Women, Hip Hop, Sexuality and Pleasure

March 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

I enjoyed the comments and conversation in class today discussing Ayana Byrd’s essay and Byron Hurt’s documentary. The conversation made me think about what hip-hop might look and sound like if women had more power in the production and ownership of their images and creative output. I started to think about power in pop culture generally existing at at least these five levels: Consumer, Creator, Performer, Producer, Owner. Each level has power, although some levels have more power than others. At times, we might find ourselves existing at only one level or at many levels. What would happen if women (or other marginalized groups) wielded more power at each of these levels? What would be different? What would be the same? 

Speaking of women in hip hop, here are the women I enjoy (some of the following videos have explicit lyrics, so just be warned its NSFW):



Missy Elliott

Erykah Badu

Lil Kim



and always Lauryn Hill

I love hip hop, I grew up immersed in hip hop, so my critiques of the culture are filled with a desire to defend an art form that I think defines not only who I am, but the generation that I grew up in. Even from that position of defense, I have strong critiques of not only the sexism and misogyny prevalent in some of the music, but also the consumerism, materialism, and classism that the music sometimes promotes. I embrace the contradictions and continually work to find balance. Some call this hip hop feminism. 

But I have to come clean. Like Byrd, I struggle with my consumption of and enjoyment of hip-hop, even music made by men who are notorious for their sexist portrayals — someone like Biggie or Jay-Z comes to mind. I grew up in Florida listening to a style of hip-hop known as Bass music or Booty music as practiced by artists like Too Live Crew. Back then, I, like the women we saw in the documentary, listened to, danced to, and enjoyed the music because I believed when they sang about “hoes and tricks” that they weren’t talking about me. Since then, my analysis has changed. I think those songs are “about me” to the extent that any black woman could at any time be thought of in those terms. As a result I listen to these songs less and less and certainly don’t spend my money on it. Instead, if I chose to listen to songs, especially songs that are explicit or describe sexuality, I prefer to listen to songs by women of color artists. Rappers like Trina, for example, depict very sexualized images of black femininity, but ones that I believe centralize Trina as an agent in her sexuality and that centralizes women’s pleasure (not men’s) in her songs. (This is partly why I still can’t get behind Nicki Minaj. I need her to be more subject, than object). As a sex-positive feminist, I prefer not to judge people who embrace sexuality, sexual desire and sexual expression as important, even defining, aspects of themselves. I also chose not to judge harshly people who work in professions that showcase their sexuality, understanding how class dynamics affect what individuals might consider as productive labor and work. I do not want to support exploitation, however. Instead, I prefer to enjoy popular culture that “disrupts,” as Beverly Guy Sheftall explained in the film, ideologies that replicate exploitative histories. Mind you, these disruptions are not always complete, perfect and seamless feminist actions. I don’t think that’s possible in everyday life. Maybe in theory, but not in the everyday. I seek to understand the myriad ways that people understand themselves in relationship to a society that commodifies us constantly. 

What kind of choices do you make regarding pop culture and your social and political commitments? Are there things you won’t watch or listen to or buy because of certain values? Are there things that you watch or listen to or buy even though you know it’s problematic, but you do it because you like it? How do you reconcile these contradictions? 

Prof. David



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