By a Paradigm Shift staff member
The majority of my response is informed by author, professor, feminist icon, cultural critic, and one of my most beloved role models, bell hooks. I also had the wonderful opportunity to attend a fabulous conference “The Message is in the Music: Hip Hop Feminism, Riot Grrl, Latina Music, and More” hosted by the Women’s History department at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY (march 5 & 6, 2010.)
It is important to properly frame the portrayal of women in hip hop within the context of how women are framed in the larger capitalist entertainment industry. Women hip hop artists are business women just like the men in the hip hop industry. They are selling themselves and their music as a product for mass consumption. The forces driving these men and women are the same that motivate all people who wish to succeed in our society, those that perpetuate the values of a patriarchal capitalist culture. It is no surprise then that often the most successful artists rely on the strategies that are in line with producing a product with maximum profit—that which condone and reinforce notions of misogyny, anti-feminism, and capitalism. It may seem unfair then to focus on women hip hop artists, or any businesswomen, as those who should be any different from those that wish to make a large profit. However, it is our obligation as consumers to analyze the impact of the presence of these women in the industry, as well as their ability to promote a change in those values they are using to sell themselves. Female hip artists may be relying on sexist or pornographic representations of themselves and their music, but they are also imploring a unique female voice in a hyper-masculine, male dominated music industry. Accepting that female MCs are balancing strategies of success with striving to create an individual strong persona, one can then dive into critiquing the larger impact of their audio/visual representation, content of their work, and influence to their audience.
I believe there are three ways to begin to discuss women in hip hop and their role as change makers in the music industry. The first is by looking at the packing of themselves as a product- their appearance, their “persona,” the work that is done to create a celebrity character of themselves. The Second is by looking at the lyrics of their songs- what the content is focusing on, if there is a message that is being communicated, if they collaborate with specific artists, etc. And the third, is really being creative at looking at how their overarching presence is affecting hip hop and the consumers who engage with the industry. I do believe female MCs have a positive presence for women, even if they are presenting themselves in a hyper-sexualized way, and even if the content of their songs is not considered pro-feminist. It certainly depends on the specific artist and how her career fit into these three categories of critique, but I do believe all female MCs are doing us a great service in at least giving women a voice when it comes to participating in the sphere of Hip Hop.
When I attended the Women’s History Conference at Sarah Lawrence on Hip Hop Feminism, I was expecting a room full of scholars with arsenals of negative critique. It just seemed so obvious that Hip Hop openly exploits and subjugates women’s bodies, treating most women as goods or for their sexual services, to be consumed and acquired along with the rich and famous lifestyle (cash money hoes, right?). My experience at the conference was fortunately quite the opposite! Most of the panelists expressed a deep fondness and connection with the Hip Hop genre and really focused on looking toward the positives of female MCs as well as the new “independent woman” archetype that has become popular in current songs. One thing that I found particularly enlightening from this conference was the notion that Hip Hop was the most accessible way for Black Women to articulate a voice in mass media. As an audience we were asked- what place in our society do Black Women’s voices occupy? Where in any form of entertainment can we find a large amount of Black Women’s voices that can help shape communities and influence young black youth? What better place to create a dialogue about feminism than Hip Hop, a genre that is authentic to the Black community, accessible, and popular for the masses? Many panelists urged us to accept the flaws of the hyper-sexualized male dominated Hip Hop industry, and to see the genre as a vehicle for furthering discussion about feminist issues specifically for Black women.
I agree that Hip Hop can serve as an area for Black female voice to thrive. However, it is important as listeners that we affirm the positives of female MC performances and also vocalize our disapproval of the negatives aspects (such as hyper-sexualization, anti-woman lyrics, etc.).
I feel that Hip hop is a music genre that uses the presentation of power very effectively. The most successful hip hop artists are those that describe their power, whether its wealth, strength, sexual prowess, intelligence, or career. Hip Hop MCs are the voices of that power. A female MC is an unusual presence because she harnesses this authority or this voice of power, usually reserved only for men. I think that the severe lack of women in rap and hip hop is specifically related to this notion, that our society is uncomfortable with women accessing power unless they conform in very specific ways to almost assure men that they aren’t a threat. This is where someone like Nicki Minaj or Lil Kim comes in. These women are POWERFUL. They are the strong, fierce, and unforgiving voices of women in hip hop. To balance this, they find that they must hyper-sexualize their bodies and create pleasing representations of themselves, almost pornographically unreal representations, so as not to come off as being a threat to male power. If they can be consumed as sex objects, they can be denied dominance.
Commenting on Hip Hop’s evolution to a harder more “thug” presence, Missy Elliot reminds us:
“Yo its ok though, you know if you wanna be hard and ice grilled and Harlem shake at the same time, whatever, let’s just have fun. It’s Hip Hop man, this is Hip Hop.” – Missy Elliot, “Work It” Under Construction, 2003
I think its also important to be able to step back from critically analyzing hip hop every now and then to remember that it is a form of entertainment. I love Nicki Minaj and the majority of her work because I find her voice to be so powerful and playful at the same time. I hear her lyrics and don’t necessarily relate to them, but what I do enjoy is hearing a female voice on the radio, tv, and internet, that holds such authority and power. One of my favorite things Nicki Minaj does is laugh in her tracks. She actually giggles, but either way I love that. Laughter is an extremely powerful tool that connotes a position of dominance (being “in” on the joke). When Nicki Minaj laughs I want to laugh a long with her. I’m becoming a very big hip hop fan and I agree with Missy Elliot—let’s have some fun!—- but seriously, we still have a long way to go…
As feminists we should engage with all sorts of media and really encourage women to participate in male-dominated spheres. But more importantly, we should be engaging in these kinds of critiques constantly, to affirm the positives aspects of hip hop and what it can do as an accessible and popular form of entertainment and influence in our society.
Here is Me’Shell Ndegéocello, a female hip hop artist i believe is powerful without compromising her presence:
(music begins around 40 seconds in)