Can We Listen to Something Else: Love and a Love of Hip Hop in the 21st Century
When it comes to music, hip hop has always held a small place in my periphery. I like it in the sense that I like to dance to it, both in “the club” and in the hip hop dance class I take weekly. Classic tracks by Cypress Hill (insane in the membrane, insane in the brain!), Snoop Dogg (...smoke weed everyday), and R Kelly (so baby give me that toot toot) are so ingrained in the radio culture of my past that they’re hard to avoid and even harder not to sing along to. But really, I never paid much attention to hip hop other than appreciating the beat and fond memories of parties in high school.
Then I started dating my current (awesome and amazing, it should be stated) boyfriend, Alex, who has a long-standing passion for the genre; specifically independent and underground artists. His dedication is admirable and my exposure was unavoidable, pretty much immediate. And I learned quickly that dancing to a hip hop song – either in a large mass of people, or while trying to learn complicated choreography – is a lot different than sitting down and actually listening to a hip hop song. It pulled something sharply into focus: listening to hip hop isn’t that much fun when you’re female.
This has led to a lot of interesting conversations primarily involving my questioning and his defense of the art as a whole and within specific contexts. I appreciate that we’re able to have these discussions openly and (while sometimes heated) without anger or hurt feelings. Alex as a person exists separately from his taste in music. But that doesn’t change the fact that misogyny in hip hop is pervasive, pretty much omnipresent in the genre.
Now I have to lay down the lyric that brought me here, that I always come back to in these conversations. A line from the obscure track “Agent Orange,” by indie rapper Cage, that goes (I apologize in advance): “Fucked the first two bitches like dogs and jacked off on the third.” This is taken out of context, of course, but really it’s not any better in context. It’s also part of a subgenre, I’m told, called Horrorcore – which aims for shock value – and definitely not something that would ever reach the mainstream. And yes, there’s a list of unimaginable things in Cage’s past that led him to that level of anger. Sure. But that line, for me – even way back in pre-#timesup 2002 – is inexcusable.
Before I continue, I should address a few important things in regard to my writing on this particular subject. One, I am white (Alex is also white). Two, I am coming at this from a privileged perspective. And three, I can’t exclude myself from the problem. There are many times I’ve been willing to ignore lyrics in support of a good beat. A great example being a DJ Shadow/Run the Jewels collaboration that I’ve listened to countless times and unfortunately includes the lines: “Pinch your momma on the booty/Kick your dog, fuck your bitch.” Charming.
And while many white indie rappers (like Cage) have triggered these discussions in my life, hip hop was born in the black community from the experiences of black people. So admittedly, I’m on the outside looking in, thinking about this solely from a feminist perspective. But let’s take a step into the mainstream where plenty of hip hop and music writers have started grappling with a trend that doesn’t seem like it will let up anytime soon.
Kai Miller writes in an article for BET titled, “Hip Hop Hates Me”:
So, is hip-hop simply a euphemism for the disrespect, direct violence and endangerment women face? In light of the stomach-turning details of Kodak Black’s, Famous Dexx’s, XXXtenacion’s and most recently Z-RO’s sexual and physical assault charges against women, one could easily say yes. But, what’s most intriguing is how men like Ross and Kodak are routinely given a “pass” by the rap community for their exploitative actions.
Here she’s not talking about angry and aggressive lyrics, she’s talking about the artists themselves and their behavior outside of the music. Specifically spotlighting Rick Ross who recently explained to a female radio host that he doesn’t sign female rappers to his label because he’d, to put it mildly, have an overwhelming urge to sleep with them. (How many times am I allowed to sarcastically say “charming”?)
In an article for Mass Appeal, Kiona Konders writes:
As an avid hip hop lover who also happens to be a woman, I find myself rapping along to lyrics that are blatantly degrading my own kind... Sometimes I’ll pause when it hits me how dehumanizing to women a particular lyric is, and then I’ll turn the music back up and go on with my day. I know I’m not the only one guilty of this—as awful as it is.
To love hip hop, I’ve learned to separate the artist from the art. I further separate the lyrics from their actual meaning, rather than taking them at face value. If I thought deeply about every demeaning rap lyric I’d be forced to hate the genre as a whole, and that’s impossible for me.
So I guess I’m lucky that I get to come at this from an outsider’s perspective: I’m not really a fan, I wouldn’t be particularly torn up by the idea of boycotting the genre. It’s far easier for me to ask, “How can you listen to this?!” I, unlike Alex, have not spent years of my life listening to and digging up indie rappers and creating hip hop samplers (but if you want a playlist of singer/songwriters, hit me up). I can neither say the music is deeply embedded in my culture – like the writers I mention here, nor that certain artists have gotten me through rough times – like Alex.
And it needs to be addressed that it’s not just hip hop. As Zeba Blay writes in an article for Huffington Post:
Failing to critique other genres of music ultimately does a disservice to all women. When we focus the debate solely on hip-hop, we narrow problems like sexual violence and abuse to a very specific group, but don’t talk about the ways these issues manifest in other genres and impact a much wider range of women. With the scope so limited, how much change can we actually expect?
Truth. But not exactly uplifting. And obviously it’s not just the music industry. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that misogyny and male power dynamics have been front-and-center in the media lately. This calling-out has spurred its fair share of bickering, but also valuable movements and important dialogue. And I’m hopeful the trend will continue to crop up in hip hop and the music industry in general.
And (also obviously) this is a short article with a narrow scope; there are plenty of other systemic societal issues to consider when discussing the common, troubling themes in hip hop. And disregarding those issues can be intertwined with the misogyny problem itself. As Brandon Soderberg writes in Spin Magazine:
It’s also worth considering how exactly we got here. See, radio rap is now controlled by major labels to such a degree that it seems as though saying hateful things about women is one of the few rote topics that rappers can get away with on the airwaves. Rap on the radio is no longer a voice of the streets. Gun and drug references are bleeped or turned into vague platitudes, when they appear at all...As a result of the “cleaning up” of rap content, all that’s left is objectifying of women and lots of songs about buying lots of things.
But it’s not all hip hop. The form isn’t the problem. As a writer, I can appreciate the creativity and skillful use of words that goes into rapping. The talent it takes to make good hip hop. And there are plenty of progressive rappers in the world who don’t feel it necessary to wax poetic on “bitches and hoes.” But they primarily live on the same underground stage as Alex’s indie artists. And, in my opinion, there aren’t nearly enough of them to fight against the “radio rap” artists with their Cristal poppin’ lifestyles.
I’ll never ask Alex to stop listening to hip hop (wouldn’t even think it), just like I’m not going to stop going to my dance class or going out for hip hop nights at clubs. But I will keep having the conversation. I can’t erase that Cage lyric from the musical canon, and I certainly wouldn’t want to. Denying our past is never the way to move forward. But loving someone who loves hip hop means I have to pick my battles. I don’t want to wear the conversation out. So, sometimes I’ll just ask, in the nicest way possible, “Can we listen to something else?”