To “hold someone down” is a task that requires emotional and physical dedication. It’s a friend squeezing a friend’s hand while they get a tattoo; a mother wrangling her child at a dentist appointment; catching someone who might pass out after a night of drinking. Holding someone down — being at their side even when it is difficult — is a big responsibility.
But what if the person who needs holding down doesn’t want to be held? Men with wealth and fame — musicians in particular — often seem to resist this figurative holding, all while simultaneously requesting it. They refuse to be contained, but still want someone to try to do the job. And in rap, the onus of that job falls on the “down chick,” the woman who is left to deal with everything while complaining about nothing. It’s a thankless role valorized by those who would never think of doing it themselves.
Generally, this is a phenomenon of male power. It demands little emotional effort on the part of the man, yet he still controls the trajectory of the relationship. Rarely do you see the roles reversed — it’s hard to think of a “down guy” in the celebrity sphere. While the down chick archetype is not wholly nefarious, her continued existence is more indicative of the relentless grasp that patriarchy still has on the intricacies of women’s relationships and romances. We can play the part, and we can do it well. But we can only move past the tricky restrictions of this position when we question its presence in the first place.
Dr. Robin Boylorn explains the "down chick" on The Outline World Dispatch.
Being a down chick is in part a performative act. She must shield a man’s ego from harm all the while nursing her own emotional bruises in the darkness. Without error or complaint, a down chick accepts whatever attention and love she gets, even when she could be receiving more elsewhere. Sometimes her dedication is reciprocated, but often it is not. Regardless, she holds a position of importance, and has the potential, with time, to be irreplaceable. After all, not every woman is willing to make such sacrifices for such an unpredictable payoff.
Dr. Robin Boylorn, an associate professor of Interpersonal and Intercultural Communication at University of Alabama, thinks that self-deprecation is a key factor in this role. “A down-ass chick is willing to be cheated on, willing to be lied to, willing to defend and protect her man or her partner, under all circumstances,” she said. “She is the type of woman who will wait for a man if he is incarcerated, who will take a man back if he is unfaithful, and will fight for or over him including with other women.”
The possibility of danger, mistreatment, or even simply emotional boredom doesn’t faze a down chick. Michael P. Jeffries, the author of Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop, and an associate professor of American Studies at Wellesley College, said the archetype is dependent on the amount of dedication a woman has for her man. “Simply put, the term is meant to connote a woman who is completely loyal in every aspect of her life,” he wrote in an email. “Loyalty, however, is conditional on accepting the man’s agenda and version of reality, so when ‘down chick’ is deployed, it's really just another phrase used by rappers to perform a character that controls women.” Ultimately, his insistence on her support is meant to give himself the upper hand, privately and publicly.
Encouraging women to be “down” starts with a simple lie, or at least purposeful enticement. The aptly titled “Down,” one of Jay Sean’s few hits before he faded into irrelevance, manages to repeat the word 62 times in a minute and a half. Jay Sean and his partner-in-crime Lil Wayne promise women monogamy and comfort, assuring them that they are willing to put the same effort. “So baby, don't worry / You are my only / You won't be lonely / Even if the sky is falling down / You'll be my only / No need to worry / Baby are you down, down, down, down, down?” The faceless woman in the song is representative of the down chick archetype; she remains unnamed and is apparently entitled to a perfect life that is contingent on his love alone.
Down chicks are often promised financial support from their men, but this comes at a high cost. Money can buy a woman’s fidelity, even when it is not reciprocated by the man. On “Yes Indeed,” the recent Drake and Lil Baby team-up, Drake raps, matter-of-factly, the line “And she held it down, so she got a Mercedes.” There is no further mention of the down chick in the song. More tenderly, on “Best I Ever Had,” he reminds us of this contract: “Cause she hold me down every time I hit her up / When I get right, I promise that we gon' live it up.” Even when he doesn’t know if his life of luxury will come to be, he still uses it as romantic currency.
Above all, a down chick is expected to take the desires of her man very seriously. She can stay in the spotlight if it benefits him, his brand, or his children, but she should hide away if he wants to be with other women. She must be okay with the constant presence of other women, mistresses and admirers alike. On Casanova and A Boogie wit da Hoodie’s song, “Down Bitch,” she is mostly defined by her willingness to experiment and be sexually emboldened. (“In the bed she freaky, but good in public,” “I ain't gotta cheat, you know she down with a threesome / And she give me head every time that I need some,” “Her body type, her pussy good as gold.”) In addition, she constantly has to keep an eye out for trouble, which he has brought into their life: “Disrespect my name, nigga she won't allow that / She ain't 'fraid to swipe that piece, she 'bout it-'bout it.”, “She was holdin’ my gun / She was holdin’ my drugs.”
A down chick is a good woman because she is sexually agreeable, and prepared to defend her man at all costs. She cannot, however, have other men in her rotation. The down chick must remain devoted to one individual man and his image alone. She is allowed to have ambitions, but only if they also benefit him. Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” is quite literally an ode to the woman who will pack cocaine bricks with him and has a visible taste for money.
I’m not saying this is bad (in its way, it is deeply, though cynically, romantic). But what is the value, then, of the woman who has a heart only for Fetty, but won’t participate in his law-breaking lifestyle? She, by default, cannot be a down chick. “In theory she gains some sort of status in men’s eyes, or perhaps physical protection or financial capital, which are materially valuable,” Jeffries said. “But I can't think of any cases where a whole hearted embrace of being ‘down’ is commensurate with women's control over their own lives.”
Even in financially equitable relationships, the woman can still assume the role of a down chick. Beyoncé and Jay-Z have branded their union as an equal partnership since the early 2000s, beginning with 2002’s “03 Bonnie and Clyde.” The track’s titular inspiration mirrors the exact alliance music has long glorified: partners in crime, ‘til death do they part. In it Jay-Z prophetically admits his insufficiency, and asks for Beyoncé’s dedication anyway: “And no, I ain't perfect / Nobody walkin' this earth's surface is / But girlfriend, work with the kid.” Beyoncé declares her commitment an unconditional one: “Sometimes I trip on how happy we could be / And so I put this on my life / Nobody or nothing will ever come between us / And I promise I'll give my life / My love and my trust if you was my boyfriend.”
In the refrain, Beyoncé continues to sing a pledge of allegiance. “Down to ride ‘til the very end, just me and my boyfriend.” She did keep true to this promise, sticking with Jay-Z through his alleged infidelity. In the context of the down bitch narrative, her decision makes complete sense. She made Lemonade to vent her feelings, but still kept her lifelong promise to love Jay, because that’s what love seemingly means to them.
We can speculate about what really goes on behind closed doors, but a woman’s decision to stay or leave will always be critiqued, regardless of its apparent health or lack thereof. Take, for instance, how Cardi B was ridiculed for staying with the Migos rapper Offset, her then-fiancee, amid cheating rumors earlier this year that were supported by video evidence. In 2016, Future began to badmouth his ex, Ciara, as soon as she started dating Russell Wilson, a quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks. This is despite the fact that he allegedly cheated on her (he claims they just drifted apart). Ariana Grande faced significant backlash for leaving the rapper Mac Miller this spring, even though she stayed with him through his struggles with sobriety, and called the relationship “toxic.” All of these women made their own choices in the end, but the question of if they all can be considered true “down chicks” is debatable.
“I think that the prototype of down-ass chick identity was born in hip hop,” Boylorn said. “It is inherently representative of a woman of color. I'm not saying that white women don’t make the same unfortunate choices in their relationships. But I think in terms of social and cultural perception, we’re talking about a down ass chick, we’re generally imagining a woman of color.” While white women can still be down, they’re not as stigmatized. “When white women do some of the same things that down ass chicks do, they’re not called down ass chicks,” Boylorn said. “They’re called mistresses. There’s a cute little name for it.” (Side chicks can be down chicks, too — in fact, by letting herself be secondary in his heart, a side chick is inherently a down chick.)
But Boylorn said that this kind of relationship can still feel worth it to those who crave affection. “I think that one of the things you gain from being a down-ass chick is that somebody loves you. Somebody wants you, somebody is down for you,” Boylorn said. “Even if you're not the only one, the down ass chick believes that she’s wifey. She’s the one. And I think that there's a particular investment we have in being chosen and being loved, even if we're not being loved well.”
The down chick will theoretically continue to exist until the patriarchy is dismantled, so she’s got a while left. Regardless, women have more choices than ever when it comes to engaging with the men who require them to hold them down. The down chick is capable of and entitled to independence, and the arrangement may even be her personal idea of a perfect relationship. Maybe she doesn’t lose anything; maybe she loses everything. But the fantasy requires total devotion from everyone involved.