Women, Feminism, & Hip Hop

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Rapper and actress Queen Latifah made history when she won a Grammy for her groundbreaking hit, “U.N.I.T.Y.,” in 1995. The song spoke out against domestic violence and the objectification of Black female sexuality. “U.N.I.T.Y.” began a conversation in the African American community over violence and assault against women. It also established that Black women rappers had a powerful voice in a field dominated by men.

Since hip hop’s inception in the Bronx in New York in the 1970s, women have been at the forefront in shaping the culture through graffiti art, break dancing, and rapping. But as rap became the record industry’s highest-grossing genre of music, female achievements were often overlooked. Rap became more known for its obsession with wealth and glamour and unadulterated objectification of women than for its social-commentary roots.

In one form or another, rap is defining the values of a generation. It is shaping a new wave of Black feminists who not only call into question the sexism and racism present in the rap industry, but who use the genre to empower African American women. They are building a bridge between popular culture and feminist action that could mobilize new ranks of activists. This is already happening with the publication of the two books Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere, by Gwendolyn D. Pough (Northeastern University Press, 2004), and When Chickenheads Come Home To Roost: A Hip Hop Feminist Breaks It Down, by Joan Morgan (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

A mixed message. Check It While I Wreck It is an amazing historical analysis of the contribution of women to hip hop. Gwendolyn Pough expands the definition of hip hop to include ways in which Black women have used the spoken word to challenge racial inequality and sexism. For example, Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech had the same impact in its time as “U.N.I.T.Y.” did in the 1990s. Rather than being narrowly defined as a style of dress or language, hip hop is viewed by Pough as an inherited legacy of resistance.

Yet rap music presents a complex challenge for Black women and there are many diverse views on female portrayals in rap.

African American women at Spelman College in Atlanta staged a protest when rapper Nelly was scheduled to perform at this acclaimed historically Black college for women. Nelly had just released a video in which a credit card was swiped through the backside of a scantily clothed Black woman. The video sparked outrage amongst Black women who used their voices to force the cancellation of Nelly’s concert. What was not discussed much in the media was the solidarity of Black men from Morehouse College who joined with their Spelman sisters in equal outrage and protest.

On the other hand, the “video vixens” who appear in rap videos believe they are empowered by using their bodies as they see fit and choosing to be in hyper-sexualized videos where rappers jeer and grab at the women’s virtually naked, gyrating bodies. Even many of the rappers who present such images say they love Black women, and are celebrating the Black female body rather than being degrading.

These issues are clarified by understanding the historical context of how the Black female body was consistently appropriated as a commodity through colonialism and the African slave trade. Black women were brought to North and South America for the distinct purpose of producing future unpaid workers. Thus the Black female body became valuable for how many children it produced, but the woman herself had no ownership of her body. Today’s Black feminists are making historical connections between the past and present to challenge images that are rooted in racist practices.

Dollars and sense. The Rap Question clearly has an economic aspect. The majority of music companies are part of huge corporate conglomerates that have a large impact on what people hear and thus what is bought. Sex and violence are seen as quick sells, so record industry executives pump money into artists with the rawest lyrics, including extreme sexism and virulent homophobia. Many rappers see this content as a ticket to success.

In When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, a complex and compelling analysis of Black male and female relationships, Joan Morgan reminds readers that 60 percent of African American women live well below the poverty line, earning as little as $11,000 dollars a year. They are the last to get decent housing and healthcare, and are in the lowest-earning jobs. With ill treatment of Black women at such a high level, it makes a lot of sense that the popular culture of America would reflect their oppression.

In addition, Black women account for the smallest percentage of purchasers of rap music, which means their protest of misogynist lyrics and images has little impact on music producers. (White men between the ages of 18-24 buy 70 percent of all rap music sold and the next largest purchasing group is young white women.) Hyper-sexualized video portrayals of Black women shift attention away from the realities they face — twisting how they are perceived by Americans of all colors. Black feminists thus have a sense of urgency to challenge rap industry sexism as a way to defend their place in the Black community and U.S. society as a whole.

Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Jessica Care Moore-Poole, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, India.Arie, and Zap Mama use hip hop, as well as other genres of music, to empower not only Black women, but all people throughout the world. They give us inspiration for how music and the spoken word can evolve.

Whether she prefers bluegrass, punk, or rap, each woman can demand that her voice and body not be appropriated as a commodity, whether in a Nelly video or a Wal-Mart uniform. Holler if you feel me.

Katherine A. Cheairs is a filmmaker and Black feminist activist.

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