How Hiphop Culture Makes Feminism Work
"Did you ever really love me?" This is what Nicki Minaj asks a gentleman named Stevie in her song "The Boys." The question may be a reference to an altercation in the "Love and Hip Hop" television series or it may invoke one of two Stevie Wonder songs, "If You Really Love Me" or "Did I Hear You Say You Love Me." This Women's History Month, we may ask how Minaj's question goes to the heart - or, perhaps, breaks the heart - of our ongoing conversation about gender and sexual politics in Hip Hop Culture.
In some ways, Nicki Minaj's question - Did you ever really love me? - is one that members of the Hip Hop nation, especially those of African descent must ask each other. We must ask if we ever really loved each other before Hip Hop even arrived on the cultural scene to take the blame for all the sexism and misogyny in the world. Minaj's question, also, calls forth Common's poignant allegorical claim about Hip Hop music when he rhymed, "I Used to Love Her." As we and Hip Hop continue on a cultural journey characterized by complex gender dynamics, if we do conclude that we did in fact really used to love each other, then we must ask if we love each other still.
Both hip hop and sexism are more complex than many of the conventional discourses we have about them would suggest. As we reflect on Hip Hop and women's history month, we must simultaneously recognize both Hip Hop's problematic gender dynamics and recognize the larger problems of sexism and misogyny in the world for which Hip Hop is not responsible. Hip Hop did not make a member of the Taliban shoot Malala Yousafazi, the now-famous 11-year old Pakastani girl and education activist, in the head. The bullet did not kill her body, spirit, or passion for justice as she recently revealed when she said, "I want to serve. I want to serve the people. I want every girl, every child, to be educated" (1). During this year's Academy Awards ceremony, when 9-year old Quvenzhané Wallis, an African American girl and the youngest person ever to be nominated in the best actress category in the history of the awards, was sitting at the ceremony with her fabulous puppy purse, Hip Hop did not make the writers of The Onion tweet a statement that attacked her with one of the single most offensive terms that one can use to describe a woman or her body. The slur - which many find more offensive than the "b-word," which has been so frequently associated with Hip Hop culture - is predominantly used in and by white communities, yet those communities, unlike Black and Hip Hop communities, are rarely labeled as universally misogynistic.
Of course, Hip Hop must take responsibility for its sexism and misogyny just as every other form of culture must. There are no reasonable excuses for sexism in Hip Hop or anywhere else. However, there is plenty of blame to go around beyond the borders of Hip Hop Culture. Sexism and misogyny may be a part of the history and culture of Hip Hop, but they do not define the art of Hip Hop in the same way that sexism and misogyny are a part of the history and culture of cinema or literature, but do not define these art forms.
However, in addition to playing a problematic role in perpetuating sexism and misogyny, Hip Hop culture, also, performs important feminist labor in American and world culture. By doing feminist work, Hip Hop culture performs a unique and powerful cultural role that is rarely acknowledged. In many, even most, other cultural forms sexism is unacknowledged or under-critiqued. However, within Hip Hop culture, sexism and misogyny have been widely acknowledged and rigorously critiqued. Sexism in Hip Hop has been critiqued by Hip Hop Nation citizens of both genders and all ages, not only by academics, self-identified feminists, or those who simply wish to discredit the genre and use a critique of sexism to do so.
The assertion that Hip Hop culture does powerful feminist work neither denies nor excuses sexist language and behavior within Hip Hop culture; instead it recognizes that the conversation about gender that Hip Hop inspires does not end with sexism even when it begins there. As Marcyliena Morgan documents in The Real Hiphop: Battling for Knowledge, Power, and Respect in the LA Underground (2), Hip Hop intellectual and critical engagement and debate are fundamental characteristics of Hip Hop culture. Therefore, it is not surprising that complex discussions about gender and sexual representations have emerged as a central discourse within Hip Hop's many local, national and global critical conversations. Issa Rae's sensationally satirical "Ratchetpiece Theater" demonstrates Morgan's claims regarding the central role of intellectual engagement within Hip Hop culture by seamlessly combining Hip Hop representations, feminism-informed cultural analysis, incisive political self-critique, and online comedic performance art. (http://www.issarae.com/ratchetpiece-theater/) Issa Rae reveals the degree to which intellectual performance in response to conventional cultural texts like songs, films, and music videos is one of Hip Hop culture's underrated art forms and reveals the degree to which Hip Hop feminists have become unacknowledged masters of intellectual performance art.
Unlike other cultural forms of sexism, sexist language and images in Hip Hop culture have produced a vibrant and vigorous counter-discourse within as well as outside of Hip Hop culture. Young men and young women who may never identify as feminists and who may never have participated in a sustained feminist critique of a wide range of cultural texts are actively involved in a sustained feminist critique of language and images through their critical engagement with Hip Hop culture.
Challenging the stereotype that Hip Hop is a "boys only" culture are women all over the world and the internet who combine their investment in Hip Hop, cultural politics and gender justice in writing blogs like www.crunkfeministcollective.com, www.forharriet.com, www.thehotness.com, and many more. Women web users write passionate comments on countless Hip Hop web sites about everything related to Hip Hop including its gender politics. These online Hip Hop feminist communities and thinkers are joined "in real life" by the many songs by women MCs and books and articles by women writers in which the gender and sexual politics of Hip Hop Culture have been analyzed and critiqued from the time that Hip Hop culture itself was created.
Hip Hop's feminist labor was never more publicly evident than during the 2005 Feminism and Hip Hop Conference, which was organized by Cathy Cohen and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago, the first national conference of its kind and where I presented on a panel organized by the Marcyliena Morgan and the Hip Hop Archive. Conference events were filled to overflowing with people from all over the country who were simultaneously committed to Hip Hop and Feminism. Those who attended included women and men, academics and artists, youth and more mature citizens. The conversations spread from conference events to restaurants and hallways as sometimes heated discussions revealed the high stakes for everybody involved, for men as well as women. The feminist work inspired by Hip Hop culture was institutionalized at that conference and by the growing number of texts - musical, academic, journalistic, and online - on the subject. Furthermore, Hip Hop's feminist labor is occurring informally all of the time in conversations both verbal and digital in dorm rooms, bedrooms, and classrooms in which Hip Hop Studies is emerging as a growing academic presence. In those discourses, the many women and men who love Hip Hop and respect women discuss and debate the politics of representation with a vigor and depth that is rarely recognized. (I personally observed this over and over again while teaching my own class on the race and gender politics of Hip Hop culture.)
Arguably, there is no other art form in which men, especially young men, have been so actively and consistently engaged in a feminist analysis of their own cultural practices as they have been for decades within Hip Hop culture, even though we rarely explicitly name these analyses as feminist. We see this in the lyrics to Tupac's "Brenda's Got a Baby" and "Keep Ya Head Up," in Byron Hurt's film, Beyond Beats and Rhymes, and in the daily debates and discussions in life and online that young men are having about the politics of gender representation in Hip hop culture and in their own lives. It is no accident that young men, especially young black men, who have been involved in Hip Hop culture are, also, actively involved in organizations throughout the country that are attempting to address sexism and violence in dating and relationships.
The feminist work of Hip Hop culture was part of the creation of an extraordinary product last year when Angel Haze, an African American woman MC from Detroit, released "Cleanin' Out My Closet." Her autobiographical reimagining of the Eminem song of the same name is, arguably, one of the most incisive critiques of sexual violence against girls in any form of media in recent memory. In interviews, Haze is clear that her work speaks to men as well as women. She has stated, "I want someone who's a father to listen to the song, and be like: 'No one had better ever...touch my daughter like that. And if they do, you can tell me" (3). She describes the impact of people who have come up to her to share their similar experiences, "Surprisingly, more boys than girls...A lot of guys were like: 'I've been suffering, I don't know how to love anyone, you really helped me with that.'" (4) It is difficult to imagine either the possibility of the song itself or of young male Hip Hop heads confessing their private experiences of sexual suffering to a young woman without the sustained feminist critique and analysis that has become a central part of Hip Hop's cultural conversation.
Not only is hip hop performing feminist labor, it is performing feminist labor that even feminism is not performing. Feminist dialogue within and about Hip Hop has become an important part of the intellectual and political lives of many individuals who may have never engaged a feminist analysis without being inspired into that analysis by Hip Hop culture. This is particularly true for African Americans. Many African Americans have been taught that feminism is a "white women's issue," that it has little or nothing to do with African Americans despite the challenges around gender that are an significant part of many African American lives. Feminism has been an intellectual and cultural space that many African Americans have either avoided or from which African Americans have been excluded or marginalized. The discourse about sexism in Hip Hop opened a door into feminism that had been closed to many African Americans. Not only did this dialogue create a space for conversations about sexism within Hip Hop culture; they, also empowered previously silenced African American men as well as women to engage in a critique of sexism in all arenas of cultural experience and expression. Hip Hop culture's feminist work on gender has created a bridge to feminist discourse that conventional feminism has, historically, failed to build, leading many not only to a feminist consciousness but, also, to knowledge about important feminists of color to whom they may have never been introduced. In this way, Hip Hop culture is making feminism "work" in ways that has never worked before.
In her version of "Cleanin' Out My Closet," Angela Haze rhymes that "there's a story behind every scar that I show." Sexism is one of Hip Hop culture's most significant "scars," but there is a story of feminist critique and resistance that is, also, a part of Hip Hop culture, and it is a story that those of us who care about the lives and health of young women and men within the culture must continue to tell. That way, in years to come, when young Hip Hop Heads rhyme the words, "Did you ever really love me?" The answer from those of us who love Hip Hop and who love and respect all women and men will be: Yes, we used to love you, we still love you, and we always will.
- Morgan, Marcyliena. (2009). The Real Hiphop: Battling for Knowledge, Power, and Respect in the LA Underground. Durham, NC: Duke Unviversity Press.