Hip-Hop: The Sexism's Gotta Stop
I am listening to the Nas track, ‘Hip hop is dead’: ‘If hip hop should die before I wake/I’ll put an extended clip and body ‘em all day/Roll to every station, wreck the DJ.’
But I don’t want hip hop to die. I want to see an end to the gangsta rap and the lyrics filled with hate for women.
I am a radical feminist who has campaigned to end sexual violence and the misogyny that provokes it for 30-plus years, and also a hip hop fan. I love the very early stuff from the 1970s such as Grandmaster Flash, the Sugar Hill Gang, and Salt-N-Pepa. I have the vinyl to prove my life-long dedication to the genre. On my shelves are dusty old video tapes featuring grainy film of fierce competitions between street rappers in New York underground clubs where DJs in baggy sports gear are scratching and spinning three or four turntables at a time. Young men - it was always men at that time - belted out rhymes and street slang with timing that would shame a symphony orchestra conductor.
What is it that keeps me loyal to this music despite its reputation as a playground for woman-hating? As I listen to “Empire State of Mind” by JAY Z I ponder on how hip hop has changed since those early days. Artists such as Azealia Banks challenge the status quo in some ways, but her anti-gay lyrics sound like chalk down a blackboard.
Curiously, more and more young women are identifying themselves as “hip hop feminists” which is not altogether surprising. In the beginning hip hop was also a political movement, allowing disenfranchised people - initially black men from the Bronx - to speak out against oppression. There is nothing inherently sexist about hip hop; it is simply reflecting the misogynistic culture the artists and fans grow up in.
By the time Salt-N-Pepa, an American hip hop trio from New York, came on the scene in 1985 I was hooked – and many a feminist music lover lauded All Hail the Queen, by the wonderful Queen Latifah. Here were women singing about real life and giving the men a run for their money. Latifah’s track Ladies First (with Monie Love) became a feminist anthem.
Queen Latifah, image copyright: forcefulally, 2009
Very quickly though, female rappers became marginalised and overtaken by the pure brutality of their male counter-parts. As with Hollywood, those who received the most attention in the hip hop world were those who portrayed violence, hate and bloodshed. And so rap has become a musical genre by and for men; a boy’s club in which they can abuse and degrade women.
Hip hop was for a very long time an underground movement, in which rappers told their story, truthful or not, for a select audience. It was passion and pain dictated into musical poetry, and the hyperreal violent, sexual natures dripped from their pens and were transformed into mix tapes. But has it crossed the line from creative radicalism to to blatant misogyny for the sake of selling records?
The dominant message in much contemporary hip hop is about men being in control; being hateful to women; and throwing their guns and money around while posing with their flash cars.
Hip hop is primarily a world where men talk about what they‘ve done with or to other men. The women that feature as backing singers, dancers or arm candy for male artists are portrayed in a racist and sexist way. The stereotypes of black females are played out in the videos, with women being framed as overly sexualised and animalistic.
The massive success of Eminem shows that even white males are more accepted within hip hop than black women. The majority of hip hop consumers are white and we tend to take in the images and lyrics of this music without thinking about what it all means. Today the ‘bitch’ and ‘hoe’ style of gangsta rap, with the celebration of pimping and guns bears little relation to the ‘old-skool’ hip hop I have loved since my teens.
I first tuned into hip hop in 1980. I could not bear punk rock or disco, so I turned to the tunes of the Bronx. The very early rap used classic funk in the mix, and funk was my kind of music.
What made punk rock hugely different from hip hop was the fact that many of its performers were women, such as Patti Smith, Debbie Harry of Blondie and Lydia Lunch, all of whom were female performers of punk-rock either as solo artists or as members of a band.
Ironically it was Debbie Harry who helped kick-start early hip hop. One day in 1979 she suggested that Nile Rodgers, guitarist in the US funk band Chic join her and fellow Blondie founder Chris Stein at a hip hop event in a communal space taken over by young kids and teenagers with boom box stereos. They played music to which performers would break dance and used the break section of “Good Times” in the main. A few weeks later, Blondie, The Clash, and Chic were playing a gig in New York at Bonds nightclub. When Chic started playing “Good Times,” rapper Fab Five Freddy and members of the Sugarhill Gang jumped up on stage and started freestyling with the band.
‘Rapper’s Delight’, became the fastest selling 12” single in history with up to 60,000 copies a day sold in the US alone. The music moguls began to smell big money and things began to change - but not for the better.
The introduction of MTV made hip hop a major money spinner. Between 1981-85 rap music developed and hip hop culture expanded rapidly, as a direct result of the interest shown by the record companies – and consequently by the record-buying audience.
In the 1990s the pimp-genre – depicting hedonism, money, and pornified women was born. The major companies began buying up all the independent hip hop labels, resulting in a shift to gangsa rap and, with it, a monolithic negative stereotype of black men and women.
Today, the pimp-image as portrayed by many of the great rap artists such as Snoop Dogg (now Lion) and 50 Cent is the result of the music business‘ focus on the desire to make big bucks.
The gangsta-genre was an articulation of the violent actions and organised crime that traditionally occurred in drug-related cultures. Gangsta rap glorifies the culture of drug use in America‘s inner cities. Its message is largely ‘dog-eat-dog’ and ‘violence is inevitable’.
Many hip hop fans with a social conscience turned away from the music as it became increasingly about depicting black women as over-sexualised and hookerish, and black men as parodies straight out of a Blaxploitation movie. But I always played the old stuff, and looked out for the female rappers that subverted the status quo.
Pioneer female rap artists like Roxanne Shanté and Salt-N-Pepa were women who—at least early in their careers—presented themselves in baggy clothing, big earrings and short haircuts. Aesthetics were different then, but there was an unmistakable similarity between women and men at this point, a similarity that is unthinkable today.
Even after I officially disowned hip hop I would still, on occasion, slip Snoop Dogg on my iPod and hope the sound didn’t leak. I returned to hip hop in a big way in 2006 in the strangest of circumstances. That summer I was at a conference exploring the harms of pornography and sexual exploitation in Boston, US, and had just come out of a workshop on hard core porn director Max Harcore and the growth of Gonzo. I heard Big Daddy K and Del La Soul pounding out of the lecture theatre and wondered who would be so brave as to put on a hip hop concert in the same venue as a meeting of radical feminists.
It was, in fact, a sound test for Byron Hurt’s brilliant documentary ‘Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes’, a film that exposes the sexism, violence and homophobia of much of its lyrics and videos, and many of its stars. Hurt is a former basketball player who loves hip hop but became increasingly uncomfortable with the way women are depicted in its lyrics and videos.
I stayed to watch the film, as drawn by its soundtrack as I was the idea that I would get to see a pro-feminist critique of hip hop made by a black man. Hurt had interviewed the likes of Mos Def, Fat Joe, Chuck D, Jadakiss and Busta Rhymes, and the film featured images of the nasty pimp and hoe variety. I invited Bryon to show his film in the UK and a few months later, in front of a packed audience at the BFI, those of us with a love for the music and a hatred of the misogyny discussed how to redeem hip hop.
In the audience was Marcos Brito (stage name QBoy), the UK’s first out gay rap and hip hop artist. For him it is important to celebrate what is good about hip hop, and its potential to illicit positive change. “In recent years, the influence of gangsta rap in commercial music has been so great that mainstream audiences consider it to be and mean the same as hip hop,” says Brito. “They equate the music and nature of hip hop with gun crime, homophobia and misogyny. Hip hop has so much more to offer.”
But does it? Take this all-too typical line from west coast hip hop pioneer Too Short: “Now take my bitch/ She won’t complain about shit/ It ain’t hard to tell she belongs to me/ I pimped her 15 years in this industry.” And few who saw it will forget Snoop Dogg showing up at the MTV awards in 2003 with two women in dog collars and leashes.
“Gangsta rap is only a tiny part of hip hop,” says Brito. “Hip hop used to be a very creative and positive platform. Gangsta rap is a slice of the hip hop cake but a very thin slice.”
Despite the takeover there is the odd chink of light. Frank Ocean is a massive hip hop star and also an out gay man - one of the first black American artists who is openly gay. The member of hip hop collective Odd Future found that his record sales increased after coming out via an open letter. Rapper and producer Tyler, the Creator, previously known for his anti-gay lyrics supported Ocean.
American hip hop DJ Mister Cee was convicted of loitering after he was caught having oral sex with another man in a parked car. 50 Cent, who once suggested in a Tweet that gay men should kill themselves, stood publicly by his side.
But what about NWA and Public Enemy? The reputation of both groups are pretty horrendous but, as the feminist journalist Zoe Williams pointed out in 2003 there is little homophobia in the lyrics of either. Indeed, the only recorded anti-gay lyric in Public Enemy’s file was: “Man to man/ I don’t know if they can/ From what I know/ The parts don’t fit”. Hardly a patch on Eminem’s “You faggots keep eggin’ me on/ till I have you at knifepoint, then you beg me to stop?”
In 2010 I decided to go to Glastonbury to see Snoop Dogg perform. The Guardian newspaper considered the fact that I love Snoop’s music sufficiently newsworthy to put on the front cover of the features section.
A former gang member from one of LA’s most notorious neighbourhoods, Snoop Dogg (so named by gang members because his hairstyle resembled the ears of Snoopy from the Peanuts cartoon strip) has been tried and acquitted of serious crimes such as murder and drug dealing, and made a series of pornographic films called Girls Gone Wild Doggy Style. I try to separate his fantastic voice, rhythm and timing from his verbal tirades against women.
The first album I bought was Doggystyle in 1993, followed by Tha Doggfather three years later. I realised the lyrics were pornographic and grotesque but so, I told myself, were many sung by white boys in tight jeans in the 1970s.
Snoop’s Tha Last Meal (“Shootin’ the breeze, with a cute Vietnamese/or was she Lebanese? I think she Chinese/It really don’t matter cause they all on they knees”).
The audience - mainly white and female but with a good smattering of white boys speaking Jafaican and dressed like Eminem - sang along to lyrics peppered with derogatory words about women, seeming to be unperturbed by the blatant misogyny in Snoop’s lyrics. But oh, how charismatic he is on stage, with that split-second delivery and those easy, natural moves. No other music gets my blood flowing faster than hip hop. I wrote that [Snoop Dogg] has a voice like honey dripping on rose petals, he raps like a demon – and he pours out his bile all over women.
Earlier this year my friend and colleague Simon Hattenstone traveled to LA to interview Snoop about his transition to Rastafarianism and his new album. Asking Snoop about his reputation for misogyny Hattenstone asked him why he thought feminists such as myself were reluctant to be open about our love for his music. Snoop replied with his legendary charm and avoidance.
“Sometimes it ain’t what I say, it’s how I say it. So she may appreciate the delivery more than the particular words. It may tickle her fancy. So I’m going to shoot her a shout-out. ‘Julie Bindel, I just want to let you know that we really love and appreciate everything about you. And what I want to know is how could you hate my lyrics so much and love me as a person? Please let me know. I would love to know so that way we can get a better connection. Appreciate you.”
Despite the love message from Snoop there is much to challenge in today’s world of hip hop before I can openly love the genre once again.
A current trend in rap today is the role of the artist as a host in porn productions. This trend was started by Snoop Dogg in his feature-length video, ‘Snoop Dogg‘s Doggystyle’ in 2001. It reportedly sold more than four times what is considered a best-seller in the porn industry. Since then Ice-T and 50 Cent have followed suit.
Camilla Evans, a publisher and editor of Fish‘n‘Grit—a magazine where rappers and porn stars are featured alongside each other—comments on how the situation in rap is today: “We‘ve been using sex to sell music for years. Now we‘re just flipping it to have music sell sex.”
Co-founder of Def Jam Records Russell Simmons believes that hip hop is merely a reflection of a sexist society and not the cause. “Popular culture exaggerates everything, including this kind of sexism, for profit. That‘s the nature of capitalist society and entertainment. There is no question that the sexism that‘s in our hip hop videos is a reflection of how sexist men are in the world today. It‘s just that in the past things weren‘t so obvious.”
It feels to me as though a revamp of the entire genre is necessary.
Nas, image copyright: Chris Holden, 2007
As Nas says in his track ‘Hip Hop is Dead, ‘Everybody sound the same, commercialize the game/Reminiscing when it wasn’t all business/It forgot where it started/So we all gather here for the dearly departed.’
Maybe the hip hop of old has gone, replaced with a nasty sub-genre that seeks to shock and exploit. The big money spinners will end up on a Nike ad soundtrack five years down the line. I will continue to hope for a revival of the genuine article. I am not ready to give up.