I’m writing this after having learned of the unfortunate and tragically young death of Adam Yauch, better known as MCA of the Beastie Boys. He died on Friday, May 4, 2012 — only 47 years old — from causes related to the cancer he was diagnosed with in 2009. Though only 11 years older than I am, he was one of the men who helped me become a feminist, a progressive, and less horrible over all.
There was a time in my early adulthood when I rode around in my friends car listening to two tapes we had. The Beastie Boys’ License to Ill and NWA’s Niggaz4Life. Both albums were, at the very least, problematic in their lyrics about women and sexual minorities. As a dumb, straight, white guy I didn’t really notice it, and if anyone pointed it out I could (and would) dismiss it by saying “It’s just a joke” or “Come on, lighten up” or by talking about free speech. I still meet countless men and boys who have that same attitude.
But here’s what happened: The Beastie Boys changed. They realized that while they were parodying a frat boy mentality on their first album, those words still hurt and those “jokes” weren’t obviously jokes to many people. In 1986 the Beasties had these lyrics: “Girls, to do the dishes…to clean up my room…to do the laundry…and in the bathroom…. That’s all I really want is girls. Two at a time, I want girls.” Then in 1994 MCA had these rhymes: “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue. The disrespect to women has got to be through. To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends, I want to offer my love and respect to the end.” Those are just two examples from scores I could use.
Not only did their lyrics change and did they become better people, giving to their community and the world at large, but they acknowledged where they had fucked up in the past and made efforts to apologize and educate. That was huge for me. Adam Yauch and the other Beastie Boys taught me that just because I was an ignorant asshole while I was young, just because I think I’m smarter than most everyone else, I can still learn. It’s not only possible, but it’s pretty awesome to change your opinions on things as you learn about the world. When you do change your opinions you also don’t have to hide the fact that you made mistakes. In fact, being open about your evolution and growth as a human being is admirable and inspiring.
I’m an atheist, so there’s no resting in peace for Adam Yauch. We’ve lost him, but we have his legacy. I’m a part of that legacy, and in a very real way I’m working to continue it. He made the world a better place while he was here and he made me a better person.