I was forwarded an interesting article, on hip-hop and race/gender dynamics. It turned out that it wasn’t actually an article forwarded to me, it was a comment posted on some blog; the blog is here, and the comment is a ways down the page, posted by Bell Hooks. (I’ll have some quotes below.)
The problem with sexism in hip-hop is that it’s too complex of an issue to simply boil down into an easy-to-digest message; there is sexism in a lot of hip-hop music—just as there is in any music; anyone heard Figured You Out by Nickelback?—but it’s not as simple as just saying “hip-hop is sexist”. It’s a deeper issue than that, and this person’s comments get into that in a way that most people don’t bother.
To start with, let’s talk about context. In her post she says:
This is interesting, because she’s saying two seemingly contradicting things: “before we can talk about sexism in hip-hop, let’s talk about where it comes from”, and “the artists must be held responsible for their sexism”. Well, which is it?
To see gangsta rap as a reflection of dominant values in our culture rather than as an aberrant “pathological” standpoint does not mean that a rigorous feminist critique of the sexist and misogyny expressed in this music is not needed. Without a doubt black males, young and old, must be held politically accountable for their sexism. Yet this critique must always be contextualized or we risk making it appear that the behaviors this thinking supports and condones—rape, male violence against women, etc.—is a black male thing. And this is what is happening. Young black males are forced to take the “heat” for encouraging, via their music, the hatred of and violence against women that is a central core of patriarchy.
It’s both. And that’s why this is such a complex topic, because people tend to only look at one aspect or the other: the people who say “this music is sexist, and should be stopped” vs. the people who say “this music is all we’ve got, leave us alone”.
So if sexism is systemic, why does there seem to be so much of it in gangsta rap, and not so much in other forms of music? First of all, that’s an incorrect starting point to have this discussion; let’s not talk about sexism in hip-hop while pretending that it doesn’t exist, or only marginally exists, in other forms of music—sexism is everywhere in music. It’s the media who makes it seem as if hip-hop is such a haven for sexism; it may be that if you were to scientifically measure sexism in different forms of music hip-hop would have more, but I think we’d be surprised to see it’s not as much more as the media portrays.
But that being said, there may be more, and Bell Hooks suggests that there may be a reason why hip-hop artists use sexism in their lyrics:
If you were given the opportunity to become rich and famous, and all you had to do was write music that’s sexist, would you take it? But let’s add a bit more context: If you were a young black male, and were given this same choice, knowing that there’s virtually no other way to become rich and famous, what about then?
One cannot answer [questions about the popularity of this music] honestly without placing accountability on larger structures of domination and the individuals (often white, usually male but not always) who are hierarchically placed to maintain and perpetuate the values that uphold these exploitative and oppressive systems. That means taking a critical looking at the politics of hedonistic consumerism, the values of the men and women who produce gangsta rap. It would mean considering the seduction of young black males who find that they can make more money producing lyrics that promote violence, sexism, and misogyny than with any other content. How many disenfranchised black males would not surrender to expressing virulent forms of sexism, if they knew the rewards would be unprecedented material power and fame?