by Sydney McCabe

When we list aspects of contemporary culture that reinforce gender stereotypes, it does not take us long to arrive at hip-hop. Although there are many successful female rap artists, it is generally a male-dominated field that largely normalizes the exploitation and abuse of women. But this is not done without some criticism, much of it coming from Amber Epps, a mother, a teacher, a district manager…and HollyHood, a Pittsburgh-based rapper.

On February 7, 2017, Epps presented at Duquesne University on the topic of Gender and Hip-Hop. As a rapper herself, Epps noted that it is difficult for her to be critical of the genre, noting that “To be a woman who loves hip-hop at times is to be in love with your abuser,” quoting a tweet by Ava DuVernay. But to love something is to constantly be trying to make it its best, and that is what Epps is trying to do with her own criticism of what she perceives to be the hip-hop’s shortcomings.

Epps began by reminding the audience that hip-hop also inevitably involves issues of racism and homophobia, alluding that this might be an intersectional discussion, but then proceeded to focus most intently on the representation of women throughout her genre. Men in hip-hop, Epps explained, implement their power over women by dividing them into two categories: women who deserve respect and women who do not. Epps gave the example of Jay-Z’s “Bitches and Sisters” as just one example of this labeling process which aims to create a dichotomy where women are either one or the other and there is no middle ground. By separating women into these two groups men not only position themselves against women, but pit women against each other through an us (“sisters”) vs. them (“bitches”) mentality. This Madonna/Whore complex is admittedly not unique to hip-hop but is prevalent throughout male-dominated fields as well as other genres of music such as rock and roll and country.

After enumerating several examples of this male dominance strategy Epps then seemed to reinforce the Madonna/Whore complex  herself when she moved on to a discussion of female hip-hop artists. Epps expressed the opinion that women hip-hop artists must sexualize themselves in order to appeal to the genres top demographic – white teenaged males – and in this sense almost sell themselves out. She praised Queen Latifah’s relatively conservative (in terms of message and sexual content) hip-hop career but was highly critical of artists such as Nicki Minaj for her “hyper-sexuality” a critique Minaj has often received, and has often refuted.

In fact, many consider Minaj to be a new feminist icon. She has frequently expressed her intention of not only creating good music, but of empowering women and others through it. Minaj has been quoted for taking a stance on:

Wage inequality: “I just want women to always feel in control. Because, we’re capable — we’re so capable. It’s one of the reasons that I have these women that I look up to — because they did not allow being a woman to make them feel like they should settle for less, financially. No, money doesn’t mean everything. But it says a lot.” – Dazed

Empowerment: “People view sexy as weak. If you’re overtly sexy, people don’t expect you to be smart. Sometimes women are dressing sexy for themselves — not necessarily because they want to have sex with some man. Sometimes that’s what makes them feel good and empowered.” – Time

Gender Stereotypes: “You never know how much is too much – too much emotion, too much vulnerability, too much power. Everyone wants me to be something different. Women in the industry are judged more. If you speak up for yourself, you’re a bitch. If you party too much, you’re a whore. Men don’t get called these things.” – Time

…and much much more. And yet, as Derrick Clifton noted in an article for Mic, “Sadly, it appears a woman can’t celebrate her curves without being sneered at and shamed for it online. That goes doubly if you’re name is Nicki Minaj.” Despite Minaj’s clear feminist stance, she is all too easily disregarded, both by hip-hop critics and lovers alike, because of their incapability to see past her behind to her brain.

Hip-hop is not the only culprit. Contemporary culture is wrought with negative representations of women, especially black women, or black confident women, or black confident successful women, etc.. And so the task of combatting it is overwhelming. But a good place to start is within our own specialties; in a sense we need to “begin at home” by closely examining the sexism at work in our own lives/careers/communities. Epps does remind us to be critical of the things we love. She turns a critical eye on gender representations in hip-hop because she loves it, because she knows it so well, because she has the power as an artist to begin to deconstruct her abuser and turn it into an empowering force. And in this way, maybe when listing aspects of culture that reinforce gender stereotypes it might be shorter, and in the future, it might not contain hip-hop at all.