by Olivia Samarco
Possessing a doctorate in Higher and Postsecondary Education and Information Systems Communications, as well as being the District Manager at the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, and a Professor on top of being a 37 year old mother of three, Amber Epps is not exactly what comes to mind when you think of a hip-hop artist. However, the highly accomplished Epps is also known locally in the Pittsburgh community as HollyHood, and she has some thoughts on the current condition of the hip-hop industry’s treatment of women. Epps gave a presentation on February 7th at Duquesne University entitled “Gender and Hip-Hop” where she discussed the role of women in the industry today.
Epps began her discussion by first defining the terms sexism and misogyny, and hip-hop and rap, as well as the necessity for the discussion of gender and hip-hop to be intersectional. She defines sexism as the prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination on the basis of sex, typically against women, while she defined misogyny as the stereotyping, discrimination and prejudice specifically against women. She defined hip-hop as a culture and rap as a facet of hip-hop culture, but used the terms interchangeably. On intersectionality she brought up the importance of discussing race and homophobia along with gender in rap music, but the majority of her presentation left out the topics of race and homophobia, which I found to be somewhat troubling considering that she began her presentation with this thought.
She went on to discuss the way that the hip-hop community is cast as the scapegoat for sexism and misogyny in music by audiences as well as music critics, while other forms of music tend to get a free pass for doing the same thing. While her point about this double standard is an interesting one to make, I felt that Epps could have incorporated her earlier point about intersectionality in her argument here. Race is an obvious factor in this point since her example of country singers getting a free pass on their misogynistic and sexist lyrics are predominantly white.
Despite not mentioning race along with the issue of the double standard when it comes to rap artists’ sexist lyrics, Epps goes further into this point noting that rappers are often “working for the man,” meaning that they often do the work of misogyny for the institutions that create rap and hip-hop music. They cater to their audience, which is dominantly white middle class teen boys. Artists are making conscious decisions about the content they are producing based on their audiences because they know what will allow their work to be heard. And in order for their work to be heard artists cannot stray from what has become the status quo in the industry and does not allow for any new voices, Epps argues. Not only are these rappers perpetuating sexism and misogyny in mainstream rap, they are simultaneously creating a single story of rap music, where in which the men decide how the women are portrayed. These portrayals often involves the Madonna/whore complex where men determine if women are “bitches” and “hoes,” or if they’re “good girls.” This leaves little to no room for any women voices that depart from this dialogue and continues the current cycle of women being represented and presented as sex objects, and one-dimensional characters whose only validation comes from men.
I would have liked to have seen Epps divulge into the reason behind why white teen middle class boys are the main consumers of rap music when hip-hop and rap music originate from black culture and expression. Again, I think it would have been another interesting and important way for Epps to integrate the intersectionality of race and gender in her discussion. I also found myself wondering if all mainstream rap music could just be considered a performance for the audience of white middle class teenage boys which, in a way, could be cultural appropriation.
Epps also explored the double standards that are up against women who wish to create art that departs from the single story that mainstream male rappers have created. Women have to fight harder to be lyrical otherwise they have to conform to the content of mainstream rap, the must be cosigned by a male artist in order to be credible, they can’t be too old, record companies have to work harder to sell their non-conforming music and there’s this stigma that “there can only be one” female rapper. Everyone is either the next Lil Kim or the next Nicki Minaj and is constantly compared to other female rap artists.
I did not appreciate Epps’ dismissal of current women performers and found it to detract from her own argument. She used her own work as an example, her music video for her song “Ice Cream & Moscato,” where she expresses herself in a more sexual way as compared to her other work. She claimed that this was alright for her to do so because she was the one choosing to express and represent herself in this way. I found this to be problematic considering the way that she treated Nicki Minaj’s work, especially her video for “Anaconda,” which she deemed as conforming to mainstream rap’s depictions of women. Epps believed her own work to be a form of empowerment for her, but when Nicki did the same thing she considered her to be another cog in the machine. There is no way for Epps to have known if Nicki was choosing to express herself in an unapologetically sexual way the same way Epps chose to (and the same way that their male counterparts do). It feels like there is a thin line between empowerment and conformity, and personal choice versus being influenced by the industry. Epps didn’t really address this part of the issue in her discussion.
Overall, I found that Epps focused more on male rap artists and the issues that we already knew existed and seemed to dismiss current female artists as having anything to offer to this discussion, which I disagreed with. The examples that she did provide of empowering female artists they were from the 1990s and ‘80s and didn’t provide any examples of anything more current. Her exclusion of current women artists from this discussion made her entire argument feel very one sided and seemed to focus the discussion more on men than women. Epps didn’t have any real answers for the questions and issues that she posed and rather just brought up issues that seemed to already be evident in rap music. Amber Epps/HollyHood is hosting PMS (Promoting My Sisters) which is a showcase created by Epps featuring all female local artists from the Pittsburgh area.