Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Who You Callin' A Bitch?

There’s a good amount of implicit racism in the claim that hip-hop is solely the purview of men. Assertions like this tend to serve only the Don Imuses of the world, the kind of crusty old white dudes who need to invent degeneracy in oppressed communities to justify their own bigotry. They also completely ignore the formidable shadow cast by female artists in the style.

What so much of the discussion too often misses is that society in general is intensely misogynistic. Women are objectified in the home and on the TV, in advertisements and the workplace. And hip-hop doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Singling it out -- especially when it’s done by people who couldn’t give two shits about poverty or racism -- tends to let the rest of the world off the hook. I tend to agree with the likes of Kate Burns and bell hooks; when it comes to sexism we should be asking a lot less about hip-hop’s influence on society and a lot more about society’s influence on hip-hop.
Nonetheless, precisely because we live in a world of intense sexism, we have to admit that tuning into hip-hop’s mainstream doesn’t exactly present us with a picture of equality. Just last month, Lil Wayne proved that oppressive ideas of one kind can easily open those of another when he dropped the lyric “beat that pussy up like Emmett Till.” The line provoked such outrage, in particular from the Till family, that it was removed from the officially released version of the song.

Then, of course, there’s Weezy’s protege Nicki Minaj, who many may point to as an indicator of gender balance in the music biz. But whatever talent she has (and she has quite a bit) the way she’s talked about is rather analogous to the few who make it to very top and are pointed to as an example that capitalism doesn’t have to be sexist. She’s made it, so why can’t you? Meanwhile, the Chinese women who stitch together her new Kmart clothing line tend to get ignored. That is, unless they manage to surreptitiously sneak notes into the products they’re making.

Again, artists like Nicki Minaj have to be placed in a context. An industry that is swimming with manufactured pop nightingales like Katy Perry (who openly denounced feminist politics when she received Billboard’s “Woman of the Year” award) isn’t exactly going to provide a lot of room for female artists who challenge the norm. The way that women are undervalued in pop music generally is probably best exemplified in Taylor Swift. Whenever a critic dares to point out the intensely problematic and straight-up sexist image she presents young listeners with, her defenders inevitably shriek “but she writes her own songs!” As if that by itself were enough.

It may sound odd for folks used to how things are today, but twenty years ago actually seemed to provide a lot more breathing room for sisters in the music world. Indie and punk had riot grrrl. “Alternative,” such as it existed at the time, included quite a few female voices. The dance scene seemed to be almost entirely dominated by women.

And in hip-hop? Well, there was MC Lyte and Roxanne Shanté. There was Lady of Rage and Sister Souljah and Salt-N-Pepa. And then there was Queen Latifah. I say “was” not because I don’t think highly of her acting work (she is Mama Morton) but because, well, the difference between her persona now and that of her MC days is markedly different. It’s hard to imagine a major record company heavily promoting a single that celebrates a woman’s right to hit back and asks over and over “who you callin’ a bitch?” But at the time it was released, “U.N.I.T.Y.” won a Grammy.

These types of acts didn’t just come out of nowhere. That decade was a turbulent one where women’s rights were talked about in a very different way (i.e. they were, well, talked about). College campuses in particular became places where feminists and women’s rights activists challenged much of the machismo that dominated their environments through such actions as “Take Back the Night.” And in the early 90’s, with the “culture wars” raging, such sentiment was bound to spill over.

The 1992 March for Women’s Lives in DC brought out 750,000 people out to defend a woman’s right to choose as conservatives sought to ram through restrictions on abortion. High-profile cases of sexual harassment (such as that involving Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas) and rape (William Kennedy Smith, nephew of Senator Ted Kennedy) put debates about women’s autonomy and the nature of sexual assault in the public spotlight. In other words, there were a lot of women out there asking “who you callin’ a bitch?” other than the Queen.

Songs and artists like these weren’t the whole story of course. There was still plenty of misogyny in music, including in hip-hop. But as anti-racist and anti-sexist activism dovetailed (and they frequently did), there was a feeling that a conversation was possible -- a conversation about a common struggle.

That conversation was in some ways literal; the 1992 meeting and interview between Angela Davis and Ice Cube being a prime example. Davis wasn’t able to move Cube very much on women’s issues, but the very fact that meetings like this were happening was definitely a positive sign.

This small but significant wave of activism around women’s rights receded later in the decade. The music industry got bigger, but it also got passed into fewer hands; hegemony 101. Queen Latifah let her rapping fall to the wayside as Afrocentrism was pushed back out of the mainstream for a time. Salt-N-Pepa called it quits in 2002 while Lauryn Hill consciously retreated from the business. As the political climate seemed shift back to the right, it left a lot less room for female-centric acts of all stripes.

So why bring all of this up now? Why on International Women’s Day must we discuss hip-hop in particular? Mustn’t we also talk about punk, dance music and folk? And why just music?

The fact is that we need to talk about all of these. We need to talk about the cultural and political in the same breath. We absolutely need to recognize how very much the myriad struggles of the oppressed -- and the artforms that spring from them -- share in common. “Intersectionality” isn’t just some academic term for gender studies programs (invaluable as those programs are), it’s an actual living reality that leaves our struggle hollow if we fail to recognize it.

Hip-hop, probably more than any other style or genre out there, has the attention of the world’s young and exploited. Any struggle for women’s liberation will at one time or another have to reckon with it. And in fact, hip-hop may be uniquely equipped in some ways to put that struggle at center stage. A passage at the Hip-Hop Archive reminds us:

In a world that consistently undervalues women in general and black women in particular, women in hip-hop often offered an inspiring alternative, be it through boast and braggadocio like the simple yet grave lyrics of [MC] Lyte... or be it through astute and direct criticisms of inequality and abuse... Many of the songs of strength and raps of reason from our powerful soul sisters served as the survival mantra for many girls and women battling the blues and blows that life brings.
Right now, there are quite a few “blues and blows” that women have to face. It goes further than the videos or the dearth of strong female voices in music. It’s a society that at every damned turn seeks to turn women into less than full humans.

There is actually no lack of strong women in hip-hop today. The quandary, however, is that a spineless music industry has no idea what to do with acts like Jean Grae, Rita J or Invincible (a Jewish anti-Zionist who supports the boycott of Israel? They would have absolutely no clue). As for gender-queer rappers like Big Freedia, it’s safe to say that she’d make the execs’ heads explode.

Whether any of these artists ever get the credit they deserve, whether their immense talents and powerful messages will ever reach a wider audience can’t be answered at this point. Lord knows they deserve it. But a movement that can push back against the misogyny that runs through America’s veins -- a movement that appears to be on the verge of exploding as we speak -- would certainly help.

First published at Red Wedge

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