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Drop It Low: Sexist Rap Reconsidered
"Smack that, all on the floor. Smack that, give me some more. Smack that, 'till you get sore." --Akon, "Smack That."
"Hey, b*tch, wait'll you see my d*ck. Wait'll you see my d*ick. Hey, b*tch. I'm 'a beat that p*ssy up." --Ying Tang Twins, "Wait (The Whisper Song)."
"Hit the strip club, don't forget ones, get your d*ck rubbed ...." --Eminem, featuring Nate Dogg, "Shake That Ass."
This is a benign sampling of the lyrics from popular misogynistic hip-hop and rap songs today. The music industry has openly embraced the lucrative aspects of these sexist tunes, and surprisingly, women haven't expressed outrage.
Why? Because many women love these songs. Several prominent contemporary feminists and feminist writers, most notably, Ariel Levy, have identified a trend within American society of women espousing and feeling empowered by enterprises and activities that many feminists feel have historically oppressed women. Levy discussed this trend in her October 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.
"[Sexist lyrics] usually come to a good beat. I like to bump and grind to it," says Natasha Miner, a college student from New York City, in a WireTap interview. "I don't care if it's sexist music at a club ... I don't think girls are looking for their music to be 'empowering,' or whatever, but then again, I don't think people really care to consider that stuff."
Filmmaker and anti-sexist hip-hop activist Byron Hurt tackles this issue in his newest film, Hip-hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. Hurt is a devoted feminist who has made a long career of meeting men where they are at, but pushing a strong message of anti-sexism and anti-violence. He founded Mentors in Violence Prevention, a rape and domestic violence prevention program for professional athletes, and served as the associate director of the United States Marine Corps' first gender violence prevention program.
"I guess what I'm trying to do is to get us men to take a hard look at ourselves," Hurt says in the first scene of the film. He describes manhood as, "Like, we're in this box, and in order to be in that box you have to be strong, tough, you have to have a lot of girls, you gotta have money, you have to be a player or a pimp, you have to be in control, you have to dominate other men, other people, other men. And if you're not any of those things, people will call you soft, weak, a p*ssy, chump, faggot, and no one wants to be any other those things, so they stay inside the box." Hurt articulates the state of contemporary rap and hip-hop and offers hope for lovers of the "beats and rhymes"... while others feel that demystifying the controversy inherent in hip-hop will guide it back to its original purpose.
A blogger for Young People For's blog wrote in a recent post called "Blame hip-hop for society's ills, but what of its successes?":
With the idea that we now live on a Hip-hop Planet comes the problem with commercially motivated and corporately owned hip-hop and its detriment on society. Today's New York Times has an article titled "Don't Blame Hip-Hop," speaking how one cannot blame hip-hop for culture's ills, but rather the corporation. Imus blamed hip-hop and Oprah blames hip-hop for problems in society, and they are within their rights because [they feel hip-hop stirs unneeded controversy]. Now in all other cases, especially the case of hip-hop, controversy is the purpose, but this controversy is about the missed purpose. Hip-hop is rooted in oppression, race and class. What the movement has become now is questionable. "We were about the movement," Abiodun Oyewole (pictured below), a founder of the Last Poets, says. "A lot of today's rappers have talent. But a lot of them are driving the car in the wrong direction."
This blogger distinguishes that hip-hop is "rooted in oppression, race and class." However, Natasha doesn't know the difference between rap and hip-hop (and truth be told, few who aren't involved with hip-hop do). Hip-hop, as discussed above, is historically associated with social change and ameliorating society's issues, whereas rap is a commercially driven trade. So the question of whether rap artists are bound to feminist traditions arises. But then again, is there really any excuse for misogyny? Can exalting misogyny for commercial gain ever be condoned by the progressive community? No.
Other activists have sought solutions for the problem, including the staffers of Essence magazine, who launched the Take Back the Music campaign in January of 2005 to examine the negative portrayal of women of color in rap and hip-hop and propose solutions to said problem. Their mission statement explains, "We at Essence have become increasingly concerned about the degrading ways in which black women are portrayed and spoken about in popular media, particularly in popular urban music and music videos. Aware that these images may be having a negative impact on our children, we realized that, as black women, it was up to us to take a stand."
Studies even support arguments that misogynistic rap and hip-hop is clearly damaging: a 2003 Emory study showed that African-American young women from rural Alabama between the ages of 14 and 18, who watched more than 14 hours of misogynistic rap and hip-hop were more likely to engage in "risky" behavior.
Al Sharpton has even weighed in on the issue: "If they've got the right to call my daughter a b----, I have a right to say 'boycott.'" While few progressives advocate for the censorship of rap and hip-hop, pro-hip-hop progressives owe it to the history of hip-hop to advocate against the inequality and manifest hypocrisy inherent in misogynistic hip-hop.
An ideal step to take is to, first and foremost, articulate the differences between rap and hip-hop to the mainstream populace and casual listeners, and explain how hip-hop is a means of social change; distancing ourselves from commercial rap with no commitment to women's progress might be temporarily necessary. While some progressive politicians are willing to distance themselves from women's progress, it is the duty of the progressive movement to voice its distaste for misogyny and reclaim hip-hop. Hip-hop is great music (as is a lot of rap) ... however, it can be even better when it empowers all involved parties.
Liz Funk's writing has been published in over 50 publications around the globe, most notably, Newsday, the Huffington Post, Capital Region Living, Women's eNews, and The New Humanist (U.K.). The busy 18-year-old writes a blog on young feminism for the Times Union and a feminist sex column for the Pace Press. She is a senior fellow of Young People for the American Way and currently a sophomore at Pace University Honors College. With a book in the works for 2009, Funk just launched her own teen/tween political blog Girl HeadQuarters.