Hip Hop, Capitalism, and Taking Back the Music

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I read with great interest Jonah Weiner’s recent Slate article decrying the absence of women in hip hop music. After providing a compelling (if not, in my opinion, entirely accurate) history of women in the genre, he explains the reasons for the disappearing act as follows:

For one thing, what most of the women mentioned above have in common is that their music rebuts and responds to guy-spun gender narratives. One effect of this is to make female rap seem second class, occurring outside the “real,” “primary” work of hip-hop canon building, even as it argues for first-class citizenship. When we hear the word rappers, we think of black males; they’re what feminists would call hip-hop’s unmarked category. This makes tough going for pretenders outside of this category, and it’s meant that many of the identities that female comers have carved for themselves.

I think that Mr. Weiner is onto something, but misses something even more fundamental, something that should be of interest to all feminists interested in the law. But more on that later. Before I proceed, I want to state that I am one of those feminists that believes in organic critique, that is, the idea that a person critiquing a cultural phenomenon should have some connection to that culture. Thus, I present my bona fides: I grew up with hip-hop – literally. One of the first songs of any genre that I remember from my childhood is”Rapper’s Delight”by the Sugar Hill Gang. The first song I ever learned the words to was”Rappin’ Duke.” I tried to walk around with untied Adidas until my mom made me stop. The first tape (yes, I said tape) that I bought with my own money was”Parents Just Don’t Understand.” I remember watching the very first episodes of Yo! MTV Raps and I remember racing home every day after school to watch them thereafter. I remember when a friend said,”I got a tape by this new group called NWA. You have to hear it.” I still know all the words to”Fight the Power.” So yes, I know a little something about hip hop. And of particular significance for this critique, I also happen to be an African American woman.

Weiner is correct that the development of hip hop has led to female rappers being reduced to beautiful, talented moons orbiting around their male counterparts. However, I believe that capitalism and sexism are very much to blame for this development.

How does capitalism come into play? What hip hop critics might not know that hip hoppers have known for some time is that rap was not always this way. Rap music used to have a rich diversity. You had some people that made party records, like LL Cool J, others, like KRS-ONE and Public Enemy, which educated while they entertained, some that made gangsta rap, some, like D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, that made us laugh, and some that just said whatever they felt. And that was the point – there was a time in hip hop where one could pretty much say anything. See, in the time period I am discussing, record labels still hadn’t figured out how to make money off of hip-hop. Because there was not yet any set formula, creativity reigned, and songs about anything and everything imaginable were made. That meant that all comers – including women – could find a place at the table.

But unfortunately, the industry eventually figured it out. The formula has become to take whatever rapper is popular at the moment, and have each rapper copy that person. Currently, the model is some version of a guy that has been shot multiple times, sold drugs, or been shot multiple times while selling drugs. The exceptions to this rule – such as Kanye West and Outkast – are dealt with by marketing them primarily as pop acts. For female emcees, it means no place at the table – the reservation has been cancelled. While hip hop has always celebrated the masculine, this new hypermasculinity is difficult for a female emcee to realistically portray. If 50 Cent gets shot nine times, it proves he’s not only a man, but a strong man, a really”REAL”man – almost a superman. If a woman gets shot nine times, it proves . . . what exactly? The fact that the question is so difficult to answer speaks volumes about how violent women and violent men are portrayed in our society. Male violence is tacitly accepted, almost encouraged, but female aggression is a no-no. Even black women, who are usually considered less ‘feminine”than their counterparts, will find it hard to pull out of that difficult binary. So, old stereotypes such as Lil Kim’s oversexed Jezebel are rehashed ad infinitum as a proxy for hypermasculinity. But it’s a poor facsimile.

In fact, the intersection of capitalism and sexism has had another interesting effect on women in hip hop. First, the sexism – As Weiner states, there have always been women in hip hop – first, as stand-alone acts, then, as the”kid sister”or apprentice to a male rapper. But now, women in rap are even further marginalized. The only women that one sees in rap videos these days (so I hear, as I refuse to watch anymore) are so called”video vixens,”scantily clad women whose sole purpose in her objectification is to serve the male gaze and narrative around her. So I ask: if the current iteration of hip hop is predicated on women being objects as opposed to subjects, and is predicated on removing any independent agency, where is the place for a woman to speak of her own authority – or at all?

Moreover, the capitalism plays a role in sustaining the”vixen”role, and not just in the usual”sex sells”fashion. The African American female form has been commodified for centuries. In the 1880s, Ms. Sarah Baartman was taken around the world and displayed as the”Hottentot Venus.” Her buttocks and genitalia were prominently displayed. She was an object of fascination and curiosity. There is a wonderful YouTube video essay that chronicles the relationship between Sarah Baartman and the young women in today’s videos better than my words ever could. The comparison is startling, but the politics are the same – the bodies of women of color are to be fetishized and objectified for any paying customer. Thus, I find it completely unsurprising that the female emcees that have any success in the current climate try to put their own spin on this narrative.

Women of color were and are a large part of the hip hop fans base. We are trying to”take back the music,”as Essence Magazine calls its campaign on the issue. But until the current keepers of the castle decide that this particular formula of hip hop has lost its flavor, women will continue to be further marginalized for the near – and perhaps distant – future.

–Nareissa Smith

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0 Responses to Hip Hop, Capitalism, and Taking Back the Music

  1. hysperia says:

    Great, absolutely GREAT, post!

  2. YF says:

    Ms. Smith,

    Do you feel that women have been marginalized in a similar fashions in other musical genres? If not, what do you causes Capitalism and

  3. YF says:

    My apologies for the inadvertent fractional post, it should read as follows:

    Ms. Smith,

    Do you feel that women have been marginalized in a similar fashion in other musical genres? If not, do you have a hypothesis for why capitalism has had a particularly pernicious effect on Hip Hop?

  4. jason.wojciechowski says:

    I think you oversimplify the “formula” for selling rap. The 50 Cent model, much ballyhooed, isn’t the only model the industry follows. Yes, The Game sells records, but so do Lupe Fiasco, Eminem, and Common. The top five rap albums this week are by Ludacris, T.I., E-40, Lil Wayne, and Young Jeezy, and Q-Tip comes in at #9. It’s not quite LL Cool J on one end and NWA on the other, but there’s a fair amount of variety here. It isn’t clear to me that a narrowing of perspective since the early days of hip hop can really be blamed for shutting out women because I’m not sure such a narrowing has actually happened.

    That said, I agree with the rest of what you say, particularly as to the intersection between sexism and capitalism — sexism, as expressed in our perpetual inability to take women seriously, results in female rappers being discounted and ignored. Capitalism simply cycles and reinforces these attitudes. Record executives have little incentive to take the risks necessary to change these attitudes.

    Also, I thought I should add, since it strengthens your point: “video vixens” are quite commonly (and more disgustingly) called “video hos”.

    Maybe Missy Elliott will release another album soon.

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  6. Ann Bartow says:

    YF – Prof. Smith described herself in the post as a life long hip hop listener, which is why the topic interested her enough to write the post. Asking her to opine about “other musical genres” isn’t really appropriate here.