Hip Hop's Gender Problem

The recent controversy over Nelly's music video "Tip-Drill" has highlighted what we've all known for some time: Hip-hop has a gender problem. And for most of hip-hop's 30-something years, folks have been compelled to point out the sexism, misogyny and homophobia that finds a forum in the lyrics of the young black and brown men who have primarily influenced the genre, and the lack of a womanist perspective that could directly counter those lyrics.

In this regard, the recent decision of the Spelman College Student Government Association and others at the Atlanta University Center to try to hold Nelly accountable was part of a larger tradition, one honed by journalists like Joan Morgan, Raquel Cepeda, Karen Good and Elizabeth Mendez-Berry and scholars such as Tricia Rose, Cheryl Keyes and Gwendolyn Pough, whose new book Check It While I Wreck: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture and the Public Sphere drops in June. But in recognizing this larger tradition, we should also acknowledge that we may be asking hip-hop to do something that it's fundamentally incapable of.

Let me be clear -- I'm on the front lines of any effort to get the men in hip-hop to rethink their pornographic uses of women's bodies and performance of lyrics that more often than not express, at best, a deep ambivalence about and fear of women (perfectly captured 14 years ago with the Bell Biv Devoe quip "never trust a big butt and a smile") and, at worst, outright hatred. But as we make demands of these artists, it's important that we understand the demands of the peculiar space they occupy within pop culture. Without doubt, the performance of black masculinity continues to be hip-hop's dominant creative force. Yet over the last decade or so sales figures have consistently shown that young white men are the primary consumers of the various performances of black masculinity and the pornographic images of black and brown women found in mainstream hip-hop.

By asking hip-hop to reform, we are essentially demanding hip-hop's primary consumer base to consume music that is anti-sexist, anti-misogynistic and possibly feminist. And in what context have young white men (or black men for that matter) ever been interested in consuming large amounts of black feminist thought? Clearly, these young whites are consuming hip-hop for other reasons. In the case of young white males, hip-hop represents a space where they work through the idea of how their masculinity can be lived -- what they literally take from the hypermasculine "black buck" (think about 50 Cent's influence in the killing fields of Iraq) and indeed it is an integral part of the cash-and-carry exchange.

In a society that remains largely ignorant of the scholarly, political and cultural contributions of women like Anna Julia Cooper, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis ("oh yeah, the chick with the afro, right?"), June Jordan, bell hooks, Michele Wallace, Patricia Hill-Collins, Jewell Gomez, Joy James, Beverley Guy-Sheftall and Masani Alexis De Veaux, how can we expect hip-hop to do the heavy-lifting that hasn't been done in the larger culture? Despite popular belief, hip-hop is not the most prominent site of sexism and misogyny in American society, but a reflection of the sexism and misogyny that more powerfully circulates within American culture. In many ways the images and lyrics used to objectify women of color in hip-hop videos serve as metaphors for the ways that American society actually treats those women. As Pough notes, "rappers become grunt workers for the patriarchy: They sow the field of misogyny for the patriarchy and provide the labor necessary to keep it in operation, much as Black men and women provided the free and exploited labor that built the United States." Remember, the black men on the screen are "performing" -- performing their notions of how American masculinity embodies power through force, violence and exploitation. (50 ain't the only thug or pimp in the room -- there are more than a few in the White House and at the Pentagon.)

In many ways, our discussions about hip-hop culture are the product of a very myopic view of contemporary black expressive culture. Yes, hip-hop needs to be reformed, but it's not as if hip-hop were the only place where young black men and women are discussing the very reasons why hip-hop remains so problematic to some of us. For example, Princeton University scholar Daphne Brooks asserts that few critics have paid attention to the significance of narratives by black female R&B artists. She argues that "Black Women's popular desire is thus depoliticized and disregarded for its reflections on domestic and socio-economic politics and sexual fulfillment." But she adds that what "critics have failed to fully interrogate are the ways in which this subgenre also operates as an extension of hip-hop culture itself." A good example of this is an artist like Syleena Johnson, who has circulated within hip-hop via remixes with the Flip-Mode Squad and most recently singing the hook on Kanye West's "All Falls Down" (no, that's not Lauryn Hill you're hearing). On her disc Chapter One: Love, Pain and Forgiveness (2001), Johnson, recorded the track "Hit on Me," which explicitly addressed the issue of domestic abuse.

If we think about contemporary black popular culture more broadly than what urban radio and BET tells us, then we are likely to find the work of artists like Ursula Rucker and Sarah Jones. Rucker first came to prominence, performing spoken word poetry on The Roots' recordings Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995), Illadelph Halflife (1996) and Things Fall Apart (1999). In 2001 she released her own disc Supa Sista, which included the track "What???", which challenged mainstream rappers to a battle. But Rucker sets up the rules for the battle stating "no krissy, no thongs, no baby-boos or baby-daddies/no tricks no whips no weight pushing/and absolutely no platinum or ice/no guns no lies about your ghetto rep..." essentially challenging her male colleagues to rely simply on their wit and creativity, instead of the standard tropes of ghetto authenticity. In a more celebrated example, performance artist Sarah Jones stepped to the mic to hold mainstream hip-hop accountable with her track "Your Revolution" (on DJ Vadim's USSR: Life from the Other Side). "Your Revolution" is a riff off Gil Scot-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," and on the track Jones takes shots at the sexist lyrics of artists like Biggie ("Big Poppa"), LL ("Doin' It"), and Shaggy ("Boombastic"). But in an ironic twist that perfectly captures the struggles of those who try to hold hip-hop accountable, Jones' lyrics were cited as "vulgar" by the FCC and a complaint was filed after the song was played on Portland, Oregon's KBOO in 1999.

For all those who, like me, are interested in holding hip-hop up to serious scrutiny, maybe we should also get serious about challenging the pervasiveness of sexism, misogyny and homophobia in the larger society. Perhaps only then will the images that circulate within hip-hop be exposed for the absurdities that they are.

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of three books including the recent 'Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation' (Routledge, 2003). He teaches in the Department of American Studies and the Center for African and African-American Studies (CAAAS) at the University of Texas at Austin.

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