By Jakob Sundin
In a 2017 interview, rapper and founder of the record label MMG, Rick Ross – the same bright mind who gave a “shout-out to all the pear” after losing some weight – explained why he has never signed a female rapper to his label: “You know, I never did it because I always thought, like, I would end up fucking a female rapper and fucking the business up.”
That statement may be one of the best examples in highlighting a common problem in hip-hop, but it is far from the only case. Ranging from sexist lyrics and discrimination to rappers assaulting their girlfriends, hip-hop has provided us with plenty of evidence that it is, like a lot of pop culture, filled with misogyny. Yet, many people, myself included, call ourselves feminists while being avid hip-hop lovers. Is that just pure hypocrisy? Is there any hope for hip-hop or does Rick Ross personify the entire genre?
Luckily, no. Other labels do sign female rappers – one of the biggest in recent years being Cardi B. Along with Drake and Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B is one of only three artists – and the only woman – to have had five songs simultaneously in the top 10 Hot R&B/Hip-hop Billboard chart. Cardi recently also became the first solo female rapper to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart (all genres) since Lauryn Hill in 1998.
Back in the ‘90s, many other female hip-hop artists got their breakthroughs as well; one of those was the legendary group Salt-N-Pepa. Being one of the first all-female rap groups, “they started using hip-hop as a platform to call out sexism in the genre and in society as a whole”. In their hit song Ain’t Nuthin’ But A She Thing, the group raps about derogatory attitudes towards women: “When I’m aggressive then I’m a bitch; When I got attitude you call me a witch; Treat me like a sex-object, that ain’t smooth; Underestimate the mind, oh yeah, you’re a fool”. A couple of years earlier, the rapper Queen Latifah had touched upon the same subject in her Grammy awarded hit single U.N.I.T.Y. – with one of the lines being: “Every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho; Trying to make a sister feel low; You know all of that gots to go”.
It is easy, however, to point at a few good examples and say that hip-hop is not all bad, but I think most people are guilty of liking some artists that can be considered at least somewhat sexist. How can that be justified? Several feminist authors have discussed the topic; two of the more prominent being Joan Morgan and Roxane Gay.
In her 1999 book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, Joan Morgan coined the phrase “hip-hop feminism”, which has since grown into something of a movement. In an interview with MSNBC, Morgan claimed her passion for hip-hop has made her a better feminist by making her think critically and react to the fact that there are always bad aspects of things you like. “I couldn’t rely on very simple victim – oppression models. I had to acknowledge the place where I liked things that weren’t necessarily good for me, or feminist, or [politically correct].”
Roxane Gay, author of the bestseller essay collection Bad Feminist, has asked herself if liking hip-hop makes her, well, a bad feminist. In an interview with Soundcheck, she advocates allowing yourself to like hip-hop while criticizing the aspects that are not so good. Talking about Kendrick Lamar’s Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe, she said the following: “It’s a great song, but why do you have to use the word bitch? It’s not necessary. He’s such a clever lyricist, and he can’t do any better than use the word bitch?” Gay says she can identify with Lamar, but when it comes to some artists with much rougher lyrics she still listens to them and asserts that “Okay, I want to be as far away from these people as possible.”
Maybe that is the healthiest way to approach sexism in hip-hop. It is both difficult and unfair to force yourself to boycott something you truly enjoy. Instead, maybe we can be more honest by recognizing hip-hop’s many flaws and be critical of them as well as of ourselves – what is it that makes us enjoy the genre despite those flaws? Let the likes of Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa, and many more be sources of inspiration; we should be able to enjoy the music but remain critical to some parts of it. I say, we can keep getting caught up in the beats and the flow – but sexist lyrics? You know all of that gots to go.
By Jakob Sundin