by Guest Contributor M.Dot
It’s challenging to criticize hip hop publicly.
My rationale is that Hip Hop gets hammered by the popular media, so why should I contribute further to it?
When given more thought, I see this as a poor reason to avoid criticizing anything. As an athlete I know criticism is feedback and nothing is improved without feedback. Professor evaluations are feedback. Customer service evaluations are feedback. Feedback is in many ways the oil that greases the improvement machine.
However, my reluctance to criticize may also be related to the tendency within the African American community to avoid airing our dirty laundry. On balance, I also know that dysfunction
flourishes when concealed out of sight.
As a teenager and full-fledged hip hop head, I never listened to Miles because I learned that he beat Cicley Tyson and was unapologetic about it after reading Pearl Cleage’s “Mad at Miles.” I bumped Coltrane, Roach and Blakey, but no Miles. One day, a few years ago, a film Professor and jazz lover who I respected, asked me how could I avoid Miles and listen to so much hip hop?
It was then that I began to see that I would have some reconciling to do regarding gender and hip hop.
bell hooks provides a context to understand gangsta rap in the essay Gangsta Culture when she writes,
“The sexist, patriarchal ways of thinking and behaving that are glorified in gangsta rap are a reflection of the prevailing values in our society, values created and sustained by white supremacist capitalistic patriarchy. As the crudest and most brutal expression of sexism, misogynistic attitudes tend to be portrayed by the dominant culture as always an expression of male deviance.”
I was further challenged to write about hip hop critically when I read Matthew Birkhold’s essay on Hip Hop Dogmatisim. The essay reminded me that our desire to avoid criticizing hip hop because Bill O’Reilly and Bill Cosby do so frequently isn’t a reason for us avoid critiquing it. He goes on to say that if we avoid it, then we are similar to the white folks, and I would argue all folks, who refuse to acknowledge the existence of racism and for that matter classism that exists in American culture.
“Perhaps we are intent to hold on to a culture that has internalized the worst aspects of a racist, sexist, capitalist society because, as a generation, our identity is deeply rooted in hip-hop. This unfortunately means that a critique of the way hip-hop has internalized patriarchy must lead to a painful examination of the ways we have internalized patriarchy.
Despite the soreness this may cause, reflection and self-critique is necessary. In many ways, refusing to engage in this reflection mirrors the refusal of many whites to admit to collaborating with racism or acknowledging that America itself is a racist nation.”
I knew then that I had to say something about gender and hip hop even if it made me uncomfortable, even if there were some parts where I didn’t have clarity on all of the issues. I knew that there were some areas where I did have clarity and it is how women are perceived in hip hop and pop culture.
The majority of rap videos make it clear that hip hop is one dimensional in how it perceives, portrays and represents women. Turn on BET now and the evidence is there staring you in the face. Video Vixens, both aspiring and official are dancing and posing as the rappers talk about spinning rims, murder and cash. Pop culture is also one dimensional with how it perceives and represents women. The coverage of Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse and now Miley Cyrus is indicative of this. Furthermore, in Hollywood, the shelf life of actresses is a short one – the ideal is approximately 18-30 years of age. While there are exceptions to the rule, the general notion is that if you are too old to play Brad Pitt’s or Will Smith’s girlfriend, then you are irrelevant.
This brings me to the uncomfortable gray area. I see kids rapping “bitch this” and “ho that” on the bus and on the train and I know they must be terrified to be coming of age in a society that is indifferent to their existence. The evidence of this indifference is that there have been 20 school aged children killed in Chicago since September 2007.
This is astounding.
Twenty school aged children, murdered in Chicago should constitute a state of emergency for Illinois. That being said, I know that the children listen to the music and are affected by it. What I don’t know is how they are affected by it and to what extent they are internalizing it?
This leads me to the question of what does caring about this look like? Does it mean NOT listening to my trifecta of emcees, Mobb Deep, The Clipse and Ghostface, who in fact, inspire me to write stories? Does it mean listening to more gospel? More house, blues or jazz instead? Part of me wants to say that I am uncertain as to what caring looks like and perhaps I don’t need to know, completely right now. Perhaps being torn and in the gray area wrestling with these issues is enough as a beginning. My willingness to be in the gray area is connected to the fear that refusing to criticize Hip Hop was an act of concealing dysfunction. I want to take a sensible of approach and avoid “lets eradicate Hip Hop” stance.
However, another part of me wants to conclude that I find it difficult to let go of Mobb Deep because it is the dysfunctional soundtrack to the patriarchy within me. There is something to be said for finding Mobb Deep entertaining. These Black men are rapping about killing other Black men. Lately I have began asking myself and my peers what does it say about us that we find Black male murder entertaining when all of us have lost Black male friends and loved ones? When reflecting on it, I realize that I am arguably more able to enjoy the beats and the story telling because I don’t live amongst the kind of violence that Mobb Deep is speaking on. I did from 1989-1992 and I am still haunted by it. In a way, the music keeps me connected to that part of where I come from and listening to it reminds me that I will probably always have one foot in the hood and one foot in the future. On Balance, there is the possibility that listening to “Shook off the Realness” is nurturing something dysfunctional in me. Perhaps it is nurturing my survivors guilt associated that stems from the fact that I have made it out alive and so many of my peers haven’t.
It may be time to acknowledge that hip hop is both enjoyable and harmful. You and I both know that young girls see video vixens and want to be them. Getting paid off how you look is a serious grind. To young girls it looks glamorous. The cars, the jewelry, the stilettos, champagne. What these young girls don’t know is that there is severe inner turmoil involved with constantly being evaluated on how you look and having your income, your ability to pay your rent connected to these evaluations. What they also don’t know is that the Video Vixens are the only material members on set of the video who are not members of a union and because of this they receive an inequitable share of the profits in relationship to the value that they contribute. The cinematographers, editors, directors, the writers all have unions. As a union member your are guaranteed a minimum wage, health insurance and dressing rooms and meals in many instances as well. Vixens are both disposable and essential to the attractiveness and success of the videos. In fact, I would like to see three or four videos without the video vixens dancing.
Then of course there are the young men and women who hear rappers talk about selling crack, having money and attracting women and naturally they want to emulate the lifestyle. I know in my heart that little black boys go through a fundamental change between six and eight. At six they are warm, expressive and curious and by eight their eyes become stony, their jaws tighten and they well on their way to learning how perform black masculinity. While I know that hip hop most certainly isn’t single handedly responsible for this, a lot of our music doesn’t help our boys figure out what constructive Black masculinity looks like.
Continuing in the essay Gangsta Culture, bell hooks analyzes gangsta rap and feminism and makes it clear that the misogyny and patriarchy that we see in Hip Hop, is simply a mirror a mirror of the same that behavior that exists in popular mainstream culture. She writes,
“Gangsta rap is part of the anti-feminist backlash that is the rage right now. When young black males labor in the plantations of misogyny and sexism to produce gangsta rap, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy approves the violence and materially rewards them. Far from being an expression of ‘manhood’, it is an expression of their own subjugation and humiliation by more powerful less visible forces of patriarchal gangsterism. They give voice to the bare, raw anger and rage against women that it is taboo for “civilized” adult men to speak.”
It is time that we acknowledge that Hip Hop is harmful to young people who cannot discern that music videos are a marketing tool and not reflective of reality.
The joy that hip hop brings makes it easy to try and conceal the dysfunction within it. When something brings you pleasure it can be very difficult to acknowledge the harm that it causes others. Further more, as is the case with hip hop, I have to acknowledge that while Ghostface, The Clipse, Mobb Deep, all of whom would qualify as gangster rappers, all of whom inspire ME to write short stories, all of whom have been both patriarchal and misogynistic at one time or another. It has become apparent that I have put my desire to enjoy this music above the harm that it causes to young people. In many ways, hip hop is my friend. Like that drunk Uncle that Jay Z raps about in “Dear Summer”, “They like the drunk uncle in your family, you know they lame, you feel ashamed, but you love ’em the same”. It is hard to consider not being friends with Mobb Deep after all these years. This is a poignant conclusion to come to and I have wrestled with it all day.
Part of the difficulty in acknowledging this about artists that we like is that once we say it, we are either compelled to do something or risk coming across as hypocrites who know better. The question becomes what do we do? Do we cease listening to the music? Do we work with teachers to create a curriculum that helps them use music videos to teach students about gender, capitalism and patriarchy? Do we continue to listen to the music and have these discussions and urge others to do so as well? Do we try to eradicate it completely? And if so what does that look like? Perhaps it will take a combination of all of the above.
I started this essay with the goal of writing about gender and hip hop and I have only ended it with more questions.
M.dot is a blogger based in Brooklyn and the Bay Area, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photo credit: MTV.com)