Hip Hop And the Elephant in the Room

Posted By: Coco Buchanan

Let me preface this all by saying that I in no way consider myself a Hip Hop expert.  Hell, I don’t even know if I technically qualify as a fan.  I guess I’m more of a casual listener.  For me, I’m more interested in the political aspects about it (reading about it when I can vs. listening to it on a regular basis), as explored in my various Women’s Studies diamond-elephant4courses from college that included focuses and/or sections on Hip Hop Feminism, Womanism, Semiotics, and Media. 

As I was on the elliptical machine at the gym earlier today, trying desperately to take my mind of the fact that the elliptical machine is pretty much a device of torture (however self-inflicted it may be…god I sound like such an idiot, but anyway…), I was perusing through the Winter 08/09 issue of Bitch Magazine.  An article by Latoya Peterson (of Racialicious.com, who recently posted an extraordinarily great article about the “Not-Rape” phenomenon, which everyone should read) called “Turning The Tables” caught my eye.  Mostly because I’m always interested in what Peterson has to say about pretty much anything, but also because I feel like I haven’t seen or read very many articles or interviews about Hip Hop Feminism specifically, and I knew that since it was Peterson, it wouldn’t be the same old stuff, even though articles about Hip Hop Feminism are few and far between, as far as I know.

Anyway, in this article, Peterson interviewed Tricia Rose, a professor and author who has recently published a book called The Hip Hop Wars : What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop-and Why It Matters .  For a little context on Rose, she won the 1995 American Book Award for Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, in 2003 published Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk About Sexuality and Intimacy, and has co-edited Microphone Fiends: Music and Youth Culture.  In Hip Hops Wars, as per Peterson, Rose explores and deconstructs common arguments for and against Hip Hop culture– discussing among many other relevant components, black women’s sexuality and the commodification of Hip Hop culture.  The “elephant in the room” of Hip Hop that Rose mentions is more specifically the corporate takeover of black popular culture and the “‘…disgraceful narrowing of the aesthetic terrain [of that culture], and the ways in which that has helped reduce the aesthetic legacy of hip hop and basically bury the underground.'” 

p-diddy-22Rose asserts that there is a tendency by the media and others engaged in the discourse of Hip Hop to focus on the transgressive and/or politically interesting about mainstream artists (she specifically gives examples of Jay-Z and Lil’ Wayne).  Instead, she says, we should confront Hip Hop culture with a “‘…radical, critical consciousness about gender…sexuality…class…economic exploitation…mass-media exploitation… black middle class culpability at the level of corporate involvement…[and] white investment in black minstrelsy.'”  Sounds like my kind of argument!!  So what are some of the more specific problems and issues about Hip Hop she cites?  Well, I’m glad I asked myself that question.  Let’s take a gander, shall we?

First, as Peterson points out, Rose’s discussion on sexism in Hip Hop, the image of a woman in that context, and the power dynamics of the word “ho.”  Rose explains that one dilemma here is that in making a critique of sexism, for many Gen-X black women anyway, it can feel like one has to renounce one’s sexuality because of the way discourse on Hip Hop has been structured- perpetuating rigid binaries for women (i.e. virgin/whore, or specifically for black women, the castrating, sometimes masculinized Mammy/hypersexual, animalistic Jezebel).

‘…gangster thuggery is the main marketplace value for black male rappers.  Well, being a ho is one of the only ways black women make it into being rappers.  The only other option is to have the Missy Elliott/Queen Latifah trajectory, right?  Because they can’t be beauty queens.  So they become sort of masculinized…And then the feminine women become the sexual objects…So the problem is that the right, the conservative, and the more religious organizations, at least the non-progressive ones, they want to critique these images of women demanding respect, but the terms of that demand are actually not empowering women to self-driven agency.’

I thought this was particularly interesting and illustrative of Intersectionality Theory.  First, you have black women trying to express themselves within the context of gendered limitations, and on top of that, you have the white bill-oreillymainstream culture criticizing Hip Hop, and by extension, black culture as a whole, based on a platform of paternalism and white supremacist hegemony.  I think it’s great how she points out how this doubly undermines the agency of black women. 

Rose then moves on to how we can define “progressive.”  To start, Rose wants artists to take a critical look at themselves and instead of advocating self-congratulatory pats on the back for what they do right, Rose wants them to identify what needs to be more examined and/or fixed.  In terms of reframing the discourse on Hip Hop to a more productive and beneficial one, Rose says again that one of the main problems is that people in the Hip Hop discourse and culture sometimes erroneously think that:

‘…[Hip Hop] is just a fun, entertaining thing, and there’s nothing at stake, as long as you get paid, it’s cool….This [book] is about progressive ideas and community sustaining culture, and [about] music that tries to enable, not disable….Within that goal, a lot of incredible genius, creativity, funk, sexuality, and violence can be articulated.  So the struggle is to keep those fundamental ideas alive.’

For me, that last bit is one of the most important ideas.  I think it’s important to not be repressive in calling ourselves or others out, such that art will remain art.  What I mean by that is, Hip Hop should remain an artform in which people can feel okay about honestly expressing themselves  I agree that the discourse should move forward in this self-reflective, more critical way without compromising the integrity of honest expression.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Hip Hop And the Elephant in the Room

  1. Joe Rice

    Wow, that’s interesting. Thanks for the “Not Rape” article too. Puts a pit in my stomach but it’s a necessary pit.

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