I remember the first time I listened to Biggie Smalls. I was on the verge of becoming that thing that every teenager dreads and is secretly excited by at the same time – twenty years of age. I was finishing up my second year of university, and I was broke and angry and disillusioned by life outside of my tiny, working class hometown. I felt like everyone had more money than me, came from richer families than me, had received better educations than me, and therefore I spent the majority of the year (and my life at university, actually) precariously balancing between feeling terribly inferior and alone, and extremely bitter. Then I heard ‘Juicy’ for the first time.
At first it seems as though it was a chance meeting, this collision of my late-teenaged self and 90’s hip-hop, but looking back at the grand old age of 22, it’s clear that we were always meant to be. Hip-hop artists in the early 90’s wrote powerful, angry songs about fighting the power and growing up poor and not accepting the place society wants you to have in the world. I can’t relate to being black, or growing up black, and to suggest that anything in my life would ever come close to it would be ridiculous and insulting. However, hip-hop artists rapped about money and class and the role of the poor in society in a way that no white artists I’m aware of have ever really come close to, at least not to me. The working class need a voice, and 90’s hip-hop gave us it.
It’s a well-know theory that the age of fourteen is when we first start breaking away from what our parents and siblings and friends like and start forming our own interests and opinions about society and the different types of culture it offers us, especially in regards to music (I’d like to thank Dr Spencer Reid of Criminal Minds fame for educating me on this). Therefore, the music we listen to at this age influences us in a way that nothing else quite ever will, and not just in regards to something simple as our taste. It’s the first thrill of doing something for yourself, of making a deliberate step towards becoming a certain type of person, of becoming someone who is complex and flawed and human. When I was fourteen, I dyed my hair pink, badly. I read a lot of Chuck Palahniuk books. I kept a livejournal and wrote bad prose and wore a lot of black (some things never change). These things have all greatly influenced the person I have become and am still becoming, in the way that the friends you have at that age influence you in a way that no one else ever really will. It’s not because everything back then was realer, or purer, in the way that nostalgia can sometimes make us believe – it’s not because your friends were any better, or because music was any better, or because society is falling apart and culture is going downhill and everything just sucks now. It’s because it was happening for the first time.
When I was fourteen, I didn’t listen to hip-hop. I listened to The Smiths and let Morrissey guide me through teenage life in a humdrum town, where the days seemed endless. I listened to Bright Eyes and related to Conor Oberst’s angst about youth and growing up and the future in a way that almost scared me – my life plan for a while was to move to Omaha and work at Saddle Creek. I listened to the Manic Street Preachers and became angry and disillusioned with politics and England and money, as well as wearing a lot of eyeliner and leopard print. These bands were my soundtrack during my most formative years, and at the time they defined me and my beliefs and led me through the jungle of adolescence in a way that my family and my teachers and all of those teen-orientated websites and books and pamphlets couldn’t. They taught me about the real world and how to navigate it.
There is something about this list that needs to be recognised, though. The musicians who guided me through perhaps one of the most important times of my life all have one thing in common – they’re white males. I am a white female. Although I am not privileged in some ways, I am privileged in the fact that I grew up with internet access and books and the ability to listen to and appreciate music. So with all of these privileges at my disposal, why did I end up allowing myself to be guided by the one group that has all of the privileges I do not have? The one group that society is under the power of and at the same time caters to?
It’s easy to place the blame on oneself, but I think the root of the problem lies deeper than this. The majority of music young people are exposed to is more often than not written, performed, and controlled by white males. Although, according to our theory, we make our own musical choices at the age of fourteen, we are still young and susceptible to outside influences. We may feel as though we are completely in control of what we choose to listen to, but the reality is that this choice is still made within the context of the society we belong to – and this is a society in which white men rule the roost, so to speak.
Therefore, when considering the context in which modern music is presented, it is important to recognise how misogyny is generated and perpetuated due to it. Obviously, the fact that society is fundamentally a man’s world is in itself a sign of the misogyny that women face every day, and this is represented in the music we listen to. However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of misogyny in music is how reluctant we are to attribute it to white men.
As I stated earlier in this article, I have a lot of love and respect for 90’s hip-hop. I also consider myself a strong feminist. The one question I always hear when I inform people of the above two facts is, without fail, “How can you be a feminist when you listen to music that is as misogynistic as hip-hop?” I have a lot of problems with this response, and what it tells us about the society we live in. I’m not going to deny for one second that some hip-hop is misogynistic – to do so is counter-productive, because it is very true that some hip-hop music does focus on belittling women and therefore reinforces the idea of men as being superior. The point isn’t that hip-hop music is not misogynistic – the point is that it is no more misogynistic than other genres of music, but is constantly scapgoated and focused on as being the only music that is misogynistic and therefore dangerous towards women. I believe that misogyny is just as rife in other genres of music, but because this music is created by white men in a society that favours white men, it is not picked up on. It is a lot easier to blame the minority instead, because it is not the minority who controls the context in which we listen to music. It is easy to blame a black man for misogyny towards women being perpetuated through music, because it is simpler than going against what society tells us.
So what is the logic for hip-hop being universally referred to, and thought of, as misogynistic? Firstly, one of the main points that is brought up is the language which is used towards women in many hip-hop songs – “they’re always calling women bitches! Or hoes!” should really have been copywrited by now, I hear it so often. The fact is that, yes, a lot of hip-hop songs do use language that is potentially derogatory when referring to women. However, it is important to also consider the cultural context in which the word is being used, and who it is being used by. Many female rappers have reclaimed words such as “bitch” and therefore refer to themselves using the word, and will also sometimes accept being called it by men in songs, as long as it is on the terms they have laid out. Obviously not all uses of potentially derogatory words in hip-hop are by women and not all of them are intended to be complimentary. However, although no man has the right to refer to a woman as a bitch or a whore or a hoe (which in itself is a gross stereotype of most hip-hop music), and no woman should be subjected to it against her wishes, the sometimes-explicit use of the words in hip-hop songs makes it a lot easier for us to identify what is and is not misogynistic. This might sound like a strange thing to include in an article that wishes to convince you that hip-hop is no more misogynistic than any other genre of music, but it is important to consider when discussing why the majority of white, male music is not seen as being misogynistic.
So, hip-hop is widely considered to be misogynistic because of the language many artists use to describe women, including women themselves. What could be more misogynistic than a woman being referred to as a bitch or a hoe? Well, at least if a woman is described using a word that is widely thought of as sexist and derogatory, it is easy for us and most of the general public to recognise it as being offensive and not accept it. However, not all misogyny is presented through a nasty word or name-calling, and this is the biggest issue I have with hip-hop being referred to as more misogynistic than other genres. I believe that other genres of music, mostly represented by white men, are so full of misogyny that is internalised and accepted in society, and this is dangerous because it means that we are not always aware of it.
So if misogyny in hip-hop is mostly presented through the language used, then how is it presented in other genres? Internalised misogyny is not as simple as a woman being referred to in a negative way – instead it reinforces ideas about how women should act, specifically in regards to men, in a way that is subtle and not always recognisable as being negative. The popular-in-2006-on-myspace genre of music known as ‘emo’, or emotional hardcore, is especially responsible for encouraging this way of thinking. I love Brand New, but think of ‘Jude Law and a Semester Abroad’ (sample lyric: “and even if her plane crashes tonight/she’ll find some way to disappoint me/by not burning in the wreckage/or drowning at the bottom of the sea”). Jawbreaker are an amazing band and most of Blake Schwarzenbach’s lyrics are perfect to me, but think of ‘Sluttering’. Dashboard Confessional were the first band I listened to on my walkman in 2004, but think of everything Chris Carrabba has ever written. What do these artists all have in common? They are intelligent, middle class, white males who comment sharply and succinctly on social issues and politics and heartbreak and adolescence (Chris Carrabba only gets credit for the last two, though).However, they also rely on the idea of women as being one-dimensional and almost fictional in their attributes and identities. Take Brand New first, for example. In ‘Jude Law and a Semester Abroad’, Jesse Lacey focuses on how the girl mentioned has wronged him, how if a plane crash didn’t bring her imminent death then it would be purely to disappoint him. Basically, the female character exists only as a catalyst for his anger and heartbreak, not as a real person. The same can be seen in ‘Sluttering’ and perhaps most explicitly in many Dashboard Confessional songs. Females are either described as being weak and simpering, purely as a love interest for the protagonist, or as cold-hearted and evil, the source of his pain and frustration. The problem with these representations of women is that they are just not realistic. A woman does not exist purely to appease a man or to justify his anger or hurt. Women are not either one thing or another – we are more than the stereotypes we are presented as in modern music.
Another issue that arises when discussing misogyny in hip-hop is, inevitably (and rightly so), regarding race. Is it any coincidence that hip-hop music is mostly written and performed by black men? It is easier for a society in which white men hold the most power to accept that it is not ‘one of us’ perpetuating these ideas. It is easier for white people to accept the idea of a black man encouraging violence and oppression against their sisters and daughters than it is to accept that it might be a lot closer to home than that. A lot of this is to do with extremely racist connotations and stereotypes, the idea that black hip-hop artists are all gangbangers and live in ghettos, promoting the kind of lifestyles that respectable white men would never lead. Sadly, it’s easy for society to justify this extremely racist train of thought, as it is a result of a misguided attempt to fight oppression. It’s easier to accept it than it is to challenge it, and this is where we are going wrong.
This is not a denial that misogyny exists in hip-hop. This is not an excuse for the vile language that is used to shame and oppress women by some hip-hop artists. This is not a condemnation of every song written by a white man. This is a wake up call to everyone who believes the stereotype that misogyny is only perpetuated and generated by black men, that calling a woman a bitch or a hoe is the only way in which she can be dismissed or oppressed, that our opinions and choices are made fairly and freely and are not influenced by a society that is white and inherently misogynistic. This is, to paraphrase Biggie Smalls, to all the ladies in the place with style and grace who refuse to accept what society tells us we should accept, and who refuse to accept misogyny only when it is well-hidden and sung to us instead of rapped.