Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain lived during the wrong era; he was seemingly a stand-alone figure who fought for what he perceived to be right at a time when rock music and progressive values were far from bedfellows. Swamped in with a pool of bands such as Guns’ N’ Roses and Aerosmith, Nirvana’s dominance arrived as a breath of fresh air, and not just from a musical perspective. However, it wasn’t just the attitude that oozed out of rock music that disheartened Cobain, but hip-hop as well.
Cobain was a different kind of frontman than rock had ever seen before and his attitude was so far away from the misogynistic tropes that music had let slide for far too long that it was quite jarring. Whilst the industry isn’t perfect today, progress has been made with the pre and post-Cobain landscape being unfathomably different. The Nirvana frontman was an ardent feminist when this was a controversial opinion to take, which is maddening even to consider. His one big bugbear when it came to music was misogyny. This issue was prevalent in rock, but possibly even more amplified in hip-hop.
An example of Cobain’s forward-thinking approach to music was the track ‘Rape Me’ which was about as heavy-hitting as a song can get. The Nirvana singer felt compelled to spread awareness of this subject’s prevalence even further. Detailing the meaning behind the track, Cobain told SPIN: “It’s like she’s saying, ‘Rape me, go ahead, rape me, beat me. You’ll never kill me. I’ll survive this and I’m gonna fucking rape you one of these days and you won’t even know it.'”
The subject comes up again on the track ‘Polly’ from Nevermind. In a 1993 interview, Cobain delved deeper into where his passion about fighting for equality came from, revealing: “I couldn’t find any friends (at school), male friends that I felt compatible with, I ended up hanging out with the girls a lot. I just always felt that they weren’t treated with respect. Especially because women are totally oppressed.”
In the singer’s eyes, women were also objectified in hip-hop rather than treated as human beings like they were in Nirvana’s songs was a source of discontent for Cobain. In a long-lost interview with Robert Lurosso, the singer shared his thoughts on the genre: “I’m a fan of rap music, but most of it is so misogynistic that I can’t even deal with it. I’m really not that much of a fan, I totally respect and love it because it’s one of the only original forms of music that’s been introduced,” he added.
Cobain then brought race into the equation and shared why he believes white people need to stay out of the genre, adding: “The white man doing rap is just like watching a white man dance. We can’t dance, we can’t rap.”
Even if Kurt wasn’t a self-proclaimed hip-hop head, Jay-Z later discussed how Cobain influenced his era of hip-hop and how Nirvana ensured the genre evolved. “First we’ve got to go back to before grunge and why grunge happened,” he told Pharrell Williams. “Hair bands dominated the airwaves and rock became more about looks than about actual substance and what it stood for – the rebellious spirit of youth. That’s why ‘Teen Spirit’ rang so loud because it was right on point with how everyone felt, you know what I’m saying?
“It was weird because hip-hop was becoming this force, then grunge music stopped it for one second, ya know? Those hair bands were too easy for us to take out. When Kurt Cobain came with that statement, it was like, ‘We’ve got to wait awhile.'”
Although Cobain respected hip-hop as an art form, it was the blatant misogyny that stopped him from falling in love with the genre. However, little did he know that the next generation of rappers would look up to him as a figure of artistic integrity. Whilst some of Jay-Z’s early lyrics would have upset Cobain, that visceral energy in his bars and the evolution of hip-hop in the 90s owes Nirvana greatly.