Looking at men
Looking at women
In this essay I want to take a close and broad look at sexism in rap music. There are many questions that have to be asked. One would be, in which ways rap music is sexist at all, how do rap lyrics degrade women. Therefore one has to take a look at the texts of rap music. One has to take a look at the lyrics. This is what I will do in the first part of the essay. I will present some lyrics and without difficulties show the misogynistic elements in them. But this is only one component of this first part of the essay. I will also focus on the other issues that are directly concerned with men. As a premise I understand sexism as primarily coming from men directed at women. Of course by this I don’t mean that rappers are speaking directly to the women they degrade or that they speak exclusively to them. They speak primarily to fellow men, whereas they of course know that their music will also be heard by women. What I mean is that wherever sexism is it is primarily originated by men and it degrades women. That’s why, as a kind of groundwork, I will talk about the issues concerning men at first. Here I will discuss what the reasons for sexism could be.
In the second part of the essay I will focus on the other side, on the side sexism is directed at. Here I will take a look at the women. I will do this especially in two respects. At first I will take a look at female rappers. One important question here is: how do female rappers answer their male counterparts misogynistic messages in their lyrics? Another topic of importance is the relationship between male and female rappers. Here a distinction has to be made between what female rappers think of sexist males and how they respond to the issue in public. We will see that they on the one hand condemn what male rappers do but one the other hand don’t condemn them in public. We will have to see what the reasons for this contradictory behavior are. Another group of women should not be forgotten. These are the ones who are willingly supporting sexist stereotypes, women who more or less fit the descriptions of misogynistic accusations. I am talking about groupies and the young women who are dancing half-naked and sexually stimulating in music videos. Above I said consciously that sexism is primarily coming from men. But I will emphasize that women also play an important role, that they sometimes provoke sexism. Nevertheless, there are of course also reasons why women behave like this, why they fulfill misogynistic accusations. And throughout the essay it will have become evident that the reason why there is so much sexism in rap lyrics and the reason why women provoke sexism are identical. They lay in the historical past of the African American community.
I will close the essay with a conclusion. Here I will summarize my findings and state my own opinion. I will also make some remarks on the music industry and its role in the fight against sexism. If one wants to fight sexism in rap music, and everybody should want to, first of all the situation of African Americans has to be changed. Then sexism will slowly vanish.
Looking at men:
Move bitch, get out the way
Get out the way bitch, get out the way
Move bitch, get out the way
Get out the way bitch, get out the way
(from Ludacris, Word of Mouf, Move Bitch)
The cited chorus from Ludacris’ “Move Bitch” is a typical example of sexist lyrics in rap music. Evelyn McDonell says about this song, even though it was a great driving anthem, that “To female listeners, Ludacris’ swagger becomes not emboldening, but threatening” (McDonell). And she has reason to think so. In “Move Bitch” two things are coming together. Calling women names is one part of the misogyny very common in rap music. In rap songs women are often referred to as “bitches” or “hoe’s”. This alone is sexist and degrading women. But in “Move Bitch” there is also another sexist element present that is to be found very often in rap lyrics. There is aggression and violence mentioned, which is directed towards a women. The “bitch” has to “go out the way”. The same type of sexism, even more blatantly, is to be found in the song “A Bitch is A Bitch” by N.W.A.. Here rapper Ice Cube raps: “Bitch eat shit ‘n die” (N.W.A., N.W.A & The Posse, A Bitch is A Bitch). Violence against women can not be articulated (and promoted?) more vigorously or straightforwardly. The question arises what attitudes a woman must have to be called a “bitch”. In the end of the same song this is being explained in a nutshell. Interestingly the words are directed at a female audience:
There you have it. the description of a bitch. now ask yourself,
Are they talking about you? are you that funky, dirty, money-hungry,
Scandalous, stuck-up, hair piece contact wearing bitch? yep, you
(N.W.A., N.W.A & The Posse, A Bitch is A Bitch; emphasis is my own)
As we see here, the women who are hated by these rappers, or to be more precise, the women who are hated by the first person narrators, are promiscuous, phony, materialistic liars. The whole song “A Bitch is A Bitch” is about this. It is about explaining what a “bitch” is. Since N.W.A are widely regarded as the first and at least as one of the most important gagster rap groups, the category of rap music, where violence, drug abuse and misogyny are most prominent, we should take some time to look at their lyrics a little closer. In “A Bitch is Bitch” it is explained that there are women who are lying to men in order to get expensive presents and money. That is supposedly all they care about: money and how they look, that they look good. This is also to be found in another song by N.W.A. This is from “I Ain’t tha One”:
See I'm from the street, so I know what's up
On these silly games that's played by the women
I'm only happy when I'm goin up in em
But you know, I'm a menace to society
But girls in biker shorts are so fly to me
So I step to em, with aggression
Listen to the kid, and learn a lesson today
See they think we narrow minded
Cause they got a cute face, and big-behinded
So I walk over and say "How ya doin?"
See I'm only down for screwin, but you know
ya gotta play it off cool
Cause if they catch you slippin, you'll get schooled
And they'll get you for your money, son
Next thing you know you're gettin their hair and they nails done
Fool, and they'll let you show em off
But when it comes to sex, they got a bad cough
Or a headache, it's all give and no take
Run out of money, and watch your heart break
They'll drop you like a bad habit
cause a brother with money yo, they gotta have it
(N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton , I Ain’t tha One)
Here we not only see why women, supposedly, have to be treated with caution but also something about the actual attitudes of the man. He sees himself as coming from the streets. He therefore knows what’s going on. He is cool and cannot be tricked. But the man is also depicted as aggressive and has only sex on his mind. It seems as if he would be satisfied, even if he would have to make expensive presents to the woman, if he only got sex, if it was a give and take agreement. On the other hand, he has the fear that his heart could be broken if he runs out of money. But of course this could very well be meant ironically. But lets take a more differentiated look at the lyrics. In “A Bitch is A Bitch” it is said that “the title bitch don’t apply to all women”. This at least contradicts the assumption that all rap is sexist and that in the minds of rappers all women are “bitches”. And this is really not true. Nevertheless in next line of “A Bitch is A Bitch” it says “But all women have a little bitch in ‘em” (N.W.A., N.W.A & The Posse, A Bitch is A Bitch).
So far we have seen that there is sexism in rap lyrics, and we have seen what kind of misogyny is expressed there. Now we have to ask, why there is this hatred towards women in rap music. Tricia Rose makes only a short remark about this in her otherwise very good book “Black Noise”. She says, it was understandable that “some rappers […] craft elaborate and creative stories about the abuse and domination of young black women. […], tales of sexual domination falsely relieve their lack of self-worth and limited access to economic and social markers for heterosexual masculine power” (Rose, p. 15). This seems to be a sound argument. It is obviously a fact that in America blacks are still underprivileged and have a lower social status. They normally don’t have access to expensive cars and the like, and try to compensate this lack of self-esteem with degrading women. Lack of self-esteem really seems to be at least on key word in the search for the reason for sexism in rap music. There are a lot of rap artist who have already made a lot of money. The can buy expensive cars and jewelry and things like that. They also show them in their music videos which on the one hand shows that these things really seem to be very important for rappers, and on the other hand shows that they have access to these items. But often the lyrics are still sexist. This might be because they just can not stop this habit, can not get rid of this attitude toward women. But we should also search for other reasons. Nnedimma Okorafor cites in her article “The Women of Hip Hop Videos” doctoral student in economics Chi Mogbo: “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that most of the rappers are ugly […]. Watch for yourself, most of them are fat, short, uneducated, unattractive and thus they may have fragile egos” (Okorafor). Here again we have a lack of self-esteem that seems to be the reason for becoming sexist. Another very interesting point on this is stated in the article “The Exploitation of Woman in Hip-hop Culture”. The author recalls the African American historical background of most rappers. The ancestors of today’s rappers have been slaves and even almost 150 years after the end of the civil war blacks in America face racism and oppression every day. In most of rap music, the artists stand up against this. The author concludes: “Many black men within hip-hop culture who battle racism and oppression themselves everyday have been conditioned by society not to trust or love, and if they do not themselves, it is difficult for them to love women or anyone else in a healthy manner” (Ayanna). I think this is a very strong point. For me it absolutely conceivable that American society has transformed many blacks into emotionally cold persons who are driven only by hatred and aggression. Here we have for the first time a recognition of American society that may play a role in the origins of sexism in rap music. As Paulla Ebron points out, black rappers not only speak to people of their own race, they also address white men. The black movement against racism and oppression is constructed as a movement under male leadership. Ebron says: “Central to the efforts of Black men to direct the movement is a specific agenda for Black women that usually means following the leadership and taking direction from Black men” (Ebron, p.25). This is evident in lyrics where very often resistance to white oppression is violent and therefore male. One reason for this is that “violence against the community is aimed at men” (Ebron, p.26). She concludes that “Black men bonding with white men over gender and over the control of women enables Black men to collude in practices that devalue women” (Ebron, p. 27). But society could also play a much more important role. It is also conceivable that sexism in rap is not an exemption at all, but just one element of a throughout sexist society. Tricia Rose has this opinion. “Some responses to rap’s sexism deny the existence of a vast array of accepted sexist social practices that make up adolescent male gender role modeling that results in social norms for adult male behavior that are equally sexist, even though they are usually expressed with less profanity” (Rose, p. 15). Author and feminist bell hooks thinks accordingly in her essay “Misogyny, gangsta rap, and the piano”:
The sexist, misogynist, patriarchal ways of thinking and behaving that are glorified in gangsta rap are a reflection of the prevailing values in our society, values created and sustained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. [..] In reality they are part of a sexist continuum, necessary for the maintenance of patriarchal social order (As cited in: Okorafor).
One has to take two factors into account to understand how sexism in rap music originates. The first reason for sexism is a lack of self-esteem that black rappers want to compensate by degrading women. The other reason for sexism in rap is that our whole society is sexist and therefore the music in our society is too. In rap music it is only done more blatantly and unapologetic.
Consider this: there is a glaring double standard in the way that we talk about hip-hop music and misogyny.
There's been a resurgence of both interest and criticism of the '90s rap group N.W.A ever since promotion for the new music biopic "Straight Outta Compton" began earlier this year. The film, chronicling the gangsta rap group's rise to fame, has been praised for highlighting the parallels of racial tensions between 1987 and today. It has also been commended for humanizing a group that was largely demonized in their day for their blunt lyrics about life in the hood.
N.W.A in 1991, after the departure of founding member Ice Cube
But "Straight Outta Compton" has also faced some harsh (and valid) criticism, mostly because it largely glosses over the rap group's unapologetic sexism. Key female N.W.A collaborators like rap artist Yo-Yo have been omitted entirely from the film, while the overall presence of women has been relegated to mothers, girlfriends, and groupies, all in the periphery. The group's most notorious instance of violence and misogyny, where Dr. Dre viciously assaulted hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes in 1991, isn't addressed at all.
The film's release has forced the remaining members to address their treatment of women in the past. In an interview for the August 2015 issue of Rolling Stone, rapper Ice Cube vehemently defended use of the words "bitches" and "hoes."
“If you’re a bitch, you’re probably not going to like us. If you’re a ho, you probably don’t like us. If you’re not a ho or a bitch, don’t be jumping to the defense of these despicable females," the rapper/actor explained.
He continued, "I never understood why an upstanding lady would even think we’re talking about her.”
The interview has added fuel to the ongoing scrutiny that Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and N.W.A have received over the past few weeks.
Ice Cube in "Boyz n the Hood"
Since the 1980s, hip-hop artists have been accused of objectifying women, demeaning women, and promoting violence and sexual abuse against women. They're guilty of colorism, too -- the praise of "lightskinned hoes" and the denigration of darker skinned women is evident even in the controversial casting call for "Straight Outta Compton."
In examining hip-hop's past treatment of women as it relates to N.W.A, we're forced to appraise how hip-hop treats women today. It's safe to say that not much has changed.
Last year, Rick Ross ignorantly included a drug-rape lyric in a verse for the song "U.O.E.N.O," while Lil Wayne had to apologize for the lyric, "beat the pussy up like Emmett Till." Kanye's West's last album "Yeezus," highly divisive, has been called out as one long hate letter to women, and objectifying music videos from artists like Drake and 2 Chainz persist.
Kanye West holding a woman's decapitated head in the video for "Monster"
Hip-hop has a long, sordid, and complex relationship with women. Female MCs including Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Salt-N-Peppa, Lil Kim, and Nicki Minaj still aren't taken seriously as lyricists in a male-dominated genre driven by bravado and machismo, where the distinction between "despicable females" and "upstanding ladies" is made on the whim of male artists.
But it's not just hip-hop that has a misogyny problem. All music does. Rap music isn't the only genre with degrading and demeaning lyrics about women. Videos like Warrant's "Cherry Pie" featuring scantily clad models came before, during, and after some of the most objectifying rap videos.
A moment from Warrant's "Cherry Pie" music video
Sexism is rampant in the punk, metal, and indie rock scenes. And while there's been criticism of non-rap genres before -- the campaign for parental advisories and censorship of hair metal bands in the 1980s for instance -- hip-hop seems to be an easy and constant target.
It makes sense why it's most often the scapegoat. Hip-hop is global, wildly popular, and mainstream in a way that many rock genres aren't nowadays. But there are complexities in the way that hip-hop misogyny must be approached. We can't talk about hip-hop, an art form born in the Bronx and popularized by black and Latino youth, without talking about race. Tied up in these critiques are perceived ideas about black masculinity as aggressive, toxic, inherently dangerous. It's not just the music, but who is making the music that seems to make it so offensive.
So how do we reconcile this?
This isn't an argument for absolving hip-hop of its ongoing sins. And it isn't to say that one form of misogyny in music is worse than another -- a Dr. Dre song called "Bitches Ain't Shit" should be critiqued the same way as a NOFX song called "Punch Her In The Cunt." But we must also address the fact that the narrative of male hip-hop artists universally hating women persists, while there continues to be very little critique of other, white-dominated genres.
Critiques of hip-hop must be contextualized. First of all, not all hip-hop perpetuates sexism. And rape, violence, and the degradation of woman are not a "black thing." Sexism in rap music didn't spring forth solely from black culture, which seems to be implicit in commentary about hip-hop. Rather, the sexism we see in some hip-hop music is a reflection of the sexism that we see in society as a whole. It's important to remember this.
Failing to critique other genres of music ultimately does a disservice to all women. When we focus the debate solely on hip-hop, we narrow problems like sexual violence and abuse to a very specific group, but don't talk about the ways these issues manifest in other genres and impact a much wider range of women. With the scope so limited, how much change can we actually expect?
Hip-hop most definitely has a problem with women, and it's one that needs to be addressed in a real way. That's clearly evident by the fact that, 20 years later, Ice Cube can still defend the music he made with N.W.A -- seminal, but still highly problematic. What's disturbing though is that while we're at least reckoining and grappling with the realities of hip-hop, how we can both love the music and critique it in a meaningful way, the same conversation about other genres hasn't really started. It isn't right that the totality of hip-hop is thrown under the bus while the rest of a super sexist industry gets a pass from having to actually deal with its relationship to women. It's a subtle, but profound double standard, and it needs to be acknowledged.
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