Loving Rap & Feminism: A Cognitive Dissonance
Rap has always been about consolidating power.
The power to take down “the man”.
The power to take charge of—and change—your socioeconomic status.
Or even the power to belittle someone else.
Feminism, on the other hand, is about the equalization of power. Power once held by the abstract “patriarchy” must now be distributed equally among the sexes. No one is powerless in this situation, however, it is recognized that one subsection of the population (women) is not made to feel less-than solely because of gender.
So what happens when you’re a die-hard feminist who still loves Biggie and Snoop Dogg?
CONSIDER THE TIME PERIOD
Let me make one thing clear before we continue: I am not cool with songs that condone violence towards anyone based on their gender, sexual identity, or any other pre-existing condition. Period.
But like many of my peers, I was into rap before I was into feminism. It was just more common to hear Biggie sing “She don't remember shit / Just the two hits / Her hittin' the floor / And me hittin' the clit” on the radio (!!!) than it was to hear an empowering Shirley Chisholm quote.
I blame the public school system.
It wasn’t until a few years ago—when I finally had adequate knowledge of both rap and feminism—that I realized a cognitive dissonance existed within me. Would Biggie still be making that type of derogatory music if he was alive today? Would it still sell? Would he have repented for his actions and violence against women?
I asked my significant other if he thought Snoop Dogg’s 1993 “It Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None)” would still be popular if it was released today.
My S.O. said no and made a great point: the only people really doing blatantly offensive songs like that are lesser-known guys who want to do it for the shock value, like XXXTentacion and some of the “mumble rappers”.
And while it’s easier than ever to create and go viral with an explicit song, there’s no guarantee the over-saturated music landscape will accept it. Just because you’re a SoundCloud rapper with (likely embellished) street cred doesn’t mean listeners will take you seriously. There is such a double-edged sword in open Internet criticism: comments online can now make or break your career.
It should also be mentioned that as rappers—particularly those in the late 90s/early 2000s—became popular, their messages softened or switched the focus to other means of power consolidation. Think about where Jay-Z and Eminem came from. 23 years after “It Ain’t No Fun”, Snoop Dogg headlined a “unity party” for donors at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. He also reportedly voted for Hillary Clinton, saying, “I would love to see a woman in office because I feel like we’re at that stage in life to where we need a perspective other than the male’s train of thought.”
Guess who’s back in the motherfuckin' house.
TURNING THE TABLES
A long-standing feminist debate finds its perfect microcosm in the discussion of female rappers. Do we censor men’s derogatory statements...or make some of our own? Is Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” an anthem of equality or just as damaging as the songs produced by her male counterparts?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t have the answer. Part of me still gets excited to hear a woman’s voice openly talking about consolidating power. I mean, my god, look at the come-up story Cardi B had in 2017! “I don’t dance now / I make money moves…” But I think it's safe to say that it's wholly unfair to place the entire feminist responsibility on the shoulders of one or two female rappers. It's the reason why we need more female voices representing more female experiences. One woman will never be able to describe all of us.
I’d be remiss if I left out mentions of the great female rappers who paved the way for artists like Nicki and Cardi: Salt-N-Pepa (“None of Your Business” is a personal favorite), Eve, Lil Kim, Missy Elliot, Ms. Lauryn Hill, and several others have given women a voice in the rap community for decades. And yet—not for women’s lack of talent or ambition—there are still so many more male rappers who have made it big. So there’s really no way to compare the effects of male and female rappers’ lyrics yet when one side has so much more source material.
SEX-POSITIVITY IN RAP SONGS
For those unfamiliar, the term sex-positive means “having positive attitudes about sex and feeling comfortable with one’s own sexual identity and the sexual behavior of others.”
This is where I’ve always had the most trouble with rap. There’s also a cognitive dissonance within me that celebrates women who choose to be open about their sexuality and knowing that many women are forced to make that choice for myriad, unhealthy reasons.
Talking more openly and positively about sex is something I think we can ALL benefit from and it’s something I’d like to explore more in my writing this year. But when it comes to sex and women as sex objects, I think much of the popularity of these suggestive songs comes from the direct relation to sex as a taboo topic; it’s another way for rappers to push boundaries. The more that a mainstream culture condemns sex and sexuality, the more inspired a counterculture will be to serve as provocateurs.
That taboo-ness is also what funds a multimillion dollar pimping industry. Sure, we can all fall “In Love with a Stripper” like T-Pain. But does the stripper really want to be there?* What we don’t recognize—out of naivete or privilege—is that the object of T-Pain’s affections might only be in that occupation because she is being sexually trafficked by a pimp.
One man’s stigmatization is another’s fetish.
What we need are more open, honest conversations about how we can bring sex work into the “light” as a real, respected occupation. The demand for paid sex will never, ever stop. Why not make it safer for everyone involved?
Once we have more open and positive conversations about sex work and treat sex workers as we would treat any other union, we reclaim the power pimps have over them and restore their agency for work with dignity.
Much like Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, I find myself at a crossroads each time I listen to “offensive” rap music. Am I failing my feminist peers every time I listen to music that ostensibly degrades women...or is it just a song?
Again, I don’t know that I have the answer. But I do know this: the power of #MeToo and #TimesUp is more pervasive than any of their predecessors. For the first time, we are seeing powerful men from all industries pay for their harmful actions towards women.
You’ll also notice that almost all of the songs I mentioned here were written several years ago; slowly but surely, songs condoning violence towards women or demanding group sex are falling out of the zeitgeist (oh goody).
So where do we go from here? All I can encourage you to do is to think critically when you listen to music. Sexism and violence can be found in all genres—rappers are just the ones who don’t sugarcoat it. Ask yourself why the artist chose the lyrics and what they really mean. Do your homework: is there a rap sheet behind the raps? Their past actions may ruin your taste in their music—lookin’ at you, R. Kelly—but in an era desperately needing authenticity, you’ll be glad you know the truth. And finally: SUPPORT FEMALE RAPPERS. Enough said.
What do you think? Is it possible to support gender equality and still enjoy this genre of music? I'd love to hear your thoughts below!
*This is not to say that all sex workers are forced into their jobs or being controlled/abused by a male boss. But much like the Audre Lorde quote, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”