By Ntombenhle Shezi (@NtombenhleShezi)
Yes, sex sells. Nothing new there. But as a woman , there is something incredibly uncomfortable about seeing another woman having a credit card swiped through her butt cheeks as seen in Nelly’s ‘Tip Drill’ video. Or seeing notes being crammed in the bosoms of so-called video vixens. I cringe just as badly when I hear Chris Brown and Tyga sing‘These Hoes Aint Loyal’.
I’ll admit it. I am feminist who has gotten down heavy to ASAP Rocky’s ‘Fucking Problems’ (If I don’t exactly say the lyrics, it’s not that bad, right?). When I have found myself jamming to Kendrick’s ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’, I have had to convince myself that he does not mean it that way. But if I am honest, I have to ask, what does it mean that I am a supporter of a genre that doesn’t seem to support women?
In the mid-70’s when Hip Hop first came out, there were no cars with shiny rims, making it rain with endless wads of cash, nor scantily clad women. The genre which technically came forth through an experimentation of words over the sounds of breaks in-between samples of records also became the voice of the black working class youth in the Bronx, New York, where it originated, at a time where they were socially and economically marginalized.
From Public Enemy encouraging Black people to ‘Fight the Power’ and NWA echoing that with ‘Fuck tha Police’, these rappers and many more in their era were griots who used their lyricism as a form of social activism and self affirmation.
The sexualization of female bodies in Hip Hop came with the commodification of the genre as it became more mainstream in the 90s. It was around this time that the lyrics became increasingly predicated on symbols of sex, money and violence.
On the one hand the sex, women and money can be seen as merely a reflection of a lifestyle that most of these young men, coming from disenfranchised spaces, aspire to. Selling these records put those aspirations within their reach and the violence that many Hip Hop artists speak of in their music formed part of their real life experience.
On the other hand, there is the argument that rap culture does not exist in a cultural vacuum and is therefore not exceptional in its hypermasculine culture that valorises misogyny and violence. I can think of a number of rap songs both past and present that reference films like ‘Scarface’ (think ‘Criminology’ by Raekwon and ‘Moment of Clarity’ by Jay Z), ‘The Godfather’ (Mobb Deep uses the Scarface theme song as the main sample for the beat of ‘G.O.D. Part III’), and ‘The Untouchables’. On the small screen, sexists narratives can be found in popular American shows such as South Park and Family Guy, where white male characters take centre stage. The obsession with sex, crime and violence is clearly one that transcends Hip Hop.
In his article, ‘Caucasian Please! America’s Cultural Double Standard For Misogyny & Racism’, Dr. Edward Rhymes takes aim at the apparent cultural double-standard between Hip Hop and other white-dominated music genres such as Rock:
“Marilyn Manson declared that one of the aims of his provocative persona was to see how much it would take to get the moralists as mad at white artists as they got about 2LiveCrew. He said it took fake boobs, Satanism, simulated sex on stage, death and angst along with semi-explicit lyrics, to get the same screaming the 2LiveCrew got for one song.”
In ‘Misogyny, Gangsta Rap and The Piano’, feminist Bell Hooks notes that in the criticism of Gangsta Rap not many question the production systems behind it, something she describes as ‘White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy’. Referencing Snoop Dog’s ‘Doggystyle’ album art, Hooks says, “When I see the pornographic cartoon that graces the cover of Doggystyle I do not think simply about the sexism and misogyny of young black men, I think about the sexist and misogynistic politics of the powerful white adult men and women (and folks of colour) who helped produce and market this album”.
Yes, sex sells. Nothing new there. But as a woman there is something incredibly uncomfortable about seeing another woman having a credit card swiped through her butt cheeks as seen in Nelly’s ‘Tip Drill’ video. Or seeing notes being crammed in the breasts of these so-called video vixens. I cringe just as badly when I hear Chris Brown and Tyga sing ‘These Hoes Aint Loyal’
Of course, consumers are not just passive and do have to claim some responsibility. Again, the artists and the capital behind them are not acting in a vacuum. It seems we as consumers (women included) subconsciously act out on the sexist society we live in when support the music and perpetuate these representations of women.
Helping to counter this, there are a number of strong female, and decidedly feminist, voices that have emerged through HIp Hop over the years. Queen Latifah’s 1995 hit ‘U.N.I.T.Y.’, a song with a message taking a stand against the objectification of women and domestic violence is a case in point:
I walked past these dudes walking past me.
One of ‘ em felt my booty he was nasty
I turned around red they, somebody was catching a wrath
Then the little one said (yeah me bitch) and laughed
Since he was with his boys he tried to break fly
I punched him dead in the face and said -”Who you calling a bitch!?”
Other contributions to this feminist voice in a male dominated landscape include Salt ‘N Peppa who unapologetically rapped about sexual empowerment (think ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’) during a time when this was still a relatively taboo subject. Of course you cannot not mention Lauryn Hill.Years later, Hill’s ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ still reminds me of the importance of self worth. Closer to home, Godessa’s Social Ills is an interesting commentary on consumerism and capitalism. Unfortunately the careers of most Female MCs do not last as long as their male counterparts and if they do, it seems that sex helps to guarantee longevity.
One female rapper on the constant rise, Nicki Minaj, recently caught shade for the image promoting her latest single ‘Anaconda’. On it, she is crouching from behind wearing nothing but a pink sports bra, thong and a pair of Jordans. This shade included an open letter from the CEO and founder of allhiphop.com Chuck Creekmur, chastising Minaj for sending the wrong message to his young daughter with her hypersexualised image. While his argument is valid in some respects, the double-standard is glaring. If Creekmur penned letters to all the male rappers who feature thonged women in their videos, he would be writing letters every week.This is reminiscent of Jay Z, another ‘reformed-misogynist’ or ‘dad-feminist’, who, after the birth of daughter Blue Ivy, decided that calling women bitches is not cool. (He subsequently went back on his promise to clean up his language).
Hip Hop remains an important repository of Black culture and history. For this reason, regardless of the fact that Hip Hop is not exceptional in its disrespect for women, it needs to move towards a more balanced narrative and needs to engage with women on an empowering and equal level. That’s the the responsibility of the record label boss and the rapper sitting on the top of the charts.
Perhaps more importantly, the feminists, female and male, who have been getting down to and supporting the mysogynistic music, should demand more from the artists we support and go as far as putting our money where our mouths are.
That said, Hip Hop’s misogyny is symptomatic of a sexist society at large. Consumers, artists and capitalists alike are merely perpetuating a wider social reality that needs to be addressed. If we are sincere about wanting to remove Hip Hop and wider pop culture from its sexism, we’ll have to start by working on ourselves first. Until then, society remains unloyal to women.