I’m finding it harder and harder to find joy in a lot of the music I used to love, says Meena Alexander.
My love of music runs deep. A great live performance leaves me at my happiest and most inspired. My modest vinyl collection is my most prized possession. But I’m finding it harder and harder to find joy in a lot of the music I used to love.
Recently Stylist published a profile on Sylvia Robinson, who was known as the Mother of Hip Hop for her crucial role in the birth of the genre. When I read it, I felt angry. Angry that, as a huge hip hop fan, I’d never even heard of her. Angrier still that I only knew the success of her husband and record label co-founder, Joe Robinson. Though baggy jeans and matching shell suits have come and gone, one thing has defined rap and hip hop from the first commercial hit produced by Sylvia (1979’s iconic Rapper’s Delight by The Sugarhill Gang) to the present day: a contempt for women.
I love hip hop because it speaks to part of my identity, but at the same time a lot of it grates on another part of my identity – namely, being female. I’ve found myself irritated and conflicted, jabbing the ‘next’ button on an artist who said “b*tch” or “h*e” more times than I could take. I’ve rolled my eyes and deleted songs I’d been listening to absent-mindedly, once enjoying the wordplay, but now feeling sick of the misogynistic rhetoric. And don’t even get me started on those music videos. It makes my blood boil.
The idea of having a ‘problematic fave’ is not a new one, not least because even the most amazing artists are human and rarely stand up to moral scrutiny (apart from the PR masterminds - hi Beyonce). However, it seems almost all of my faves are very problematic. Where does that leave me, as someone who is vocal about my disgust for sexist, racist and homophobic views? Can I really claim to be a believer in equality and then rap along to lyrics perpetuating the exact opposite in the same breath?
If the majority of male-fronted hip hop lyrics were all I had to go by, I’d assume that men do not like women – yes, they like to look at them, grab them, throw money at them, take them home drunk – but that’s as far as a woman’s value goes. The rare exception is the long-suffering mother figure: if you give birth to a rapper you might get an ounce of respect. Frankly, I’m bored of the constant voice in my ear telling me I’m worthless.
Of course there are rappers and singers, particularly women, making music that is thoughtful, intelligent and most definitely bangs. But they are still the exception. Even the social commentary of those considered the most “woke” – Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Chance the Rapper – rarely touches on sexism and often perpetuates it. Speaking up for women doesn’t positively affect record sales, so what would be the point? We’re so desensitised to music that tears us down that we buy it anyway.
But increasingly, I’m finding that there are examples of misogyny so awful that it becomes hard to ignore. An undertone of sexual violence is evident in a lot of hip hop songs, but in some it’s out there on display, almost as a challenge. Most of the music made by the Odd Future rapper Tyler, The Creator is pretty much unrepeatable – lyrics about murder, stalking and raping pregnant women got him banned from coming to the UK in 2015. Another obvious example comes in Rick Ross’s verse on Atlanta rapper Rocko’s top 20 song U.O.E.N.O. Ross says: “Put Molly [a form of Ecstasy] all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it/ I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.” A man who has made millions of dollars in record sales casually boasting about his fondness for date rape. Cute.
Many people advocate “separating the art from the artist” or dismiss the issue as “just a song”. Others argue that music, especially the genres that grew out of black culture and represent the strength and struggles of the marginalised, should not be censored. And I agree, but they cannot be untouchable. Although many of the problematic elements of hip hop are tied up in much wider cultural issues, musicians have to realise their huge influence on the mindsets of those who pay their bills.
Take my 19-year-old brother. He’s smart, respectful and kind, but he’s at an impressionable age. The new generation of hip hop he loves is just a repackaging of the played out themes of money, drugs and disposable women with added face tattoos. I know on an intellectual level, he realises it’s all tongue-in-cheek bravado, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying that the disrespect of women in every song will worm its way into his subconscious.
However, in the past few years we have demanded more from artists, and many are smart enough to realise that in the age of Trump and #MeToo it’s going to take more than club bangers about butt cheeks clapping together to keep millions of people buying and relating to their music. This summer alone has shown that even those at the top can quickly find themselves staring into the abyss of irrelevancy, with the likes of Kanye West and Eminem feeling the heat for misogynistic and sexually violent lyrics.
For me, Kanye, ever the divisive figure, has finally gone a step too far for with his support of Trump and his claim that “slavery was a choice”. On his latest album, he wastes an entire song (and amazing production) on the most overplayed ‘revelation’ possible: that as a father of daughters, he has finally figured out that women are human beings. For all his faults, I love old Kanye, and remained open-minded when I started listening to Ye. But the minute I heard him ruminating on the “curves” his five-year-old would develop and uttering: “Father forgive me, I’m scared of the karma/ ‘Cause now I see women as somethin’ to nurture/ Not somethin’ to conquer”, I knew I was well and truly it.
There’s no doubt things are changing. The astronomical rise of Nicki Minaj has facilitated a larger influx of women into the hip hop scene than ever before. Though her fans have questioned her decision to work with 6ix9ine, a rapper currently awaiting sentencing for a sex offence, and called her out for attacks on other women, her undeniable success will have an organic effect on hip hop’s inclusivity.
But that is not enough. Musicians are the drivers of popular culture and, whether they like it or not, their voices are powerful and influential tools. So many claim to respect the women in their lives, but then use slur after slur in their music just because hypermasculine personas have become an expectation. It’s time they respected the female listeners who pay for the Rolexes, the Maybachs and the bottle-popping they love to tell us about.
And if they don’t? The revolution may not begin with a bang, like Hollywood’s Time’s Up, but rather it will be a slow, steady trickle, as a once-loyal female fanbase turns away from the hate to something altogether more uplifting and creative. I’ll go first.
BOX/ Spread the word
There are some artists that have shaken up the status quo with their pro-women message, and some that simply had a moment of clarity. If you want a bop without the BS, here’s a playlist featuring some of the greatest to ever do it:
Queen Latifah – U.N.I.T.Y
Best lyric: Everytime I hear a brother call a girl a b*tch or a h*e/ Trying to make a sister feel low/ You know all of that gots to go
Missy Elliott – Work It
Best lyric: Girls, girls, get that cash/ If it’s 9 to 5 or shaking your ass/ Ain’t no shame, ladies do your thing/ Just make sure you ahead of the game
2Pac – Keep Ya Head Up
Best lyric: And since we all came from a woman/ Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman/ I wonder why we take from our women/ Why we rape our women/ Do we hate our women?
Common – The Light
Best lyric: I never call you my b*tch or even my boo/ There’s so much in a name and so much more in you
Jay Z – Smile
Best lyric: Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian/ Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian/ Had to hide in the closet, so she medicate/ Society shame and the pain was too much to take/ Cried tears of joy when you fell in love/ Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her
Salt-N-Pepa – Ain’t Nuthin’ But A She Thing
Best lyric: The thing that makes me mad and crazy, upset/ Got to break my neck just to get my respect/ Go to work and get paid less than a man/ When I’m doin’ the same damn thing that he can
Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu – Q.U.E.E.N
Best lyric: Are we a lost generation of our people?/ Add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal/ She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel/ So why ain’t the stealing of my rights made illegal?