« Really? You’re a feminist and you like hip hop? How can that be? » You have no idea how many times I’ve heard that sentence!
Hip hop has always been criticized for its sexism. Against a backdrop of latent racism, contempt and ignorance of this culture, society teaches us that rap is the worst music for women. And yet, I am a feminist and I love hip hop. That’s a dilemma.
Ironically, I discovered feminsm with rap. Among other things. When I was in high school in the mid 1990’s, I was seriously into hip hop dancing and listened to many American female rappers: Queen Latifah, Missy Elliott, Salt N Pepa, MC Lyte, EVE, Lauryn Hill, Da Brat, Lady of Rage, Bahamadia, Rah Digga, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown…. I was fascinated by their freedom, impertinence and blunt way of tackling certain topics, such as female sexuality, women’s material independence, abortion, physical and sexual violence, and of course the clitoris, which I discovered thanks to Lil’ Kim ‘s Not Tonight ! Issues I had never heard of before.
I then dug deeper at university. During my master’s degree, I specialized in African-American feminism and Black Protest movements. I discovered the book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost by American writer and journalist Joan Morgan, in which she uses the expression “hip hop feminism”. I could totally relate to the term. To me, there was an obvious link between the two.
But very soon, I was told that hip hop and feminism were incompatible and I had to pick a side. If I wanted to be seen as a qualified feminist, I had to rip into hip hop. And if I still listened to it alone in my room, like the dirty little secret of an occult accomplice to patriarchy, I was urged to burn all my records, sell my CDs on Amazon and trash my iTunes library to replace them with appropriate music. The Spice Girls, Beyonce or Patti Smith would do the trick.
Whereas hip hop lovers never reproached me for being a feminist, #people go on and on about how a good self-respecting feminist can’t live with this contradiction. I began to wonder where this schizophrenic passion came from, which American director Ava DuVernay summarizes in one tweet: “To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser. Because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours.”
Could it be an irrepressible and unconscious desire to have a penis? Denial? Internalized sexism? And, most of all, why would girls who grew up listening to John Lennon, watching Roman Polanski movies and reading Charles Bukowski be better feminists than me?
Let’s be honest, hip hop is a male-dominated, sexist and LGBTphobic industry. I’m not trying to pretend that everything is fine. Bewteen 22 % and 37 % of rap lyrics are misogynistic and 67 % sexually objectify women.
Countless rap lyrics, relics of gangsta rap, normalize rape culture and glamorize gender-based violence. In the late 1980’s-1990’s, NWA contributed to glorify this caricatural imagery of hypermasculine “thugs” with big cars, naked subservient girls, money flowing and ego-tripping. “If a bitch tries to diss me while I’m full of liquor, I smack the bitch up and shoot the n**** that’s with her”, Dr Dre rapped. But at the same time, the Compton trio spoke out against police brutality, systemic racism, violence and poverty.
By advocating rape, Rick Ross incurred feminists’ wrath. “Put molly all in her champagne / She ain’t even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that / She ain’t even know it.”
In France, Booba is regularly criticized for his rhymes: “I got what I need to silicon you if you don’t age well / Gangster and gentleman, I’m right on the mark / I hurt you but I make you come if you see what I mean.”
Same for Busta Flex: “Once in the saddle, you dethrone Julia Chanel (French porn actress from the 1990’s, ed.)/ Don’t expect me to French kiss you / You way well put some mascara, that’s criminal / But it’s your ass that shouts at me.”
La Fouine: “Bitch follow me to my hotel / For a voluntary sexual assault / Tell the underage to come up / I’m worse than R. Kelly / 1 for the sex, 2 for the money.”
Black M: “Shut up ! Because you’re stupid, materialistic, cupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid / And you think you’re super smart and mature / Sadly, the only reason why people listen to you is your tits / By the way what’s your number? / I think it’s love at first sight / Well no! Go fuck yourself.”
Or Orelsan: “I respect pussies with a deficient IQ / The ones who take it until they’re physically disabled” and “Shut up, or you’re gonna get ‘Marie-Tritignanted’(French actress killed in 2003 after her then-boyfriend French rock singer Bertrand Cantat beat her up, ed.)”, finally discharged in February 2016 for incitement to discrimination, hatred or violence against women.
In the 1990’s, Doc Gynéco with Ma salope à moi (My Bitch) or NTM, (an initialism for “Nique Ta Mère” which means “Fuck Your Mother”) caused an outcry.
However, this verbal abuse doesn’t come from nowhere and directly results from the way women are treated in our society. Writer and activist bell hooks analyzes it very well: “Without a doubt Black males, young and old, must be held politically accountable for their sexism. Yet, this critique must always be contextualized or we risk making it appear that the behaviors this thinking supports and condones,–rape, male violence against women, etc.– is a Black male thing. And this is what is happening. Young Black males are forced to take the “heat” for encouraging, via their music, the hatred of and violence against women that is a central core of patriarchy.”
Moreover, not all hip hop is misogynistic. Some male artists, such as Young Thug, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Shad, Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco or Common in the US, Médine, D’ de Kabal, Oxmo Puccico, Gaël Faye, Hyacinthe, Ismaël Métis or Georgio in France, offer other perspectives and gender performances, that break with the common stereotypes of male hegemony.
In the US, some women convey an openly feminist and empowering message: Queen Latifah with her international anthem U.N.I.T.Y, Missy Elliott, EVE, Angel Haze, Lauryn Hill, Amber Rose, Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Princess Nokia, MC Lyte, to name a few.
But the message of some rappers is not always that obvious. For instance, 2Pac praised women in Wonda Why They Call U Bitch, Keep Ya Head Up and Never Call U Bitch Again but spent some time in prison for sexually assaulting a woman, which makes it hard to listen to him.
As for Drake, he claims to promotes a gratifying image of women, but still spits: “I hate calling the women bitches but the bitches love it”.
Also, rap is not more sexist than any other musical genres. It just uses different and direct codes, which makes the problem more visible. The other musical genres produce a more mainstream and pernicious form of sexism, almost undetectable, and much better accepted.
Because if you ever dig into popular music, there’s no reason to uncork the champagne: Nick Cave’s and Johnny Cash’s Murder Ballads, who talk about femicides, Pink Floyd who wants to “beat to a pulp on a Saturday night”, Tom Jones who “felt the knife in (his) hand and she laughed no more”, and The Misfits who threaten “if you don’t shut your mouth you’re gonna feel the floor.”
John Lennon, as an expert in domestic abuse, sings “I’d rather see you dead, little girl than to be with another man” and The Rolling Stones: “under my thumb she’s the sweetest, pet in the world / It’s down to me the way she talks when she’s spoken to.”
Things are not better when you look into the old hits of French chanson, filled with misogyny. Among them, late-Michel Delpech: “How good it is to choose a sweetie / Among these girls who only came to get some / It feels good to hold a groupie in your arms / It is a pretty parasite who clings to you when you leave her / When you meet a better one, she doesn’t stay in your heart.”
Late-George Brassens: “The worst, pathetic bitch / Because there was nothing left in the pantry / You ran shamelessly in the butcher’s bed for an escalope.”
Julien Clerc and his good dose of colonialism: “Under the silk of her split skirt / Zooming in close-up / A lot of people are filming Blacks and Whites / Melissa, the mulatto from Ibiza, has pointed breasts.”
Or the biggest winner of all time, Michel Sardou, and his paternalistic sexism: “If you know how to use your beauty, gorgeous / And wear lace to please him (…) / If you don’t listen to the voice of the unwanted who would like to summon you / At the trial of the tyrant who caresses your hand” and his incredible “I want to rape women / Force them to admire me / I want to drink all their tears / And go up in smoke.”
So why do we feel more offended by rap lyrics than these abominations? Probably because hip hop has always been disregarded and analyzed through a racist and classist prism. As long as we talk about white “respectable” men, who promote an acceptable masculinity, we set them up as popular references. We applaud these guys from popular music who speak about their sexual desire for often objectified women, whose consent is never questioned, because it is wrapped up in so-called romanticism and love songs.
As a result, we accept these disastrous stereotypes and learn that these normative singers are gentlemen, whereas male rappers are narrow-minded brutes, misogynistic scum, capitalist savages or uneducated delinquents. When French singer Marc Lavoine says in an interview: “A female boxer remains a woman with small breasts and a small messy purse”, no one is there to pick it up.
I’m sorry but as a feminist, I identify more with the energy, words and language of Nicki Minaj, Casey, Ice Cube, Drake, Booba and PNL than with Benjamin Biolay or Maroon 5. As an activist, I feel empowered by this authentic music. Being a feminist is also about making choices. Choosing your fights, your music and your contradictions.
As a feminist, I could also find in hip hop diversified role models and images of women. Where else can we see women of all origins, ages, social classes, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities and morphologies talk about their own sexual pleasure, body-positivity, domestic violence, gender inequalities, politics, police brutality, racism, sexism, LBTphobia or Assisted Reproductive Technology?
In rock? Pop? French chanson? In France, nowhere else. Rap is the only artistic space that gives women this freedom of speech. And that’s one of the reasons why I will keep being a feminist and loving hip hop.