Written by: Guest Contributor
Guest Author: Mwende Katwiwa, @FreeQThaMighty
Editor’s note: The “This Week in Class” blog series is written by students in Professor Harris-Perry’s class. This Fall, that class is “Hip-Hop and Feminism.” You can download the full class syllabus, and then join our students each week as they invite you to think about the class lecture and join the discussion.
I am a feminist. I love hip hop (well…at least I used to). When I saw “Hip Hop and Feminism” on the course list last semester, I thought the Gods of Academia had finally heard my prayers for an intersectional analysis of two things that I love(d) and their connections.
In the past two weeks, Professor Harris-Perry prepped us for delving into these topics by covering questions such as:
“What is hip hop?”
“What is feminism?”
“What are ‘black politics’ and who drives them?”
“What is the intersection between culture and politics?”
After exploring these and other questions, we read Dr. Tricia Rose’s 2008 book, The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop – and Why it Matters. Rose is best known for her book Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, a cultural and political investigation that sought to carve an academic space for the study of hip hop, given its connections to and implications in the larger American sphere.
Black Noise was written at a time when hip hop had only recently broken into the mainstream airwaves and still featured a variety of different forms and narratives that were rooted in black cultural and political experiences.
Fast forward to 2008, when Dr. Rose published HHW. During the 2000′s, various rappers and figures in the music industry proposed that hip hop was dead; it had been murdered by a lack of lyricism, an overreliance on monotonous beats and themes, and a variety of other factors that essentially alluded to the mass commercialization of the genre.
In fact, rapper Nasir Jones (Nas), considered by some to have released one of the most notable hip hop albums, Illmatic (1994), even went as far as to name his eighth studio album Hip Hop is Dead (2006). This is the context in which HHW was written.
Dr. Rose opens up her text with a powerful clarification: “Hip hop is not dead, but it is gravely ill.” The book discusses why the analyses of both critics and supporters of hip hop are faulty in regard to how they attribute social ills to hip hop’s influence.
For our class, we read two sections of the book; the first discusses three common criticisms of hip hop:
1. “Hip hop hurts black people”
2. “Hip hop is destroying American values”
3. “Hip hop demeans women”
The second section discusses three common, but misguided, arguments in defense of hip hop:
1. “Just keeping it real”
2. “Hip hop is not responsible for sexism”
3. “They are bitches and hoes”
Through the criticisms of hip hop that Dr. Rose explores in her book, an underlying theme emerges: hip hop’s critics are too quick to blame hip hop for larger social, political, and economic ills without proper regard for the institutional and structural factors that are at play and are outside of the scope of hip hop’s (admittedly large) sphere of influence.
Rose charges that the critics who make the claim “hip hop hurts black people” (through its emphasis on violence and promotion of self-destructive, anti-educational attitudes) are making unfair generalizations about all of hip hop and refusing to recognize the “collective responsibility for what’s happened to hip hop” and “structural racism and its impact on the black poor.”
Rose refers to the claim “hip hop is destroying American values” as “the most hyperbolic example of blaming hip hop.” How can hip hop be destroying American values, Dr. Rose questions, when nearly all forms of mass entertainment in the nation center on the glorification of violence, the degradation of women, and other social ills?
The third chapter of HHW centers on the criticism “hip hop demeans women,” and the belief that the “vulgar disrespect of women in hip hop is part of a larger decline in American society.”
To this, Dr. Rose asks if returning to a time before hip hop would erase the culture of patriarchy that has been embedded in American society. Specifically, she asks, would a return to a pre-hip hop society where women couldn’t vote be more desirable?
I found Dr. Rose’s analysis of hip hop’s defenders to be particularly important. The first defense she tackles is the idea that hip hop artists are “just keeping it real” and that their lyrics reflect the realities of black urban life.
Rose quickly dispels this: “This statement is a way of inoculating [the artists and corporate powers responsible for their distribution] from any and all criticism for their role in reducing and narrowing the stories told by the same young people they claim to represent – thus making commercial rap lyrics less real even while they claim ultimate realness.”
Dr. Rose similarly swiftly handles the defense “hip hop is not responsible for sexism” by acknowledging, first, that sexism is a widespread problem in America, but that not all forms of sexism impact black youth. Hip hop, she asserts, stands center stage “when it comes down to the regular, sustained, celebrated misogynistic images of black women.”
The final defense, “there are bitches and hoes,” touched on the historical and political marginalization and hypersexualization of black women (as seen in such caricatures as the Jezebel or the Welfare Queen). Dr. Rose claims that hip hop’s use of these representations of black women is especially troubling because gangsta rappers actually require “bitches and hoes” to legitimize their value in hip hop. This, in turn, has created a “bitches and hoes” factory in hip hop because not only is hip hop a center stage for the continued degradation of black women, but also because this continued degradation has actually encouraged young black women to embrace and embody these limited roles.
Our class was fortunate enough to host Dr. Rose in a video conference where she fielded a variety of questions regarding HHW. Among these questions were, “Does Obama’s election complicate the talks on race brought up in HHW?” and “What is the role of artistic responsibility in this debate?”
I asked Dr. Rose what she thinks the role of the female MC is in bridging the gaps found between hip hop and feminism. Dr. Rose stated that female MCs alone are not able to generate a feminist consciousness in hip hop, especially given the lack of mainstream spaces available for women and conscious hip hop.
Instead, she said, corporations and mainstream American society (especially consumers and producers of hip hop) have overburdened hip hop artists with personal responsibility while restricting their artistic space. To bridge the feminism-hip hop divide, we would need to realign our societal fascination with the destructive elements of hip hop and instead focus on narratives that would generate a feminist consciousness.
After reading Dr. Rose’s book and hearing her speak in class, I think I may have been a bit rash in claiming that “I used to love hip hop.” When I was first introduced to hip hop, I admit I wasn’t its biggest fan. It wasn’t until I explored the genre further by learning about its cultural and political history and various manifestations that I truly became a hip hop head.
Now, nearly a decade later, Dr. Rose’s book has taken me on a similar journey, only this trip deals with contemporary, commercialized hip hop and its cultural and political impact on the genre as a whole. I am not sure yet if this journey will end with me returning to being a hip hop head, but at the very least, this book has helped me take the first 100 steps.