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.