Hip Hopping Equality

18 / 07 / 2013

Hip-hop music is vastly popular. But how does a progressive young bloke reconcile with its sexist undertones? Robert Brown provides us with his take, in this month’s First Person.

By Robert Brown

These days, being both a man and an avid lover of hip-hop music, comes with a stigma attached. The culture and lyrics of hip-hop music invariably pose a grand contradiction for any progressive person – causing me to wonder ‘Are we closet misogynists?’

Blaring four-four beats since the ‘80s, hip-hop has well and truly infiltrated modern popular culture. Almost everyone in their mid-twenties to thirties know the lyrics to Will Smith’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air intro, and probably sang along to his rap themes for Wild Wild West or Men In Black as hip-hop doused popular music into the 2000s.

Today, hip-hop is entrenched in Australia’s youth culture – especially in so-called ‘hipster’ scenes – where girls wear ‘Wu’ beanies and Nike Air and New Balance sneakers are ubiquitous. This ubiquity of hip-hop is worrisome, simply because of how readily we’ve numbed to the ideals it champions.

I like to think of myself as a supporter of equal rights – I find sexism abhorent, yet I still find myself rapping along to bravado-laced hip-hop tracks, and find women doing it too. Pseudo-degradation may be used in jest, as a shock tactic, or ironically; but you soon realise that it’s still degradation, and the culture that has maintained its youthful relevance for thirty years has dosed us with prejudice as subtly as a film splice in Fight Club.

When it comes to emerging young males in hip-hop, you generally don’t hold out for artists sympathetic to equality. The group Odd Future, led by the brash Tyler the Creator and full of kids barely in their twenties, has been making a huge buzz on the internet since 2010 and is cited for homophobia, racism, and misogyny in almost every song they’ve ever made. The most precocious talent of the group, Earl Sweatshirt, became the fan favourite for his creative vitriol. The New York Times described him as “a savvy, schooled rapper: gross, entrancing and thrilling“.

But even rappers have concerned Mothers, a law professor at the University of California, who banished Sweatshirt (Thebe Kgositsil) to Samoa to attend a youth camp for at-risk boys in Vaitele. He worked at the Samoa Victim Support Group for children survivors of sexual abuse, and talking with the clinic’s patients greatly affected him. It proved a watershed moment, causing the rapper to take a hard look at his song lyrics. The NY Times reported his reflection:

“You can detach imagery from words,” he said, adding that he “never actually pictured” the things he rapped about. (“Lyrics About Rape, Coke, And Couches Will Be Blaring In Your Ears,” was how “Earl,” the album, was advertised on Odd Future’s Tumblr when it was released in March 2010.)

“By the time he began working at the center, “I had already come to the conclusion that I was done talking about” that sort of subject matter, he said, but coming face to face with young people who had suffered in that way was overwhelming. “There’s nothing that you can — there’s no — you can’t evade the — there’s no defense for like — if you have any ounce of humanity,” he said, the feeling swallowing the words.”

This turn-around has been pivotal for young fans of misogynist lyricism, because Earl, in his absence, was seen as the saviour of new hip-hop, as some kind of deity, and on his return he changed the face of acceptability in rap for millions of adoring adolescents by going so far to say “I hope I lose you as a fan if you only f*** with me cause I rapped about raping girls when I was 15”. This coming from a figurehead of a group whose older songs led federal Liberal backbencher Alex Hawke, to appeal to Julia Gillard in June for their touring visa to be revoked.

There is no blanket rule for all artists, but as a whole, the inclination of hip-hop to be the patriarchal, sexist genre of music is fading as the world becomes less insular and more aware. Outspoken rapper Lupe Fiasco attempted to yard-stick the anti-misogyny movement last year with his song Bitch Bad which dealt with the trend of rappers lauding a woman who was a ‘bad bitch’ representing a sexual model.

He raps “Bitch bad, women good, lady better”, while the accompanying video shows an impressionable young boy and girl being influenced by a rapper’s perception of what a ‘bad bitch’ is, and how negatively it affects them. Even though Lupe’s heart was in the right place, he garnered criticism for portraying the boy, who grows into a young man, to have the nous to understand that a women who acts like a ‘bad bitch’ isn’t appealing, while showing the young women as ignorant for adhering to being an archetype.

While Lupe’s effort may demonstrate that women’s rights can be difficult for a man to patron (let alone a male rapper), it’s a start, as Dodai Stewart critiqued in article for Jezebel:

“While his attempt to show some different viewpoints on “bitch” is admirable, it’s actually very narrow in scope… and misses the mark in tackling just how complicated the word is. Still, it’s a really interesting conversation to have, and Fiasco deserves credit for trying.”

Female voices are also filling the gap. In response to Bitch Bad, Angel Haze, an acclaimed and emerging female rapper, offered a re-fix of the song that didn’t reinforce dichotomies of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women and explored an alternate ending of the same story where the boy understands that “women should never be hurt by words or hands / and just like that that little boy becomes a man”. And due to her candidness about her abusive past, the lines are delivered with a sincerity and openness that skips the preachy note contrived by performers like Nikki Minaj, who perpetuate the image they try to discredit. 

Of course rap and hip-hop will always be a magnet for controversy because young + rich = ego. Even still, and even though it might be hard for critics to take at face value, hip-hop is becoming more female-friendly. Older artists may have permeated popular culture with a blend of incognito and blatant sexism alike, but, as a new wave of performers denounce sexual ignorance and more credible female artists come to light, degrading or hateful lyrics towards women are becoming more uncomfortable and less knee-jerk to the fans.