by: Catherine Puttmann
Yet another one of society’s overwhelmingly male saturated sectors, hip-hop music is very rarely thought of as in alignment with feminist ideals and values. In fact, the culture associated with this genre, particularly the male’s perspective, is said to be a threat to women, usually through derogatory videos and lyrics. However, I would argue that not only have some of hip-hop’s female emcees caused a regression for women both in and outside of the genre, but also that one can actually find champions of feminist principles in the most unlikely of places: the male emcee.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many misogynistic (think “fuck bitches, get money” types or just revisit ‘Lil Jon lyrics in your head) rappers out there, but I think that the role of male emcees is generally underestimated as a medium through which support for the progress of women can be voiced. That being said and in the words Jesse Stewart, hip-hop is “all-too-often constructed as heroically masculinist forms of modern art: it is up to heroic male artists to impose masculine, technologized order (rhythm) on feminized nature/sound.” While I believe that this is true more often than not, male artists exist who aren’t trying to be the hero necessarily, but who utilize their craft in the ongoing battle of gender equality. I’m not suggesting that women cannot or should not attempt to free themselves from oppressive patriarchal constraints, but more so that the man-hating feminist perspective often discounts the male as a potential tool through which that goal can be attained.
On the rare occasions in which a positive connection is identified between hip-hop and feminism, the link tends to stem from the genre’s few women, i.e. “how does [insert female rapper] buck traditional conceptions of women,” or “let’s commend [insert female rapper] for reappropriating the word ‘bitch.’” Again, these are not bad things by any means, but they’re simply not all that hip-hop has to offer in the form of progressive portrayals of women.
For example, Northwest hip-hop duo Blue Scholars, comprised of MC Geologic (aka Geo) and DJ Sabzi, are not only vocal about issues such as racism, political corruption, and general societal dysfunction, but they also make it very clear that they hold women in high esteem as equals who should be respected as well as celebrated. In the track “Burnt Offering” off of their self-titled debut album (2004) Geo raps the following: “…and I need/A brand new prayer to read/Seems the old ones grew tons of mold cuz they’re narrow as hell/Sometimes they be thinking that this heavens for sale/Worse than that, they still think God is a male.” In those lines Geo criticizes how society discounts women, a repeated offense made evident by the way in which secular and religious hegemonies elevate men. If you need further proof of Blue Scholars as champions of women, I challenge you to listen and read the lyrics to “Sagaba,” also from their debut album, and try not to get swept up in Geo’s moving account of the song’s female protagonist, wherein he identifies with her challenges without belittling them.
Another artist whose portrayal of women commands recognition and respect is L.A. rapper Murs. On his second collaborative album with 9th Wonder, Murray’s Revenge (2006), Murs promotes self-love in a song that truly seems written for women entitled “Dark Skin White Girls,” the general message of which can be summarized by the following sample of its lyrics: “But girl it’s okay/Ya black is beautiful/No matter how you dress/Or what you think you like/Forget what they say, you doin it right/No more grabbin on ya pillow as you cry through the night/Stand strong, hold ya ground at any cost/And know that everyone who tries to put you down is lost.” The track is very specifically directed at breaking down racial stereotypes that present particular problems for women, and even more particularly, young women who are still coming into their own identities. Need I say more?
Gender inequality is only one of many problems found in hegemonic discourse today, but as a result it is a topic that has come under fire from what hip-hop often calls “socially conscious” rappers. These artists use their influence and creative skills to target a myriad of societal flaws such as racism, the state of the prison and education systems, consumerism, classism, etc. It seems safe to say that these and many more all fall beneath a vast umbrella responsible for oppression in modern society. That being said, artists such as Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, Common, and The Roots should not be forgotten as important movers and shakers in the rejection of preconceived notions of how society is “supposed” to be. Consider them the seasoned and well-rounded feminists of the genre.
Given the recent rise in the number of female emcees working their way through hip-hop’s boys club, one might think that even though it’s nice of Geo, Murs, and the like to fight on the feminist front lines, it’s no longer wholly necessary. In fact, a new vocabulary has unfolded in recent years, particularly with the implementation of the term “femcee,” aka the female emcee, to describe the supposed evolved representation women have in hip-hop. However, if you read my previous piece about Nicki Minaj, you’ll know that not all women deserve the term. And frankly, if true gender equality is to be achieved then the definition of femcee is going to have to be redefined as ‘an emcee of any gender who promotes feminist values’ (or something along those lines), rather than being utilized as yet another way to distinguish gender in the hip-hop discourse.
In conclusion, as a woman and hip-hop head, I don’t want to misconstrue my intentions for this piece. I’m not pinning (all) female hip-hop artists as the problem, on the contrary–they’re integral to the solution, or the evolution, if you will. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that they are not the only tools conducive to mending the relationship between women and hip-hop. The male emcee is often dismissed as inherently misogynistic and that label is just as unfair as the stereotypes given to women throughout hip-hop’s history. Last but not least, please don’t forget that as fans and consumers we are also partially responsible for the messages that get widely dispersed through music. You’re in control of how you educate and entertain yourself, so if you’re smart you’ll figure out a way to marry the two.
 Jesse Stewart, “Real to Reel: Filmic Constructions of Hip Hop Cultures and Hip Hop Identities,”Interdisciplinary Humanities 26 (Fall 2009): 62.