Pete Davidson’s apology to Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw for mocking his war wound provided last weekend’s “Saturday Night Live” its viral moment (and rightly so). However, this overshadowed one of the sharpest segments SNL has produced since the 2016 presidential campaign.
The segment is a mock rap video entitled “Permission”:
Chris Redd and Kenan Thompson star as the “Booty Kings,” with most of the tropes expected of a certain strain of rap music. Their outward appearance is that of big-spending, lascivious Lotharios, for whom a nightclub filled with scantily clad women is their oyster.
But when two of the dancers rebuff their advances, the Kings reply: “Cool. Good night.” When the women incredulously ask whether the Kings are just going to respect their wishes, Thompson declares, “Times have changed” and Redd adds, “We’ve got some new respectful stuff.”
A rapped pre-chorus then leads to the refrain: “I’m on a mission for that a–, but first I need permission.” The joke is well-sustained throughout the video, as the Kings add oversized “Time’s Up” pins next to their thick gold chains and occasionally drop out of the rap for further education.
REDD: Hoes is people too… Oh, I shouldn’t say ‘hoes’?
THOMPSON [Looking off-camera]: We can’t call b-tches ‘hoes’ no more?
REDD: What are we supposed to call them then?
THOMPSON: Oh, they got names.
BOTH: That’s craaaazy…
THOMPSON: We appreciate that.
REDD: We need that kind of pushback in our life!
The video is boosted with cameos from Davidson (as the unintelligible rapper Uncle Butt) and real-life stars Lil Wayne and Future. At one point, Future is seen “making it rain,” showering money not on a stripper in some VIP room, but on a collection cup for the “Women’s Rights Fund.”
The segment draws laughs partly because sexism, misogyny, and objectifying women generally have a long, undignified tradition in hip-hop. That tradition, however, hasn’t been a subject of mass-audience comedy since perhaps the mid-1990s, when rap mockumentaries like “CB4” and “Fear of a Black Hat” were in theaters, along with the Wayans Brothers’ “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.” Even then, sex politics were just one of many subjects of the comedy, not the focus.
Meanwhile, hip-hop and R&B surpassed rock music as the most popular genres in America at almost the exact moment the Me Too movement rocked the entertainment industry. Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons stepped down from companies he founded after multiple women accused him of sexual assault.
Otherwise, Me Too’s effect on the music business has been limited. For example, Spotify briefly took steps to de-promote artists like R. Kelly (who has denied an ongoing string of sexual abuse allegations) and the late rapper XXXTentacion (who was charged with aggravated battery of a pregnant woman and witness tampering).
Yet the effort fizzled because it would have affected Spotify too much and there was too much at stake for an industry reliant on streaming services to promote new artists. XXXTentacion’s sales soared following his murder. Tekashi 6ix9ine was recently sentenced to four years of probation for sexual misconduct with a minor without much effect on the rapper’s sales or streams.
Redd and Thompson are able to poke fun at this particular elephant in the room in a way that white comedians probably would not dare by themselves. The constraints of our current societal norms—and on the political left, the hierarchy of intersectionality—reinforce the importance of people policing the excesses of their communities. But misogynistic rappers may not be the only subject ultimately satirized by the Booty Kings.
Another reason viewers laugh at “Permission” is that the notion of woke rappers still carries a sense of the absurd. Our society simply does not currently expect that rappers be politically correct. A share of chuckles and guffaws derive from the sense that this is a step or three too ridiculous.
Regardless of whether the writers and performers intended it, an indirect target of the video is the non-diverse 6 percent of progressive activists who support political correctness in all of its most draconian forms. Americans do not like hateful speech, but they also believe people should be able to say what they really think.
Accordingly, when outrageous attitudes are expressed as a theatrical caricature, many Americans do not rush for the fainting couch as quickly as the self-appointed progressive arbiters of pop culture would like. Most people are not obsessed, for example, with the now-annual debate over whether “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is an endorsement of date rape that should be banished from the Christmastime musical canon.
For better or worse, many may still enjoy the sexist theatrics of rap on some level yet laugh at them when skewered by the Booty Kings. Similarly, President Trump probably benefits politically from his rhetorical excesses regarding women (and other topics) being seen as a form of theatrics he picked up while appearing in pro wrestling events.
The idea that some people of color share certain cultural attitudes with Trump supporters was previously explored on SNL’s viral “Black Jeopardy” sketch, which again featured Thompson (probably not coincidentally)—and Tom Hanks as a MAGA hat-wearing contestant. In that sketch, the joke was that marginalized members of the working class might have distrust of and paranoia about elites (and the government) regardless of race.
“Permission” relies in part on a similarly populist reaction, this time to progressives’ woke puritanism. Americans remain capable of having a complicated relationship with art and artists alike, taking the cultural commissars no more seriously than they take sexist rap videos.