, considering that the female has a witty comeback to all of the male suitor’s pickup lines and that, by the end, he’s still left alone — something a 1993 article in the Los Angeles Times noted — Pos rejects this assessment, highlighting the differences between then and now: “You might see the imagery of me being the pursuer, but you have to listen to the dialogue and understand the backdrop of 1992. That was our way of talking to each other. The woman’s not walking straight away, we’re talking and getting to get to know each other. She says, ‘Yeah, I like you. You’re kinda cute.’ So she is giving me, as they say in the street, ‘rhythm.’ This is not stalking, this is not a critique of street harassment. This is what goes on in everyday life as consensual, responsible, intelligent people interacting. That’s what ‘I Got a Man’ is about.”
Like many of the participants in the harassment discussion, Positive K is happy to see the issue being brought to the foreground in 2014. “I think it’s definitely a big cultural shift that has people in the focus that they are today,” he says. “It’s a great conversation to have.” But if the problem of harassment has truly gotten worse, as he claims, what’s changed in those 22 years?
“Kids aren’t getting information; they’re not reading anymore,” he points out. “The illiteracy rate is at an all-time high.” But in his opinion, it’s also the rap culture that’s part of the problem. “You’re sending messed-up, miseducated, misled individuals out into the world, and you’re wondering why women are getting berated every day? Come on! You’re hearing this stuff on the popular radio, saying, ‘I put this in her drink and she didn’t even know it.’ “
Whether you agree with his reasoning or not, one thing Positive K said resonated with me the most. Quoting a passage from the Bible — “You can’t put new wine into old wineskins” — he gives his interpretation of the metaphor, stating, “I don’t think we can go back from 2014 to ’92. We can’t put that in that box.”
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