Womanifesto: Exploring Sexism, Misogyny and Accountability in Hip-Hop

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Originally posted at The Infamous L

I love hip-hop. As one of my favorite genres, it has played a large part in my upbringing, influenced some of my own music and been a source of personal enjoyment. Setting itself apart from the infinite number of musical genres listened to worldwide, hip-hop is often revered for its masculinity, ability to influence culture and uniqueness in sound, style and lyricism. And while I have latched onto my love of hip-hip for well over 10 years I cannot help but question whether as a Black woman, my love for hip-hip is an unrequited one.

As a socially conscious woman, I have faced the inner turmoil of enjoying music that specializes in the kind of misogynist lyrics, images and messages which have reinforced behaviors and ideologies that support putting and keeping women down. As a woman who considers herself intellectual and worthy of respect, how is it that I can listen to and support artists who regularly use the word “bitch” to describe women, who choose to display women in a manner that minimizes them to sexual playthings and refuse to acknowledge that any of the latter are major issues which need to be addressed?

While recently watching the documentary Hip-Hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes, I was faced with a reality check that left me upset and completely flabbergasted. Was it news to me that hip-hop is hyper-masculine and misogynist? No. What troubled me most was not the fact that these disheartening elements exist within a genre that is highly influential on Black culture it was the fact that the people who represent hip-hop have seemed to have no desire to fully grasp why misogyny is damaging, that there was not an ounce of accountability seeping from their conscience nor an obligation to protect or even at the very least acknowledge the women who lie in the same class of women as their mothers, sisters and daughters.

By now, I’m sure most of you have heard of Russell Simmons’ infamous approval of a Harriet Tubman sex tapein which he was put under fire for. In this documentary, dated 2006 we are given a precursor to Simmons’ sexist attitudes and repudiation of Black women. In one portion of the film (fast forward to the 25:32 mark), Simmons’ is asked his opinion of rapper Nelly denying Spelman College’s request to have a forum about misogyny in hip-hop (re: Tip Drill Video, I’m sure we all remember that from BET uncut) in exchange for going forward with a bone marrow drive he arranged with the college.

Through this brief exchange in which Simmons’ is seemingly exasperated with director Byron Hurt’s questions we are given a list of excuses as to why he cannot address misogyny and sexism in hip-hip including:

“I think we have to challenge sexism as a whole…the way it stands in the community, not the poetry that is a reflection of it”

(Did it not occur to him that sexism in the community and sexism in hip-hop have a reciprocal relationship? That if one did not exist, the other would cease to as well?)

“I can’t address every issue because I don’t have the equipment”

(How is it that someone in a position as powerful as Russell Simmons’ who is viewed as a role model and inspiration for countless young Black men can reason that he does not possess the equipment (power) to refute sexism in hip-hop? The simple answer, he feels no real obligation to refute sexism in hip-hop because it is not something that directly affects him.)

I became frustrated with Simmons’ commentary. It exemplified a trend so common within those who are not cognizant of their male privilege. Encapsulating patriarchy, the underlying message was that men are superior and how a woman feels towards the way she is being regarded and represented by men is her problem, not theirs.

As the documentary continues to breakdown how hyper-masculinity is a problem in American culture as a whole and serves as the root of not only misogyny but also the homophobia and violent undertones in hip-hop, I was overcome with a feeling that the only way hip-hip can be changed is through men. It was created by men, it is dominated by men and because of this, as a woman, there is nothing I can do that will change the course of hip-hop.

It doesn’t matter if I organize a rally that burns misogynist records, it doesn’t matter if I boycott every artist who uses the word bitch, with no significant male backing my anger and disapproval for sexism and misogyny in hip-hop is in vain. My gender has prevented me from being a stakeholder in hip-hop therefore I have no bearing on it’s course.

This is not to say that I don’t hold myself responsible to some degree in the type of music I choose to support, in most regards I do but in many ways it’s unavoidable. Even the rappers who seem to have women’s best interests at heart are problematic in their approach to fully understanding a woman’s plight in sexism and hip-hop.

I’ll use some of your favorite new(er) rappers as examples:

“He beat you and you went back, you’s officially stupid” – J.Cole | Too Deep For The Intro

This is victim shaming and disregards the complicated dynamics of abusive relationships and the psychological issues women in those situations often face. Yet a large portion of Cole’s content is directed towards women’s issues.

“I call a bitch a bitch, a ho a ho, a woman a woman” – Kendrick Lamar | Hol’ Up

It seems as if Lamar feels justified in tossing women into different categories all to call them names based on his perception of them. Names that could never be equally offensive to a man if a woman were to apply the same term to him. It shows that a general respect for womankind is non-existent and that all respect must be earned and is only done so when a woman carries herself a certain way in the presence of a man. However, Lamar has penned songs like “Keisha’s Song” that shows he has deep concerns towards the painful lives many young women lead through prostitution, being objectified and sexually assaulted.

“Perfection doesn’t exist if it doesn’t consume her and the truth hurts
And this world’s mine, but the womb is hers” – Wale | Illest B*tch Alive

First thing to point out is that it’s obviously a bit hypocritical to make a song giving tribute to a woman calling her the “illest bitch”. Secondly, through all the verses in which Wale gives his version of compliments, he ends with a spoken word piece that basically says that even though he thinks she’s great, as a man he still is superior to her, he cannot acknowledge the positive qualities in a woman without reinforcing that she is not equal to him. This is the same guy who wrote two songs praising “ambition girls”.

As a woman, this duality in male hip-hop artists is frustrating to watch because no matter how well-meaning they are, there is obviously a huge lack of understanding which impedes hip-hop from being more expansive in content and ridding itself of the bad name it gets. So the question remains, how do we challenge these men? How do we get them to see the bigger picture? There really is no simple answer.

We can challenge artists through writing blogs and tweets refuting their lyricism as much as we would like to but at the end of the day, the only way any male hip-hop artist is going to change his content is if it starts to affect his money. And while it could be advisable to altogether stop purchasing music from these artists, it’s never going to change the fact that there is no genuine desire to truly understand how their lyrics impact other people and how their understanding of issues that do not directly affect them are flawed or that even in attempting to genuinely understand, the plight of a woman is unfathomable for a men thus going over their heads. That’s male privilege for you.

Like many great loves, my love of hip-hop has overpowered me, I’ve approached it more emotionally than logically and my judgment has been clouded. Loving hip-hop as a woman is like being in a relationship where there is no reciprocity and interestingly enough, as a woman these kind of relationships are not uncommon (thank you patriarchy) and could be the reason why so many women are accepting of hip-hop; it’s just like many of the men we have loved.

Hip-hop, can’t live with it, can’t live without out it however there is a definitive line between loving it by just accepting it for what it is and loving it through encouraging it to be a better version of itself. So here I am, reevaluating my love for hip-hop and the relationship it has with my place in the world as a woman. I have to decide between continuing to listen to the music objectively or challenging myself and the artists I support to grow beyond mental and lyrical limitations and realize that sometimes, it’s not just music.



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