Can smart women enjoy hip hop?

Above ... Nicki Minaj.

Above ... Nicki Minaj. Photo: Getty Images

I love rap music. And when I say rap music, I don’t mean conscious hip-hop, the sort that discusses social and political issues through intricate internal rhyme structures. No, no, gentle reader, I mean I love Soulja Boy, T.I., 50 Cent, in short the sort of music that rhymes  ‘party’ with ‘Bacardi’ (for the sake of brevity, please consider most of these links NSFW unless you work for the Swearing Bureau of Australia.) On my iPod Nicki Minaj happily hangs out between Nick Lowe and Nico and I once accidentally greeted a neighbour in my underground garage by blaring “Won’t you back that ass up?” through my rolled-down car window. To my ears there is no other genre of music that has the same energy, vibrancy and just general earworminess that I find in so many rap singles.

However my love is constantly tested by the consistently horrible attitudes towards women (and while I know rap is not everyone’s cup of tea, this is probably a familiar feeling to any feminist reading this who likes genres that are traditionally unfriendly, non-inclusive or downright derogatory to women such as video gaming, heavy metal or action movies.) It seems like ever since Snoop Dogg spat out “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks” that every second rap song has to include hateful use of the word “bitch” as proof of its aggressive machismo. This is a shame because rap music wasn’t always so unwelcoming to women and in fact in its earlier years had many amazing female MCs (most memorably Salt-N-Pepa’s ultra catchy discussion of sex in 1991, Queen Latifah asking “Who you calling a bitch?” in 1993 and Missy Elliott continuing to question the use of the word and attempt to reclaim it with She’s a Bitch in 1999.) It really disappoints me that one of the last female rappers I got excited about, the extremely talented Nicki Minaj, continues to release songs like Stupid Hoe that cement rather than fight these tired stereotypes of women. There’s enough interest in the use of the word “bitch” in rap music that the rumour that Jay-Z was retiring it from his vocab after the birth of his daughter spread like wildfire to the point his representatives ended up releasing a statement that it was untrue (and given that a staggering 50 per cent of his songs contain the word it would have required extensive reworking of his back catalogue...)

Some might argue that if I don’t like the misogynistic lyrics that litter rap music I should just stop listening to it, but I don’t think that’s the answer. Firstly, there is very little in this life that doesn’t have both its positives and negatives and if I narrowed what pop culture I consumed to that which I felt 100 per cent ideologically comfortable with I would spend 98 per cent of my time staring at my blank bedroom wall. It’s possible to have liked Judd Apatow’s work in The 40-Year-Old Virgin but not enjoy his depiction of women as shrewish in Knocked Up. It’s possible to binge watch the TV series Game of Thrones but at times find its depiction of sex and female nudity sensationalist and unnecessary to the plot. And similarly I can love the beat and flow on Lil Wayne’s Let the Beat Build, but still believe it would be improved by changing the sexist lyrics.

Secondly, I think there’s an important lesson to be seen in the pop genre. The pop charts, despite its many, many flaws (first and foremost almost everything that David Guetta hath wrought), does seem to commercially reward diversity and strength in females, with acts such as Florence and the Machine, Adele, Lady Gaga and Pink all enjoying massive sales. I believe the reason for that is because it’s predominantly females who are marketed to and consume pop music, so it’s unsurprising to see a less narrowly defined, objectified version of femininity. (And interestingly this has been mirrored in other facets of mainstream popular culture with large audiences of females, such as in cinema with the success of Bridesmaids and on TV with a whole slew of creators like Lena Dunham, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler making and starring in female-focused hits with interesting, multi-faceted female characters.) If we decide to simply opt-out of consuming certain genres that we like but that have a tradition of not being women-friendly it doesn’t achieve anything towards having better representations of females. All that is achieved is a diminishment of our pop culture pleasures, so instead I’d rather enjoy it but critique the aspects that are problematic.

And I do believe these discussions, whether about sexism, racism or homophobia, do reach the ears of those who create these works. Last month Kanye West  tweeted “Is the word bitch acceptable?” presumably in response to debate over his “ode” to Kim Kardashian, titled Perfect Bitch. Lupe Fiasco’s single Bitch Bad continues the dialogue about the history of this term in rap (though I must warn you while the hook starts promisingly with “Bitch bad, woman good”, it takes a swerve into eye-rollingly conservative territory by following up with “Lady better, greatest motherhood”.) And Lena Dunham pledged to include more people of colour in the next season of Girls in response to viewers who wanted to see more racial diversity.

For those of us who love problematic pop culture the answer isn’t to turn it off, but to keep agitating for art that retains what makes it great, while striving to improve upon itself. And perhaps one day we’ll again hear the news that Jay-Z has decided to dump the word “bitch” as a lazy and stale lyrical term – but this time it won’t be a hoax.

 

13 comments

  • Nicole Elphick....likes gansta rap music. MIND. BLOWN. I guess one should never judge a book by its cover. Soulja Boy…really….I can’t let that pass. Any thoughts on Rick Ross? He has apparently “changed the game”…whatever that means. As a ‘black’ male I am expected to like rap music whilst regularly getting ‘crunk’ in the club with Ciroc Vodka and Hennessey, dance like Chris Brown (we can like him now right?) and basically be a player and use the N-word all the time. While true in some parts, I don’t mind a bit of screaming by Maynard James Keenan from Tool or, if the mood strikes, deep soulful house/jazz music heck throw in some classical. I guess the beauty of living in this generation is that I am not restricted by perceived culture/appearance to have a preference for a specific genre of music.

    My perceptions of rap music are that artists do a dis-service by using the N-word and general sexism. But it is mainly about the beat and with Swizz-Beats, Neptunes, Q-Tip…who could blame you.

    Commenter
    Boston_Globe
    Location
    Brisvegas
    Date and time
    November 09, 2012, 9:18AM
    • Well boston_globe, you must be sippin' on Petrone? Kidding.

      Rick Ross I am in two minds about. His alter ego is certainly an interesting choice, but it can be a little one dimensional at times, we get it, you pretend to distribute yayo.

      That being said, Everyday I am Hustlin is one of my favourite rap videos of all time (and he keeps his shirt ON!).

      There is a lot of love for him in Miami.

      Commenter
      Mjb
      Location
      Melbs
      Date and time
      November 09, 2012, 10:44AM
  • i say 'hell yeah' smart women can enjoy hip hop, rap, r'n'b. i have long lived as a culturally diverse women in the body of a white female architect. for a long time my explanation for the nicki minaj, drake, kanye, lil wayne and t-pain addiction is that my husband is part African american. but you know what, i am proud to say i loved it before we met and i will continue to, regardless of the strange looks i get with 3 baby boys in the back of my 8 seater car at the traffic lights with 'nobodys perfect-j cole/missy' or 'like me-2chainz/weeknd' blaring inside.

    Commenter
    truhenare
    Location
    wyndham
    Date and time
    November 09, 2012, 9:33AM
    • I have long thought it strange that so much of hip hop is so sexist and even hateful towards women whilst also railing against racism. I wonder while they can't see the immense hypocrisy.

      Commenter
      Libby
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      November 09, 2012, 9:40AM
      • You suggest we should agitate for change, but how do we do that?
        I would have thought the best way was to vote with our wallets. To stop buying and supporting misogynistic music in favour of stuff like Jurassic 5, Ritmo Machine and Lupe Fiasco (despite your disparaging comment, he at least carries a message we can be proud of), is to effect change by alerting the marketplace that abusive content isn't what is wanted.
        What an incredibly defeatist attitude to assert that the answer isn't to turn off. That is the only answer. If you're going to listen to Nicki Minaj and then complain about it, you are a sado-masochist. If you want female hip-hop stars to be proud of, start with Ana Tijioux and Ladi6, and then maybe switch off Fox FM.

        Commenter
        Heisenberg
        Location
        Townsville
        Date and time
        November 09, 2012, 10:30AM
        • Rejoice!!! This article captures how I feel about rap and hip-hop!

          I've 'come back to rap' (my favourite musical genre as a child) after many years of ignoring it because it was 'bad'. My mother confiscated my rap tapes (Snoop, 2Pac, WuTang, Ice Cube) after my Grade 4 teacher disapproved of my dance to Salt n Peppa's Whatta Man for show and tell! At this point I moved on from rap, as it was for 'bad' kids. I abandoned rap.

          My love for rap was 'reignited' in 2006, when I heard Lup Fiasco's single Kick Push. This is the track that got me back into rap! I got on YouTube and started watching videos of rappers I loved as a child. As an adult, I understood the lyrics. I felt. I was hooked.

          While I love conscious hip-hop (Lupe, Mos Def, Common...) but there is something about rap (particularly the Dirty South) I just love! I love blaring it loud and dancing like a fool (sorry, can't dance like Breezy, but a girl can dream).

          Give me some 2Chainz, Birdman, Luda, Lil Jon, Tyga Jeezy, J.Cole, Drake (that mixtape!)and I am in musical heaven!

          And I too am now dating an African American who thinks a little, white girl from Australia that loves rap is rather amusing.

          Commenter
          Mjb
          Location
          Melbs
          Date and time
          November 09, 2012, 10:34AM
          • strangely reminiscent of Chris Rock on how hard it is to defend rap music
            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWvi9dfB4jU (funny but NSFW)

            Commenter
            Hyperion
            Date and time
            November 09, 2012, 10:44AM
            • I'm a white middle-aged professional woman; I consider myself a capital 'f' Feminist and I also just so happen to love rap in all its forms, including Kanye, Jay Z etc. While I battled internally witih the often overt sexism in the lyrics of many of my favourite songs (which I love for the music, the beat, the poetry, the imagery, the humour), I now consider these lyrics to be expressions of the artist's experience, just as any expressions of anger against authority, low self-esteem (often over compensated with lots of swagger), or tales of violence or experiences of racism are.

              Commenter
              Nell
              Location
              Melbourne
              Date and time
              November 09, 2012, 11:36AM
              • Good topic. I'd be interested in what actual music writers had to say about this. Elmo Keep comes to mind.

                Commenter
                Yours, Etc
                Location
                Northcote
                Date and time
                November 09, 2012, 11:37AM
                • If you were born with any kind of rhythm or even know how to spell it, you should like rap and hip hop. Also there are plenty of female rappers/ hip hop artists that are rapping about empowerment and being independent. Even objectifying men. Woah.

                  Commenter
                  Carla_bunga
                  Date and time
                  November 09, 2012, 11:59AM

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