No one is surprised that James Worsdale managed to work a Dream Girls reference into this convo.
Mia: Friends, Romans, countrypeople! And others! Lend me your ears, for I am joined by James Worsdale — Canonball contributor, friend and pop culture expert — to talk about “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes,” a 2006 documentary about masculinity, violence and misogyny in hip hop culture. The film, which was directed by “anti-sexist activist” Byron Hurt, is available here in its entirety, and I strongly encourage hip hop fans and/or feminists to view it because, as our conversation will hopefully reveal, there’s a lot of fascinating, important stuff going on in it. A taste:
James: Well, Mia, I must start by admitting that the topics around intersections of hip hop and patriarchy are thoroughly covered and ones that, as two white people, we need to admit our perhaps biased position in addressing.
I think that first and foremost it’s important to ask ourselves whether posing questions about feminism’s hypothetical use of hip hop as a political device is missing a greater point. Are we participating in some sort of neo-colonial analysis, already wrapped in the exoticization of black American culture, by criticizing it as a genre of music driven by ideas of violence, hegemonic masculinity, objectification of women, homophobia etc.? Which is to say, hip hop is not the problem, but systemic tendencies and capitalist markets dictating the messages that inhabit the sphere of hip hop are. And as articulated in the documentary: as much blame lies in white American culture, as in black American culture.
Mia: Exactly. And it’s like bell hooks said: in our critique of hip hop, we’re holding rappers to higher standards than we’re holding the rest of capitalist society. But, of course, our society is violent and misogynistic, and a lot of mainstream hip hop is merely a really vivid reflection of that. Someone in the documentary notes, “Hip hop is pure Americana,” meaning that its glorification of violent masculinity is derived from this American mythology – created mostly by white men, by the way – of the cowboy or the frontiersman.
James: Right, it’s this embracing of this very white idea of patriarchal masculinity – the John Waynes of the world. The primary motivators being money and pride (and oftentimes pride from money), which connect so much to hooks’s relation of the genre’s core problems being inextricable from core problems of capitalism. This makes me think, does the way to carve a space for feminist messages in hip hop music simply come down to supporting political hip hop artists by buying their music?
Mia: This is such an abstract question for me, considering I haven’t actually purchased a CD since, like, 2006. But I think the approach has to be two-pronged: it’s important to support artists who are saying substantive non-sexist, non-homophobic things, but I think it’s equally as important to vocally critique artists who ARE being sexist or homophobic. Which is such a monumental task.
While I’d like you all to think that I’ve been a feminist since the cradle – and I’d like to argue that I have been – I didn’t really start thinking critically about this stuff until about two years ago or so. And, as I began to realize how pervasive patriarchy was, I realized that there would come a time when I’d have to stop consuming a lot of media that I used to consume. And I was so CONCERNED about not being able to listen to a lot of hip hop. I thought it would be so hard to avoid misogyny. But I’ve found that I really have no desire to listen to things I find offensive anymore. And I’m more than comfortable explaining to friends why certain songs or artists aren’t acceptable to me anymore.
James: This is true. I also spend a lot of time thinking how I wish Lauryn Hill would write another album! Or that there could be some sort of feminist reincarnation of TLC that is NOT Destiny’s Child!
But I agree that that criticism of hip hop artists who perpetuate negative social forces is integral to the reclamation of the genre as a political tool. And I think that with the internet it’s become increasingly accessible to do so. For example, the frequently, and justifiably, attacked Twitter feed of overly entitled man-child Chris Brown. Despite his out-of-touch non-apology-apology (which is the only apology I think that boy is capable of), his statements were unacceptable and rightfully scathed.
It’s a frustrating issue, this pervasive misogyny in a genre that holds so much capability for radical reformation. Why can’t we have more Immortal Technique and less 50 Cent? When will the frustrations so wonderfully articulated by J. Victoria Sanders and Gwendolyn Pough, among so many others, spark a change in the mainstream hip hop community? Is it possible that that casual recognition by Jay-Z of his lyrical shortcomings of female dignity are indicative of the beginnings of a shift?
Mia: That Jay-Z quote filled all us feminists with such hope!
And speaking of 50 Cent, I’ll say that, even though this documentary is only five years old, it IS already a little dated, considering that no one’s too concerned about what 50 Cent and Nelly are doing these days. Which leads me to question if we’re moving away from the hyper-violent, naked lady-studded hip hop of the early 2000s. And, if Hurt was making this documentary now, which rappers would he focus on? And I don’t think I’d be going out on a limb to say that he’d probably focus on Kanye West, who is really excellent fodder for an examination of masculinity in hip hop.
On one hand, I really admire Kanye for expressing vulnerability and emotion in a way that is generally not acceptable for male rappers. And for being really style-conscious in a way that our culture doesn’t usually let straight men get away with. Also, he wrote an entire album about heartbreak! On the other hand, there’s still a ton of misogyny and posturing in his lyrics. It’s like, instead of masking his insecurities by filming videos with a bevy of sexy ladiez, as Nelly may have done, he masks his insecurities with a bevy of expensive suits.
James: This is true. I did think that maybe we had, since the making of the documentary, made some sort of progress (or maybe just a shift, but who could know?). And maybe the future of hip hop is headed further towards a more super-stylized, metrosexual aesthetic and feel. I’m thinking now about everyone’s gushing over Drake’s sensitivity, and I feel like I’ve seen Kid Cudi in as many fashion magazines as I have music blogs! Wouldn’t that be nice?
Mia: A softer, gentler hip hop? I wouldn’t hate it! Though sometimes it’s when we think we’ve made progress that we let our guards down and stop thinking critically. It’s like how people think misogyny doesn’t exist in progressive-leaning indie music. It does! It definitely does! But I digress.
James: And it doesn’t answer the problem of the female emcee so well-articulated by Lindsay.
I refuse to think that “Pink Friday” is the best Nicki Minaj can do, as both a rapper and a feminist symbol (which, as a mainstream female voice in hip hop, I think she is whether she intends to be or not).
Mia: Yeah, I feel like women – self-identified feminists or not – are putting a lot of their hopes for female rappers on Minaj. And I struggled with this issue when I was first introduced to her music and personae: I wanted so badly for her to be a feminist icon who would speak for me. And, of course, I was a bit let down. And I thought maybe I was being too hard on her. But I don’t know – to what extent do you compromise your hopes? When do you say, “Well, this is the best we’re going to get”?
James: Rich from fourfour wrote a piece on the burden of being a female rapper awhile back, mainly focusing on the necessity that you also sing. He’s really critical to Minaj’s apparent comfort in misogynist roleplay. Is Minaj the best we feminists can get? I tend to doubt it.
I think someone like up-and-comer Kalae All Day‘s brand of loving yourself and your complexities is more feminist than Minaj’s brand of obsession with herself and her sartorial stunts.
Mia: There’s this part in the documentary where Hurt is interviewing aspiring rappers, and they’re all spewing this awful violent stuff – not because that’s necessarily what they want to rap about, but because, as one of them points out, the record labels don’t want to hear their righteousness. And I feel like that’s true. “Righteous” rappers aren’t really marketed aggressively, especially not on the radio or to teenagers who would probably embrace unifying, meaningful messages. And the problem is, as Hurt says, that these record labels are controlled by white male executives who have a very specific idea of blackness that they’re selling as acceptable.
James: Right, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Maybe this is an irrelevant anecdote, but this whole conversation kept making me think about the movie Dreamgirls. We really should be hearing more Effie Whites but they just keep selling us Deena Jones!
Mia: More Effie Whites please! Canoneers: let us know about your favorite non-sexist, non-homophobic rappers in the comments!