Hear Me Out: Hip-hop and Gender Criticism

by guest contributor dnA, originally published at Too Sense

I used to hate hip-hop… yup, because the women degraded
But Too $hort made me laugh, like a hypocrite I played it
A hypocrite I stated, though I only recited half
Omittin the word “bitch,” cursin I wouldn’t say it
Me and dog couldn’t relate, til a bitch I dated
Forgive my favorite word for hers and hers alike
But I learnt it from a song I heard and sorta liked

-Lupe Fiasco, Hurt Me Soul

This was a long time ago.One of the unique things about Hip-hop is its ability to respond directly to criticism, which has been completely omitted in the ongoing mainstream media assault on Hip-hop culture and music. The root of Hip-hop’s mainstream popularity is its ability to provide to white men, access to a fiction of black masculinity that reinforces their own perceptions of what a man is supposed to be. This in itself is informed by thousands of years of Western Civilization, and is present in all aspects of American culture.

However, unlike other mediums of artistic expression, something which is rarely acknowledged is that rappers regularly adress the problem of misogyny in Hip-hop. Lupe’s verse above is to me, a powerfully simple explanation for the way certain ideas about gender are spread, he simply heard it from a song he sort of liked. But his admission of hypocrisy stands in stark contrast to the rest of American popular entertainment; when was the last time you heard anyone from a major television or film company admit that their product was sexist or misogynist, or in someway perpetuated harmful stereotypes about women?

That said, there is a strong reactionary sentiment among Hip-hop heads. Byron Crawford may be the single most popular Hip-hop columnist on the web, but there is little question that he absolutely hates women. He also apparently hates Muslims, and I will try to stay focused and not adress the absurd right wing talking points he clings to in this column on Lupe. More relevant to this post is that Lupe’s admission that Hip-hop’s depiction of women is harmful, and his criticism of mainstream Hip-hop’s excessive materialism tags him, in Crawford’s eyes, as a “suicide bomber”:

Does Lupe Fiasco consider himself the equivalent of a suicide bomber sent to rid the rap world of a few infidels (metaphorically speaking at least)? When you think about it, his album does seem filled with that kind of rhetoric. He speaks of the images of champagne and bling bling so often projected in hip-hop the same way that Islamic fascists speak of American culture in general and, in particular, the “MTV culture” that they view as such a threat to Muslim youth.

And his claim that he once hated hip-hop because of the way women were treated (presumably before he became a gat-toting crack slinger?) seems ripe for further inspection beyond declaring his views “refreshing.” Muslims, after all, aren’t exactly known for being progressive when it comes to that sort of thing. Does he find that the depiction of women in rap lyrics is especially harsh vis a vis other genres of music or is the thought of a woman in revealing attire alone enough to set him off?

Crawford is regularly clowned by his readers but the sheer number of people who read his column means that on some level, people are absorbing his watered down Limbaugh talking points. (When I say Limbaugh, I’m not speculating; Crawford refers to Louis Farrakhan as “Calypso Louis”, which is a term of Limbaugh’s invention).

But if Crawford wasn’t so bent on hating women for what may be a lifetime of rejection or the result of anger stemming from repressed homosexual tendencies, I won’t speculate further, (again, read the man’s column, he is unable to refer to gay people without using the phrase “teh ghey” and feared that if Imus were fired for referring to women as hoes that god forbid, people might actually stop doing that) he would realize that there is an ongoing discourse about the representation of women in Hip-hop. No one can argue that Jay-Z has been selling more albums for longer than anyone else still rapping, and he certainly took personally accusations of misogyny on Blueprint 2:

They call me this misogynist, but they don’t call me the dude
To take his dollars to give gifts at the projects
These dudes is all politics, depositing checks
they put in they pocket, all you get in return is a lot of lip

Jay’s reasoning is quite weak, but the fact that he feels an obligation to respond is telling, because the century old film industry, more influential in our understanding of gender than Hip-hop will ever be, certainly never has. Of course, that also wasn’t the only time that Jay responded to gender criticism on that album alone either. Jay’s response was the typically binary one of someone who realizes that their understanding of women is sexist, but is trying hard to rationalize:

Sisters get respect, Bitches get what they deserve,
Sisters work hard, Bitches work your nerves,
Sisters hold you down, Bitches hold you up,
Sisters help you progress, Bitches’ll slow you up,
Sisters cook up a meal play they role with the kidz, Bitches in the street with they nose in ya biz,
Sisters tell the truth, Bitches tell lies,
Sisters drive cars, Bitches wanna ride
Sisters give up the ass, Bitches give up the ass
Sisters do it slow, Bitches do it fast
Sisters do they dirt outside of where they live, Bitches have niggas all up in your crib,
Sisters tell you quick you betta check ya homie, Bitches don’t give a fuck they wanna check for ya homie,
Sisters love Jay cause they know how hov is
I LOVE MY SISTERS I DON’T LOVE NO BITCH

Jay-Z’s response to criticisms of misogyny is well, misogynist, as it casts women as being either/or, an unfortunate parallel to the “good nigger/bad nigger” language once used explicitly in media and entertainment. On his next effort, the Black Album, Jay’s attempt to respond to gender criticism is in my opinion, deceptively subtle and underrated, but at the same time doomed to failure.

In the discourse about the word nigger, Hip-hop heads especially have tended to argue that there’s a difference between “nigga” and “nigger”. I’m not going to argue that except to say that you can never fully sever “nigga” from “nigger”, even if you were to believe they were different words. So it stands to reason that Jay-Z’s attempt to change the meaning of the term bitch from gendered to gender neutral on 99 Problems is a failure. In the song, Jay uses the term “bitch” to refer to critics, a dog, and a male coward, but never to women, excepting the implied use in the hook.

Rap critics that say he’s “Money Cash Hoes”
I’m from the hood stupid what type of facts are those
If you grew up with holes in your zapitos
You’d celebrate the minute you was havin doe
I’m like fuck critics you can kiss my whole asshole
If you don’t like my lyrics you can press fast forward
Got beef with radio if i don’t play they show
They don’t play my hits well i don’t give a shit SO
Rap mags try and use my black ass
So advertisers can give em more cash for ads…fuckers
I don’t know what you take me as
or understand the intellegence that Jay-Z has
I’m from rags to ritches nigga i ain’t dumb
I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one

The fact that Jay-Z literally refers to “rap critics” proves the directness of his response. The song is an acknowledgement of, and an attempt to assuage, however belligerently, criticisms of Hip-hop, and him in particular, as sexist.

Nas’ attempt to respond to gender criticism was also inadequate, but it included an important observation, that white men were internalizing the language of Hip-hop in discussing black women. From Streets Disciple:

Up in the steam room chillin’, exfoliating the skin
It’s rarely men conversatin’ on ends, probably businessmen
I sense good taste, and they watch us, the spots an expensive place
Manhattan New York, I’m try’na keep steamin’
It’s good for the lungs, had plans for the evening
This man leans in, his boys laughing
Now I’m the spokesperson for Black men, this always happens
Says, “Since all Black women care about is who got dough
And all we do is call them either bitch or a Black hoe”
I say first brotha you ain’t gotta be that cold
Since you ignorant, I’ma show you how the facts go
The biggest example in scandal of history
Were Monica Lewinksy or Donald Trump’s pimping spree
Most woman who love Givenchy or Gucci
Are pretentious non-Black groupies or floozies
But who are we to blame, not the dames
It’s a man-made game, in essence our woman the same
Beautiful creatures, Black girls birthed the earth
So they deserve to earn man’s purse

Nas is self-conscious about having to represent all black men in this setting, and his only response is to suggest that white women are “the real hos” before relying on some Afrocentric comparisons of black women as the “earth mothers” before concluding, at least, that women deserve equal pay. The phrase “man’s purse” is interesting because we generally think of women as having purses, but the man being in possession of the purse in this circumstance that he holds something that rightfully belongs to a woman, namely equality. It’s not enough, and its problematic, but the response is visible.

This is again not the only response to gender criticism on the album, since Nas literally decides to rap as a woman on two tracks on the album. His female emcee persona, Scarlett, was so convincing that many fans didn’t realize she wasn’t actually a woman.

But the fact that Nas would have to pretend to be a woman to provide a female voice hints at the real problem in Hip-hop, that a dialogue on gender cannot occur as long as male emcees completely and totally dominate the culture. Male emcees are not responsible for this; corporations and market forces are.

The primary selling point of Hip-hop is its fictionalized package of black masculinity, one that rappers are beginning to question. As long as it is rap’s most lucrative ingredient however, corporations label owners will continue to shut out female emcees.

In other words, if you want this to change, then buy Jean Grae’s album.