“Be Honest”: Feminism, Race and Hip-Hop Criticism
I was once accused, in an online comments section, of course, of supporting homophobia and misogyny because I wrote an article about rap music. The logic of the comment was specious and the tone snarky and it was an utterly silly and ridiculous accusation — the piece was this one, on Moroccan dissident rapper El Haqed, who raps about things like monarchy, corruption and oppressive police brutality, but not at all about getting laid or hitting prostitutes or calling the people he’s angry at homosexual. This kind of hip-hop, in the context of protest music, is what I write about. So really, I mostly just paused at the comment, felt briefly sorry at the strain that logic had endured that day, and laughed about it.
But in the time since I’ve been thinking, spurred on by writing I’ve read, about the kind of misogyny and homophobia associated with hip-hop. I think a lot of the accusations leveled at hip-hop about misogyny and homophobia miss the necessary nuance to address the problem. The problem isn’t hip-hop, the problem is much, much bigger and stems from someplace else. Hip-hop has a misogyny problem and a homophobia problem, and so does a great deal of the rest of pop music and popular country music and popular rock, etc. So does Congress. So do a lot of radio and television hosts. So do… you get my drift. The difference in how we talk about what’s going on is that hip-hop’s misogyny is seen as the misogyny of African-American men, an endemic misogyny seen as somehow far more problematic than white misogyny or white homophobia. Katy Perry and Taylor Swift both accuse subjects in their songs of being gay (see “Ur So Gay” and “Picture to Burn”) as a way of mocking and humiliating them, but we don’t broadly talk about the culture of twenty-something straight, white pop stars as having a big and insurmountable homophobia problem, nor do we charge their listeners with that. We may charge them with an individual act of homophobia or sexism, but we rarely consider that problem to be connected to deep thematic elements of the teen pop scene. Perhaps we consider them less problematic because, while Taylor Swift heavy-handedly layers on the madonna-whore complex motif in her song and music video for “You Belong With Me,” she avoids ever directly calling the rival female character in her narrative a whore and mixes her message with sounds that are the country-pop equivalent of high-fructose corn syrup. The supposed cultural digestibility of the sexist and homophobic elements included in a range of music from classic rock to country-pop crossover owes a great deal to the whiteness of its singers and to the general crowd-pleasing appeal that a good bout of slut-shaming or indulgence in gender essentialism.
What we aren’t talking about is our race problem when we discuss hip-hop. We generalize hip-hop by the selection of commercialized music we often hear on the radio and from that deduce that Black or African-American sexism comes from somewhere else, somewhere worse than the white sexism that we’re so much more willing to let slide and much less willing to see as an endemic problem to be addressed rather than as trivial or isolated incidents accepted as within bounds.
This kind of commentary also handily lets us ignore what hip-hop has to offer as a platform for cultural growth. Hip-hop has the options of providing us with talented female MCs (and breakdancers, DJs and graf artists), who, while they don’t get nearly the attention they deserve, are vibrant presences within hip-hop culture (Azealia Banks? Rye Rye? M.I.A.?) and have been so since the start. Hip-hop has its own moments and opportunities for genuine growth, in a broadly impactful way, on the subjects of gender and sexuality. One of the most notable has happened in the time since I started composing this essay. Frank Ocean’s Tumblr confessional about his first love, another boy at age 19, presented a complex and frank look at bisexuality and homosexuality in a number of contexts, including the hip-hop music scene. The genuine outpouring of public support from many corners of the hip-hop universe (not to say that there weren’t plenty of nasty tweets from homophobic former fans and one lackluster one at best from Tyler, The Creator), from Theophilus London to a simple but laudatory and to-the-point support poem from Beyoncé (pictured above), showed some encouraging support and even a rejection of rigid gender/sexuality constructs. (I of course don’t want to make it out to seem like what Frank Ocean did is A) what I think everyone in the closet about their sexuality or gender identity ought to do (everyone gets to make that choice for themselves) or B) the end of homophobia in the hip-hop culture/business.)
If we want to actually attack rap’s misogyny and homophobia, we have to attack the fact that those are features of huge swaths of popular culture, of high culture and of low culture (actually, I actually kind of hate those terms) and that such elements become selling points for music and entertainment. At this juncture, lots of Top 40 rap is for white audiences, white audiences who deeply appreciate cheering on references to gratuitous violence and poor attitudes towards women and femininity and things that bend gender ideals. We need to take to task rap personas like Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino and the perpetually slur-slinging Odd Future group in ways that effectively address the source of the problem and the factors that perpetuate it. We don’t challenge enough the fact that these personas or these motifs are made popular by mass culture’s demand for and acceptance of this kind of lyric or imagery.
The sexist tropes in hip-hop music have their roots in the same kind of in-high-demand sexism that pumps up listeners by playing into the gender norms instilled in us since we were wobbly toddlers. This is actually a kind of sexism not all that far from the kind that drives the popularity of advice pieces that are “He’s From Mars And Just Not That Into You But Maybe If You Were Less of A Slut But Also Put Out Some More” mash-ups and the cascading Internet troll attacks on female voices and the “Ugh, aren’t men and women just so different” punchlines of how many different stand-up comedians. It’s certainly not far from the sexism that spurred some video game aficionados to launch a vitriolic and stomach-turning campaign against feminist video blogger Anita Sarkeesian for speaking out against misogyny in the gaming world. The homophobia doesn’t arise in hip-hop because hip-hop came from South Bronx anger and Brooklyn rage, but rather because it exists inside a cultural that has a trained rejection of things that fall outside some rigidly constructed boxes of masculinity. Rappers have as complex and problematic a relationship with sexual norms and gender hierarchies as most segments of popular culture, yet we treat them as if they are somehow separate from white sexism (seen as individualized and not indicative of problems within white culture).
There is a certain amount of glee to the death knell being rung repeatedly for hip-hop culture: they are hopefully typing out eulogies for what white America has long seen as threatening - powerful, popular, sometimes-radical-sometimes-marketable Black voices. It’s a way to finally write hip-hop off like people have wanted to for decade and especially a continuation of the ever-popular narrative that defines Black masculinity as aggressive and dangerous and Black femininity as a victimized caricature. If all we want to see of hip-hop culture, or of Black or urban communities, is the sex and violence genre of chart-topping gangsta rap, then I’m sure that’s all we’ll see. It won’t get us particularly far, though.
I’m not denying the the ubiquity of reductionist and degrading (and much worse) imagery of femininity and homosexuality in so much of mainstream rap/hip-hop, nor should anyone. But for the sake of actually effectively addressing it, it has to be treated as a function of a broad cultural acceptance, no, not acceptance… desire for that exact kind imagery and objectification. There’s a sort of audience revelry in sexism and homophobia, a revelry in the justification it provides. This kind of phenomenon has to be treated as if it comes from the same places that the popular games and movies glorifying violent treatment of women or ugly rejection of homosexuality.
Feminism needs to call out the places where themes of egregious sexism and homophobia are pervasive and influential, which includes but are hardly limited to the lyrical stylings of Tyler, The Creator and Fifty Cent. (And why don’t we also throw problematic thematic elements of classism and exploitative capitalism in there as well, for good measure. Lots of music relies on heavily materialistic tropes and validation of success on highly financial terms.) But, as a feminist, I’m also not doing my job if I don’t point out the serious race problems underscoring a great deal of the criticism aimed at hip-hop culture and rap music from the outside or if I don’t point out this as one of the many shields behind which endemic cultural sexism and homophobia try to hide.
A reading suggestion: Tricia Rose’s Hip Hop Wars has a whole chapter dedicated to this subject and the place of African-American and Black feminism in criticism of both hip-hop and its white conservative detractors.