Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Cultural Consideration: Exploitation of Women in Hip Hop

by Sabrina Beram

Professor: Bill Adler 
(the original Director of Publicity at Def Jam from 1984 to 1990)


There are several theories about the origin of the misogyny which has surfaced in the hip hop culture. One is that it arose from behavioral codes and mores passed down from slavery. In an insightful essay “The Exploitation of Women in Hip-hop Culture,” the author, known only as Ayanna, recognizes that when at a hip hop event, she and her friends “normally expect [to] be disrespected verbally and physically,” and she looks to African American history for an explanation of why this treatment of women is so readily accepted in the black community. Ayanna asserts that unhealthy hip hop values stem from the collective consciousness of African American youth due to “mainstream American ideas that have now been…embedded into the psyches of American people of color over time. The stereotype of black women as “promiscuous and oversexed [which] has shaped some black women’s sexual morality” emerged from practices in slavery when black women were often “forced to have sex to pay for food, the safety of her children, or to be treated less harshly on a day to day basis. They were "paying" with their bodies as a survival strategy” (Ayanna). Since black women continue to “have less access to power, material wealth, and protection,” they continue to “[use] sex (in prostitution and various other domains) as the "bartering chip" to gain access,” as they have done in the past (Ayanna). After slavery, in an attempt to “take on ascribed white gender roles [, s]ome black men wanted black women to have a subordinate role in the home while some women wanted men to be the sole economic providers…[and] these same obsessions are demonstrated in hip-hop culture” (Ayanna). Sure enough, in a study conducted by Faye Hutchinson of the University of Houston about black male/female relationships of the hip-hop generation, many black men in the hip-hop culture that were interviewed valued economic resources and used these resources as a way to manipulate and control women, keeping them submissive in exchange for material wealth and power, while some women bartered with their bodies, using sexual power to profit financially from men fulfilling the role of breadwinner.

The fact that many women who come into contact with rappers do display what is commonly referred to as whorish behavior also contributes to sexist vibes in their music. The aforementioned historical explanation brings light to the reason why women support the misogynistic environment, buying cds with sexist lyrics and volunteering to strip down for music videos. It is undeniable that “rappers meet women daily who reaffirm their depiction of [black women] on vinyl (Morgan 122). Backstage, the road and the hood are populated with women who would do anything to be with a rapper sexually for an hour if not for a night” and “hundreds of bikini-donned women show up for the music video shoots as unpaid participants…. [i]n order to gain access to [material] things and to get the love and attention from men” by catering to demeaning images of what men think they should be (Morgan 122, Ayanna). Many rappers probably feel similarly to Wendy Day, the head of the Rap Coalition, a woman who has had the opportunity to see the life male hip hop artists lead first hand. “The image of women in rap has always bothered me,” she said, “but on the other hand, when I’ve gone out with rappers it is downright ugly to see how women throw themselves at fame” (Y. Jones V1). Thus, it may be that the scantily clad, sex-hungry women who appear in hip hop videos and rhymes are truly accurate portrayals of the kind of women rappers most encounter.

Male insecurities pertaining to their relationship with the opposite sex also influence the gravitation towards anti-female lyrics. Revenge songs by female rappers “tended to be a celebration of female sexuality as a weapon or tool” and suggested “women are unable to gain control any other way” but their willingness “to manipulate [men’s] desires for [their] purposes” (Goodall 88). Men often express their apprehension over this vulnerability in their raps. Hip Hop feminist Joan Morgan also points out that the anger towards women is justifiable for those artists “who couldn’t get the time of day from these women before a few dollars and a record deal” (156). Morgan also cites men’s degradation of women is a result of their pains in dealing with an inferior social image in comparison to Caucasians. She asserts that the disrespect for women stems from the fact that “for all the machismo and testosterone in the music, it’s frighteningly clear that many brothers see themselves as powerless when it comes to facing the evils of the larger society [such as racism]…’the bitch hoe bullshit’ isn’t personal, but part of the illness” (155). Men are subjugating black women in attempt to heighten their own status, selfishly and rashly sacrificing the integrity of their female counterparts in attempt to salvage their own. This is evident in lyrics such as those by the Ying Yang Twins, in their hit “Wait,” which portray women as nothing more than available bodies existing to reaffirm that black men have something valuable to give: “Switch positions and ready to get down to business/ So you can see what you’ve been missin’/ You might had some but you never had none like this” (V. Jones D1).

Yet another view is that the misogyny expressed in hip hop is just an expression of American ideals, not specific to the black community. Hip hop is reflective of society at large, and according to Mark Anthony Neal, a prominent African American studies writer, “[i]n many ways the images and lyrics used to objectify women of color in hip-hop videos serve as metaphors for the ways that American society actually treats those women” (“Hip Hop’s”). Gwendolyn Pough, the author of Check It While I Wreck: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture and the Public Sphere notes, "rappers become grunt workers for the patriarchy: They sow the field of misogyny for the patriarchy and provide the labor necessary to keep it in operation, much as Black men and women provided the free and exploited labor that built the United States" (“Hip Hop’s”). Neal asks us to “remember, the black men on the screen are ‘performing’ -- performing their notions of how American masculinity embodies power through force, violence and exploitation,” such as that prevalent in the White House and the Pentagon (“Hip Hop’s”).

It’s interesting that women were not always portrayed in hip hop as sexual objects or sources of frustration. In the 1980’s and early 90’s, rap was more concerned with “police brutality and the limited horizons for young blacks living in the inner city” and this is what the likes of NWA, Ice T, and Public Enemy rhymed about (V. Jones D1). Where hip hop artists were once rebelling against the white power structure, now they answer to predominantly white music industry executives with the power to shape rap’s content. MC Lyte suggested that the adjustment in women’s images around 1992 coincided with hip hop’s acceptance in the mainstream, proclaiming, “There’s some law… They say after 500,000 [CDs], you're selling to a whole different realm. Now you are selling records to young white boys. I think once the corporations understood that, that was their time to come in and take control of it. Once the control was taken away, then came all of the nonsense" (V. Jones D1). Moya Bailey, a student at and feminist activist a Spelman College, a black women’s school, asserts, “There aren't really pictures of [black women] in school textbooks or things that counter the images that are seen in music videos… I think it's deliberate. The media does an excellent job of keeping those more positive images about us away from people” (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82). Tricia Rose, author of a book on black women’s sexuality called “Longing to Tell,” also implies that white supremacist conspiracy may be at the core of women’s portrayal, claiming, “Hypersexual deviance…is tied to the logic that cuts welfare policies for black women, right? The idea that they’re promiscuous, they’re irresponsible or they’re emasculating all those kinds of representations that impact policies” (V. Jones D1). However, The notion that the sexism exhibited in hip hop is an American, as opposed to an African American (or specifically anti-African American) ideal is supported by the fact that “hip-hop is hardly the first, or only, form of contemporary music to portray women in an unflattering light. In the 1970s, and even more so in the 1980s, it was the spandex-clad, heavy metal crowd whose lyrics, videos, and album covers portrayed women as sexual objects” (Weisstuch). And if misogyny wasn’t already ingrained in the white community, the mass amounts of albums purchased by white youngsters are sure to plant it there.

A final possible source of the sexism in hip hop music and videos is the nature of the rap industry. It’s vital not to overlook the fact that rappers are engaging in a business, competing in an industry which revolves around money. “We live in a society where sex sells, and rappers are no different from other musicians. Sex sells and these artists know that,” stated Wendy Day, who runs an advocacy group that tries to educate rappers about the hip hop business (Y. Jones V1). She has met a slew of big time controversial emcees including Nelly and Lil’ John and verifies that their public persona is a far jump from their private personality as exhibited by Day’s testimonial, “[W]hen I have met them, they have had nothing but the utmost respect for me or their wives, mothers, and daughters” (Y. Jones V1). Dawton Thomas, who is responsible in part for some of the risqué photos of women that have shown up in King Magazine disclosed, “In the hip-hop industry, we get so competitive and do what will win and what will sell and go to any ends to make that happen. You get so caught up in competing that you may drop your guard and do something crazy. For example, if Smooth or Maxim has a hot girl that we featured or wanted to and they get her in a swimsuit, I think I want to show her topless in a thong. Or they photographed her with body paint, I have to put a vanilla wafer over her chest…. Eventually you'll have a butt-naked woman just standing there” (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82).


The most significant result of the diffusion of hip hop is that this and following generations of hip hop consumers have internalized the images and the behavior exhibited in videos which have become adopted and accepted.
It is a widespread belief that mainstream hip hop may influence young people who have no sexist tendencies to adopt misogynistic behaviors due to the understanding that it is acceptable and as a means to associate with the popularity of hip hop lifestyle flaunted in contemporary advertisements, films, and videogames. There have been several shocking accounts of people expressing this belief. At a discussion about the effect of rap on impressionable spectators held at Fashion Institute of Technology, an overwhelmed schoolteacher in the audience shot back at Remy, a female artist responsible for the song Lean Back which alludes to oral sex, “If you don’t believe hip hop is affecting young people, join me in the schools where junior high girls are (performing fellatio) in the hallways” (Dawson). The generation gap was apparent from a different crowd response as voiced by younger people who “repeatedly claimed that hip hop’s depiction of women accurately reflects the behavior of some females” while “older folks [insisted] rap’s content negatively affects the behavior of both young men and women” and may have contributed to the formation of the view held by members of the younger generation in the crowd (Dawson).

The view of the elders is shared by Zenobia L. Hikes, who in a piece for Black Issues In Higher Education wrote, “The ultimate tragedy … is that young children who do not have the cognitive ability to differentiate between illusion and reality are continually exposed to a genre of "entertainment" that serves as the predominant and prevailing expression of African American culture (4). For non-Black children, it creates gross misrepresentations of the Black experience. But its impact is exceedingly worse for Black children, particularly for young Black girls whose self-worth and self-esteem are frequently being shaped by these unrealistic and harmful images of Black womanhood” (2). In alignment with this concern, when Vibe contributed to the acceptance of the objectification of women by handing out an award to the sexiest video vixen, reader Djenaba Kelly reamed the publication out in a letter asking, “How can a young lady learn to respect and honor herself when all the messages thrown at her by [the] media tell her that she must become an inanimate sexual object in order to get any recognition?”(V. Jones D1). A study done by which found that “young women ages 16 to 20 who watch hip-hop videos are 60 percent more likely to be sexually active, contract an STD or abuse alcohol and drugs than those who don’t watch such videos” definitely presents the case that many young women use video vixens who receive adulation from males for engaging in these behaviors as role models and view the hip hop video environment as the only arena through which they can receive love and attention (Vaughn).

Hikes continues “The prognosis is not much better for young Black boys constantly exposed to the glorification of the "thug life" and its perpetual cycle of violence. Generations of African American boys now need to be reprogrammed, coaxed into an attitudinal shift that socializes them to think differently about their life choices, to view women - their mothers, sisters, daughters - as having far more value than a mere "dime-a-dozen," and to recognize that the vulgarity of excess, the insidiousness of crime, and the irresponsibility of promiscuous behavior will, assuredly, not put them on the path toward success” (4). This eloquently phrased academic take on the effects of hip hop entertainment is verified by Wilder Lee, a Melrose High School English teacher, who concludes from his observations of students emulating the rap lifestyle in reality everyday that “a generation of kids are internalizing a message that computes a woman’s assets in terms of body parts…They don’t separate fact from fantasy... When I ask kids what they want to do when they grow up, rapper is at the top of the list” (Y. Jones V1).

There is evidence that “if a man labels a women with any of these names [used to degrade women in hip hop], he may feel justified in committing physical or psychological acts against her” like those showcased in music videos where rappers, imitating pimps, promote violence against women for disobeying (Ayanna). A disturbing parallel was drawn by Kayce T. Ataiyero in her 2006 Chicago Tribune article “Exploitation keeps time with rhymes.” She opens by describing a new Amp’d Mobile Commercial in which a white man on a public bus commands “an ample-bottomed black ‘shake your junk’ [and] on cue, she jumps up, grabs the bus pole and pops her booty up and down to the beat. The tag line for the commercial…says ‘Have the power to entertain yourself”. Then, Ataiyero cites a Villiage voice article that stated 70 percent of hip hop sales are made to whites and demonstrates that “young white men and women …appropriate the images from rap videos in the name of being cool” by recalling a “straight-thuggin;” costume party thrown last November by white students at the University of Chicago.

Immediately, she poses the question, “Did a similar spirit of imitation prompt the Duke lacrosse players to hire two black strippers to dance for them [one of which accused some white athletes on the team of raping her in the heavily media-covered scandal]?. The Amp’d Mobile Commercial, the music videos, and the hip hop lyrics contribute to black women “being stereotyped as hypersexual toys of wealthy white males…[images] that date to the days of slavery” and now has planted the idea “Why shouldn’t America feel it has the power to use black women to entertain itself?” in the minds of both white and black men in positions of power (Ataiyero).

Worldwide these stereotypes of black women are disseminated. Since white women are more diversely represented in the media, they have the opportunity to be portrayed as having many different images and viewers are less likely to pin them down to one representation. Moya Bailey points out, “With White people, you have a wider range of depictions. You might have Roseanne, which represents a low-income White family, but then you also have Frasier and Friends, which represent wealthier White people; so there's a range.” Conversely, as Michaela Angela Davis, an editor at Essence expresses, "If [white women are] not cool with Britney, they can go to someone else. What's happened in hip-hop is we [black people] don't have all those choices anymore" (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82). Stereotypes of black women don’t only inform how African Americans come to view themselves, it also impacts how people of other ethnicities come to view them. "While there's sexism out there in society," says Cathy J. Cohen, director of the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, "we have to be especially concerned with media images [of black women] because, in fact, that's how most people understand and interact with black communities. We live in a segregated society. People generally don't interact. They may work with someone of a different race, but they don't socialize or go to church with people of a different race. So the way you get introduced to other racial groups is often through the media" (V. Jones D1). This is true not only in America, but on a global scale due to the dissemination of hip hop music world wide, as evidenced by reports such as that received by Davis in which a writer for the magazine Honey wrote about her experience as an exchange student in Spain where… she was "solicited for sex just because she's a black American" (V. Jones D1). This is not an isolated case.

The black community is torn – women need to distance themselves from hip hop’s abusive relationship at the risk of being unsupportive of their men, but the disunity exists because women used to feel complimentary to their brothers, whereas now they feel like they have been labeled the enemy. Joan Morgan wrote, “Nobody even talked about sexism in hip hop back in those days [of early rap]…Nobody cared…Perhaps it was because we were being acknowledged as a complimentary part of the whole” (Morgan 122). Today, however, women feel that they have been sold out. Morgan states, “We have come to a point in our history …when black on black love- a love that’s survived slavery, lynching, segregation, poverty, and racism- is in serious danger… In the last thirty years, the number of black two parent households has decreased from 70 to 35 percent. The leading cause of death among black men ages 15-24 is homicide. The majority of them will die at the hands of other black men…women are the unsung victims of black on black crime” (122). “Many men… who battle racism and oppression themselves everyday have been conditioned by society not to trust or love, and if they do not love themselves, it is difficult for them to love women or anyone else in a healthy manner” (Ayanna). The greatest remedy for this is distance, but if black women are to dissociate from their men, it may cause African American communities to crumble.


Professionals in the hip hop industry who play either a direct or indirect part in promulgating sexist images of women take one of three paths. The first is the righteous one which requires them to sacrifice job opportunities.

Joc Mac, a popular party DJ and producer in Kansas City states “The path [of the music content] should have been steered in a different direction a long time ago. Now it's about the money, and sex sells. It's just not my bag… I don't need to hear some of that stuff. It just makes me uncomfortable… I choose to not play that music. I feel like I need a shower after some of those records….The awkward position for me is which venues are going to be risk-takers and allow me to play a different form of hip-hop. I might be less popular now, but at least I have my integrity” (Osterheldt). Fatima Robinson, video director and choreographer, grieves, “As a music-video director, I have problems all the time getting work, because I refuse to write the treatments that record companies want -- hot girls, cars, palm trees and so on. At some point you have to give in and do something, and try and do it in a stylized way, so it doesn't depict us as even crazier than what's out there. After getting the songs and listening to them over and over and over, I just say, ‘No, thank you’" (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82).

The second route is one accompanied by a feuding consciousness. In radio, Julee Jonez, a radio personality and co-host of "The Breakfast Jam" on KPRS-FM in Kansas City, is on the fence., announcing, "We are put in a hard spot because we don't directly choose the music…But we have to guard ourselves and use the most-clean versions possible. But we do receive backlash. If we pull every Lil Jon and Ying Yang Twins song off the air, the numbers will suffer” (Osterheldt). Danyel Smith, author, and a former editor-in-chief of Vibe, maintains, “When I put women on the cover, it was always my goal to make it interesting. With women the easy thing is to put someone in a sexual pose or in an outfit that shows off her body. I would have to do what I had to do sometimes and find my balance somewhere else….. I used to watch with a business mind-set. How much money did they take to make this? Who is the director? Is it going to help sell the album? Now I think, Do I like this? Is it fun for me? When I watch it, my reaction to the video depends on how I'm feeling about myself. If I'm having an insecure day, I'll probably feel angry at this narrow idea of women that is being shown over and over on the screen” (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82). Jay "Icepick" Jackson, senior vice-president of A&R, Ruff Ryders Records states, “I have a 7-year-old daughter, and she can't listen to my music. She can't listen to it in the car, not in the room, and she can't watch videos” (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82). Similarly, Kim Oserio, Source magazine editor in chief ascertains that as a mother of a 3-year old daughter, she “tries "very hard not be bothered by some of the images…on the cover of the publication she runs.” “I just really try to be neutral for the benefit of the magazine and the business,” she says (Murray).

The final path is taken by professionals who engage in in misogynistic behaviors themselves. For example, There have been allegations of “racial insensitivity, glorification of violence, and allegations of widespread sexism by major media outlets such as the longstanding hip-hop magazine The Source, a NYC institution that nonetheless influence[s] public perception of hip-hop culture nationwide” (Arnold). Source co-owners Dave Mays and Raymond "Benzino" Scott have been accused of “blatant gender discrimination and harassment” with reports that Benzino has “regularly stalked and harassed female employees, calling one woman up to fifty times a day[,] publicly referr[ed] to his own partner Mays as a "bitch" and "stupid motherfucker" [,] refused to hire qualified female applicants for open staff positions, complained of "too much estrogen" during a fashion department meeting, and demanded closed-door sessions with no female staffers present to select models for fashion shoots…, overlooked a male employee's statutory rape charge, and killed an investigative piece into the Kobe Bryant case” (Arnold). It’s both alarming and telling that this “anti-woman climate” is present at a magazine that “at one time was considered the bible of hip hop” and probably played a part in propagating some sexist behaviors (Arnold).

The second group coping with co-existing in such an atmosphere consists of female performers who define themselves within the male expectations. Toure, pop culture correspondent for CNN and author, put it succinctly, “Female rappers are either boy toys (Lil' Kim, Foxy Brown) or tomboys (MC Lyte, the Lady of Rage), both of which are personalities constructed around a masculine norm rather than a female norm” (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82). Pioneering female rappers fall into the latter category. Acknowledging in their raps that they engaged in sex meant that these women risked being labeled a ho, indicating that they were naïve or irresponsible, which in turn would result in them suffering degradation exercised by men in attempt to hurt their chances of rising in the field. Consequently and understandably, these females hid their sexuality by “[wearing] baggy clothes, [writing] asexual lyrics, and [focusing] on addressing legitimacy and virtuosity as an MC” (Goodall 85). MC Lyte deferred to male counterparts as exemplified on her first album cover on which she “posed to the left of and slightly behind her producer, the King of Chill, while her disc jockey, K-Rock reaches an outstretched hand toward a ‘traditional’ female, complete with long straight hair, tight mini skirt, and red spiked heels- a woman whose face, significantly, runs off the page” (Goodall 86) Queen Latifah acknowledged her female identity claiming her “existence as a strong, confident politically-aware black woman” but left “issues of sexuality out of her music and persona entirely” in the beginning of her career. (Goodall 87). And Salt n’ Pepa brought female sexuality to the forefront of feminist hip hop discourse, but “still [fell] shy of expressing a woman’s desire for sexual fulfillment on her own accord,” instead discussing “fending off sexually aggressive men [and dwelling] on the negative consequences of sexual activity” such as STDs, unwanted pregnancy, and categorization as a sordid whore, undeserving of respect (Goodall 87).

These ladies’ early concession to the sexist notion of success sent the message that a masculine image is synonymous with success, and reinforced the masculine grasp on the rap industry (Goodall 92). Until TLC, a group that asserted “black women’s economic (Depend on Myself), psychological (Shack that Monkey), emotional (Baby-Baby-Baby), and sexual (Ain’t Too Proud to Beg) independence and their ability to dictate and take responsibility for the terms, the processes, and the outcome of their own experiences,” women emcee’s lyrics promoted a fear of sex and hindered women’s involvement in healthy sexual behavior (Goodall 86). All of the emcees mentioned above proved themselves with their talent, helped dispel misperceptions that women couldn’t rap with their success, and, in effect, made it easier for women to enter the industry and be taken seriously while not having to compromise their sexuality as much as their predecessors (Goodall 92). Still, contemporary rappers like Rah Digga, the only female in Busta Rhyme’s Flip Mode Squad, face challenges in the chauvinistic industry which still tries to dictate their image. Digga admitted that “her raspy deep voice and facial expressions were considered ‘too hard core’ by producers and record executives. She said they preferred a softer, more sexualized style in female performers” (Thompson).

The second category of hip hop female were those to engaged in the field in order to exploit the existing sexist notions to their benefit. Some women emcees dressed to look sexy by male standards. This was done because they could acquire an instant audience, but it came at the expense of being reduced to a sex object and not being taken seriously for their craft (Goodall 87). Numerous female MCs and video models in the business claim they are not offended and make a living off of the images hip hop promotes of black women. An article titled “Some Women Rappers Say Negative Portrayals Just Part of Business” states, “these days, a considerable number [of women] are using the same lewd terms to describe women and sex…And it’s making them successful… ‘Ben-da, bend that thang over. Yeaaahhh! Ben-da, bend that thang over’ goes the chorus of the…hip hop single “Vibrate,” [which enabled] rapper and mother Rasheeda [who] for the past 11 years…has been trying to make it in the music business…now [to have] a singles deal on the same label as R&B giant Usher and contemporary pop icon Britney Spears” (Murray). 

White Chocolate, the model who had a credit card swiped through her ass crack by Nelly is one of many with the opinion, “If anything, hip hop has been very, very good to this woman right here,” a statement based on her huge house and slick sports car (Murray). “No one is exploiting me. No one is making me do anything I don’t want to do,” she contends (Murray). Shawna, the sole female rapper on Ludacris’ label, Disturbing the Peace, agrees as she references her single “Shake That (Expletive)”, stating “I’m in control of what I say and do… "And these men don't hold a gun to these women's heads and say, 'Take off all your clothes basically, and dance this way (in videos).' They get in these long lines at the model calls dressed that way” (Murray).

While many women in the videos are proud of their bodies and feel honored to represent, other artists like Melyssa Ford, a former video model and cohost of BET Style acknowledges that she “decided to exploit [herself]” but feels justified since it was a way to “help pay [her] tuition [not as] a way to meet rappers” (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82). Others such as Karrine Steffans, author of “Confessions of a Video Vixen,” admits that she got in over her head and outright warns about the effects of working on videos, reflecting, “I wish the industry would provide some sort of counseling. I wish someone would have told me what was going to happen or called me to see how I was doing. No one wonders how you are feeling or who you are" (Osterheldt). Her recollection of the video-making experience is one characterized much more by coercion than collaboration. “You are performing a service to help this man sell records…They give you the clothes to wear, tell you where to stand and how to move. If a man tells you to shake it like a salt shaker and you do it, (people reprimand you) and call you a ho,” she clarifies candidly (Osterheldt).

Finally, male rappers tend to defend their misogynistic lyrics and videos as innocent entertainment. Nelly, for instance, claims, “Part of the reason rap artists come under fire more than any other group is because people don't respect what we do as art. When actress Halle Berry appears in Monster's Ball, people separate the character from the real person, and she wins an Oscar! A rapper couldn't use a line describing what she did in the movie, let alone film it in a video, without getting heat for it. So I accept my role and my freedom as an artist, I respect women and I'm not a misogynist. I'm an artist. Hip-hop videos are art and entertainment. Videos tell stories; some are violent, some are sexy, some are fun, some are serious. As for how women are shown in the videos, I don't have a problem with it because it is entertainment, whether it's Dilemma or Tip Drill, Mos Def or Terror Squad” (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82).


Many members of the hip cop community continue to consume the music and images for the entertainment value. Although they find the lyrics offensive, many men and women continue to buy hip hop music for several reasons. One is that the instrumental flow of the music is fun to dance and listen to, since “the thinking is, if it has a good beat and you can dance to it, then why not?” (Osterheldt). Another element is the sex appeal as blatantly referenced in hip hop feminist, Joan Morgan's rhetorical question: "How come no one ever admits that part of the reason women love hip-hip -- as sexist as it is -- is 'cuz all that in-yo'-face testosterone makes our nipples hard?" (Neal “Critical Noir”).

Many women, however, feel hurt and confused by the manner in which the are represented. A common response is for them to feel black male’s failure to love them. In her essay “Fly Girls, Bitches, and Hoes: Notes of a Hip Hop Feminist,” Joan Morgan desperately pleads “why [do] you find it necessary to hurt even those who look like you?” and explains her tendency to search for an answer in hateful rap lyrics through her statement, “my decision to expose myself to the sexism of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop Doggy Dogg, or Notorious B.I.G is really my plea to my brothers to tell me who they are. I need to know why they are so angry at me” (26). Recalling her response to their words Morgan gushes, “As black women, we are hurt when we hear brothers calling us bitches and hoes [but] the real crime isn’t the name calling[; it’s] their failure to love us, to be our brothers in the way that we commit ourselves to being their sistas” (154).

Confusion also exists regarding identity for women who are self-sufficient and independent but who also love the hip hop they were raised on. In the Essence article, Ayana Byrd and Akiba Solomon articulated this feeling of identity anxiety when they wrote, “We are mothers, sisters, daughters and lovers of hip-hop. We've emulated the sexy confidence of Salt-N-Pepa and the toughness of MC Lyte. We've wept over Tupac Shakur's visceral poetry and marveled at the lyrical dexterity of Notorious B.I.G. When Nas said, "The World Is Yours," we believed him. And today we stand at the forefront of popular culture: independent, talented and comfortable with the skin we're in. We are really feeling ourselves… [Yet] when we search for ourselves in music lyrics, mixtapes and DVDs and on the pages of hip-hop magazines, we only seem to find our bare breasts and butts” (82). The lyrics by D12, "All the independent women in the house, show us your **** and shut your ***********'mouths," which convey an attitude typical in gangster rap, are just one example of from where the bewilderment expressed by Byrd and Solomon stems (Ramirez and Goodin and Lytton).

A growing amount of the hip hop audience is outright appalled at the portrayal of women and some listeners, of both genders, refuse to listen to the rude lyrics. Aaron Wedgeworth, a hip-hop dancer and junior at Paseo High School in Kansas City, Mo., asserts, "The lyrics make the artists look unprofessional, and it seems like they are lowering themselves…I live hip-hop. But you do have to work harder to find music that isn't negative, violent and sexist,” and Meigan Yarbrough, a senior St. Teresa's Academy in Kansas City opts for conscious rap and claims, “[If] the message is degrading….I won't dance to it, and I just won't listen to it” (Osterheldt). Many others agree with the notion, “I long for the days when the music was about lifting up the race, not your skirt…[when] socially responsible lyrics [like those of Common, Talib Kweli, and Mos Def that] touch on the problems and solutions in our community were the rule, not the exception (Atayero).


The most direct strategy for changing the current misogynistic face of hip hop is to start with the consumer taking a stand by not buying the product, protesting, or voicing complaints. This tactic is working to enact change at The Source Magazine. Hip hop feminist Joan Morgan along with activists Elizabeth Mendez Berry and Jeff drafted a petition denouncing ignorance exhibited at the magazine and holding influential advocates of the magazine, such as Reverend Al Sharpton, accountable by association, putting them on the spot to incite chastisement of the magazine in order to cover their own reputations. The petition garnered “more than 1,300 signatures in a mere four days” and the magazine appears to have taken a significant credibility hit with “rumors [escalating] that the mag's circulation is down, while the ad count has dropped a precipitous 10 percent in the past twelve months” (Arnold). An interview of young hip hop consumers found that, “All the young people [they] spoke to at first said they would still buy the records. But after thinking about what their money was funding, some changed their minds” and urged that “Not buying gives a message to the industry that just might be powerful enough to make things change” (Ramirez and Goodin and Lytton). In the past few years, students have been a great force in voicing the disapproval of the distasteful portrayal of women in hip hop, targeting the infuriating video for “Tip Drill” in which Nelly, with friends, throws money at women’s crotches and slides a credit card between one woman’s buttocks. Students at Howard protested in front of Viacom in the middle of December 2004, students at Spelman College protested against Nelly performing on campus for their bone marrow drive also in 2004, and in 2005 Arkansas State University banned Nelly from making an appearance (Y. Jones V1).

More widespread debate and spreading awareness about the misrepresentation of women in hip hop is the best way to garner support for a revolution in rap. One means of conversation about the misogyny issues in hip hop is the internet. According to a writer for Express, “ it's apparent that the recent trend of blog- and petition-filled attacks on hip-hop's gender and race offenders has been strikingly effective on a grassroots level, filling in the accountability gap left by commercial media outlets, and showing a willingness to go after the culture's sacred cows and mainstream Goliaths alike….proving once again that the court of public opinion must be respected” (Arnold). Also, hip hop artists, executives, and listeners are being brought together for discussion by Michaela Angela Davis, co-founder of Essence magazine's “Take Back The Music Campaign,” an attempt to spread a more balance view of black women via conferences, such as that held at the University of Chicago in 2005 which attracted 1,000 attendees from around the world. She notes the importance of the fact that "There are more black women entering college than you see on stripper poles,” and intends to make sure that this fact is widely recognized (Jameson 1). Many organizations, such as the National Hip Hop Association, “a New York-based promoter of hip-hop as a socially legitimate means of self expression and way to educate youth,” are encouraging dialogue in the classroom and National Hip Hop association took the bull by the horns, hosting a convention in New York City which was attended by over 300 teachers (Thompson).

Use of the hip hop medium to express a need for change and as a forum to discuss the problems plaguing the black community is a popular solution as well. Efforts like that of H-Town in 1997 with their project “Ladies Groove” is a prime example of the way in which African music can be used as a healing medium. The R&B trio stated that the album “attests to their maturity and triumph over mistakes we’ve made back in the days…and hopefully we can inspire other men to change their views and respect and uplift their women” (Moorer 23). The jams featured served as a plea for men to be loyal in marriage and, with lyrics “[giving] props to women who’ve evolved into basketball players, CEO’s of companies, and politicians,” it also acted as “a cue for women who’ve lost sight of self-respect, urging them to love themselves” (Moorer 23). Rochell D. Hart in 2002 stood out in support of enacting change with her C.D. P.I.M.P., which stands for ‘poetic intellectual making progress.’ With rhymes like “My inner spirit called out and demanded I be more than the images I too often see/ because I don’t want to be another booty-bouncin’, loud talkin’ ghetto-unfabulous girl,” her songs call for a “’reborn black woman’…free from both the constraints of history and the current MTV hip hop attitude toward black women as easy ho’s or shallow materialistic bitches” (66). It is the opinion of hip hop scholar, Mark Anthony Neal that “Hip-hop has provided a forum for black youth to discuss issues of economics, politics, gender and sexuality. More often or not black youth have done so to the deaf ears of black politicians and Civil Rights leaders… I don't think [the medium has] yet met its potential as a truly engaged space for political or economic change” (Forman).

Evening out the representation of men and women in the hip hop and showing more of a variety of black women is a sure way to dissolve the hoochie image. Source magazine editor-in-chief Kim Osorio acknowledges that women have come a long way. “[W]omen have a lot more control these days than people think, or see," she says. "There are enough women in the game right now that dictate a lot of the stuff that's going on. On the record label side, in the media, even as video directors” (Murray). Many of these women are helping to take a stand. Medusa, a performer is acting on her observation that “To me, there're a lot of female emcees that get knocked down. They don't have that support like male emcees to get back up," said Medusa. "I want to pass the torch to other sisters like me who are in their late 20s and early 30s. I want to help these sisters hone their crafts and get into the music industry like we used to do back in the day” (Shivers B6). On the literary front, The Poetess, a distinguished hip hop journalist is writing to promote ways “ women can … improve their presence in hip hop” (Shivers B6). She believes that getting women to believe in themselves and the power they already have within is key. In the film world, Lisa France has given a voice to “young women who want to be heard and are afraid they may not be” as she brings the struggles of Cynthia Gimenez, an aspiring rapper, to the screen (Thompson). Also, UCLA student Rachel Raimist directed a documentary titled “Nobody Knows My Name” which “was a concept that grew out of hip hop not recognizing the force and impact females have made here,” the filmmaker said (Shivers B6). Mark Anthony Neal agrees, “a genre that been dominated by men, women do have an impact on hip-hop as video directors, set designers, stylist, A&R execs, etc., but we still see only the basic stereotypes of women when hip-hop hits the screen or the airwaves. Thus most audiences haven't heard women like Bahamadia or Jean Grae (pound for pound, one of the best in the game now) and those who have heard artists like Lil Kim choose—or are forced—to downplay their artistic skills in favor of marketing their sexuality” (Forman). Hopefully this is about to change.


One huge obstacle is that women feel that for taking a stand, they will be criticized for not standing behind their black men- they must choose to support their race or gender. History appears to be repeating itself as the lack of activity on women’s parts to attack the issue in the past few years can be attributed to the same sentiment expressed “in the 1960’s when black women were reluctant to join the feminist movement, there’s a lack of desire to demonize black men.” Women who take a stand against successful black entrepreneurial rappers are faced with the criticism, “Are you not supporting the progress of the black community?” (V. Jones D1). Even at Spelman College, the students who attempted to discuss the way women were portrayed in Nelly’s video for “Tip Drill,” felt that their “questions were recast as vociferous attacks that allowed people to feel sorry for Nelly as a supposedly helpless bystander caught in the misdirected rage of black women,” and, ironically, some of their greatest condemnation spewed from the mouth of a former civil rights leader (Bailey).

Another point of contention is that artists fear career suicide if they stand up to powerful executives. Cheryl "Salt" James from Salt-N-Pepa understands that intimidation, exclaiming, “(Hip-hop godfather) Russell Simmons is powerful. P. Diddy? Powerful. People treat them like gods or something. . . . And no one wants to speak against these powerful forces for fear that they may be shut up. Shut down. Or shut out” (Murray). Plus, as Mark Anthony Neal points out, “By asking hip-hop to reform, we are essentially demanding hip-hop's primary consumer base to consume music that is anti-sexist, anti-misogynistic and possibly feminist. And in what context have young white men (or black men for that matter) ever been interested in consuming large amounts of black feminist thought?” (Neal “Hip Hop’s”). Not only would hip hop have to find a new audience, but the genre as one of the few places for black males to verbally work through their masculine complexes, voice their opinions, and be heard would be a devastating loss.

Additionally, socioeconomic conventions promote self-defeatism for a large percentage of the hip hop audience. Women speaking up is regarded an entitlement for middle and upper class women, but a waste of time for lower classes. As signified in the TLC song His Story,“[t]he attitude ‘we can’t get justified until we speak up’ is a typically middle class view, held by women who have been socialized to believe that their voices will (indeed that they even should) be heard. For poor and working class women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, the prevailing belief is not that verbalizing the experience… will end it ; rather (as always) “they’re gonna believe/ his story over mine.” Thus “his story will be his story and/ my story is a waste of time” (Goodall 91) Indeed, it may be the people of lower class origin who are in need of demystification about black women the most. These are the children in the ‘hood who are affected by hip hop’s images because they “don’t got parents who are going to tell them right from wrong. Some parents are working three jobs,” as Vibe writer Kevin Powell pointed out when BET professionals, who run many “hoochie aesthetic” videos, put the responsibility to shelter kids from disturbing images on parental intervention (19). Karrine Stephans even attributes the lack of parental involvement directly to the fact that women identify with hip hop images, stating, “As a society, we are well aware of what happens with young boys and girls without fathers. Women are looking for an authoritative figure; they are looking for a voice. They don't have it at home or in the community, so they instantly turn to the most prominent male voice, and it's hip-hop” (Osterheldt). Consequently, as Carolyn West, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, University of Washington, Tacoma laments, “My fear is that girls don't even see their own victimization anymore. They say, "I'm a bitch, I'm a ho, I'm a tip drill’” (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82).

Artist’s refusal to acknowledge to impact of their actions or take responsibility is another reason why the transformation in hip hop’s portrayal of women may be stunted, or never realized. The women who pose in videos insist that they only represent themselves, and while they feel autonomous in this decision, it is important for them to understand the impact of their actions. They need to realize that they participating in the misrepresentation of all black women. Artists must also own up. Many of them shirk their responsibility, insisting that the women who undress in their videos would have been doing so anyway. Ultimately, however, these artists are accountable for the images that appear in connection with their artistic view. Finally, lyricists who promote the promiscuous connotation of black women and may indirectly influence such behaviors to occur with listeners should try to balance out their message and make sure that if this is “entertainment,” their audience fully comprehends it as such.

Finally, a major barrier to those trying to enact change lies with the American press, which shows opposition to touching on the problems in society as a whole. In their attempts to use the national attention for the Nelly protest to spark a public critique of how women are portrayed in the broader context or society, Moya recalls that she and her classmates at Spelman “in every interview… stated that this is systemic, a part of the larger racist, capitalist, patriarchal society we call America. But once you start talking about interlocking systems of oppression, the press stops recording” (Bailey). The FCC even labeled lyrics in the song "Your Revolution by Sarah Jones which " takes shots at the sexist lyrics of artists like Biggie ("Big Poppa"), LL ("Doin' It"), and Shaggy ("Boombastic") as “vulgar” in what Mark Anthony Neal calls “an ironic twist that perfectly captures the struggles of those who try to hold hip-hop accountable."  Also, hip-hop journalist, historian and DJ Davey D, cautions, “It's the music and program directors along with record label executives who control the airwaves… if people don't start to examine how songs get on radio and television and start talking to decision-makers," Davey D says, talking about changing the situation "is a meaningless conversation” (Osterheldt).

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