What does it mean when the trauma of one of rap’s biggest contemporary stars and the death of a Black woman become meme fodder?
“I was shot in both of my feet and I had to get surgery to get the shit taken out, to get the bullets taken out,” Megan said, tearing up. “I had to get surgery. It was super scary.”
“It was just the worst experience of my life and it’s not funny,” she continued. “It’s nothing to joke about and nothing for y’all to go and be making fake stories about. I didn’t put my hands on nobody. I didn’t deserve to get shot. I didn’t do shit.”
Megan’s latter remark was a response to the rumors, jokes, and memes that came about as details of the shooting were being reported, all of which weren’t just shared by average social media users but celebrities too. 50 Cent and Cam’ron both shared memes related to the shooting. (The meme Cam’ron shared was particularly upsetting considering its transphobic punchline.) Humorless and tasteless, both memes made light of a serious and traumatic situation. Since then, 50 has apologized for sharing the meme; the meme Cam’ron shared can still be found on his Instagram account.
As one of rap’s biggest contemporary stars, Megan’s meteoric rise in the past two years has come with hardship. Last year, the rapper’s mother, Holly Thomas, passed away from a brain tumor. Thomas was integral to Megan’s rap career; she not only managed her but inspired her to become a rapper, a profession that Thomas had explored when she performed under the moniker Holly-Wood. Later that month, Megan also lost her grandmother.
“Imagine being 25, and you don’t have both of your parents,” she said during her live stream on Monday. “My mama was my best friend, I’m still really not over that. So you gotta try to fill your space with a bunch of people that you think is making you happy. It’s a lot.”
Seeing Megan’s survival trivialized by some on social media speaks to how harmful and unruly meme culture can be, and how even the most serious of topics can divulge into unnecessary gags. Often, it feels like the line between when a meme is funny and when it’s not is constantly crossed. The decontextualization of moments that are memed plays a part in this, but also people’s want to participate and insert themselves in timely topics. Memes provide an easy access into the discussion, but it’s the comedic element of memes that people tend to gravitate toward, even when the topic of discussion doesn’t merit it at all.
The memes around Megan are also indicative of a larger discussion that is always present on social media but feels amplified during this time where everyone is online even more than usual: misogynoir. Black women have constantly spoken about feeling unsafe both in real life and online. Megan’s survival turning into a joke reflects that sentiment: that not even one of contemporary rap’s biggest stars and someone who, unlike other rap counterparts, doesn’t play into the toxicity of social media, is exempt from the disorder and disregard of social media.
There is another meme centered around a Black woman that also speaks to this sentiment, although it’s not as blatantly disconcerting. Following Breonna Taylor‘s death in March, people took to social media to call for the arrests of the police officers involved in her death. Initially, the phrase “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” was just that: a call to action also meant to keep Taylor’s name present alongside other Black people like Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd who were murdered around the same time. Where those involved with the deaths of Arbery and Floyd have been arrested and charged, the cops who killed Taylor — Sgt. Jon Mattingly, Myles Cosgrove, and Brett Hankison — are still free. To ensure people remain aware of the injustice, “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” now punctuates everything from Instagram captions to poems on social media. Despite its well-meaning intent, it’s concerning that the method of maintaining awareness for Taylor wasn’t simply to say her name but make her a punchline.
The meme was catapulted even further when it received its own soundtrack courtesy of artist Tobe Nwigwe’s “I Need You To.” The 44-second song borrows the misdirect format of the meme as he softly sings the words “I need you to” before stoically demanding, “Arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor.”
“I wanted to make people think it was going to be some sweet message and be really feathery and then I wanted to hit them hard,” Nwigwe told NBC News. “I wanted the beat to drop and for people to just really get the message.”
“I Need You To” is particularly popular on TikTok, where people not only lip-sync the main parts of the song but also perform synchronized choreography from the music video, too. Similar to the meme it implements, “I Need You To” may aid in keeping Taylor’s story alive just as much as it decontextualizes and trivializes it.
Although the intent between the Megan and Taylor memes are different, they both come at a time where misogynoir feels inescapable and rampant. Discussions involving systemic problems and the toxicity that comes with them have always been present on social media, but feels intensified during this time where people are calling for the dismantling and uprooting of these systems, as is evident with ideas like abolishing the police and defunding the police becoming a part of mainstream lexicon. There is an unease during this time as people across the world are having to battle against a life-threatening disease and oppressive systems, so it’s understandable that humor — always a go-to coping mechanism in the face of trauma — is being more sought out than ever before on social media. But what does it mean when that humor goes too far; when the trauma of one of rap’s biggest contemporary stars and the death of a Black woman become meme fodder? It’s difficult to dismiss these instances and how they both undermine the violence inflicted on these women, especially in light of the tragic death of Oluwatoyin Salau, whose death was foreshadowed on the same platform where these memes have been shared.
The advent of meme culture perpetuates this idea that anything and everything can be made into a joke. If there’s anything to take away from the memeification of Megan and Taylor, it’s not just how normalized the meme’ing of Black women’s likeness has become, but the lack of discernment that seems to grow more and more on social media, further blurring the lines what does and doesn’t need to be meme’d.