By David Henderson
Earlier this year, rap legend RA The Rugged Man sauntered to the front of the Duke Coffeehouse’s stage, his long black trench coat dragging behind him. As he stood leaning over the stage’s edge, RA addressed a young woman standing a few feet below him, in the front row of the audience.
The Duke Women’s Center sat beneath her feet, on the ground floor of the building the Coffeehouse inhabits. During the day, one can easily shuffle downstairs from the socially conscious Coffeehouse, where I’ve worked as a barista for two years, and find students discussing intersectionality in feminism or interrogating male privilege and patriarchy.
But the Women’s Center was closed for the night, and Durhamites were upstairs en masse to see one of rap’s most notorious living legends. RA the Rugged Man once rubbed shoulders with the Wu Tang Clan and Notorious B.I.G. but was shut out of wealth and mainstream success; He’d been blacklisted by the major record labels due to accusations of sexual harassment leveled against him by an employee of Jive Records. Unfortunately, the Rugged Man did not respond to requests for comment on this piece.
After a bit of brief, hard to decipher banter with the girl in the front row, RA made an announcement to the crowd: “This is the part of the show where normally I do somethin’ dirty.”
Gopi Nepalla, the coffeehouse’s general manager, winced beneath his denim ball cap. A few hours earlier, he’d seen videos of RA removing women’s shirts and grabbing their crotches on stage. Zoe Abedon, the barista on shift, turned away from the stage and slowly sank to the ground. For the next few minutes, she sat with her back against the coffee bar, unable to watch for fear that RA might actually perform some of the sexual harassment he’d joked about earlier.
Fortunately, a sixty year-old woman stood near the back of the coffeehouse in the space between the coffee bar and mural-covered side wall. She shared RA’s nose—It was his mother, Dee Thorburn. RA explained that Dee was witnessing her first Rugged Man show, so tonight he had to keep it clean.
As the Rugged Man cycled through his setlist, which typically includes tracks like “C*nt Renaissance” and “Da Girls They Love Me,” the barista, Zoe, got up and paced behind the counter, occasionally shaking her head in disbelief.
Eventually, RA invited two women to take the stage. Their job was to flank him while he rapped, dancing sexily. As the beat blasted and the girls danced, it was hard to shake the notion that, for the rest of the night, Zoe Abedon would be doing a lot of pacing.
RA was booked as part of the coffeehouse’s effort to put together an eclectic semester of performances that would attract a diverse audience: a white man joking about his propensity for sexual harassment with a mostly white, male audience was not what the staff had hoped for.
RA’s performances were electric and vulgar. Despite a smaller crowd, RA had the “little f***ing Coffeehouse” rocking as he shrieked, shouted, and spat.
The Rugged Man employed his thick Long Island accent to insult members of the crowd as often as he used it to praise hip hop greats. At one point, RA responded to a fan who had incorrectly answered a hip hop trivia question by chuckling and asking if he was “retarded.” RA also gave his brother-in-law, who was attending the show with his daughter, a shoutout. Then he launched into an anecdote about his brother-in-law’s days in prison. The punchline? That his brother-inlaw’s daughter used to point to toy phones and shout “daddy”, thinking that her father was only a voice on the telephone.
At an RA show, all this negativity is expected. After seeing him pose with countless fans, Margie, who became an RA the Rugged Man fan via hearing his songs played in her husband’s car, joked that RA could be “a secret family man—all the rapping’s just for show.” She quickly clarified that she was kidding, but in a sense, Margie was right. During the show, RA extended kindness to female blood relatives, praising both his mother and niece.
For the other females present, however, “bitch” seemed to be RA’s pronoun of choice. Gopi, the general manager, recalls being offended that RA employed the word so liberally—like when he chastised a fan near the front of the crowd whose head happened to be at about his waist’s height for trying to touch his “dick” (she wasn’t).
Jay, a landscaper, called me from his vacation in Maui to talk about the night. Despite the fact that he saw RA grab a few fans by the top of the head and make “innuendos”, Jay considered RA’s performance “a lot more tame” than usual. He explained that RA will often pull a girl out of the crowd and “put her in a chair, all but doing her.” Jay, a die hard hip hop fan, declared the show one of the top 5 concerts he’d ever attended.