Saturday, September 9, 2017

Feminism and rap: an imperfect union

As a brown man raised in a community bursting at the seams with people of color, police presence, and poverty, it was impossible for me not to be captivated by the allure of rap music. American society’s dominant narratives have always been a reflection of the convictions of white men. At some of our nation’s darkest moments, rap has been a powerful counter-punch, giving a voice to the otherwise voiceless. When the crack epidemic was crippling ghettos, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five gave us “The Message.” When police brutality was dominating the national headlines in the mid-80’s, Ice-T gave us “6 in the Mornin.’” When people were getting fed up with racial profiling, N.W.A. brought gangsta rap into the mainstream with “Straight Outta Compton.” I love rap music because it is honest and unfiltered. All of that being said, it is impossible to be a feminist and a rap enthusiast at the same time without feeling like a hypocrite. 

I recognize that it is difficult to speak about rap music, or any kind of music for that matter, in broad strokes. People make music for a myriad of reasons. Some people hope to be famous, some hope to be rich, others make music simply for themselves. Motivations vary and not everyone seeks to make music as a means of effecting positive social change. That being said, one thing is disturbingly common across all rap, the dehumanization and over-sexualization of women. When women appear in music videos, it's almost guaranteed that it is in a skimpy outfit. When women are the focus of songs, they are almost always as an instrument of male pleasure. 

Perhaps worst of all is the fact that women are largely mute when it comes to rap. Whether they are there to be ogled, insulted, or sexualized, women do not often speak. This raises another important issue, the lack of prominent female rap artists. While capable and talented female rappers exist, they rarely gain the traction that male rappers do. Sure, there are examples of iconic women who have overcome the odds such as Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliot, M.I.A., Beyonce, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah, etc., but these women are exceptions. Additionally, even for those who find mainstream success, it is often only after conforming to average rap fan's expectations of what a female rapper should be. It is difficult to enter a male dominated industry as an outsider in any context but I imagine the difficulty is amplified in the hyper-masculine space that is the rap industry.

The narrow minded hyper-masculinity that dominates rap both keeps it from progressing and reinforces traditional gender ideas that relegate women to secondary roles. This has become especially clear recently following incidents involving prominent rap artists forced to confront sexual ideas they are uncomfortable with. Earlier this year Atlanta-based rap trio Migos, made up of members Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff,  came under scrutiny and were forced to apologize following homophobic comments made in a Rolling Stones interview. When asked about a fellow Atlanta-based rapper who recently came out as gay, Offset stated, "the world is fucked up" and Quavo followed by saying "That's wack, bro." A day after the interview Migos issued a disingenuous apology but the damage had been done and the message had been sent. This is only one example amongst many which make it clear that being anything other than a hyper-masculine male will be met with either disinterest or disgust. 

Personal experiences confirm that the problem of close-mindedness in rap is reinforced by listeners as well as artists. When popular rap-duo Killer Mike and El-P released their hit 2014 album "Run the Jewels 2," there was refreshing twist. Track 9, titled "Love Again," begins with Killer Mike and El-P describing a few of their most memorable sexual experiences in typical mysogynistic fashion. At the third verse we hear a guest feature from Tennessee female rapper Gansta Boo, her opening lines being "That's what you want, huh? Well, let me tell you a little story..." She then proceeds to describe one of her most memorable sexual encounters with a level of extreme detail typically reserved for men. When I heard this song I immediately replayed it because I could not believe what I was hearing; Killer Mike and El-P set us up to have Gangsta Boo completely subvert our expectations and traditional gender roles. Sadly, not all of my friends shared my enthusiasm. I found that many of them were uncomfortable with hearing a woman rap in the same way that men do, and they began skipping the track entirely. 

While the current place of women in rap is not great, there are reasons to have hope. We must keep in mind that despite its immense worldwide popularity, rap is a relatively young genre. When it comes to sexuality and gender, we are seeing a slow but noticeable shift towards a more accepting rap culture. On the one hand we have an older generation of rappers evolving in their beliefs. When confronted about his previous use of homophobic language, Killer Mike of Run the Jewels tweeted a sincere apology. True to his word, Killer Mike and Run the Jewels as a group continue to advocate for equality and speak out against homophobia in rap. In addition to changes of heart, we have a new generation of hip-hop artists openly embracing feminism and homosexuality. Frank Ocean and Syd tha Kyd, both originally of hip-hop collective Odd Future, are openly gay artists who today enjoy immense success and support. This past year alone hip-hop collective Brockhampton has exploded onto the scene, led by openly gay frontman Kevin Abstract. The group has various songs with lyrics about being proud of being gay and calling aggressively for respect for women. 

Ultimately it is unrealistic to expect that the entire rap industry will conform overnight to meet our hope for equality. In fact, it is exactly because rap refuses to conform that it is such a powerful genre. Sometimes this non-conformity can be on the cutting edge of progress and other times it can derail the genre and keep it stubbornly entrenched in outdated ideas. For all the criticizing we do, and must continue to do, it is also healthy to recognize the progress that has been made. When we reflect on the current state of rap it is clear that this generation of rap artists and rap listeners are much more accepting than previous generations. It is also painfully clear, however, that better in this case is not good enough. As Tupac one famously said, "Time to heal our women, be real to our women...So will the real men get up? I know you're fed up, ladies, but keep ya head up." While we can hope to see more women enjoying prominent roles in the rap industry and to hear lyrics that are less degrading, this is a change that can only be facilitated by us, the listeners. We must challenge ourselves to be more intentional about the music we support. Only then, collectively, can we begin to make major strides towards creating a more accepting and empowering hip-hop culture for women. 


Joterias! said...
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Joterias! said...

I shared your ambivalence once: I also wondered if I could I call myself a feminist and still enjoy rap. That said, you forgot to mention Lik’ Kim, one of my favorite rappers. In her 1996 album Hard Core, she includes a song, “Not Tonight,” in which she bluntly raps about how she left two dudes because they wouldn’t “eat [her] p**y right,” and that she fucks men, rather than simply being fucked by them. She concludes by raping that she’s a woman of means, and that her “girls rock worlds.”

I think I was in high school when I first heard “Not Tonight,” and I quickly found myself singing along to it. Some of my friends didn’t know what to make it. Why would a young, cholo-looking Latino bump up the volume during the song’s chorus and sing “I don’t want d*** tonight, eat my p**y right.” Maybe my friends thought it was some random joteria—me just “being gay.” But that wasn’t the case. I genuinely enjoyed the song because it challenged gender norms by objectifying men in the same crass and crude terms that male rappers used to objectify women.

Still, some feminists would argue that Lil’ Kim’s and Gangsta Boo’s lyrics do more harm than good to the feminist cause. I disagree with them. There’s value in having female rappers spit lyrics that force men to acknowledge that they don’t have a monopoly over certain forms of expression. Also, their lyrics highlight the fact that women can be just as sexually driven and free as men think themselves to be. Indeed, their lyrics are a blunt call for women’s sexual liberation, or at least sexual equality. And their lyrics may even provide a venue for gay or questioning teenage boys to queer the immediate spaces around them by singing along to them. That’s what Lil’ Kim’s lyrics did for me, and that is why I am a feminist who enjoys rap.

Aoife Mee said...

Hi Omar,

I confess that I know little about rap music, but I found your blog really interesting. For me, it highlighted how patriarchy is not only perpetuated, but propagandized through music and other art forms of our society.

Clearly, rap has become an important outlet for oppressed minority communities. However, the way many rappers have chosen to express the frustration felt by their communities is to degrade another oppressed community, namely women. This, in my view, damages their cause by alienating female members of their communities.

I recently discovered that Black women are the head of 29% of all Black households. This is more than twice the rate for ‘all women’ at 13 percent ( With such a prevalence of female-role models and matriarchal households, I found it especially disheartening that so many rappers from the black community chose to devalue women through their music in the way in which you describe. I believe that this is a stark reflection of the lack of respect for women in our society in general, across all communities, as it demonstrates that even where women occupy a more dominant role in the home, gender prejudices persist.

However, I cannot agree that responding to lyrics that objectify women with lyrics that objectify men in the same manner is a particularly positive or progressive approach by female rappers. Fighting oppression with oppression, is not, in my view, the answer. Of course, I do not, in any way, wish to disregard the music or achievements of such female rappers. I understand that to make it in any male dominated sphere, whether it be politics, the workplace or rap, women are pressured to behave "more like men" to succeed.

Despite this, I am encouraged by the examples you provide of rappers who are advocating for greater respect for women and the LGBT community. I sincerely hope this continues and I agree with you that we should use our power as listeners and consumers to push for these changes. Nevertheless, I do believe that lyrics in music, no matter the genre, are an expression and reflection of culture. And until the culture of our society, as a whole, changes, we are unlikely to see much progress in terms of attitudes towards gender.