Who you callin’ a bitch? Feminism and does it have a place in hip hop?

Feminism & hip hop

The paradox of being a feminist and a fan of hip hop

Struggling to reconcile her feminist principles with a passion for hip hop, Getintothis’ Emma Walsh wonders if women can find equality and empowerment in a male dominated music arena.

As a feminist I have always had a very difficult relationship with hip hop.

Too young to have tuned into for golden era of the late 80s and early 90s and without the advantage of older siblings’ good taste to feed off, I grew up in rural Ireland listening to the earthy, peace and love folk and rock ‘n’ roll of my parents’ youth – Fleetwood Mac, Leonard Cohen, Dylan, Springsteen – as far from hip hop on the musical spectrum as you could get.

Even during my misspent youth hanging around the closest urban centre, a deprived, Troubles-scarred small town where street drinking, weed and petty crime were the norm, I never warmed to that concrete culture that came with hip hop or the watered down, mainstream version of rap and r’n’b that the likes of Eminem and 50 Cent were showboating at the time. I could see why songs glorifying weed and shouting ‘fuck the police’ spoke to the underprivileged skater boys I hung about with back then, but it never spoke to me.

And as I got older, more politicised and opinionated, that genre, or the side of it that I saw and bemoaned, seemed to get worse, more brazen in the gun-totting glorification of crime, drugs and worst of all, misogyny and sexual violence. Coming of age as a fist-clenched angry feminist, I couldn’t come to terms with a culture that degraded my sex as ‘bitches and hoes’. That and the violence and urbanism of gangsta rap and the Holy Trinity of hip hop songwriting – sex, money and power – did nothing for me. I found the boastfulness of the whole thing abhorrent, completely at odds with all I had ever known.

But hip hop, in the media-friendly r’n’b fashion it became synonymous with, had infiltrated popular culture and was by then impossible to ignore. It was a dark time to be influenced by the mainstream media channels which were churning out cheap, pop-friendly bilge that so quickly turned me off to a whole genre of incredible music simply because the interpretation of it which I first stumbled across was so unmistakably not for me or my feminist kind. If this was what hip hop had become what could possibly spur me to find out where it had come from?

As it was, I gave up watching music channels because the videos made me want to cry or throw up. I stopped buying women’s magazines because I could no longer hope to ignore the blatant sexualisation of the female artists featured. I always suffered a sense of shame or self-betrayal when I caught myself singing along to the misogynic lyrics of R Kelly or Dr Dre and the like. The day I illegally downloaded Tinie Tempah’s Disc-Overy I felt like something important in the depths of my soul had died, but still, I listened to that album, I knew all the words to Frisky, despite how their meaning might have boiled my blood if spoken in any other context.

There seemed no honest way to separate my feminist beliefs and the catchy yet offensive tunes that had become something of a guilty pleasure, because it had become apparent to me that this kind of sexism was neither casual nor harmless. There seemed no other option but to give up on hip hop and all the bad apples dropped from that tree entirely (aparts from Arrested Development’s Mr Wendal which continued to be one of the most played tracks on my iPod).

But then there were female hip hop and r’n’b artists like Destiny’s Child, Beyonce, MIA, Mary J Blige, Missy Elliott and the official spokeswomen for feminist hip hop, TLC who did it make it onto internal lists of my favourite songs, albums and music videos despite my distaste for the overtly masculine side of all things hip hop or r’n’b. They and male counterparts like Justin Timberlake, Jay Z, early Kanye West and The Fugees became the gateway to opening my ears and closed mind back to the genre.

But it was Azealia Banks’ 212 that marked the real change. The first time I really listened to the lyrics of that song it was as though the clouds had parted to reveal some crude chorus of angels. Here was a woman doing hip hop like a man. It was the first time I’d heard such a thing and ever since it has been an active life goal of mine to recite those lyrics word for word, flawlessly, if only ever in front of the bathroom mirror.

Just as I was learning to open my mind as a feminist to theories of intersectionality and privilege, that I could never have imagined actually referred to me as a white, liberal woman raised in a post-working class household, suddenly I was beginning to question the assumptions and predispositions that had influenced my record collection too. Around the same time I befriended some die hard hip hop fans and their enthusiasm began to rub off on me, then earlier this year I attended my first ever hip hop gig and my eyes were well and truly opened.

Rather than dip my toe, I jumped headlong into the hip hop gig scene with Action Bronson at The Kazimier and it was a brutal affront to all my senses and sensibilities. As a licence holder I shuddered at the open, unpoliced sharing of spliffs indoors and as a woman I took offence by most of what Bronson said, at one point I was even physically steamrolled by the man himself as he plowed through the audience, but regardless of all that, I was hooked.

A few months later it was back to The Kazimer for Ghostface Killah and again I was blown away. I still stood out like a sore thumb at these gigs, I wasn’t built to dance to this kind of music, no matter how enthusiastically I attempted to do so after a few drinks, and yes, there were still lyrics and undertones which deeply offended me but I could no longer equate this genre or culture with the early impressions which had so put me off. I was finally able to reconcile myself to the elements of hip hop which I’d always felt a guilty pleasure for- the funk and soul, the poetics of the wordplay, the rhyme and rhythm. I could indulge without feeling I’d betrayed the sisterhood.

This was good music, not like the crap which I had naively allowed to taint my opinion ten years before. Personally, I blame Eminem.

With a continued hip hop education I’ve discovered a whole feminist side to the genre which I hadn’t known or had forgotten even existed. I’ve found the old school hip hop that speaks to me with Queen Latifah’s U.N.I.T.Y, Missy Elliotts’ Work It, Eve’s Who’s That Girl?, MIA’s Bad Girls, but they were the few female hip hop artists who managed to lift their head above the tidal wave of sexist, misogynist, masculine hip hop that’s flooded the airwaves. There is still an element of sexualisation in their lyrics and videos but ultimately it’s their substance that set them apart from today’s bland alternatives – Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. And it seems, after reading last week’s Singles Column that there may well be a contemporary hip hop female artist to carry on the baton. Nicki Minaj has made her fair share of headlines for sexualised lyrics and videos and her latest offering Anaconda is no different, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

The video opens in a steamy, exotic jungle environment with five scantily-clad women set up like a sales display in a shop window, all glistening skin and protruding limbs and you think, here we go again but immediately the sample of Baby Got Back strikes the tone of this track as more satirical than sexy. The Sir Mix A Lot classic may be distasteful but it’s almost laughable in comparison with the seedy lyrics on similar subjects in modern hip hop. Minaj’s outrageous style confirms this, gesticulating throughout and encapsulating the typical bitchy, Mean Girl image with the refrain “Oh my gosh, look at her butt” repeating as though in the self-critical consciousness of any young girl struggling with body confidence. Because ultimately this is a song about body confidence, an anthem for “big ass girls” (“I ain’t missing no meals” and “fuck those skinny bitches” repeat throughout) who are generally ignored or objectified by the music industry and society as a whole.

Minaj makes a mockery of the very image she’s portraying – something few other female artists have managed to do successfully (ahem, Lily Allen). When Miley Cyrus made twerking the headline of the VMAs last year it was all about sexism and racial appropriation but when Minaj yet again puts it in the spotlight in this video, she owns it, this twerking is nothing short of impressive. It becomes a demonstration of physical prowess, strength, empowerment, it doesn’t feel overtly sexual.

In the same sense, with the gyrating, the sultry looks to camera, the homoeroticism between the female dancers, this video could have been lifted straight from a teenage boy’s fantasy but there is something that sets it apart from the soft porn drivel which the mainstream music industry churns out on a weekly basis.

The kitchen scene captures this perfectly. Minaj takes the traditional “woman’s place” in the kitchen wearing something between sexy 1950s housewife and French maid, batting her eyelashes while she squirts whipped cream over herself and makes friendly with a banana but there is a distinct sense of purpose in the way she then chops up that banana and tosses it aside with a curled lip of disgust and boredom. She plays to the schoolboy fantasies but subsequently undermines them with the hint of a threat.

The lapdance scene reiterates this, not an unusual scene in a music video these days, but again Minaj puts a twist on things. She crawls on all fours toward the only man to appear in the video (is that Drake?) sitting in typical power pose. She writhes all over him, gyrating in his face but the moment he tries to touch her she slaps his hand away and struts off leaving him frustrated with head in hands. This is blatantly sexualised, it is all about the ass, but the power is in Minaj’s hand. She tells him he can look, but he can’t touch – ironically the same message the music industry sends out to men everywhere, look at all these sexy women that you can’t touch – but it all seems to be played out for Minaj’s empowerment rather than his sexual gratification. It’s the same old sex sells exhibition we expect of modern day hip hop but as a feminist, it’s refreshing to see a female artist not only own to that but play up to it in such a tongue in cheek fashion. Minaj may be part of the sex-selling music machine, but she’s sticking a subtle middle finger up to the man at the same time.

So can you be a feminist and a hip hop fan? Yeah I think so, but it’s fucking hard work sometimes.