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Content Warning: This piece discusses physical and verbal abuse.
When I heard that superstar and "Queen of Rock 'n' Roll" Tina Turner passed away yesterday, the first thing I wanted to do was hear her music. As the warm Memphis air pressed down gently on my shoulders, trees almost nodding in the distance, my coworkers played "Proud Mary" on a tinny cell phone speaker—and I thought about how Tina's dynamic cover took Creedence Clearwater Revival's original onto a different plane. Later that night, I called my mom to get her thoughts on what it was like to watch Tina's career grow in real-time. Across 60 years of writing and performing, the icon's influence has felt boundless—as her gritty vocals, turbulent stage presence, and raw storytelling inspired scores of artists working in rock, pop, soul, and R&B.
Born Anna Mae Bullock in the tiny, rural, majority-Black communities of Haywood County, Tennessee, Tina spent her adolescence in St. Louis, Missouri—where she met her manager, bandmate, and first husband, Ike. My family's from St. Louis, too, a couple of degrees of separation away from her: my mom knew one of Tina's old classmates from Sumner High School, and my grandparents saw her perform in a small club on the northside when her career was just starting. And throughout Ike and Tina's 14-year marriage, my mom recalls hearing murmurs that Ike was abusive. In 1981, five years after divorcing Ike, Tina spoke to People Magazine about what she experienced at Ike's hands—and pop culture's latched onto the story ever since.
As Tina's solo releases climbed the charts, fans and critics shaped the narrative of her career around Ike's violence. It's a central image in What's Love Got To Do With It?, for instance, a biopic named for her only Billboard #1 hit in the U.S. The film came to theaters in the summer of 1993, and my mom and grandma went to see it. Around that same time, a thousand miles away in New York City, The Notorious B.I.G. was recording his critically-acclaimed debut album, Ready to Die. On the track "Machine Gun Funk," Biggie name-drops Tina, wrapping her marriage, her music, and the movie into a caustic flex: "That's why I pack a nina, fuck a misdemeanor / beating motherfuckers like Ike beat Tina / What's looove got to do… when I'm ripping all through your whole crew?"
Assigning "more digestible" language to those who have experienced gender violence is dehumanizing—not empowering. It ignores the fact that under the existing conditions, harm for Black folks and gender-oppressed people is inescapable and recurrent.
What topics are appropriate to reference in a lyric? What's out of bounds? Rappers have largely treated the vast detritus of popular culture and history as fair game—including infamous stories of abuse and interpersonal violence. I think about when JPEGMAFIA rapped, "pull my case / boy, I beat that shit like Lennon beat his bae," a biting reference to the Beatles frontman who "was—by his own admission—physically and verbally abusive to his first wife, Cynthia Powell." Occasionally, these abuse references have gotten backlash in the public eye: in 2019, for example, a decade-old Eminem song leaked that talked about "[siding] with Chris Brown" after he assaulted Rihanna; reps for Eminem asserted that the leak was rewritten, and he apologized himself on a song the following year. But there are far more lines that have gone unacknowledged, and Tina Turner's legacy in pop culture is tangled up with this trend.
Across the past 30 years, rappers and singers have frequently referenced Tina's abuse in all sorts of contexts: like MC Eiht's sexual exploits, Lil Durk beating a court case, or Common narrating a woman's traumatic childhood. J. Cole has bragged about being "hotter than Ike Turner's temper." Quavo has said he's like "Ike Turner with the left hand." Ike and Tina's marriage is such common material that these references can stretch to their limits. In Ye's 2005 track "Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)," a flimsy Ike Turner reference becomes a transition between thoughts: "How can something so wrong make me feel so right? Right? / Fore I beat myself up like Ike, you can still throw your Roc-a-Fella diamond tonight." Ike Turner's abusive behavior isn't unique in the history of popular music, but Ike and Tina's marriage has become a quintessential image of domestic violence.
Although Tina's first marriage has been depicted in two memoirs, a documentary, and a musical, What's Love Got To Do With It? played a major role in hip-hop's Tina references—especially because of Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne's Oscar-nominated performances. A key example is the phrase, "eat the cake, Anna Mae," which has been referenced, in one way or another, by everyone from Young Thug and Ski Mask the Slump God to Cardi B and GloRilla. Jay-Z even quoted it on Beyoncé's 2013 hit "Drunk in Love," leading mainstream media outlets to question the line's inclusion. It comes from a well-known scene in the biopic, where Ike orders Tina to eat cake as the two sit with friends in a busy diner. The scene's basic elements were pulled from her 1986 memoir I, Tina:
"We'd stopped outside a store somewhere and sent somebody inside to get some food. They came back with this pound cake and said I'd ordered it. I said no I didn't. Ike said, 'Well, you gonna eat it.' And I had to sit there and eat the whole thing, while he watched."
But the movie embellishes this outline: Ike starts a fight in front of shocked restaurant patrons, daring anyone in the building to speak up on Tina's behalf.
Fully reckoning with Tina's legacy forces us to confront an uncomfortable fact: her trauma has often been reduced to a metaphor in the pop landscape that she helped create—it's become an easy shorthand for abuse, violence, aggression, and dominance. It's likely that generations of listeners have encountered allusions to Tina Turner's abuse before her music and before her own narrative of that abuse. In Da'Shaun Harrison's sharp analysis of Megan Thee Stallion's experience as a shooting victim, they describe the ways that patriarchy and the carceral state push victims of interpersonal violence "to make themselves and their story something that the deciding party desires; something, and some thing, that is palatable."
After jokes like 'abolition can wait' resounded in the wake of the Tory Lanez conviction, a course correction: 'I don't care to condemn folks who celebrate Tory's conviction, I do care about abolition being misrepresented.'
Similarly, the frequent use of Ike and Tina punchlines reflect the driving force of misogynoir, sanding down Tina's story into something dramatized, neat, and linear: the idea that, ultimately, "Tina left Ike and immediately triumphed in her solo career and survival," leaving Ike's legacy as an abuser behind her. But even after her impact on the culture was set in stone, Tina never sugarcoated the lasting impacts of her trauma. In the 2021 documentary Tina, she sums it up with a piercing honesty: "the good did not balance the bad. I had an abusive life, there's no other way to tell the story. It's a reality. It's a truth. That's what you've got, so you have to accept it."
Abolition is deeply concerned with the question of how to cut down harm at its root while letting its full complexity bloom open. Ironically, when musicians persistently name-drop Tina's trauma as figurative language, they risk making that trauma feel nameless, distant, and impersonal. But for victims of domestic violence and abuse, these experiences can feel all too immediate: more than 40 years after divorcing Ike, Tina still had nightmares about their relationship.
This language has real implications for our communities, the ways that we talk about abuse, violence, and recovery outside the carceral state. As we remember Tina's illustrious legacy as a singer, songwriter, and performer, it's on us to critically consider where she fits in our language—and to treat domestic abuse as more than a metaphor.