Gender in Hip-hop

When exploring gender in Hip-Hop two things are blatantly obvious to me. Hip-Hop’s representation of what it is to be male or female is incredibly diverse and incredibly complicated. On the one hand you have an overwhelming masculine and feminine discourse that seems to pertain to the stereotypical white supremacist notion of black pathology. Yet coexisting amongst this seemingly racist narrative you have intricate and intellectual ideas from ‘conscious artists’ who demonstrate a profound enlightened view to the very social and political problems their own genre sometimes glorifies. To understand such an apparent contradiction we must understand the historical context of black racial identity and what it means to be authentically black in America. First and foremost the most important gender norm through which Hip-Hop must be understood and contextualised is the notion of hyper-masculinity:

“In a patriarchal society in which most black men of any age were called “boys” and denied the right to vote, the right to obtain adequate employment, or even basic human rights, many black men by the mid-twentieth century compensated for their powerlessness by creating the hypermale. This was manifested in a coolness that typified black manhood, particularly young working-class black men.”[1]

This point is further backed up in Byron Hurt’s documentary; Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. If you’re a young man growing up in a profoundly patriarchal society such as America and the culture is telling you that being a man means being powerful, dominant, in control and having the respect of your peers but you don’t have a lot of real power, i.e. access to resources and wealth, you try to find others ways of exercising your masculinity. One of the ways of doing this is through trying to present yourself physically as threatening and worthy of respect. This could be seen to account for the hyper-masculine nature of hip-hop artists and young black men in general as well as the white working class.[2]

This idea of the hyper-masculine ‘Badman’ in Hip-Hop is typically reduced to some common core points of reference with regards to male authenticity such as; conspicuous value placed on power and status in a distinctly urban folkloric way, the wilful ability to inflict violent harm on adversaries, the wilful ability to have sex with many women as a demonstration of sexual prowess and access to material resources that are largely inaccessible to others. The Badman embodies a challenge to all authority along with braggadocio, hypermaterialism and female subjugation.[3] The female opposite of this, the ‘Badwoman’, would later emerge and exemplify similar behavioural traits but instead demonstrate a hypersexualised image. Lil Kim and Foxy Brown are examples of this.

Similar characters have been around for decades in black culture as part of the tradition and festive ritual that young black men created as a creative outlet to an oppressive and restrictive reality. In the case of women the badwoman image could be seen as a derivative of the morally unrestrained Jezebel stereotype projected onto black women by white America. The hyperbole is clear but as Hip-Hop established itself as an extension of the super macho narrative, it assumed a misogynistic character. This however would not limit the genre as it later proved to be far too dynamic and innovative to become constrained in content or scope.[4] Although understanding this context is essential to understanding how the said Badman gender narrative dominates a large portion of the genres content.

A strange paradox arises from this larger national American narrative of the fear of a believed black pathology as expressed and demonstrated in Hip-Hop through subgenres such as ‘Gangsta rap’. It feeds into the supposed authenticity of the genre and the characters it markets which actually begins to turn the aforementioned Badman gender identity into an increasingly marketable commodity which in turn only fuels more anxiety as Tricia Rose argues in The Hip Hop Wars:

“the history of association of blacks with ignorance, sexual deviance, violence, and criminality has not only contributed to the believability of hip-hop artists’ fictitious autobiographical tales among fans from various racial groups but has also helped explain the excessive anxiety about the popularity and allure of these artists.”[5]

Overarching tropes of misogyny, rape culture and violence against women present Hip-Hop as a hyper-masculine and gendered space of black American cultural expression that is profitable. The privilege of what is marketable comes with hyper-visibility and increased normalcy.[6] The gender performances that are most commodified transition into those performances considered normative, culturally relevant and representative of Hip-Hip aesthetics.[7]

The challenge, however, is considering how capitalism impacts gender as it intersects with other underlying factors of Hip-Hop like race, social and political agency and class. Hip-Hop’s gender politics extend outside of their performative qualities into the realms of lived experience and expectation and are often short sighted about the complexities of blackness that Hip-Hop could and should represent.[8]

In its current state this stereotypical discourse of the hypermale surrounding Hip-Hop’s gender politics does not reflect the complex interstitial spaces in which many bodies of Hip-Hop reside. This view is far too polarising to account for a wide range of contemporary artists. For example, how can one view the queerness of Frank Ocean or the consistently fluctuating performances of gender by Nicki Minaj or the cross dressing of Young Thug who regularly wears women’s clothing and shamelessly admits to it, through these polarities.[9]

Other gender identities thus must be formulated to fit the vast array of artistic expression that occurs throughout Hip-Hop as a whole. Personally for me the most important identity when it comes to understanding the diverse gender spectrum, with comparison to the hypermale, of Hip-Hop is the idea of the Philosopher King, which is normally prescribed as a male archetype, but I believe can be applied to female artists as well. As mentioned in the introduction such conscious artists exhibit an emotional vulnerability and intellect that expands the complexities of the world around them, their position in the world around them and what that may or may not represent.[10] These artists embody a certain wisdom and grace that highlight how Hip-Hop is an extension of poetry and spoken word on the lyrical front whilst combining it with music that is thoughtfully picked out to bolster the profound and enlightened subject matter thus exemplifying just how beautiful an art form the genre can be. They obtain respect and authenticity from their musical, lyrical and intellectual capabilities and show a completely different side to black racial identity in America. An identity that I believe to be synonymous with that of the Civil Rights, Black Power and Black Nationalist Movement’s narratives.  Artists such as the multiple Grammy winning Lauryn Hill whose album ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ sold more units than any other female artist in the genre and transcended the Jezebel trope that people argued was essential for women rappers to go platinum. Or Lupe Fiasco on the male side, whose conceptual album ‘The Cool’ is considered as one of the very best, and is named The Proust of Rap by music website Genius, for his incredibly complex lyrical content and literary themes, would be perfect examples of this[11].

In addition to these two different ends of the spectrum a variety of other gender identities fall in between. With regards to male archetypes we have; the playa/pimp, dope boy/trap star and the hustler.[12] On the female side as categorised by Cheryl Keyes we have; the queen mother, fly girl, sista with attitude and lesbian.[13] All of which inter mingle in what is a never ending fluidity of artistic expression unique to Hip-Hop and black social and political identity in America.

It is this fluidity and diversity of expression that makes Hip-Hop such an important art form as it is constantly pushing the boundaries of the dominant ideological system within which it operates by offering new discourses whilst mirroring and moulding society at the same time. Although at times being viewed as overtly crude and explicit in a morally undignified way, Hip-Hop plays an important role in bringing issues to the forefront of societal discussion. It does this through a range of platforms and performances that artists could hardly adopt if it weren’t for the genres breadth, depth and acceptance for different manifestations of humanity.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Ogbar, Jeffrey, “Hip-Hop Revolution The Culture and Politics of Rap.” University Press of Kansas, 2007.
  • Bradley, Regina N. “Barbz and Kings: Explorations of Gender and Sexuality in Hip-Hop.” In The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop, edited by Justin A. Williams, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Hurt, Byron. “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes.” Independent Lens. PBS. 2006.
  • Keyes, L, Cheryl. “Empowering Self, Making Choices, Creating Spaces: Black Female Identity via Rap Music Performance.” In The Journal of American Folklore. P-255-269. American Folklore Society. 2000.
  • Lupe Fiasco: The Proust of Rap: http://genius.com/posts/69-Lupe-fiasco-the-proust-of-rap. Genius.com. 2011.

[1] Ogbar, Jeffrey, Hip-Hop Revolution The Culture and Politics of Rap, P-76, University Press of Kansas, 2007.

[2] Hurt, Byron. ‘Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes’. 16 minutes. Independent Lens. PBS. 2006.

[3] Ogbar, Jeffrey, Hip-Hop Revolution The Culture and Politics of Rap, P-76, University Press of Kansas, 2007.

[4] Ogbar, Jeffrey, Hip-Hop Revolution The Culture and Politics of Rap, P-77, University Press of Kansas, 2007.

[5] Bradley, Regina N. “Barbz and Kings: Explorations of Gender and Sexuality in Hip-Hop.” In The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop, edited by Justin A. Williams, P-182. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

[6] Bradley, Regina N. “Barbz and Kings: Explorations of Gender and Sexuality in Hip-Hop.” In The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop, edited by Justin A. Williams, P-181. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

[7] Bradley, Regina N. “Barbz and Kings: Explorations of Gender and Sexuality in Hip-Hop.” In The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop, edited by Justin A. Williams, P-182. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

[8] Bradley, Regina N. “Barbz and Kings: Explorations of Gender and Sexuality in Hip-Hop.” In The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop, edited by Justin A. Williams, P-182. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

[9] Bradley, Regina N. “Barbz and Kings: Explorations of Gender and Sexuality in Hip-Hop.” In The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop, edited by Justin A. Williams, P-184. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

[10] Bradley, Regina N. “Barbz and Kings: Explorations of Gender and Sexuality in Hip-Hop.” In The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop, edited by Justin A. Williams, P-185-6. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

[11] Lupe Fiasco: The Proust of Rap: http://genius.com/posts/69-Lupe-fiasco-the-proust-of-rap. Genius.com. 2011.

[12] Bradley, Regina N. “Barbz and Kings: Explorations of Gender and Sexuality in Hip-Hop.” In The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop, edited by Justin A. Williams, P-185-6. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

[13] Keyes, L, Cheryl. “Empowering Self, Making Choices, Creating Spaces: Black Female Identity via Rap Music Performance.” In The Journal of American Folklore. P-255-269. American Folklore Society. 2000.

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