By Selma Hedlund, Student, Human Rights Studies
In 2004, world famous rapper Nelly recorded the music video for his song Tip Drill, a graphic and explicit production containing degrading images of nearly naked women. To rap lyrics like “I said I must be yo ass cuz it ain’t yo face”, the female dancers had money thrown at them by Nelly and the St Lunatics and a credit card was swiped down a black woman’s backside. Due to the graphic content of Tip Drill, it would only be shown late at night on BET, Black Entertainment Television. The music video soon became a hot topic at the historically black female college of Spelman, Atlanta GA.
Nelly and his foundation 4Sho4Kids, devoted to fighting illiteracy and leukemia, intended to visit Spelman campus later that year in order to spread awareness and find bone marrow donors. The female students could not possibly ignore Tip Drill and so the Student Government President as well as drive coordinator Asha Jennings and her sister students found themselves at a crossroads of either disinviting the rapper or cancel the drive altogether. Unable to separate the misogynic Nelly from the benefactor, the students ultimately decided to ask of him to take part in a forum addressing the increasing sexism in hip hop expressions, after the bone marrow drive.
Faced with this demand, the rapper and his foundation decided not to come to the Spelman college at all. They went to the press claiming that the feminist students had their priorities wrong and that they were the ones who cancelled the drive and now the leukemia patients would suffer for it, one of them being Nelly’s sister Jackie Donahue. The truth was that not only had the students kept the invitation standing (but with some strings attached), they had all registered as bone marrow donors.
The Spelman incident soon became a part in a nationwide campaign of black women speaking up against sexual objectification in hip hop, aspiring to take back the music they grew up with and love.
This study places this case in a bigger picture in an attempt to map and understand the components and social agendas involved, that being the hypermasculine oppressive expression of some black male rappers, the black feminist reactions to this oppression and the intersectional dynamics of social categories of the U.S. black population. In the framework of hegemonic masculinity, how can hypermasculinity be constructed and why? Who is subordinated in this hierarchy and what tools can be used in order to disrupt sexist oppression? And what role does hip hop play in all of this?
Construction of Masculinities
A myth proved hard punctuating is the one about the singular, essential masculinity. The notion of the “real” self-serving man, more prone than women towards violence of all kinds, reluctant towards showing care and emotions, lives because of the socially constructed connection between the social male gender and the biological male sex.
According to R W Connell, masculinities have to be regarded in plural, as multiple and changeable, shaped by each other and different social contexts. Different kinds of manhood receive different responses from society, which allows masculinities to be arranged in gender structures and complex hierarchies. These hierarchies are topped by the contemporary and situational ideal of manhood while the marginalized masculinities are being subordinated through more or less subtle means. Hegemonic masculinity is a term describing the dominant order of being a man, and how that order is kept. Along with women, the homosexual or feminine way of being a man is often oppressed or punished in this hierarchy or hegemony of masculinities, not just through physical violence but also perhaps even more so through language and discriminatory structures.
In line with this theory, the opposite of the marginalized masculinity is the norm or ideal upkept by a few individuals, urging other men to shape a relation to it. Widely admired masculinities in Western society are often found in sports heroes or athletes, which, as we shall see, have some features in common with the hypermasculine gangsta rapper.
A career built on the image of the “ultimate man” comes at a high price. When you are at the top of the masculinity ladder, you are required to stay there. Your life is your work and your work is your body, your performance and your brand. The strict, physical hypermasculine image of the professional athlete prevents him from other hypermasculine expressions, such as violence and other acts of carelessness that could hurt his career. In other words, it’s a restricted mind-over-body existence, almost contradictory to the notion of the essentialized masculinity.
But what about those hypermasculine images that include wrecklessness and acting out, like we see in Tip Drill? The outcome of the equation of hypermasculinity can differ greatly if you replace, for example, a white professional athlete with a black rap artist. Connell underlines that an understanding for gender requires and understanding for race and class and vice versa.
Hypermasculinity proves to have very little to do with biology, but a lot to do with strategy of profession or social interaction. It can be a defense against discrimination and a way to project bodily strength and power when you have no other means. As we soon shall see, the socioeconomic background of the U.S. “gangsta” or “thug” is shaped by white supremacy and the controlling images used to racialize the black man’s body.
Black Feminist Reaction
As we have seen, hypermasculinity of gangsta rappers can be used as a mean of repelling victimization from white mastery. We now turn to those that get subordinated in that process: the black women, in this case represented both by the video vixens in Tip Drill and the students of Spelman being called haters when they spoke up against the racism and sexism combined in mentioned video.
It was in this space of intersecting oppressions that black feminist thought was formulated. It was, and is, a double struggle, a fight against both white supremacy and black patriarchy. In the words of black feminist bell hooks, “the enemy within” was the first thing women needed to get rid of in order to create a sense of sisterhood. This was a patriarchal construction, a feeling of being the Other, inferior to men, which kept women in rivalry with each other for male endorsement. The idea that the time of the black man came before the time of the black woman, and that feminism would hurt racial solidarity was also do to an integrated sexism in both men and women.
If an intersectional perspective proved very useful in order to gain some sort of understanding for the hypermasculine gangsta, it is vital in black feminist theory. Intersectionality is the tool that helps us realize that no social group is separate from another, but a part of each other’s constructional process. Seeing across social categories will not only help us see how they are arranged in hierarchies, but also how these hierarchies of power and subordination work. Ignoring sexism will eventually lead to racism and vice versa, which reminds us of Connell’s comprehension link between gender, ethnicity and class mentioned earlier.
In line with the varying masculine identities, the black feminist sisterhood, like any sisterhood, clearly does not entail one black female identity. Neither does it entail a singular female or black identity for the simple reason that there is no such thing. The key word is rather self-definition, which captures the very challenge of the thought itself: acknowledging that every individual faces different struggles due to their unique social setting and that every black female idea or resistance against discrimination is proof of the elimination of “the enemy within”.
Backdrop of Hip Hop
It is a fact that a lot of hip hop expressions of today promote sexism and misogyny. What is less certain is how this has come to be. Sexual objectification of women in hypermasculine rap has been blamed on a supposed decline in civilization in lower class areas, a claim that yet again perpetuate black stereotypes. But it would be too ignorant to say that violence against women is exclusive to a certain ethnicity, class or community when it is quite obvious that it is an ancient, global problem.
Patriarchal over-exposure of objectified female bodies in popular culture can easily lead to calls for conservatism and modesty among women. Unfortunately, this is another trap set out by patriarchy that allows women to be held responsible for being respectable enough to receive respect from men and society. The modest and faithful black woman is just as controlling an image as the “bitch” and the “ho”, like two sides of the same coin potentially creating equal amounts of sexual and/or body-related issues for women.
The students of Spelman were not the only ones who were fed up with increasing misogyny in the music they grew up with and love. Essence magazine sponsored a nation wide campaign against what they called “the war on girls” in sexist hip hop, were the Spelman case played an important part in showing how rappers, like Nelly, don’t deserve the luxury of being both the sweet and sensitive benefactor as well as the bitch slapping pimp or the criminal gangsta. A lot of rappers claim that they are just “being real” about life and they can’t be blamed for society’s violent and sexist mentalities and structures reflected in their music.
The truth is that American society still disciplines blacks to a higher extent than whites – police forces are overactive towards black men, commanding them to “assume the position” at the very vague “potential” of crime. There are examples of black men either being reduced to harmless working class “boys”, sassy or immature side-kicks, or animalistic savages. The common lower class struggle of black youth adds another intersection to the dynamic. The black hippie Lafayette in the musical Hair counts controlling underprivileged black positions in Colored Spade:
“Cotton pickin’, swamp guinea, junk man, shoeshine boy, elevator operator, table cleaner at Horn & Hardart, slave voodoo, zombie, Ubangi lipped”.
A common stereotype seen in media and movies is the one of the body-over-mind oriented black man, uncivilized and driven by urges. This image can be intentionally acted upon by some black men in order to threat or provoke the society that subordinates them. Examples of owning racial representations, reminiscent of Colored Spade can be seen in the lyrics of Monster, where Jay-Z raps:
“Murder, murder in black convertible, I kill a block, I murder the avenues, rape and pillage your village, women and children, everybody wants to know what my Achilles heel is[…] Everybody knows I’m a motherfucking monster”.
Hip hop became a way of rejecting these belittling images as well as a mean of using them to provoke fear and respect, in perhaps a more aggressive manner than ever before in black popular culture.
Hip hop and gangsta rap remains an important way for black lower class men to tell their stories to the world. But less thought-through representations of hyper-hypermasculine black male stereotypes, especially in pop culture and hip hop, risk both influencing black youth by idealizing incarceration, violence, drugs and misogyny, as well as painting a static picture of “the black experience” for white consumers. The Spelman controversy raises the question: has hip hop crossed the line from revolutionary messages into money-hungry and self-destructivediscrimination – without even noticing?
The same question is asked by performance artist Sarah Jones in her rhyme Your Revolution:
“Your revolution will not be me tossing my weaveand making me believe I’m some caviar-eating ghetto mafia clownor me giving up my behind, just so I can get signed […] Your revolution will not happen between these thighs”.
The radio station that played her song ended up with a fine for breaking decency laws, which shows that women aren’t allowed the same expressions as men, but punished, even through authority, when speaking up in the same explicit language through which they are oppressed by men. It seems like a black woman opening her mouth is more politically incorrect than a black woman spreading her legs.
Another reason, perhaps one of the main ones, why hip hop is dominated by gang
sta rap is the fact that blacks are far from the only ones listening to black hip hop. 70 % of all gangsta rap is consumed by more well-off white youth. Corporate demands from bigger commercialized record companies are much due to white middle class consumer preferences. According to cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal, young black rappers looking to make it in today’s hip hop industry has to accept that certain kinds of “blackness” sell better than others. The gangsta and the ho have become commodity, leading to a streamlining of hip hop music where more “inconvenient” street stories are sorted out as non-profitable.
Let’s not forget, American culture in general is a quite violent one where gangsta rap fits right in as mainstream. Too often, hip hop alone becomes a scapegoat or a symbol for everything that is wrong with the U.S. This article has attempted to nuance this notion into this question: is hip hop becoming a reaction to inequalities and discrimination or a product of it?
This study has visualized how victims of racist subordination can end up subordinating others in the process of denying frailty. Spelman is an excellent example of how the oppression and objectification of black women, especially in hip hop imagery, affects all black women in one way or another. We recall that the black feminist challenge lies in identifying how black women are being subdued differently according to situation, and then see how both the half-naked dancers in Tip Drill and educated college students are being disrespected, but with different means.
There’s plenty of sexist imagery in American media of other women than black ones, but since black females are underrepresented in positions of power in society in comparison to whites, they risk being associated with slave related degradation if that is a context they are commonly seen in.
If hip hop continues to be a forum for racism and sexism, it will self-destroy what it set out to be from the beginning. Instead of fighting the power, black youth will fight each other, keeping each other within hypermasculine limits. Eventually, a new form of control over black cultural expressions will have emerged, that being young rappers giving up their revolution for a record deal with a commercialized record company looking only for the commodified black experience.
As far as this study goes, it seems like black women pay the price for the constructed black hypermasculinity that is an outcome of discrimination, racism and white rule in U.S. society. Still, real emphasis must be put to the fact that even though intersecting racism and sexism can be highly structural, responsibility must be demanded from those individuals who embody and perpetuate that type of abstract structure.
The aim of the Spelman protest, and of this article as well, is to put little or no blame on women taking part in misogynistic depictions. Rather, the critique is directed towards the patriarchal society that invites or compels them to do so. In a male-preference dominated world, it’s not about women covering up – the struggle regards women reclaiming their bodies and their sexualities, on their terms alone.