I have been thinking about the “Take Back the Music” project by Essence magazine ever since I read about it on Ms. Musings.
The first rap song I ever heard was 2 Live Crew’s “Me Too Horny,” soon followed by “Banned in the USA.” I vaguely remember hearing about the “Cop Killer” uproar and calling the local radio station to request it for a Friday night playlist. The DJ laughed at me – I just wanted to hear it and find what all the fuss was about. These were the days before easily accessible mp3s.
I was far too young to be listening to these kinds of messages, but I do remember relishing them for the taboo. Even MTV had yet to embrace rap and hip hop culture except for a nightly hour-long show.
Not having a political imagination, I saw these musical examples as the ultimate in verboten culture. They were bad not only because the adults around me didn’t understand the message, but because most adults I knew could not understand the messengers either. Journalists like Kevin Powell had not come forth to lend legitimacy and a critical lens to the often contradictory messages, and to point out as well that hip hop does not have the corner on misogyny, faux masculinity, prejudice, and homophobia monopolized.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with my mother, a special ed teacher bothered by a young boy who repeatedly said his dad was a pimp. She was concerned about his home life until I explained to her that to call someone “pimp” is slang for the ancient “cool,” perhaps “the ultimate in self-advertisement.” In other words, as distant and strange as this seemed to my mother (and at closer linguistic thought, to myself), the boy really respected his father.
I have always been fond of the artful “fuck off,” and in general, hip hop has always been more efficient at this attitudinal genre than most rock music. In addition, the raw feelings and emotions in much of hip hop are just as powerful as most rock music, if not more so because these come from a more politicized experience. Hip hop came from a consciousness birthed in the ’50s through the ’70s that finally came to a real fruition in the 1980s, a consciousness more realized than that of the average white boy rock star that preceeded the hip hop era. While the roots of major rock artists can be tied to poverty across time, race, and geography, the elements of race consciousness and radicalism were nearly nonexistent in the rock ballad era and atmosphere that was occurring simultaneously to the birth of rap music.
Whether or not today’s hip hop is in a state of arrested development, or primarily controlled by the greedy forces of capitalist hands, is something for the experts to argue, but not I.
Dr. B writes on her love affair with rap music:
I have to admit (not that everyone who knows me doesn’t already know) that rap music is my guilty pleasure. Ok, not even guilty. I love rap music.
Yeah, I figured that out when I went to her office hours one day and found her bumping Ludacris through her kickass computer speakers. She only looked slightly guilty as she turned down the volume.
I was around at the very beginning (ummm…yeah I was a baby) and I have been fascinated by the way that rap and hip hop culture have grown by leaps and bounds. So much so that folk like Eminem wanna claim it for themselves.
Rap music, in my opinion, has always been the music of the revolution. It started out talking about nasty food and bad living conditions in an amusing way and it has progressed to talking about the same conditions in a more violent way. What does that say about rap music? Hmmmmmm…perhaps that what has changed so radically is not the music itself, but the society that it tells of.
Rap music is rhetorical there’s no way around it. It’s telling of a time, a place, and a culture. It might not be your time, place, or culture but it’s somebody’s. Does this mean that I accept rap music and hip hop culture without critique? Ya’ll know better than that!
Rap music is violent and, yes, some of it even glorifies violence. Some rap music is misogynistic, homophobic, and prejudiced (I purposely don’t use racist, but that’s another post). But are these reasons to dismiss rap music and hip hop culture wholesale? Hell Naw!! These are reasons to analyze not only the music, but the culture and the situations that make this music
possible hell, necessary.
I’m with Dr. B: I adore rap music. I came to hip hop late, preferring the grunge thing and the punk thing through my more formative years, but having friends who exposed me to a wide variation of hip hop, I finally relented. It was a painful transition, beginning primarily with political dancehall and moving into the rediscovery of the artists I listened to with my friends. Eventually I realized that although I may not agree with or appreciate some of the messages in rap music, the artists were speaking, if not their own, then someone’s truths.
I wrote about my own love affair and the sometimes hypocritical-seeming disconnect between rap music and my politics this summer [slightly edited]:
“‘I’m such a bad feminist,’ I told Bryan the other day as I extolled the finer points of the Ghetto Boyz, one of the dirtier groups in old school hip hip. And should I mention that I just got a bunch of Three Six Mafia? Yup. Bad feminist.
“…As Jason points out, many of the women who hear these songs think, ‘They aren’t talking about me. Holla!’ and drop it like it’s hot, loving the music even as it degrades them. And yes, you can sometimes include me in that group. Why do I excuse it?
“One commentor at Negro, Please says, “…it’s part of a deeper issue with gender in american society. there’s a hypermasculinity present in hip-hop, but it’s not out of sync with the male-as-brut role of american culture.'”
At the end of this post, Lynne Johnson brought up a thought that could be valuable to feminist views of rap music. She says, “i think i take for granted that i’m intelligent enough to be able to separate myself from the music, in a way that i critique and analyze it. there are merits in some misogynist music – believe it or not? why do some of these males think and feel the way they do? what do their lyrics say about their psyche?”
Lynne concludes, to paraphrase, that many of our publicly successful peers have yet to mature. It might have something to do with the mystique of money and power, or being spoiled and spoiling themselves. Some say that all people have a price, that culture and beauty and integrity can be bought. I don’t agree with this one bit, and wonder at times where the artists of integrity and beauty are in hip hop. It’s simple: they are invisible.
Last semester I helped a friend compile a Powerpoint presentation on women in hip hop. The very general categorization of female representation in rap music was broken down into three parts: objects upon whom male sexuality is imposed or acted; those who overtly pander to the male gaze; and those who reject the exploitative modes of sexuality.
The video hoochie rarely holds any agency unless it is to confirm or receive male sexuality and power (and is unfortunately the object present in many of my favored songs). To Ludacris, varying modes of female sexuality is attributed to 1.) naked and 2.) not naked: ” In my videos I try to be versatile: Sometimes I have women dancing, and then, for example, in my Stand Up video, there are no naked women. I don’t mean to depict women in a certain way. The ones who want to shake what their mama gave them are going to do that whether they’re in videos or not.” I personally would urge Ludacris to think about women a tad more deeply than this.
The second category of women we addressed have agency and voice, but act primarily through modes of promiscuous and “nasty” sexuality. This in itself is not inherently bad although it does perpetuate myths of female sexuality, and oftentimes, myths surrounding a supposedly inherent uncontrollable sexuality attributed to blackness. Though we included several examples of mainstream artists, others like Trina and Princess Superstar have remained on the sidelines, serving as comparisons to male counterparts comparably assigned to their rap personas. However, Trina and Princess Superstar have managed to recast female sexuality as just as aggressive and primal as male sexuality is often perceived. This is not a negligible contribution to pop culture. If you didn’t notice, the picture to the right is of a magazine cover featuring Princess Superstar with the caption: “I’m a feminist with my tits out.” That might be the subject of another post.
The last category of women we addressed in the project were those who have rejected the primary role of sex kitten or sex object and concentrate on the embodiment of feminine power and talent, and often hold men responsible for their depiction of women through their own lyrics, while holding onto a positive and powerful sensuality. It seems that most artists find these women admirable peers in hip hop, women like Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, and Erykah Badu. These women seem to have fallen off the map in recent years, and other peers of theirs like Ursula Rucker and Sarah Jones get little to no visibility at all outside of diehard music junkies and feminist listeners. Then again, men who promote the respect of women in their lyrical content get little to no air time themselves. Artists like Blackalicious, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest and others are virtually off of the mainstream map.
This causes me to question whether the problem of women’s visibility is isolated with women alone, but about the backlash against the refusal to play to stereotypical gender roles.
Women who have defied traditional pop cultural roles of sexuality in any genre have been ignored, or relegated to a flash-in-the-pan, Lilith Fair category by most critics. Conversely, men who have broken from the typical misogynistic stream generally do so for only a song or two (like Tupac Shakur and his “Dear Momma” and “Keep Your Head Up” – though I believe Shakur is too complicated a subject to pin down like this), and given a significant amount of credibility for temporarily honoring womanhood between calling them bitches, hoes, and tip drills.
While I would like to see a shift in the popular imagination of women in media culture, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. Hip hop is a microculture, as easily defendable as it is abhorrent to most listeners, and as Dr. B indicates, is indicative of a slice of the United States that is not only revolutionary, but should command our attention.
Upcoming: Choice dirty hip hop downloads for your perusal and discussion.