It’s a question I’ve frequently asked myself; can you enjoy Hip Hop music and consider yourself a feminst? I’m certainly not alone in wondering (Olive Pometsey and Alya Mooro, to name just two, have written some great pieces on the subject), and of course the short answer is yes. But you didn’t come here for the short answer, did you?
Hip Hop is a deeply political and socially engaged genre. It’s the music of the streets, borne in no small part of the kind of social injustices it’s often able to shine a light on and even change. Dr Raphael Travis has written a whole book about it, The Healing Power Of Hip Hop, where he claims that Hip Hop is a great way to learn about issues that aren’t covered in the classroom or mainstream media. The Hip Hop of today has managed to encourage youth to challenge gang violence, drug culture and alcoholism through influential works such as Kendrick Lamar’s good Kid, m.A.A.d city and Childish Gambino’s ‘Sober’.
Hip Hop fans are often passionate about engaging in some kind of social change, so does misogyny appear to be the exception? Not every Hip Hop artist is at fault, of course, and a few good eggs will be discussed in due course. But before that, let’s take a look at some examples of what we’re dealing with…
“Bitches ain’t sh*t but hoes and tricks / Lick on these nuts and suck the d*ck” – Dr Dre – Bitches Ain’t Shit (1992)
Ever the poet, Snoop Dogg is responsible for perhaps the catchiest sexist lyrics in Hip Hop history, with his signature, lackadaisical delivery.
From glaringly provocative misogyny…
“My little sister’s birthday / She’ll remember me / For a gift I had ten of my boys take her virginity”
Bizarre on Eminem – Amityville (2000)
to more flippant sexism in contemporary tracks;
“My bitch is ungrateful, so I’m out with my side ho” – Dababy – iPhone (2019)
… the case for Hip Hop’s recurring misogyny is pretty well-established.
Many of the most celebrated Hip Hop artists have made these kinds of distressingly misogynistic tropes almost a part of their brand. One only has to think of the extreme violence Eminem displayed toward women elsewhere on his Grammy-winning ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’, which rightly sparked outrage; “Slut, you think I won’t choke no whore till the vocal cords don’t work in her throat no more?”. *Gloria Steinem weeps*. And despite significant progress with today’s gender equality efforts such as the Me Too movement, we didn’t leave those tropes in the 90s and 00s, as tracks such as J. Cole’s ‘No Role Modelz’ (2014) and Kanye & Lil Pump’s ‘I Love It‘ (2018) will attest. It seems like no matter how much time passes, many MC’s can’t seem to move with the times when it comes to their portrayal of women.
In fact, UCLA Undergraduate Ankush Bharadwaj published a study earlier this year analysing one hundred Rap & Hip Hop albums between 1984 – 2018, and concluded that “usage of misogynistic slurs in rap and Hip Hop music has been increasing.” In 2018, “18 out of 25 of Billboard’s top rap songs had lyrics referring to women as ‘bitches,’ ‘hoes,’ or ‘whores.’”
Reconciling my feminism with my love of Hip Hop becomes particularly uncomfortable in cases such as that of Tyler, The Creator. His consistent misogyny is littered throughout his music, and particularly evident on a track that, despite myself, I genuinely consider a favourite;
“You’ll be down in earth quicker if you diss me tonight…
Eight is the bullets if you say no after all this….
I just wanna drag your lifeless body to the forest
And fornicate with it but that’s because I’m in love with
Tyler, The Creator – She (2011)
And they say chivalry is dead. Tyler’s no stranger to criticism of his lyrical content, which has often contained explicit references to rape and sexual violence. A common defence is that he, like many other artists, are playing a character; their art merely a work of fiction. However, the question remains whether inciting violence against a marginalised group in music is ever justifiable under the guise of artistic freedom. I’d level the same question toward Eminem & Bizarre on the aforementioned ‘Amityville’ – are we expected to give artists a free pass on the grounds that Horrorcore is a genre designed to shock its audience?
When Talitha Stone, a member of feminist group Collective Shout, went to Tyler’s Sydney show in 2015 to “gather evidence”, Tyler dedicated a track to her entitled ‘Bitch Suck Dick,’ saying; “You dead bitch … Punch a bitch in her mouth just for talkin’ shit. I’m still in Australia you fucking whore.” At this point, certainly, we’re no longer talking about artistic expression, we’re dealing with straight-up sexist abuse.
With the likes of XXXtentacion, 6ix9ine and Kodak Black soaring to the top of the charts despite horrific allegations of sexual and violent misconduct against women (and indeed underage women), it’s easy to see why Hip Hop makes many women uncomfortable. That said, many women (myself included) adore the way the genre is capable of inspiring female empowerment. Queen Latifah, Lil Kim, Erykah Badu, Missy Elliot; these are the wonderful women of Hip Hop that raised a generation of empowered young girls who felt comfortable shouting, “Who you callin’ a bitch?”. They’ve inspired a new wave of bold, confident and talented MCs like Megan Thee Stallion, Princess Nokia & Nicki Minaj who’ve reclaimed words like ‘hoe’ and ‘bitch’ for themselves.
And it wasn’t only women at the helm of the gender equality movement; let’s take a look at one of the most influential female-forward tracks, Tupac Shakur’s ‘Keep Ya Head Up’:
“You know it makes me unhappy
When brothas make babies and leave a young mother to be a papi
And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies
That will hate the ladies, that make the babies
And since a man can’t make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one
So will the real men get up
I know you’re fed up ladies, but keep your head up.”
2Pac – Keep Ya Head Up (1993)
In his 2019 book ‘Mask Off’, JJ Bola recalls the moment he heard these lyrics from a “gangster rapper who was firmly considered to be … the epitome of what a man should be”, which subsequently “had a profound effect on [his] thinking as an adolescent”, illustrating exactly why the type of music we hear as youths is so important in the construction of our socialisation as adults. I could go off about the beauty of prosaic form in this verse but I’ll keep it focused on the lyrical content for now; Tupac challenges female reproductive rights, domestic abuse, single motherhood, and sexual assault against women in one verse. Unfortunately, ‘Pac certainly wasn’t without fault; the rapper plead guilty to the sexual assault of a fan 1995, echoing Ava DuVernay’s 2015 claim that “To be a woman who loves Hip Hop at times is to be in love with your abuser.”
So, should I feel guilty listening to Hip Hop as a feminist? Lawrence Burney seems to think so. In 2018, he wrote for VICE that “in order to properly reckon with our roles in [misogynistic artists’] success, we really need to stop entertaining and listening to them.” His point being “that familiarity with trauma doesn’t have to be Hip Hop culture’s narrative moving forward. We, as listeners, need to challenge ourselves to be better and simply not listen to these artists.” It’s a valid point, and thankfully in 2020, there are plenty of alternatives. Cardi B, Asian Doll, Malibu Miitch, Quay Dash (I could go on) have all made their mark on the Hip Hop landscape by challenging traditional gender roles. And BROCKHAMPTON made me proud when in 2018 they kicked out and apologised on behalf of rapper Ameer Vann after he was the centre of multiple sex-offence allegations including those involving underage girls.
In the UK, the likes of Stormzy and Dave challenge gender stereotypes and contribute hugely to the erosion of the stigma surrounding male mental health, especially within the young, black, and working-class male populations. Why shudder through misogyny and objectification when you can listen to and celebrate those pushing forward a more positive agenda?
The dialogue surrounding Hip Hop’s gendered gaze isn’t necessarily solely about the genre’s deeply troubling history of misogyny. It’s hypermasculinity breeds toxicity that certainly contributes to the problem. When we hurt our men, we hurt our women. This is where my respect for Stormzy lies; opening up about his depression was a groundbreaking move for a generation of young men who grew up listening to hypermasculine, often violent Rap, and for whom suicide is their biggest threat to life. Last year, male suicide rates hit a two-decade high in England and Wales, and so it’s pertinent that we discuss the mental health of the young men involved when approaching sexism in Hip Hop.
One only has to think of tragedies such as Mac Miller’s passing to feel frustrated at male stereotypes that inflict what Drill artist Unknown T describes as “internal damage”: “A lot of people are used to holding things in… There’s a lot of pressure around rappers – and Black men especially”. Hip Hop is all too often a genre that upholds traditional gender roles; inflated, dominant male egos and sexualised subjugated female bodies, begging the question of how we advocate for female empowerment and male mental health through continued engagement with the music.
At the end of the day, it’s the people behind Feminism as a movement that decide how we strive for equality. Listening to misogynistic music doesn’t necessarily turn you into a misogynist, just like reading one Judith Butler essay doesn’t suddenly make you a professor of gender studies. One thing that does help though, is awareness and conversation. We should absolutely strive for music that doesn’t glorify female subjugation. But does simply muting music that speaks about women in derogatory terms solve the entire problem? Unlikely.
In any case, it might surprise you to learn that, according to a study last year from the University of Missouri, “Pop music lyrics contain the same amount of violent content as rap and Hip Hop.” You can be a feminist and engage in anything that feels right for you. The really important thing to focus on going forward is how we choose to engage. Supporting artists who actively combat gender inequality for both men and women, making sure women have a seat at the table during the production process, and calling out misogyny where you see it are all valuable and important actions to take during the journey of gender equality. Only then will we have fewer lyrics about “f*ckin’ hoes” and more male artists creating socially responsible lyrical content.