A few semesters back, Caity wrote an amazing essay about feminism and Hip-Hop with a focus on Black female representation and identification in Hip-Hop. In honor of our beloved Hip-Hop culture and International Women’s Day, we wanted to share with you all.
To begin this essay, I would like to situate myself as a young white woman whose interests are in a feminism that does not repeat the white liberal biases of 1970’s – 1980’s second wave. I would describe myself as a feminist, as feminism is outlined in bell hooks book Feminism is for Everybody. I love hip-hop music, I do not, however, consider myself an artist within the hip-hop realm in any way. I am interested in examining feminist pedagogy (or pedagogies), and the ways in which it relates and intersects with hip-hop culture. I would like to explore the problems with definitions and politics of feminism as they relate to black women in North America, the reasons that women in hip hop may or may not define themselves as feminist (or womanist), and the ways in which hip hop can provide a safe space for black women to identify themselves as they are, and not as they are often presented, namely as always being in opposition to black males in hip hop, and always having to fight for a voice in a seemingly male dominated movement. I say seemingly, for oftentimes the importance and influence of women in hip hop has been downplayed or disregarded. To support these ideas, I will look at sources that examine black feminist thought, hip hop feminist pedagogy, feminism and womanism in relation to hip-hop, and sources that speak about specific examples of black women in hip hop.
Feminism in North America began as a movement to combat male-dominated, patriarchal values and practices that oppressed women. Defining public space as male, and forcing women to abide by societal rules that served to deny their independence and individuality, feminism in its beginnings, fought for equal opportunities for females. Today there are numerous feminist ideologies that include Black feminism and hip-hop feminist pedagogy, both of which will be explored in this essay. Feminism, and by extension women’s studies, “continues to transform in innovative ways” (Kim, 195) and has moved away from a “monolithic women’s voice and experience” beginning to examine “the interconnection of race, class, gender, ethnicity, region, and sexuality as an intellectual and analytical tool to diversify women’s studies curricula” (Kim, 196). However, though it began as a question of equal opportunity, liberal feminism was later critiqued for being primarily designed for middle-class white women. (Collins, 5).
Hip-hop as a movement began in New York City, more specifically in the South Bronx, a primarily black neighbourhood. In the eyes of dominant society, it was the residents of this neighbourhood who were responsible for the ghettoization of the South Bronx, even in the face of glaring proof to the contrary. This evidence includes the “ethnic dislocations spurred by the construction of the South Bronx highway, and a rapid decline in municipal services induced by severe cuts in federal funding at the end of the Great Society era.” (Phillips, Reddick-Morgan, Stephens, 253). Hip-hop became a movement that gave a voice to people pushed to the margins of society, with a very clear wish for change. Feminism and hip-hop, therefore, both began with somewhat intersecting ideologies. Though they are different, and their specific contexts are different, both attempt to create a space where voices can be heard, and to use those voices to effect change in the face of a dominant society that wishes to silence them. In his fictional novel The Taqwacores, Michael Muhammed Knight describes the similarities between the Punk movement and Islam:
They aren’t so far removed as you’d think. Both began in tremendous bursts of truth and vitality but seem to have lost something along the way – the energy, perhaps, that comes with knowing the world has never seen such positive force and fury and never would again. Both have suffered from sell-outs and hypocrites, but also from true believers whose devotion had crippled their creative drive. Both are viewed by outsiders as unified, cohesive communities when nothing can be further from the truth. (Knight, 7).
This quotation, in my opinion, describes quite nicely the similarities between hip-hop culture and feminism, and while one could apply the description of having lost something along the way to these movements, it would be irresponsible to deny the existence of contemporary examples of feminism and of hip-hop that continue to fight for equal opportunity. Before we can further examine these examples, we must examine the problems with definitions and politics of feminism as they relate to black women in North America, in order to understand the reasons women in the hip-hop world do or do not define themselves as feminist.
In her book Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins writes: “Within U.S. culture, racist and sexist ideologies permeate the social structure to such a degree that they become hegemonic, namely, seen as natural, normal, and inevitable.” (Collins, 5). Consequences of such ideologies include a negative stereotyping of black women that can be used as a justification for oppression and have been “fundamental to Black women’s oppression.” (Collins, 5). This stereotyping has produced images of black women that have permeated popular culture, and have led to the image of black women in hip hop today, which, at least in the mainstream world, includes a negative focus on black women’s sexualized bodies (the rapper Nelly’s “Tip Drill” music video comes to mind). Tricia Rose states in the introduction to her article “The Hip Hop Wars”, that in “the most commercially promoted and financially successful hip hop […] hyper-sexism has increased dramatically” (Rose 2008, 1). These sexist images, coupled with the exclusion of black women from hip hop history has disregarded the importance and influence of women in the hip-hop movement. This phenomenon further allows the image of a male dominated culture to exist and persist, in contemporary hip hop settings, allowing no room for complexity or ambiguity.
The relationship between images of female and male hip hop artists is further complicated when facing these racist and sexist ideologies that are facets of the dominant society in North America. Black women have often been presented in opposition to black males in hip hop, and defined by their relationship to these males; oftentimes there is a focus on tracks that deal specifically with issues such as the representation of these women by men in hip-hop (for example, the 2 Live Crew controversy (Rose, 149)). However, this focus risks leading to the definition of black women’s hip-hop as necessarily feminist; a definition that many of these women disagree with. Historically, Western feminist views have been criticized “for being racist and overly concerned with White, middle-class women’s issues.” (Collins, p.5). Because these types of feminism have suppressed black women’s ideas, there has been historically no place for black women in feminism, perhaps a contributing factor in the resistance some female hip-hop artists feel to associate themselves with feminist movements. Among other reasons that some women reject being labelled as feminist, is a mainstream view of feminism that defines feminism as anti-male. This definition is in part caused by “antifeminist attacks from right-wing organizations and mainstream media depictions of pro-women activists as bitter man-hating women.” (Rose, 176).
Tricia Rose cites examples of women in hip-hop who have been labelled as feminist by people other than themselves; these women include Queen Latifah and Salt-n-Pepa among others (labelled by “critical and journalistic writing, implicitly and explicitly” (Rose, 176)) a label that these rappers feel uncomfortable with, for although they “clearly express frustrations with men” (176), because they associate feminism with being anti-male, they “did not want to be considered, or want their work to be interpreted as anti-black male.” (176). Rose continues: “the specificity of black women rappers’ rejection of feminism is also directly linked to their status as black women.” (177). This is not only opposing feminism as a white-dominated ideology, these women, in Patricia Collins’ analysis, may also feel a need to avoid violating “norms of racial solidarity” (Collins, 124). According to Collins, when black women were writing in the 1970s and 1980s (about the same time hip-hop was getting started), they faced opposition not only from people outside of their communities, but also from within these communities, when some black men reacted with hostility towards black women’s ideas. Collins quotes Calvin Hernton as he “offers an incisive criticism of the seeming tenacity of a masculinist bias:
The telling thing about the hostile attitude of black men toward black women writers is that they interpret the new thrust of the women as being “counter-productive” to the historical goal of the Black struggle. Revealingly, while black men have achieved outstanding recognition throughout the history of black writing, black women have not accused the men of collaborating with the enemy and setting back the progress of the race. (Hernton qtd in Collins, 8).
Certainly it would be reductive to leave an impression that all black men reacted negatively to these women’s writings, and the importance of black feminist thought has not gone unacknowledged by black male academics. According to bell hooks, the “counter-productive” accusation was put forward, as a result of the patriarchal values that exist in Western society. bell hooks explains that:
Males as a group have and do benefit the most from patriarchy, from the assumption that they are superior to females and should rule over us. But those benefits come with a price. In return for all the goodies men receive from patriarchy, they are required to dominate women, to exploit and oppress us, using violence if they must to keep patriarchy intact. (hooks, xi)
Therefore, for black men to conform to North American societal standards, according to hooks, they must necessarily exist in a position dominant to that of black women, a position that is always defined by masculinity. As Morgan has written, “Until the late 1950s, one of America’s worst kept secrets was its repression of blacks, other nonwhites, the working class, and women. African American communities lived behind a veil that hid their complex and personal struggle to define manhood and womanhood within an ideological system that denied them social, cultural, and moral citizenship.” (Morgan, 425). According to Collins, this further complicates the relationship between black women and feminism, arguing that black women have “remained silent concerning issues of sexuality” (Collins, 124), a consequence of this repression. Nellie McKay explains:
In all of their lives in America . . . black women have felt torn between the loyalties that bind them to race on one hand, and sex on the other. Choosing one or the other, of course, means taking sides against the self, yet they have almost always chosen race over the other: a sacrifice of their self-hood as women and of full humanity, in favour of the race (McKay 1992, 277-78). (Collins, 124)
Lili M. Kim furthers this argument in her article “I Was [So] Busy Fighting Racism That I Didn’t Even Know I Was Being Oppressed as a Woman”, when she writes: “As Angela P. Harris has argued, in a world where ‘gender essentialism’ and ‘racial essentialism’ exist, ‘black women’s experience will always be forcibly fragmented before being subjected to analysis, as those who are ‘only interested in race’ and those who are ‘only interested in gender’ take their separate slices of our lives.’” (Kim, 195).
While there is much reason for black women in hip-hop to oppose feminism as it is presented to them by dominant society, when Tricia Rose describes her feminist ideas, most of the women she spoke to, including MC Lyte, Salt-n-Pepa, agreed that based on her definition they might describe themselves as feminist. In “Oppositional Consciousness Within An Oppositional Realm: The Case of Feminism and Womanism in Rap and Hip Hop, 1976-2004”, Layli Phillips, Kerri Reddick-Morgan, and Dionne Patricia Stephens state that “women in rap have maintained a dually oppositional stance within Hip Hop culture” (255), a stance that allows these women not only to “critique the sexism of men of their same race or ethnicity, using Hip Hop as a platform.” (255) but this stance also “has enabled African American and Latino women to express solidarity with men of their same race or ethnicity in their critique of and struggle against mainstream society’s racism, classism, and race-d sexism (which affects both women and men of color). One feature of the second aspect of women’s oppositional stance in Hip Hop is that it has allowed “everyday” women of color to critique and contest certain aspects of mainstream (including academic) feminism.” (Phillips, Reddick-Morgan, Stephens, 255). This view is an example of the dialogue that Tricia Rose refers to, female hip-hop artists existing not necessarily in complete opposition to male rappers, or with feminism, but in a dialogue that can continue to grow and evolve.
Tricia Rose calls for an examination of hip-hop culture as being characterized by dialogue, for often female and male rappers have been defined as being in opposition to one another. Rose argues that because female rappers “have been uniformly touted as sexually progressive, antisexist voices in rap music” (Rose, 147), male rappers therefore are seen as “uniformly sexist” (147) which is a denial of the complex sexual politics explored above. This denial is also accompanied by another, the denial of women’s importance and influence on the hip-hop movement. Hip-hop is generally seen as a male-dominated movement, and is defined by Houston Baker as an “assertion of black manhood” (Rose, 151), which according to Rose, “affirms the equation of male heterosexuality with manhood, [and] renders sustained and substantial female pleasure and participation in hip hop invisible or impossible.” (151). If hip-hop is defined as an assertion of black manhood, women’s role within hip-hop culture is then disregarded or completely ignored. In “Oppositional Consciousness Within An Oppositional Realm: The Case of Feminism and Womanism in Rap and Hip Hop, 1976-2004”, women’s involvement in hip-hop is clearly outlined and celebrated. The authors explain the integral role that women have played in the evolution of hip-hop, while admitting that men have outnumbered women in “both the artistic arena and the corporate end of Hip Hop […] Due largely to masculinist biases already in place in the domains of advertising and news reporting, the public face of both Hip Hop and rap is masculine and the mainstream discourse of rap as Hip Hop’s mouthpiece is masculine.” (254).
Marc Lamont Hill examines in his article “Critical Pedagogy Comes at Halftime”, the problems that arise when ‘clear’ distinctions are drawn between commercial and conscious rap and hip-hop music. These are similar to the problems presented above, which place women and men in oppositional positions in hip-hop, just as conscious and commercial hip-hop are seen as opposites. In reality, it is ultimately quite difficult to draw these distinctions for, as discussed, they deny the complexity of hip-hop culture as a whole, just as single views of feminism as a homogeneous movement deny the complexities of many forms of feminism. Hill also articulates “These divisions also facilitate the cooptation of black art by corporate interests and parasitic (read: white) cultural forces through all too familiar divide-and-conquer tactics.” (Hill, 102). The dilemma is then further complicated, where can black woman in hip-hop find a space to define themselves within a movement that is seemingly male-dominated and already divided within itself?
Ruth Nicole Brown helped to form the group known as SOLHOT (Saving Our Lives Hear Our Truths), a group that forms a space where black girlhood is celebrated for Brown believes that “we lack a language that accurately describes what it means to work with Black girls in a way that is not about controlling their bodies and/or producing White, middle-class girl subjectivities.” (Brown, 2). This is what Brown had experienced when participating in other programs that functioned differently from SOLHOT. With SOLHOT, she was creating a space that was “creating an intentional space to be young, Black, and female – and whatever other identify marker we find significance in claiming – is worthwhile.” (Brown, 8). Brown notes that “the girls with whom I work, the girl I used to be, and my daughter who I am raising cannot recall girlhood without hip-hop.” (Brown, 8), and argues that after Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip Hop Feminist, “neither feminism nor hip-hop could claim ignorance of the other; hip-hop feminism was on the come up.” (Brown, 8). Chickenheads gave Brown a guideline for dealing with questions from people unaware of the existence of hip-hop feminism (questions like “Isn’t hip-hop feminism an oxymoron?” (Brown, 8)), and she states that her book, Black Girlhood Celebration, is meant to exist in “direct conversation” with Chickenheads. (Brown, 7).
Brown describes hip-hop feminist pedagogy as “the practice of engaging young people using elements of hip-hop culture and feminist methodology for the purpose of transforming oppressive institutions, policies, relationships, and beliefs” (Brown, 7) and states that “The primary reason I identify as a hip-hop feminist is because I see myself and the Black girls with whom I work as creators of the movement, as much as consumers” (Brown, 44). SOLHOT therefore becomes the space where black girls of the “post-Civil Rights, post-feminist, post-soul, hip-hop generation” (Morgan in Brown, 8) can not only share their experiences in a space designed to celebrate them, but create and critically analyse the very music they may love, or hate, or sing, or dance to; a music that has and continues to define and shape its generation(s). Because Brown articulates that “hip-hop gives meaning to our girlhood” (Brown, 32) and “I found that Black girls literally speak through hip-hop” (Brown, 33), she explains that “In SOLHOT, our girlhood celebration is mediated by hip-hop that does not exist separately from feminism”, and that this celebration is “also mediated by feminism that does not seem significant without hip-hop.” (Brown, 135). SOLHOT then puts into practice a hip-hop feminist pedagogy which enables feminism and hip-hop to coexist and interact, but it also serves another purpose. Hip-hop feminism and SOLHOT in particular, are working to acknowledge social change made possible by a celebration of black girlhood, and to further advance this change. Brown cites Morgan again, saying that:
Morgan’s quest for empowerment grounded in the complexity that sisterhood was not only sincere and refreshing to many but gendered the discourse in such a way that made women and girls visible while it also racialized discourses of feminism with a contemporary historicity that valued young women of color. (Brown, 7).
Because “Everyone seems to be interested in the influence of misogynist lyrics and dehumanizing images of Black women and girls represented in mainstream hip-hop” (Brown, 31), hip-hop feminism has had to fight for its voice. Perhaps if female rappers in mainstream hip-hop were made aware of this hip-hop feminist pedagogy, they would not reject being labelled feminist? However hip-hop has and continues to, “represent the voices and visions of the culturally, politically, and economically marginal and disenfranchised.” (Phillips, Reddick-Morgan, Stephens, 254). Although there are many problems with hip-hop as an industry, and what is seen as ‘commercial hip-hop’ (although this in itself denies the complex relationship of commercial and underground hip-hop, as explored in Michael Eric Dyson’s article “Critical Pedagogy Comes at Halftime”), hip-hop’s main philosophy is one of resistance, power, and self-identification. Hip-hop and hip-hop feminism must continue to advance hip-hop’s philosophy, and in doing so, will provide a space where black women can identify and represent themselves as they are, and not as they are presented by others. A generation that comes after the birth of hip-hop cannot deny the significance of hip-hop on feminist thought today. Brown states:
Hip-hop feminist pedagogy holds the possibility of turning the private party into something bigger, explicitly political and educational. Hip-hop feminist pedagogy recognizes and validates the everyday work many young women of color are doing to create social change that falls outside of mainstream hip-hop, commodified feminism, traditional organizing, and formal education. (Brown, 136).
There exist problems in the definitions of both hip-hop and feminism, especially if these definitions do not consider the myriad of complexities and intersections in the ideologies of both. Although there is resistance from some female rappers to being labelled as feminist, there exist also women in hip-hop who carve a safe space for themselves to identify themselves as hip-hop feminists, with a feminism influenced by hip-hop and vice versa. It’s bigger than hip-hop, and feminism is for everybody. (Dead Prez, bell hooks).
Brown, Ruth Nicole. Black Girlhood Celebration: Toward a Hip-Hop Feminist Pedagogy. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2009.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000.
Hill, Marc Lamont. “Critical Pedagogy Comes at Halftime: Nas as Black Public Intellectual”. Born to Use Mics, Reading Nas’s Illmatic. Ed. Michael Eric Dyson, Sohail Daulatzai. New York, NY: Civitas Books, 2010. p.81-106.
Hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000.
Kim, Lili M. “I Was [So] Busy Fighting Fighting Racism That I Didn’t Even Know I Was Being Oppressed as a Woman!: Challenges, Changes, and Empowerment in Teaching about Women of Color”. Feminist Pedagogy. Eds. Robbin D. Crabtree, David Alan Sapp, Adela C. Licona. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. p.195-208.
Knight, Michael Muhammed. The Taqwacores. Berkely, CA: Soft Skull Press, 2004.
Morgan, Marcyliena. “ Hip-Hop Women Shredding the Veil: Race and Class in Popular Feminist Identity”. South Atlantic Quarterly: Summer 2005. Vol. 104 Issue 3, p.425-444
Nelly. “Tip Drill.” Da Derrty Versions: The Reinvention. Universal, 2003.
Phillips, Layli; Reddick-Morgan, Kerri; Stephens, Dionne Patricia. “Oppositional Consciousness Within An Oppositional Realm: The Case of Feminism and Womanism in Rap and Hip Hop, 1976-2004”. Journal of African American History: Summer 2005. Vol. 90 Issue 3. p.253-277.
Rose, Tricia. “Bad Sistas: Black Women Rappers and Sexual Politics in Rap Music”. Black Noise: Rap Music and Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1994. p.146-182.
Rose, Tricia. “Introduction”. The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop And Why It Matters. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2008. p.1-30.