Go ahead. Ask me to rap Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” or Nicki Minaj’s verse from “Bottoms Up” by Trey Songz. Don’t even get me started on “Low” by Flo Rida and T-Pain. I spent my idle time in middle school and high school replaying these jams until the lyrics were ingrained in my brain. Granted, these were the radio-approved mainstream rap hits, but they’re rap hits nonetheless.
I have been a feminist for as long as I can remember—and I’ve been a rap enthusiast for nearly as long as I’ve been a feminist. From my days riding the school bus and hearing “In da Club” by 50 Cent (censored, of course), I’ve always had an affinity for hip-hop.
I was enamored with the genre’s catchy hooks, but as I listened, something began to nag at me. It bothered me when my favorite artists referred to women as “hoes” and “bitches,” regardless of how well these words fit into their rhyme schemes. It bothered me how “no homo” and “faggot” would surface amidst the aggressive lines rapped by the likes of Eminem. It bothered me when Lil Wayne would casually reference “pussy poppin’” and a “Sicilian bitch with long hair,” and denounce his rap rivals’ “faggot bullshit.”
I was confused by my conflicting emotional reactions to the music that I ultimately loved. On one hand, I found myself spitting lyrics and pop-lock-dropping to the beats. On the other hand, I took personal offense when my favorite artists chose to glorify misogyny and homophobia. As a queer woman of color, how am I supposed to feel when 2 Chainz tells me that he wants a “big booty ho” for his birthday?
Of course, rap and hip-hop do not exist outside of social context. In her 1994 article published in Z Magazine, feminist scholar bell hooks points out that the brand of black hip-hop masculinity that spews such homophobia and misogyny is rooted in the dominant norms of American society: “When young black males labor in the plantations of misogyny and sexism to produce gangsta rap, their right to speak this violence and be materially rewarded is extended to them by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Far from being an expression of their ‘manhood,’ it is an expression of their own subjugation and humiliation by more powerful, less visible forces of patriarchal gangsterism.”
In other words, before we destroy the sexist and heteronormative traditions present in hip hop, we need to destroy the sexist and heteronormative traditions present in mainstream society. The negative values present in hip-hop culture – materialism, violence, objectification and abuse of women, heterosexism – are all present in the mainstream culture that is ultimately dictated by the ones with the most privilege: straight, white, wealthy cis-males. The power dynamics of class and race in American society have created a flat, insulting image of black masculinity. Black men assert their authority through hip-hop by degrading other oppressed groups and flaunting materialistic attitudes. The oppression of the black community is no excuse for the sexism and homophobia present in some rap, but when analyzing and critiquing this music, we must be sure not to simply blame black hip-hop for perpetuating patriarchy.
Race and class play a large role in the attitudes that can be found in rap lyrics. Many hip-hop artists are either people of color, former residents of housing projects, or both. Jay-Z comes from Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects; Yelawolf references his trailer park origins in his lyrics. In their 2006 article for the Journal of Black Studies, Terri M. Adams and Douglas B. Fuller try to determine reasons for including blatant misogyny in rap lyrics. One potential reason, according to Adams and Fuller, is that by degrading women, these rappers are able to assert their own masculinity, boosting themselves up in a world where they are oppressed because of their race and/or class. In addition, Adams and Fuller point out that the business of misogynistic hip-hop is lucrative. Even if artists don’t believe what they rap, there is a degree of complacency and conformity required to make it in the hip-hop world: if others have gotten successful by rapping about female degradation, it’s a path that clearly works.
As I tried to contextualize the womanizing, gay-bashing hip-hop persona that is often associated with American rappers, I began to trace the cash flow of the industry. Most hip-hop artists in the United States have signed with Universal Music Group or its subsidiaries, which include Island Def Jam Recordings. While sub-groups operate under large-scale music groups, the money filters up, from artists to managers, all the way up to chairmen and CEOs. The big man at Universal Music Group is chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge. Surprise! He’s a white, cisgender man. While rap might glorify having copious dough (a la Busta Rhymes’s “Arab Money,” a song that’s problematic in its own ways), rappers still give up some of their earnings to the rich white men in charge. Unfortunately, with their earnings goes some of their autonomy.
The Crunk Feminist Collective has prepared a list of pointers for critiquing hip-hop, including embracing ambivalence and contextualizing/situating critique. Critiquing hip-hop for homophobia and sexism can be difficult, because the same qualities can be found, less explicitly, in other musical genres. As much as I love (and want to marry) Sara Quin of the indie duo Tegan & Sara, her criticism of Tyler the Creator is tough to swallow—she criticizes misogyny and homophobia in rap, but from a place of privilege, demonstrating a class-blind and race-blind perspective. Quin falls into the trap that many other white feminists fall into: she criticizes only black hip-hop for its misogyny and homophobia, conveniently ignoring more white-dominated genres. All genres of music contain problematic lyrics and verses, ignorant and insensitive phrases that marginalize oppressed groups. Quin attacks Tyler the Creator without considering that he is an artist within a culture built from experiences living in poor urban communities of color. Poverty and racism are common themes in hip-hop, in addition to some of the slurs or problematic phrases that are commonly used in these communities. Quin is a white, cis female raised in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Her experiences are undoubtedly different from the experiences of the average hip-hop artist. Quin expects rappers to have the exact same understanding of what is problematic as she does. In actuality, the differing experiences of Quin and many hip-hop artists means that Quin’s expectations are not realistic. In her criticism of Tyler the Creator, Quin doesn’t seem to have an understanding of the race and class differences that sometimes lead to the problematic phrases that she attacks. She argues, “In this case I don’t think race or class actually has anything to do with his hateful message but has EVERYTHING to do with why everyone refuses to admonish him for that message.” This is the sort of race-blindness and class-blindness that weakens her critique. She believes that the media has given Tyler the Creator a pass, allowing him to say whatever he wants. True, Tyler the Creator spits some very problematic lines, but without an understanding of where these lines come from, her criticism is weak.
With that contextualizing disclaimer, I can begin to take apart some of the common tropes in rap that perpetuate problematic perceptions of females and queer individuals. The easiest way to examine these tropes is by catching them in action – through the work of Eminem and Nicki Minaj.
While this white rapper refuses to use the n-word, it’s very clear that he’s not afraid to spit rhymes about killing bitches and calling girls “nothing but sluts,” titling one of his songs “Kill You.” He ends this song with a disclaimer: “Haha, I’m just playing, ladies. You know I love you.” But does he really love women if he’s willing to joke about choking, raping and drugging them?
As a white hip-hop artist, Eminem defies the misconception that rap’s misogyny and homophobia are solely rooted in black culture. But by writing lyrics that discuss violence against women, Eminem is buying into the culture of hip-hop, a culture that seems to inherently promote aggression in the form of physical violence, threats, and problematic “playing” about sensitive topics. In the song “Love the Way You Lie,” a collaboration with domestic abuse survivor Rihanna, Eminem justifies clawing and biting women by explaining that he gets “lost in the moments” and claiming that he doesn’t know his own strength. As much as he raps about physically abusing women, he also frequently professes his love for his daughters (see “Hailie’s Song,” “Mockingbird,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “It’s OK” for reference). How can he, as a father, rap about abusing women while simultaneously discussing how his daughters need protection, love and care? This further proves how Eminems’ work reflects societal messages about females in his work, channeling the idea that they are in need of protection while simultaneously describing them as outlets of anger.
In a male-dominated art form like hip-hop, it’s extremely difficult for female rappers to get as much publicity and support as their male counterparts, especially when they face extra barriers such as objectification and trivialization. Thus, on one hand, Nicki Minaj is the epitome of an empowered female, but on the other hand, she perpetuates the same attitudes that have kept other female artists from breaking into the rap game.
Minaj has made it into the world of hip-hop through her tight rhymes, but also through her use of the common “diss” factor seen in hip-hop. Since the beginning of her rap career, Minaj has been feuding with fellow female rapper Lil Kim. Many believe that Minaj’s single “Stupid Hoe” is directed at Lil Kim, but regardless, the song is aggressive to Minaj’s fellow females – especially with lines like “you can suck my diznick” and “I piss on bitches.” Minaj aggressively raps about conquering bitches and hoes in “Roman’s Revenge,” a collaboration with Eminem. In this particular track, Minaj tells a “bitch” to “play the back” and tells a “ho” that she’ll be wrapping her coffin “with a bow.” Eminem follows up, declaring that all of his “faggot” enemies can “suck it, no homo.” Hip hop, unfortunately, is disproportionately focused on rival-shaming and aggressive assertion as the authority. But while bragging may be part of the game, that doesn’t mean that boasts need to be accompanied by undercuts to others.
On another note, Nicki Minaj is the perfect example of how female hip-hop artists are subjected to unfair media attention. For example, the press frequently questions the legitimacy of Minaj’s buttocks and breasts. It seems like the media has (once again) fixated on the “real or fake” debate when it comes to a female celebrity’s body. At the same time, the media promotes a very specific body type, especially for females in hip-hop (think of the vixens seen in nearly every hip-hop music video in existence). If Minaj’s figure isn’t 100 percent organic, why should she be blamed? She’s made a personal cosmetic decision, and in fact, the decision may have stemmed from criticism and speculation from the very reporters who are now scrutinizing her breasts and buttocks. Despite the narrow mold that female hip-hop personas are forced into, male rappers come in all shapes and sizes without facing media harassment. Minaj, one of the most high-profile female rappers today is a victim of both sexism and objectification.
As much as aspects of hip hop irk me, I can’t quit it. It still qualifies as an art form to me. Rap lyrics require a degree of creativity and ingenuity, and I respect the artists who can string together rhymes much better than I can. I’m just as grateful for the producers and artists who create the beats and mixes underneath rap and lyrics. As far as the instances of misogyny and homophobia that I’ve encountered in this genre, I try look at them with a critical and enlightened eye. Hip hop is here to stay, and it shares some of its sexist and heteronormative traits with other genres of music. While it can be, at times, more blatantly problematic, it deserves an audience. Dating back to the days of Gil Scott-Heron and other early rappers, it is still a form of expression derived from the African American experience.
But what can we do to raise consciousness for audiences and artists? For feminists like myself who are fans of hip-hop, we can continue to listen, but with enlightened ears. We can still be critical of problematic lyrics and ideas in the genre, but we also need to cast a wide net, critically listening to other genres as well. This is an opportunity – it’s time to begin speaking up about what hip-hop is, and what it isn’t. If a lyric is problematic, we can separate our love of the genre from our dislike of misogyny and heterosexism. It should be possible to love rappers and hip-hop artists while still critically viewing their work and calling them out for playing into old, problematic tropes. By raising our voices as anti-racists and feminists, we can begin to have productive dialogue around how to make hip-hop as accessible and enjoyable as possible, for all.