By Guest Contributor Regina N. Barnett, originally published at Red Clay Scholar
A couple of weeks back I had the pleasure of attending a Rap Sessions panel that discussed the question of women and their role in Hip Hop. One particular response by Dr. Raquel Rivera really stuck with me: “we are too fast to demonize the raunch. Don’t demonize the Raunch!” Joan Morgan (yes, THE Joan Morgan) followed up with an astute observation that American society does not have a discourse available for the erotic. My first response? “Ha! I love that!” The second response? “Yeah, that makes sense.”
What is our fascination with sexuality? Particularly, what is our fascination with the erotic and its impact on our understanding of blackness? (Hyper)sexuality often frames our understanding of men and women of color since our implementation into western culture. It is a gendered and oppressive space, often maintaining rigid boundaries and unilateral interpretation. For centuries, the black body existed primarily within the confinements of sexual expression. And, unfortunately, that space has not completely evolved. The Americanized erotic is transfixed within the slave discourse and white privilege that dominated the antebellum United States. Although I do not deny that women have been objectified via the infamous “male gaze,” a “one-up” that white women have over black women is the fact that at least their “honor” and “purity” granted them access to the coveted cult of true womanhood. Their bodies and sexuality are considered worthy of preserving and being respected. Black women, however, have inherited membership in the cult of the freaknasty. Breeders, freak (a leek)s, Jezebels, and, as Abbey Lincoln suggests, “sexual outhouses of white men,” African American women have not been able to remove themselves from the perspective of a sexual lens.
This referential point has sustained itself in both white and black American communities. Because black sexuality is such a taboo topic, the push to avoid it sensationalizes this discourse and the imagery that accompanies it. One possible reason for the lack of erotic discourse available is the desire of black America to remove the stigma of sexuality from its identity. This silence bears an excruciating consequence: the continuation of a vicious cycle of misrepresentative sexual stereotypes and outside influence on the inner African American community’s understanding of identity.
Returning back to the idea of slave discourse and sexuality, there often extremities associated with categorization of the black body. For black men, the buck, brute, or Uncle Tom archetype covers the range of hypersexual to asexual. In similar fashion, African American women were categorized by the Jezebel, Sapphire, or Mammy. These representations have far from disappeared from American public culture. In fact, these proto-erotic images have transcended to reflect and evolve with (popular) black culture. Because we are now part of the Hip Hop Era, there is a Hip Hop Erotic, a gendered and emotionally charged space that all of its affiliated parties are forced to navigate.
“Don’t Demonize the Raunch!:” The Hip Hop Erotic
Hip Hop Culture has an intriguing way of presenting and reaffirming notions of black sexuality. The video vixen takes after the Jezebel while the thug is the hybrid descendant of the brute and buck. Even more fascinating is how the erotic is constructed: women’s sexuality is often encompassed in a bitter and angry space while men, also angry, present their sexual identity via a dominant and hyperviolent space (i.e. rape discourse). There are frequencies or reserved spaces that allow levels of visible blackness. These frequencies are especially noticeable for women in Hip Hop. It is obvious that the video vixen reflects the highest frequency of womanhood within Hip Hop culture. Their presentation reaffirms the suspected correlation between black women and hypersexuality. For female emcees, it is hypersexuality or obscenity. The Little Kims, Foxy Browns, Trinas, and Nicki Minajes fight to get more (radio) play. The Jean Graes and Mysteriouses (from Making the Bad Season Two) fight to be taken seriously without using their sexuality to validate their lyricism and authenticity. This lack of fluidity forces women to navigate through stringent spaces of extreme identity.
Because those lines don’t blur, it is problematic for our understanding and placement of women who try and straddle the fence (no pun intended). For example, how would we place Missy Elliot, a “femcee” who started off not being able to stand the rain in a big ass trash bag talking about YoYos ( I caught the double meaning)? She evolved into a femme fatal emcee, warning listeners about her distaste for minute men and tricks she could do with magic sticks and cho chas. In a way, Missy was a Hip Hop Mammy, often looking out for other artists (like Aaliyah, Da Brat, and the “mama” of 550 Music Group) and suppressing any trace of sexual identity. Missy, while multitalented, often had her sexuality and authenticity questioned after the transformation of her lyrical content because she aligned her music with the sexy. While not asexual, Da Brat followed similar suit (“So Funkdafied” to “Ladies Night” and “What Do You Like”). In order to maintain relevance and visibility, these talented emcees were forced to submit and learn to function within a recognizable space of hypersexuality.
Why is the erotic so enticing and prevalent? It is a sensationalized space that is often molded and shaped to fit the experiences and expectations of its beholder. The erotic space is a struggle between conservative thought (traditionalism?) and open sexual reflection (liberalism?). Sexuality is a fluid form of expression that is only a facet of the black American experience. Once this is accepted as a normative state of gender discourse perhaps we can transcend from viewing sexuality as a stigma of the black body to utilizing it as a tool for conversing about and complicating our understanding of blackness in America.