by Mike Vinti
Between Spotify releasing data showing that hip hop is the most widely listened to genre of music, and the imminent release of Straight Outta Compton: The Movie, rap has been in the news a lot recently. With the spotlight firmly on Dr. Dre & Co., and in light of a fantastic article for Gawker by journalist and MC Dee Barnes, detailing the abuse she faced from the former NWA member and how women were excluded from the movie, questions have begun to be asked about the treatment of women in hip hop.
In many ways these questions are long overdue. As with many other genres, women have been all but erased from the popular narrative of hip hop’s history, and many rappers still use misogynistic language today. The latter of these is the most frequent, and most generalised, complaint levelled against hip hop and rap, and has been since the genre reached mainstream popularity.
However, discussion around misogyny in hip hop has always been somewhat limited. Those who most frequently criticise hip hop and rap for its perceived attitude towards women are often older, white, and somewhat ironically, male. In short, not exactly the demographic with the best understanding of the genre’s nuance or roots. This often means that debates around misogyny in hip hop can become reactionary, scapegoating the black community and dismissing a diverse genre of music on the basis that some artists within it hold problematic views.
As with many other genres, women have been all but erased from the popular narrative of hip hop’s history, and many rappers still use misogynistic language today.
This is probably not an accident. White establishment figures, such as Bill O’Reilly, often distort legitimate criticisms over the objectification of women in rap into strawmen intended to discredit what has always been a rebellious and empowering art-form for members of the black community, both men and women. The same has happened with discussions over violence, gang and drug references in hip hop as well.
Similarly white feminists, a group in which I class myself, often reject hip hop on the grounds of misogyny, with as little understanding of the genre as its more conservative critics.
This isn’t to say we should excuse these attitudes or that no discussion can take place over the use of misogynistic language in rap.
Hip-hop is the music of the oppressed, and surprisingly those living in oppressed communities haven’t taken too well to a bunch of middle-class white people lecturing them about the language they use to refer to women. As Snoop Dogg highlighted earlier this year when questioned about his use of such language, these attitudes rarely stem from an individual’s choice and more often than not have been internalised by a number of factors including poverty and sub-par education.
This isn’t to say we should excuse these attitudes or that no discussion can take place over the use of misogynistic language in rap. Challenging problematic attitudes in all aspects of culture is important for its progression; however the white middle classes aren’t necessarily the ones who should be leading this progression when it comes to rap, a genre with its roots in poor, black communities. In order to have a progressive discussion about misogyny in rap, intersectionality is key — women are not the only oppressed group in hip hop.
Part of that discussion will involve many of those who levy these criticisms taking a step back and admitting perhaps it isn’t their place to criticise. Equally though, it will involve those with a love for and understanding of hip hop stepping up and confronting misogyny in a progressive way, championing the wealth of non-misogynistic rappers and carving a higher profile space for women in the hip hop community.
I love hip hop and most other forms of rap music. However I’m a white man living in a suburban town in the UK, I have no lived experience that makes me qualified to dismiss the attitudes of someone growing up in inner city America, particularly not if they’re a minority. Similarly I have no right to speak on behalf of, primarily black, women and decide what is or isn’t offensive to them. Of course I am still able to find misogyny in rap problematic and I have the right to speak out against it, but in doing so I must acknowledge that I’m not part of the community which has created this music and I never will be.
This goes beyond race or gender. There are plenty of white artists in hip hop and while often overlooked, there have always been many female MCs, who are far better placed to challenge misogyny in rap music than I, and many of them do regularly.
The point is, if you’re a fan of hip hop but you lack the lived experience to really get to grips with and challenge aspects of it you find problematic, then the best you can do is facilitate the discussion. Seek out music by female and feminist MCs, learn about how women have contributed to hip hop since its inception and share Dee Barnes’ article with your friends, share it with everyone you can you can — its fucking brilliant. Start a conversation, but accept the fact you’re only one side of it.
there have always been many female MCs, who are far better placed to challenge misogyny in rap music than I, and many of them do regularly
Oh and if you’re not a fan of hip hop because you’ve internalised ideas about misogyny within the genre, look a little deeper. Listen to some De La Soul and Lauryn Hill, read up on Salt ‘n’ Pepa, hell even just put on some TLC; it’s a broad genre and if Spotify’s correct, it’s the most popular in the world, don’t sleep.
This article, obviously, is in no way definitive and there is a multitude of perspectives on misogyny in rap that haven’t been addressed here, nor has it addressed the age-old debate about separating art from the artist who created it. Feel free to hit up the comments with criticisms or counterpoints to anything written above.