Hip-hop and rap music have been around since the ‘60s and continue to be increasingly influential in the music industry. I often find myself enjoying both genres, and although I am by no means an expert, I have heard sexism in the lyrics of hip-hop and rap music, amongst other genres such as rock, punk, pop, and country. I can definitely say that I struggle with the issue of enjoying music that, at times, displays the very sexism that I find to be a great issue in society. For this reason, I was interested in hearing a talk on gender in hip-hop given by a woman who has first-hand experience in the industry.
On Tuesday, February 7th, I attended a talk given by Amber Epps, also known as HollyHood, that evaluated gender issues in hip-hop and rap music. Epps, a rapper based in Pittsburgh, is involved in Pittsburgh’s hip-hop culture. She mentioned multiple events that she coordinates, such as “PMS,” or Promoting My Sisters, an all-female showcase that displays local female artists, collects donations for the Center for Victims, and is sponsored by female business owners. The Promoting My Sisters event for 2017 is scheduled to take place on May 6th. More information can be found here.
One very interesting point Epps made pointed to sexism that exists in the music industry as a whole. It is common to hear people point to sexism in hip-hop and rap music, but sexism exists in most, if not all, other genres of music, like pop, punk, country, etc. By making hip-hop music a “scapegoat” for sexism in music, Epps argued that black and brown stereotypes of masculinity are being reinforced. Individuals who associate certain stereotypes, such as violence, with men of color easily link those stereotypes to hip-hop and hip-hop artists, since hip-hop music originated with and is primarily made by people of color. The association of hip-hop music with people of color and racist stereotypes imply that sexism and even violence against women happen because of the music and black culture. Zeba Blay of the Huffington Post wrote an interesting article on ignoring sexism in other genres of music.
Epps discussed the long-standing issue of sexism in hip-hop by providing various examples of male artists describing women in degrading and objectifying ways. Further supporting the idea that men unfairly hold power and degrade women in the industry, Epps linked Sigmund Freud’s Madonna-Whore complex to sexism in hip-hop, saying that men create a division amongst women and decide whether they are “real women” or “whores.” She also pointed to issues with women in hip-hop brought about by male ideals, for example, women are expected to portray a certain amount of sexuality in their music and performance. Also, once hitting a certain age, a woman’s hip-hop career traditionally expires because older women do not fit the mold of an idealized woman that men in the industry look for.
While Epps made a point to criticize the genre that she loves, because it often objectifies women, I think it is important to acknowledge that not all women in the industry are are forced to be sexual by influential males. Many female artists find liberation in embracing their sexuality and power as a woman, such as Beyoncé. Beyoncé identifies herself as a feminist, which for her means equality for men and women on all fronts. Beyoncé has said that women and men should be allowed to express themselves, whether through things like sexuality or pain, equally. Perhaps by assuming that all women who are open about certain things, like sexuality are being forced to do so by the institution that is the music industry, a woman’s right to express herself how she chooses is being silenced. Epps said that in some of her music and music videos she chose to present herself in a sexual manner, which is an important choice, especially since traditional hip-hop standards consider her to be “too old” for the industry, and I think it is important to analyze other female hip-hop artists who are doing the same thing. For example, during the presentation Epps used Nicki Minaj as an example of an artist who has at times perpetuated sexism in the industry and stereotypes of women whose aim to please. However, I think that Nicki Minaj’s presentation of herself may, in some cases, be seen as feminist. For example, Nicki Minaj has spoken out against sexist criticism regarding her “Anaconda” video and has commented on the double-standards that exist amongst men and women. Minaj has criticized and defied the idea that men can and should be open and sexual but women should not. Minaj has also stated on various occasions that the way in which she presents herself is for herself, not for men. That being said, I see great importance in acknowledging a female hip-hop or rap artist’s right to choose in how she would like to present herself.
After attending Epps’ talk, I was again made aware of the oppression that women, especially women of color, face. As we’ve seen in class through various readings, such as Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists, it is so important for women and men to be educated about and fight for equality, and an equality that includes individuals of all identities. By striving for equality on all fronts, we minimize stereotypes that are harmful to many groups. It is also important, as we saw through Nordberg’s Underground Girls of Kabul, to minimize stereotypes that allow a single story of a group to be told. By making hip-hop the focus of sexism in music, as Epps pointed out, a single-story of hip-hop culture is perpetuated by those outside of the culture, specifically those who do not understand it. The single story of hip-hop music, despite its flaws that should be addressed, is one that ignores the many benefits of hip-hop music the culture that comes along with it.