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Hip Hop And The “F” Word

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Hip hop hasn’t always had a harmonious relationship with the F word – feminism – but where does it stand now and is it any better in other genres? Taytula Burke ponders on the subject.

I’ve been a fan of hip hop ever since I made my debut on this planet. No other genre of music is able to quench my thirst for intricate wordplay while feeding my greed for monstrous beats that rate ‘oh my gosh’ on the epic scale. As I move through my 20s, I’m proud to call myself a feminist. I don’t hate men or burn my bras – they are much too expensive to barbecue in the name of politics – I just believe in fighting for equality and an end to the objectification of women. So as I sit through another music video with lyrics along the lines of ‘shake something’, with the video girls all too happy to give us ladies at home a demonstration, I ask myself a question: is it possible to claim to be a feminist but enjoy much of the commercial hip hop that is on offer? The answer is of course yes, but there are things that leave me feeling conflicted.

Where are all my ladies at?

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I’m going to throw a curve ball for all of you that thought I was going to go down the route of the exploitation and sexualisation of women by men. Au contraire mon ami. In an age of equality, it is only right that ladies take some responsibility for the way we are portrayed. My earliest memories of female rappers include women like MC Lyte, Queen Latifah and The Lady of Rage: women hard enough to hang with the guys, but let’s face it – femininity or sexuality was not something they could ever be accused of possessing. Da Brat and Eve were curious cases in that their natural beauty managed to offset their tomboyish nature, making them the perfect alter egos for all the girly girls looking to release their inner gangster. But the most popular type of female rapper by far has been the cross between gangstress and seductress; made famous by the likes of Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown, and remains the blueprint for the majority of women looking to make their mark. Even with my personal politics I am able to enjoy the sex laden, bad gal persona of these women in moderation, but the irony is not lost on me. Even though they have adopted a strain of machismo some men could only aspire to, they have marketed themselves visually for men, when in fact it’s women who buy and play their music.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet?

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Lyrical prowess is key in delivering some of the most violent, sexual and crazy content known to man. Who hasn’t admired a couple of bars where robbery, drug dealing and murder are described so eloquently, old Shakespeare would be jealous Unfortunately, a lot of rappers who find themselves perched on top of the charts wouldn’t know a simile or metaphor if it snuck up on them like a thief in the night and then swallowed them whole. Would Rick Ross have suffered as much backlash if he had instead rapped along the lines of: ‘She’s in ecstasy because of me, and being at my house is just a dream’? Am I saying that it is ok to disrespect women as long as it’s done under the cloak of clever wordplay? No. But if I am going to listen to a man wax lyrical about his sexual prowess and the easy-to-get women he has had, I’d rather not feel like I’ve intercepted a call destined for a chat line. It is a fact that braggadocio and machismo has been a fixture in hip hop since its inception – I would expect nothing less from a genre that is dominated by men with egos to match their record sales. But as long as their lyrical ability is on the decline, complaints from women and pressure groups will increase.

In the words of Frank Sinatra…

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Whereas most other genres of music are primarily concerned with love or heartbreak, hip hop is most known for observations of the world the artist lives in. Could it be that money cash hoes is the mantra of modern mainstream hip hop because as Old Blue Eyes would say: ‘that’s life’? I take care to say ‘mainstream’, because any fan of the genre knows that the artists that come under the umbrella of hip hop are so diverse, it is actually a shame that there is usually only one type that sells. It is for that reason I’ve decided it is not necessary to stop listening to hip hop – instead I will choose what I consume more carefully. But to all my fellow feminists that point an accusatory finger at hip hop, I would like to ask if you think women fare any better in pop or rock?

(Art by Margaret Hitch)

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