hip hop doesn’t love me, so why do I love hip hop?
Of all the genres of music that have a firm place in popular culture, hip hop appears to be the most damaging to women. That is, it presents a picture of females as bitches, as sexually aggressive groupies and as nothing more than an arse with no personality. This has led to hip hop artists and their lyrics being ripped apart, not just by feminists, but by academics, by the moral police and by parents. For every ‘conscience rapper’ who tries to present a humanising, realistic portrait of the women in his life, there are five of his compatriots who rap about sexual favours, gold-diggers and booties that go clap. So why should women give a damn about hip hop? Why should women spend a cent on, or give an iota of thought to, a genre that degrades them, and slots them under labels that reek of sexism? We shouldn’t have to, of course. The thing is, though, people’s consumption of art – of movies, books and music – doesn’t always go hand in hand with their perceptions about the rest of the world.
My personal problem – though I’m sure I’m not alone – is this: I love hip hop. I have since I was 15 and I’m sure I always will. Music has always been an important factor in my life; I have a wide, eclectic taste in artists and bands. However, if I had to pick one genre that dominates and informs my day-to-day musical experience, it would always be hip hop. When I was younger, I used to be a lot more comfortable with the treatment women get in hip hop. I hardly thought about it. However, as you get older you notice more. You start to read widely, and talk about issues pertaining to gender, race and sexuality and it makes you think.
In a recent piece on The Feminist Wire, “Why I Haven’t Given up on Hip Hop”, Amber Jones looks at this sexism as both a hip hop lover and a feminist. She ponders why she loves a genre of music that doesn’t love her back.
Indeed: why should I? It’s a question I feel I should ask myself more often. But almost in the same breath, I grow defensive at the question – at the suggestion of having to prove I have respect for myself and for my gender. My thoughts have always been muddled on this subject, so it is always comforting to read about a similar experience.
In the piece, Jones cites watching the movie Brown Sugar as the moment she decided she loved hip hop. She talks like it was a spiritual awaking, watching two devoted hip hop fans fall in love to a soundtrack of killer beats. She goes on to name the artists that she started listening to and sure enough, they’re of the old school, ‘conscience rap’ flavor. In short, the sort of hip hop you could easily see a young woman falling in love with. Jones then expresses despair for hip hop as of late. She briefly mentions a recent incident with the rapper Rick Ross. On a recent track, Ross rapped this lyric:
‘Put molly [MDMA] all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it, I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it’.
Immediately, the media and just about everyone else jumped on Ross. They were appalled, angry and called for him to lose his sponsorship deals. This was absolutely the expected reaction. The fact that a man decided to put those words forth to the public, words that endorse date rape, is disgusting and stupid. This lyric demonstrates an attitude that’s too prevalent; one where a woman is seen as nothing more than an accessory to a man’s sexual urge. Voices were heard, meetings were held and Ross was pulled from the track and dropped from Reebok. In this instance, the system worked the way it should.
I’m not really a fan of Rick Ross, and by that I mean his work in general, not just his pro-rape statements. I don’t think Ross is a rapist, but I think he has a confounding, moronic and damaging attitude when it comes to women, of which hip hop culture is in part, a perpetrator. Obviously, I find what he said, and the attitude that goes with it abhorrent. But here’s the thing – if Ross put out a track that sounded good, I’d listen to it. I’d download it and I’d talk about it with my hip hop loving friends. I might even rap along to it.
Listening to and enjoying hip hop doesn’t make me sexist. Enjoying these songs and not getting riled up by the lyrics doesn’t mean I agree with them, or accept them. While it’s impossible not to notice the meaning of the lyrics, what I like about hip hop has always been about more than that. It’s about the flow with which a rapper delivers those lyrics, the catchy hook and the young, vibrant production. And even if I stop listening to hip hop to make a point, those are still going to be the qualities I look for in the music I listen to.
I’m aware that not every female in the world reacts to, or is impacted by, this issue in the same way as me. My perspective reflects my own set of experiences and circumstances, and it shapes my reactions and feelings. Others’ will be different. Nevertheless: the female hip hop fans I know are smart, confident women. They are women who challenge themselves, artistically and academically. They are women who certainly wouldn’t listen to hip hop and feel their self-worth diminish. Are we talking about the musical equivalent of a group of boys laughing at their own jokes? Need anyone take what these rappers say seriously?
They shouldn’t be afforded a free pass, either. Like Amber Jones, I haven’t given up on hip hop. I never will. I’m hoping for a change, a shift in the way women are portrayed and spoken about. We need more male rappers who strive to be more creative, more thoughtful and don’t just seek to satisfy a crude, sexist stereotype, of both women and themselves. We need more female rappers who refuse to take part in this, instead shifting the focus of the genre that they have a right to.
But my moral dilemma is this – even if this change never, ever occurs, I’ll still listen to hip hop. I feel guilty about this. I feel like I should be able to be stronger in my decision to shun anything that portrays my sex in a demeaning way. I feel I should know how to put my enjoyment of music aside in favour of sheer indignation over the treatment of my sex. On the other hand, I don’t believe my gender should define what I should be listening to. I don’t believe that I should have to shelve a genre of music I enjoy, just so I can look like more of a feminist.
I consider myself well versed on the issues facing women today. I engage with these issues and can conduct animated and thoughtful conversations about them. I believe women should be seen as individuals, rather than a gender. I believe women should never be subject to humiliation or degradation because of their gender. I believe everyone should be paid on a scale that’s defined by their ability and the value they offer, not their gender. I believe a person’s worth is defined by so much more than their gender, race, sexuality or religion. In terms of battles I can help fight, I think there are many that come before tackling the sexism in hip hop.
This doesn’t mean I don’t notice it’s there. But for the moment, I’m just happy that women can hear these lyrics and sneer, and that the men in my life wouldn’t ever think the way these rappers appears to. There’s a long way to come, and I think society is better equipped to redirect the culture of hip hop than it was 10 years ago. In the words of TV’s best President, Josiah Bartlet, ‘we can do better and we must do better and we will do better’. In the meantime, I’m going to continue listening to the music I derive joy from – including the questionable content. If this means I have to work a little harder to prove I’m a ‘good feminist’, so be it. I don’t see how anything but good can come from that.