The Changing Direction Of Hip Hop Music Essay
Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
Popular culture abounds in gender stereotypes. In the mass media, women have often been trivialized, marginalized and presented as inferior to men. Nearly always media depictions of women have relied on the opposition of “good” vs. “bad”. Taking into consideration popular music, it has been argued that the naÃ¯ve portrayal of women that prevailed decades ago has now given way to “greater diversity, more complexity, and dramatically mixed messages about the individual female persona and women’s roles in society.” Despite this, it is still very unlikely for women to be presented as independent, intelligent, or superior to men. Moreover, the sexism is more prevalent and more extreme in some types of media or music genres than in others. One of the most popular hip hop genres, rap music, seems to be expanding the bar of its popularity by presenting extremely misogynistic portrayal of women. In this chapter I will focus on the reasons why this troubling trend have been closely related to hip hop and what response it have received from the media and various social and political organizations.
As indicated in the first and the second chapter many instances of rap songs present a myriad of violent and misogynistic messages. As long as hip hop music grows in popularity its lyrical content can no longer be ignored. Many critics have recently taken a critical look at hip hop phenomenon and the messages rap music conveys. Some, as bell hooks, would argue that rap music can be considered as a backlash on feminism and an attempt to reinforce male supremacy. Others would claim that this music serves to present men superiority over women as a natural and normal hierarchy. According to Patricia Hill Collins, rap can be perceived as one of the “controlling images” and used as a tool to subordinate black women. It is also argued that rap’s misogynistic lyrics may serve to justify violent behavior toward black women. Nowadays hip hop is a phenomenon which is spread worldwide. It is produced by giant production companies for mass distribution and consumption targeted to youth. Messages and images presented in this type of music catch attention of all racial groups. That is why the pursuit to impose superiority over black women may be extended to women in general. Images perpetuated in rap music contribute to gendered socialization and may be responsible for reinforcing gender inequality.
Glen Ford, the executive editor of the Black Agenda Report electronic journal, claims that the industry executives and producers in order to take the full advantage of the popularity of hip hop and increase sales encourage artists to use provocative, explicit lyrics. Aspiring rappers are being used as “raw material” for the final product that sells. The whole marketing strategy is usually tailored long before the given rapper signs the contract. The artist’s image and behavior is adjusted to the current market demands. The rapper’s persona and the song seem to be just a “final touch” to the whole marketing process. On the other hand, those artists who do not comply with such a controversial strategy are being marginalized. As a result, rappers often abandon political and social messages and focus on money and sexual exploitative motifs, in response to corporate control.
The issue of the music industry being a responsible party for setting disturbing trends in contemporary hip hop is well documented in Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes by Byron Hurt. An avid hip hop fan and director of this well acclaimed documentary challenges the big record labels to take responsibility for the destructive sexist images perpetuated in rap hits. The movie consists of numerous revealing discussions with aspiring as well as successful male rappers and hip hop moguls. During one interview, the director asks an aspiring rapper why he would rather turn to violent and misogynistic messages in his songs than political or social issues. The rapper answers that they – the industry – do not want to hear nor accept that: “They usually don’t give us deals when we speak righteously.” To support this statement, a former president of pioneering hip hop recording company – Def Jam Records – Carmen Ashhurst, suggests that the emergence of a controversial genre, gangsta rap, was preceded by buying out the minor independent labels which would focus on more ambitious issues in the produced rap songs. Ashhurst states: “At the time that we were able to get a bigger place in the record stores, and a bigger presence because of this major marketing capacity, the music became less and less conscious.” Nowadays a few entertainment corporations in liaison with corporate dominated radio have gained a total control of the market. Independent labels have little share in the existing market and the most successful ones usually serve as subcontractors to the major labels. They also depend on bigger companies in terms of record distribution and business survival.
Tricia Rose, in one of the interviews, claims that young people nowadays are under enormous marketing pressure. Instead of finding the way how to express what they really feel, they are being encouraged how to see their creativity through the marketing logic and how to sell it. They are forced to fit their products into existing marketing demands. Moreover, she claims that in case of black youth this is even more complicated as the corporate spaces for their expression are narrower. The diversity of their representation in music is limited. The industry dictates what can be considered as being “real black.” This statement seems to be true as in case of white artists it is easy to find them in every category of music, whereas black artists are nearly always associated only with hip hop genres as soul, R&B, or rap. Moreover, as Rose claims, white artists are able to perform their individual self, while black artist manifest their blackness in the first place. Such a limited access to available ways of presenting their black identity has led to perpetuation of negative stereotypes that haunt black community. Through the marketing perspective, rap has turned out to be a success but its artistic value has diminished.
Yet, in case of sexism hip hop cannot be exclusively held responsible, as this problem pertains not only to the black society. But it is important to note that exploitation of women has become almost a requirement in order to establish rappers’ identity of a successful, respectable black male artist. Black female rappers in order to fit into the creative spaces available to them are forced to silently agree upon such terms. This is particularly troubling for black females who have been struggling for a long time to refute the image sexualized and exploited by white patriarchal supremacist society. Tricia Rose claims that the rappers cannot be blamed for the oppression of their female counterparts. They only act as the “middle men” and the prominent music executives are to be blamed for making profits on the negative representation of black society, and predominantly its female part.
As stated before, what makes hip hop so appealing is not only the music and beats but mainly its powerful lyrics. According to publicist and political activist, Kevin Powell, the most salient point of the record companies’ marketing strategy is to make radio stations play the song nationwide over and over again. He notes that many listeners of hip hop would not only buy the popular single or record heard on the radio but they will also grasp the subliminal message conveyed by the lyrics. Powell, by judging the popular male rap lyrics, concludes that the only way one can be a real black man is to act like a hard gangster, women and homosexual hating thug. Objectification of women, as noted in the first chapter, occurs in a great share of top rap hits. The hits that have reached the top charts and sold in millions of copies. This suggests that denigrating women is a successful marketing tool for music industry executives, but in fact the consumers contribute to the selling process. Denigrating portrayal of women together with vicissitudes of the life “in the hood” partly occur as a response to a supposed consumer demand for symbolic, stereotypical representation of the ghetto and its inhabitants.
It is important to note that the fans of rap music are not only young blacks from the ghetto. Many of avid listeners are white youth, who may have little firsthand experience of living in disadvantaged areas. For them hip hop songs may serve as a source of information. One of the white hip hop fans, interviewed by Hurt, admitted that for a representative of upper middle-class white suburban area, rap serves as a means of experiencing completely different culture. The question arises whether rap music can be treated as a reliable basis for evaluation of black culture or those are the industry forces merely responsible for the content of the music.
Watkins in his article on black nationalism claims that explicit and misogynistic rap lyrics have revived common beliefs about black social pathology and deviance. The interviewed white hip hop fan also confirmed that in his opinion rap music reinforces racial stereotypes held by many whites. As mentioned before, rap music initially developed out of the experiences of youth in disadvantaged black neighborhoods of the Bronx and aspired to be a real voice of the ghetto. Thus, theoretically speaking, the messages conveyed by rap songs should have mirrored the real life of America’s inner cities. Contemporary hip hop phenomenon is still marketed by the same strategy, as being a reflection of the urban “life on the streets”. Keith Negus in his article broadly presented how the music industry agents work on their productions to reflect the cultural phenomenon of hip hop. He states that one of the strategy to grasp the real street experience is that the music industry sends its agents into the streets, clubs and other public places of disadvantaged neighborhoods in order to gather information about the newest trends and prevailing issues.
Gender relations and violence constitute one of the pervasive concerns of the ghetto context. The harsh conditions of the ghetto may put its residents in sharp mutual conflict and make them turn to unconventional, illegal sources of gaining self-esteem. As argued in the first chapter, economic success and violence are considered one of the ways to gain respect in the ghetto. One of the studies of disadvantaged African-American neighborhoods of the late sixties indicates how crucial it was for the black unpriviliged men to be perceived as superior to women, despite the fact that in some cases such behavior was far from reality. More recent research of Miller and White shows that also today degradation of women shapes gender relations of the inner cities. It is argued that such a way of conduct stems from the set of rules that regulate life in the ghetto. For young men in such neighborhoods, the street code praises sexual achievements, promiscuity, and the exploitation of women:
Because of the implications sex has for their local social status and esteem, the young men are ready to be regaled with graphic tales of one another’s sexual exploits. . . . Status goes to the winner, and sex is prized as a testament not of love but of control over another human being. The goal of the sexual conquests is to make a fool of the young woman. . . .[The male] incurs sanctions [from his peers] for allowing a girl to “rule” him or gain positive reinforcement for keeping her in line. . . . In many cases the more the young man seems to exploit the young woman, the higher is his regard within the peer group.
Due to the poor socioeconomic conditions African American men are said to be deprived of the traditional traces of dignity. The street code favors celebration of material success and life of a women-exploiting pimp. Concluding findings listed above, it may be argued that both neighborhood and the industry influences rap lyrical content.
As the corporations have been usurping the black mass culture for decades, hip hop seems to be an another product line. The issues as objectification of women have become a troubling global trend. In order to change it, not only the misogynistic nature of hip hop music needs to be revised but also the mass expectation for the product reshaped. As the author of Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women, Tracy Sharpley-Whiting claims, nowadays hip hop is only more explicit form in articulating men’s conflicted relations with women. The problem boils down to the question of the ideas about masculinity and the role which men have to perform in American culture. She claims that contemporary men and boys feel displaced, as they compete with “alpha” women and girls in every aspect of life in ways that their fathers and grandfathers did not. Concurrently, she notes that men are in conflict with American ideals concerning manhood and a patriarchal society. Supposedly the only area that men feel able to exert power and dominance is in the field of sexuality and violent strength. Physical and sexual degrading attitude towards women, presumably, aims to bring back the balance in the female dominated world. Sharpley-Whiting notes that as much as hip hop have become a rawer form of expression the customers tastes also coarsened. The multi-billion generating music industry caters for these tastes as many rap consumers find degrading women entertaining.
Similar point of view is presented by a hip hop culture researcher, Darren Rhym, in his study on gangsta rap and misogyny. He shares the same idea that hatred toward women is triggered by men who struggle to empower themselves. Gangsta rappers who are notorious for misogynistic and, supposedly, men empowering lyrics, use rap music to define themselves, their lifestyle and outlook on life in general. Gangsta rappers share self-centered views of their community and the world. They search for the way how to assure themselves as men, same as white men when they become successful. That is why rappers usually present themselves as being greatly misunderstood victims of the establishment and apply a “me against the world” approach. By doing so they can claim innocence and adopt power position which enables them to view black women as objects and reasons for their failures. Even though, as it has been stated before, misogyny toward black women is present in the “code of the street,” restructured content of rap music can be used as a powerful tool to rejuvenate gender relations in the ghettos. As it is rather a hard and long-term process to change the socioeconomic conditions under which hip hop is created, it seems to be easier for the media and various institutions to influence the music executives to promote more affirmative content of hip hop songs. Especially that, as Rhymes notes, the most successful rappers who acquired enormous wealth somewhat lose their “ghetto credibility”. Gangsta rappers commonly identify with the inner-city black community and the hardship of the urban life. However, once a rapper achieves a material success he is no longer a part of the world he raps about. Frustrated rappers may then look for various topics that will keep them “real” and connected with the ghetto. The motif of degrading women commonly seen in many rap songs, may be used as a strategy to regain credibility or acceptance of the home community. Needless to say, this is a wrong and disturbing technique. There are other topics to rap about that rappers may choose and still remain genuine. They may use their from-rags-to-riches life experience and share it with their underachieving counterparts. Not only will they sound authentic serving as a role model but also inspire pursuit of better life and lifelong dreams among the inhabitants of the inner-cities.
It can be noted recently that hip hop is facing an increasing backlash. Such an attitude towards rap in particular has been preceded by many infamous events. The 2005 Academy Award for best original song in a feature film went to Three 6 Mafia’s controversial “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” from the film Hustle and Flow. The song performed at the Oscars, provoked a strong criticism of hip hop for perpetuation of the exploitation of women. In 2001, white rapper Eminem was awarded a Grammy for his album, The Marshall Mathers LP. As examined in the first chapter, the lyrics in this album contained extreme hostile and misogynistic messages toward women and homosexuals. The award was greatly condemned by many women’s social groups. The most shocking and turning point in the rap popularity was the release of infamous video Tip Drill, by a male rapper Nelly. It caused a major havoc when it was first aired in 2003 on the late night show BET Uncut
The BET Uncut Show was a television program aired by Black Entertainment Television (BET) during the early 2000. The aim of the show was to promote cheap, overtly sexual and nearly pornographic rap music videos. The videos were made by well-known hip hop artists, as well as by lesser-known artists who would seek for broader recognition. Due to the nature of the show’s content it was broadcasted at 3 in the morning. The content and imagery was strictly adult and this surely contributed to the popularity of the show. Despite its appeal the BET Uncut Show was considered by many viewers poor in taste. Many complained the show promoted depiction of women as sex objects. This came to a boil when Nelly released the most infamous video in BET Uncut history. The video, Tip Drill, presented a raunchy, half naked women who danced suggestively with other women and men and pretended to engage in a sexual intercourse. The most controversial part was the moment when Nelly slid his credit card down a woman’s buttocks. This video hit the height of controversy ever presented in hip hop. Nelly initially had been scheduled to appear during a charity event at Spelman female college in Atlanta, Georgia, to promote bone marrow awareness. When this video aired, he was confronted with a statement from student groups from predominantly black Spelman college that they could have no longer continued to support rappers who presented women as hypersexual objects. Students representatives claimed this attack was not directly aimed at Nelly but they would have rather presented their opposition to the troubling direction into which hip hop was shifting. After hearing the concert would have been boycotted, Nelly canceled his appearance during the event.
At the beginning of 2005, the African American women’s magazine ESSENCE started a campaign against sexism in rap music. The magazine targeted black women, launched massive critique of the music industry for creating songs and videos that portrayed black women as sex objects. ESSENCE shed light on many instances how the music affected young black girls. The magazine not only expressed its disapproval with the depiction of black women in rap but also requested feedback from readers on ways to challenge it. It also promoted positive hip-hop artists and sponsored public discussions with rap artists.
In 2006, Spelman College and ESSENCE magazine joined forces to launch a program “Take Back the Music.” One of the organized panel sessions hosted scholars as Dr. Tarshia Stanley, assistant professor of English at Spelman; Kevin Powell, author and activist; as well as representatives of the music industry: Michael Lewellen, a vice president of public relations, BET; Brian Leach, a vice president of A&R, TVT Records; hip hop artist and actress MC Lyte and the editor of ESSENCE magazine Michaela Angela Davis. The panelists attempted to seek for answers to the questions such as: “Where Are We Now? How Did We Get Here? Where Are We Going?” The gathering also aimed to examine the visual and lyrical depiction of African American women and the impact that these images had on global community. The main goal was to start a dialog in order to initiate a positive change in hip hop. The discussion was concluded with the statement that producing lyrics and images that counter balance the misogyny could be a step all involved parties could take.
The “Take Back the Music” meeting initiated by ESSENCE inspired discussion on the increasingly popular musical genre at various levels. Soon after the program had been launched more institutions brought up the issue of healing the hip hop from misogyny. In 2006 Berkley College of Music also took the effort and joined the movement encouraging new directions for rap. The school included in its curriculum the class that would be devoted to critical thinking and social impact of black music. The change in the curriculum turned out to be a success as the classes filled up immediately. The college also aimed to provide summer program scholarships to the winners of ESSENCE’s hip-hop songwriting contest. Cynthia Gordy, an assistant editor of the magazine, found the contest important as the young college artists are the future of hip hop. The initiative has been also endorsed by a range of the ”underground” artists and organizations as the Boston Hip-Hop Alliance, a group that supports positive hip-hop artists and community organizations.
Although the “positive hip hop movement” have been successfully ignited the real change still needs to be executed by the big record companies who dictate what is being produced. There are many popular and talented rappers whose lyrics depart from misogynistic messages. Tracy Sharpley-Whiting names a few as: Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Brother Ali, Zion I, Mr. Lif or Lupe Fiasco. These rappers in their songs avoid messages about violence, misogyny or importance of material success. Through their rhyming skills, they would rather call for unity and activism of the black American society. As Sharpley-Whitng rightly claims, what we hear on the radio is not the only hip hop available. These artists do not produce as many records as 50 Cent, or Eminem and that says more about the consumers than it does about the rappers.
According to Scherazade Daravulla King, a director of Boston’s Project: Think Different – a group focused on production of positive hip-hop – ESSENCE as a media organization cannot create a movement: “The media needs to be connected to grass-roots efforts working to promote positive images and positive messages, and I think that’s where it’s kind of missing the boat. There are still plenty of hip-hop artists that are true to their roots and the history of the genre. We just need to work to amplify those records.” Thomas F. DeFrantz, an associate professor of music and theater arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, finds the critiques of hip hop as essential. Concurrently, he points out the fact that the music industry is not the only responsible party for passing the negative message through hip-hop. He claims that there must be something more than just chasing the financial profits as: “People love having sex and talking about sex.”
There were also instances where the program launched by ESSENCE faced less optimistic and tougher audience. Such scenario happened during a heated debate titled “Images of Women in Hip Hop” at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York in 2005. The panelists included rapper Remy Ma, underground emcee Jean Grae, author and radio personality Karen Hunter, ESSENCE editor Akiba Solomon and DJ Beverly Bond. The program ended up shortly after it had started as panelists and audience members fiercely struggled to articulate their opinions. Over 300 attendees listened nervously to the panelists debated on hip-hop’s approach toward women before loudly voicing their own ideas. Interestingly, the audience seemed to be equally divided. Younger people would tend to claim that hip-hop’s depiction of women accurately reflects the behavior of many females, while older attendees, who may have remembered what hip hop used to mean, blamed the contemporary rap’s content for negative effects on the behavior of both young men and women. Unfortunately, the panel ended up without mutual consensus, leaving many listeners disappointed. The conclusion drawn from the meeting may be that the community does not ignore the fact that women are being presented in negative light and feel the need to discuss the issue in details.
Looking back at the history, the critical approach to hip hop seems to be nothing new. In the beginning, rap was considered by many not a real music but just a noisy behavior. But the criticism rarely came from the youthful audience itself whose identity was defined by this genre like no other. Nowadays hip hop faces an unprecedented backlash. Although the turning point is hard to be clearly identified, after 30 years of growing popularity, rap music is now battling with an alarming sales decline and growing criticism about the culture’s negative effect on society. The popular rapper Nas, challenged the condition of rap by giving a thought provoking title to his latest album Hip-Hop is Dead. According to recent statistics, this title may be closer to the truth than ever. Music sales are down in general, but rap sales slid an alarming 21 percent from 2005 to 2006. For the first time in 12 years no rap album was among the top 10 sellers of the year.
The author of Hip Hop Generation, Bakari Kitwana says that it is a natural consequence as the members of hip hop generation grow older and are less eager to defend it.. The study conducted by the Black Youth Project in 2006 indicated that a majority of youth thought rap consisted of too many aggressive images. In the same year, a poll of black Americans by The Associated Press and AOL-Black Voices, showed that 50 percent of respondents said hip-hop was a negative force in American society. This radical shift may have been partially caused by the lack of balance and consistency in presented images. The avid listeners may have had enough of the dark side of hip hop. Another point why black community is turning its back on hip hop may be, as noted by Baltimore Sun pop critic Rashod D. Ollison: “The music, dances and images in the video are clearly reminiscent of the era when pop culture reduced blacks to caricatures: lazy ‘coons,’ grinning ‘pickaninnies,’ sexually super-charged ‘bucks.”‘ However, it is hard to predict whether the dropping sales trend continues in a long run as, according to Ollison, America is sick and loves violence and sex.
It may seem that the only instances of hip hop being discussed broadly in the media are its misogynistic, violent lyrics and explicit videos. However, some critics see the positive sides in hip hop. Bakari Kitwana in his book The Hip Hop Generation compares hip hop cultural phenomenon to the civil rights movement and proves its great potential to impact social change. He enumerates great public events that have shown how hip hop can extend its impact beyond popular culture and influence on the politics serving as a strong unifying tool. For instance, in 1997 the rap group The Fugees held a fund and awareness raising concert on behalf of Haitian charity organizations. Another example of how strong hip hop can talk to the minds of young people is the case of Mumia Abu Jamal’s fight for justice. He was sentenced to death in 1982 for killing a white policeman who engaged in confrontation with Jamal’s brother. Jamal’s supporters claimed that the fact he was a former Black Panther made him receive an unfair trial. He did not admit to having committed the crime, and claimed he had been set up for his political past. His rally for justice was supported by many rappers. Their songs permeated with critical opinions of penal system and reached the minds of their fans. By giving this example Kitwana argues that rap may serve as an informative tool and influence many young people’s opinions regarding the death penalty and racial inconsistencies of American justice. Nevertheless, hip hop is still more likely to be geared at controversy and money making by the executive moguls and rap artists themselves. Kitwana states that the hip hop generation, comprised of African Americans born in 1965-1984, need a national organization, one that would not only take advantage of the great economic power of the hip-hop industry but also focus on issues of education, employment, injustice and crime. To support this claim, Kitwana, in one of the interviews, underlines the success of Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network which helped the United Federation of Teachers and the Alliance for Quality Education gather nearly 100,000 people to protest against New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s $358 million cut in education subsidy. The protest was personally supported by hip hop stars such as Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Alicia Keys and LL Cool J. The event was not only recognized by the press but also brought about a feasible effect. The demonstration made Mayor Bloomberg restore $298 million to his initial budget proposal. Although the importance of this event is significant, there is still a lot to do for hip hop generation to catch on politics according to Kitwana. He claims that hip hop cultural phenomenon, if wisely led, can surpass the achievements of the civil rights movement. Indeed, the whole hip hop generation stands on the solid foundation grounded by the success of civil rights and Black Power activists. Yet, hip hop seems to be a more active and rebellious way of expression. It may become a political movement as its greatest power is the ability to spread the word quickly and influence the masses. It provides the most relevant outlook on the present issues of the inner cities. In the early beginnings it may have been considered just a meaningless noisy trend. However, the past twenty years have revealed how powerful and long-lasting this trend is. Not only has it become acknowledged in the mainstream America but also has had a massive impact at an international level. This phenomenon may provide new black leaders with an access to unparalleled force of economic power and broad audience of followers which hip hop culture has generated. On the other hand, according to Kitwana, the major problem is that the work of black political activists of this generation is still undermined by the celebrity culture. He claims that the synergy of politics and hip hop should not be about rappers becoming political leaders. The rappers can act as a stimulus force as in case of the Million Man March, where many black men appeared partly because rappers made it fashionable to support black causes. The rappers should not be leaders but their appearance during such events may help to catch the media’s attention on important, troubling issues of black society. Kitwana hopes that perhaps then the media will divert the perception of hip hop as being just violent and misogynistic: “Poor black people, especially young blacks of this generation, have not had a voice until the emergence of rap. If you can get past pimps and hos, hip-hop conveys the message of poor people not having jobs and having inadequate education . . . but that other message of pimps and hos is overshadowing that.” Kitwana admits that there are two sides to hip hop. He is not defending it, nor accusing of being violent or misogynistic. Although he also sees the negative impact of it in terms of anti-black images or glorification of material success, he is more focused on stressing the positive impact of hip hop. He outlines the possibilities this phenomenon can provide to rejuvenate black society. He rightly notes that the music is contradictory but so are the messages the society is exposing its people to. He claims that young people have turned to music and films in order to look for answers on how to be young and black. That is why these media should be used wisely in order to fill the young minds with right answers for their troubling questions.
Rap is not just music, it is a part of African-American culture. It has also proven to be a very inspirational phenomenon for young people. Initially it has developed to reflect the real life of the American inner-cities. Along with growing popularity of the beats and rhymes
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