Kodak Black's nickname—Project Baby—is a dedication and reflection of the South Floridian trauma and vulnerability packed in his music. A 2016 XXL Freshman, his catalog is a well-weathered testament to when escapism meets existential; the rugged and poignant hood narrative returning to sweeten our steps once again through the eyes of a Pompano-bred Haitian underdog. At 19, he bears the weight of mortality and survival like many before him; chasing the pain of his circumstances with a dash of hedonism to smile through it all, as black folks do. To quote "Too Many Years" from his recent Lil B.I.G. Pac mixtape:
I done gave the jails too many years
Years that I won't get back
And I swear I done shed too many tears
For niggas that I won't get back
Yeah, I got niggas in the graveyard
Niggas in the state yards
I swear not a day goes by
That I don't think about the times
I wish that I could rewind
Kodak, born Dieuson Octave, is currently out on $100,000 bail, connected to a sexual battery charge in South Carolina carrying up to 30 years imprisonment. He is accused of assaulting an unnamed woman, removing her underwear, attacking her orally, and penetrating her, according to a warrant. Black is currently on house arrest awaiting trial. It's important to pause to consider the severity of these charges and what they mean. While no one can condemn Kodak for being a product of his environment, and a natural distrust of American justice system's treatment of young black bodies is justified, neither of the former can excuse the harm he's accused of committing or the way some folks in the public square are choosing to ignore the repercussions of that harm.
Before the battery charge resurfaced, Kodak was on the verge of release after serving time for robbery, assault, false imprisonment, drug possession and firearm possession among several other charges. #FreeKodak became the digital rallying cry in response to his battle with recidivism, receiving support from fans (Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, on national television after winning a game) and industry peers alike (Meek Mill, Rae Sremmurd, Lil Uzi Vert, etc.).
Continuing the tradition of freedom as a callback, an overwhelming majority of this support is rooted in the black fear, and American expectation, of a young black man's body being subjected to corrections. Paired with a young black man's elevation to an exceptional caste generated by his celebrity, this process takes a public and painful step onward to reassert the illness of the Black behind the Kodak: that no money and fame can save him from the state.
From "Jail House Blues," recorded over the phone during his time at St. Lucie County Jail:
I ain't had no guidance, so I was committing crimes
Ain't had no daddy and that's my reason why
When it hit the fan, these niggas'll drop you down
These niggas'll sing, act like they in the choir
Do you really love me? Or you see dollar signs?
Recently, we've revisited this paranoia in the case of Bobby, Rowdy and the GS9 from Brooklyn, and again in the case of Desiigner, who narrowly escaped a similar fate under the pretense of falsified charges. Imprisonment, death, and a return to poverty forever looms over the expectations of black bodies suddenly thrust into the spotlight of American sweetheart. It also explains the appeal of Kodak's return to society: a protectiveness of his future through an unnerving familiarity with where he may be headed.
But when we say #FreeKodak—or any other beloved MC in this position—which freedoms do we demand? Freedom from reduction to a statistic, from the prison-industrial complex churning labor and death from black bodies like clockwork? Or are we calling for Kodak's freedom from accountability, from atonement, from punishment so he may return to fulfill his obligation to bop in the club once more?
There's no silver lining in the case of Dieuson Octave, but whatever one stands, it can no longer come at the expense of a woman in South Carolina and the masses like her: a spectrum of physical and sexual assault survivors silenced in the name of protecting perpetrators from their fate. When comparing one's personal relationship to a popular figure to where one's beliefs align with our society, a countless line of male celebrities—from Kobe to R. Kelly to Michael Jackson and so on—are granted extra chances at redemption no matter what they've done or who they've harmed. It's currently granting Kodak Black the permission to return to work as if minimizing or beating the case is an inevitability; in patriarchy's stronghold on mass culture, even with black figures, who's to suggest otherwise?
With #FreeKodak reaching common parlance in pop culture, we've seen droves of aggressive rhetoric all-too familiar in the rap world once a male artist catches a charge of this nature: He's too famous to rape someone, she's doing it for clout; I don't give a fuck what he did, it's still free that man; These bitches be lying on niggas all the time, let the court sort that out; I don't give a damn what kinda person he is, I like his music; or They set him up on some bullshit to humiliate a young, rich black man.
We've seen a blend of these reasonings in the assault allegations (and non-action) surrounding Zulu Nation-founder Afrika Bambaataa,—accused of molesting young black boys throughout his career—popular stylist Ian Connor, and DC-born rapper Yung Gleesh. The overlap of black paranoia and celebrity idolatry compromises the safety and sanctity of black sexual assault survivors, through aggressive rhetoric and the non-action surrounding the violation of their bodies. While a little bit of everyone buys into this dance, men continue to lead the way in perpetuating these notions by bowing down to a patriarchy that serves to harm under the guise of protection. If men can passively ignore every pejorative weaponized against women in a genre still dominated by men, turning a blind eye to rape is a cakewalk we never hesitate to scurry down.
Kodak Black grew up internalizing this very patriarchy to a degree many men can identify with. It spills all over his music, even amongst the reflective moments of a better tomorrow: On "SKRT": "You would think I'm 'bout to spank yo bitch, I made her hit her knees;" "No Flockin'": "I ain't gettin' on my knees, bae; you bow down to me;" "Lockjaw": "Eyes bowleg, lookin' crooked in the face / She keep lookin' in her drank, prolly think the liquor laced / Naw, bitch, I'm 1K;" and "Fresh Out (My Struggle)": "Where them yellowbones, I don't want no black bitch / I'm already Black, Ion't need no black bitch."
To condemn him as the inventor of this sexual and gendered toxicity is to dismiss the world's machinations, but we cannot continue to turn to MCs like Kodak Black to revel in their trauma while ignoring the pivotal moments when they recycle such trauma upon others. An empathetic understanding of his circumstances shouldn't override the gravity of his alleged actions against a woman. If Kodak's blackness cries for freedom, it's anti-black to build that freedom on the backs of our own time and again. As much as we cherish and elevate survival stories, they should no longer take a backseat to the support and validation of survivors.
Kodak's story is another opportunity we cannot afford to squander: as men, like myself, a productive step forward is to mobilize the internal and external work to deconstruct the patriarchal conditions that enable a young man like Kodak Black to repeat these mistakes. As listeners, confronting this painful reality means abandoning the #FreeKodak mantra, and discontinuing support of his music until he negotiates a path to atonement to reconcile with his actions. That atonement looks nothing like an immediate return to grace and another opportunity to work: that's neither productive nor acceptable.
Illustration by Gabriel Tick
Michael Penn II is a writer and rapper. Follow him on Twitter.