Saturday, October 4, 2008

Feminist Rap?

Note: some of this music is rather offensive - be careful if you're at work, etc.

I don't pretend to really understand hip-hop culture. The subtle nuances of rap are quite lost on me. (The only rap that I really listen to is nerd-cord (rap for computer geeks) and parody/humorous rap). So, I started research for this post not knowing quite what to expect.

Still, it's fairly obvious that most hip-hop is incredibly misogynistic. When rappers aren't rapping about how they did/are right now/will kill someone, they are bragging about their sexual conquests, calling women 'hoes' and 'bitches', insulting people's mothers, and calling people gay.

But rap is also one of the primary musical vehicles for social protest - given the existence of such politically focused groups as Public Enemy, it seemed almost a given that feminists would be making rap, too.

Unfortunately, this is simply not the case.

Women in hip-hop are rare, except as sex-object in music videos. Among women artist, feminism is pretty much non-existent. A search for 'feminist rap' only turns up an Australian group that isn't so much rap as comedy. NOW NYC has a list of 'feminist-certified rap'. Feminist-certified apparently means 'only marginally offensive', for the most part. An NY Times article published in 1990 gives the same impression of the state of the industry - 'feminist' hip-hop is mostly either anti-racist, or merely co-opts male sexuality. Things haven't changed much since then.

The most popular female hip-hop artist, Missy Elliot, is pretty much a textbook example of the problem. No, she not presenting herself as a sex object all of the time, but listen to 'Shake Your Pom-Pom'. Just lovely, isn't it?

Let's listen to 'Gigahoe' by Shazzy - one of the better songs I found:

Notice the gender reversal of the 'hoe' concept. This song comes across less as offensive than as an expression of power. But still, nothing really impressive.

Now, 'Gotta Get A Grip' by MC Trouble:

The rap itself is about racism, and it's very powerful in that regard. I also like the dynamic between Trouble and her manager - it's pretty obvious who's in charge.

Then, of course, there's Choice. Don't listen to any of her music unless you have a very thick skin. She takes the absolute worst aspects of male sexuality (endless bragging about conquests and number of partners, complete hatred of the opposite sex, insane competition with others of their own sex, obsession with genital size, etc.), and using them almost unchanged. And she incredibly homophobic as well. I suppose it's good that she exists - it's interesting to see how things look with the sex reversed, but two wrongs definitely don't make a right in this case.

So, unless I've missed something big, rap is probably the most non-feminist music in existence. I'd love to see some MCs consistently rapping about sexism and feminism, for a change, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen anytime soon.

Let's end with one of only a few truly feminist rap songs: 'U.N.I.T.Y' by Queen Latifah
(Embedding was disabled on this video, click to listen.)


sally said...

One of my favorite songs ever is Ladies First by Queen Latifah ft. Monie Love. Check it out. said...

I'll admit I don't know a lot about rap/hip hop either, but I do have a friend who taught an entire women's studies class about hip hop, so there must be some feminist value in it.

I also think that Queen Latifah is extremely feminist, and not just in "Unity" and "Ladies First". She's one of the few female rappers who doesn't dress in super-sexualized clothing and who doesn't usually resort to sex appeal to get her message across (not that this is necessarily bad, depending on the situation).

I would also consider the Christina Aquilera & Lil Kim song "Can't Hold Us Down" feminist (lyrics here and video here).

And, despite the fact that it's super-sexualized and vulgar, I've always thought of Lil' Kim's "How Many Licks?" as a feminist song. Yes, she's turning herself into a sex object, but she's taking control of her sexuality and demanding pleasure from men instead of the other way around (a similar argument, though it might be harder to pull off, could be made for her song Suck My Dick, which takes the masculine rapper trope of demanding sex from women and flips it around). said...

Oooooh, and can't forget Salt 'N Pepa (e.g. Ain't Nuthin' But A She Thing and Independent.

(It's a little scary to me that I just now almost referred to the 1990s as "retro"!)

By the way, thank you so much for this post. It's got me thinking of all these artists I haven't thought of in years. I say it's time for a resurgence of 1990s feminist rap...because you're right that there's very little of it in the past decade or so.

Brianna J said...

I would have guessed that the women's studies class would be about the misogyny in hip-hop - at least, I once saw a class advertised as such. Was this the case with your friend?

I agree re: Queen Latifah.

I wouldn't have called 'Can't Hold Us Down' hip-hop - the overwhelming sound is pop, with a short rap in the middle. But hey, I'll take what I can get!

The one thing that I still miss, though is that, while all of these songs are feminist in nature i.e., they espouse feminist ideals, they're not really feminist movement songs. In other words, I want rap calling out, say, Bill O'Reilly, etc., similar to how Public Enemy calls out the NY Post. I'd like to see politically motivated feminist rap. (I do think that a very few exist - I can't seem to find them, though)

Nice catch on Salt 'N Pepa - I completely forgot about them!

Re: Sexualization:

I think that this is a very interesting topic - women should express their sexuality, certainly, but is demanding sex ever okay? How about general objectification? Is it okay so long as is not the norm? The question becomes even more interesting when we include lesbian musicians - I'm working on another post about this topic, that's why I left groups like Goddess and She out of this one. said...

Funnily enough, The New York Times just published an article about Queen Latifah on Friday, in case you're interested.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Kinnie Starr: not pure rap but rap/funk/ballad/spoken word fusion. Not black but part Native - comes from that POV.

Lauryn Hill - The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Doesn't drop the "fem-bomb" but the POV seems pretty equality/community/liberation feminine to me.

Arrested Development: Not fronted by a woman, but a mixed-gender group, joyously feminist. "Mama's Always On Stage" etc.

Aviva DV said...

Cool. Thanks, Serena!