The news of Adam Yauch’s death felt like a punch to the stomach. It wasn’t just because I was a fan. (Though it should tell you something about the level of my love for this band that on the day of Yauch’s death I got an e-mail from an ex I had parted ways with ten years ago checking in on me.) It wasn’t just because—like a lot of people who grew up during a certain time in New York City—the Beastie Boys felt like a cultural touchstone.
For a female hip hop fan—for this female hip hop fan, at least—the Beastie Boys meant so much more.
Much has been made of Yauch’s Buddhism and dedication to philanthropy. Pieces have even acknowledged the Beastie Boys’ explicit move towards feminism by noting, in passing, MCA’s famous line from “Sure Shot”:
I want to say a little something that’s long overdue / The disrespect to women has to got to be through / To all the mothers and sisters and the wives and friends / I want to offer my love and respect till the end
It’s a great line, and it does say a lot—but Yauch’s and the Beastie Boys’ commitment to women went beyond one rhyme. They apologized for past homophobic lyrics in a letter to Time Out New York, writing that “time has healed our stupidity.” During a joint gig with the Prodigy, the Beastie Boys asked the band not to play “Smack My Bitch Up.” (They played it anyway.) Yauch reportedly said, “We just wanted to let the Prodigy know that we felt like that song had a real meaning, has a definite meaning with those lyrics.… we were kinda more going to them saying, ‘We’ve been through this and we feel weird about this stuff and we’d like to suggest or ask you guys not to play it.’ ”
In the Beastie Boys’ anthology The Sounds of Science, Adam Horovitz wrote about “Song for the Man,” and how it was inspired by men he saw harassing a woman on the subway: “Sexism is deeply rooted in our history and society that waking up and stepping outside of it is like I’m watching ‘Night of the Living Dead Part Two’ all day every day. Listening to the lyrics of this song, one might say that the Beastie Boy ‘Fight for Your Right to Party’ guy is a hypocrite. Well, maybe; but in this fucked up world all you can hope for is change, and I’d rather be a hypocrite to you than a zombie forever.”
When the band won an award for “Intergalactic” at the 1999 MTV Music Video Awards, Horovitz used the opportunity to talk about the rapes at Woodstock, urging muscians and promoters to priortize women’s safety. (The year prior, Yauch spoke out against anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States.)
I remember watching that speech as a 20-year-old college student and cheering—then crying with relief. Hearing about Yauch’s death brought back a similar wave of emotion.
Once you’ve realized that you’re living in a world that believes women are “less than” in every imaginable way, one of the things that can be most frustrating is that very few men get it. You want the people in your life, the men you care about, to understand the awful toll it can take on you. Operating in a world that sees you as less than fully human can be soul crushing—but it’s also incredibly lonely.
When you speak up about any sense of unfairness or injustice, you’re told that you’re overreacting, you’re too angry, too silly—shut up already. It takes a tremendous amount of fortitude to be able to live in this world as a woman, let alone a woman who wants things to change.
And that’s what was so remarkable and emotional about the Beastie Boys’ feminist turnaround. Maybe your father says sexism doesn’t exist and your boyfriend disrespects you. Maybe you have to deal with assholes on the subway who rub up against you every day and laugh when you yell at them. But listening to this band that you love so much say that your pain is real, that the world is fucked up and that they are not going to participate in actions that hurt you anymore because they care about you—it was the overwhelming feeling of being made visible. They were sending a clear message to their female fans: this isn’t okay, we have your back, we’re sorry.
It was the apology we never got from the high school teacher who stared at our breasts, the acknowledgement of injustice that politicians and American culture dance around—and it was coming from people whom we cared about and respected, people with cultural power.
Hearing the Beastie Boys speak out against sexism made me feel like if these men who had once sung about getting girls to “do the laundry” and “clean up my room” could understand, maybe the rest of the world would follow suit. It made me hopeful in the best way.
Maybe the shift of a band from seemingly misogynist frat boys to thoughtful messengers of feminism isn’t the most transgressive, radical thing in the world. But for women who love hip hop—or who love pop culture—and are denigrated by it every day, it was validation. For one of the first times, the music I loved loved me back. I know that Yauch’s passing doesn’t mean the Beastie Boys will stop their musical or activist contributions. But it does mark the end of seeing these three boys turn into men, watching them grow up together into incredible allies for women.
Yauch left behind a wife and a daughter. I hope that he knew that he made the world a better place for them—and for all of us.