When people hear the words "sexism" and "hip hop," the conversation usually starts and often ends with lyrical content. Rappers are disrespectful to women, they use the b-word too much, they objectify women, etc. This is a natural impulse; these days, sexism, racism and homophobia are almost always defined as "a bad person saying something bad."
Which is, of course, an unfortunate oversimplification. Sexism, racism and homophobia are huge, complex systems embedded in every facet of our lives. It's also one reason why indie and underground hip hop often escapes the criticism that's leveled at mainstream hip hop-- because indie rappers are more likely to rap about politics and wack MCs than pimping hoes, and are more likely to have videos set in abandoned warehouses than strip clubs. Their sexism isn't as in-your-face.
But sexism in hip hop is a lot bigger than rap videos and misogynistic lyrics. It's the old-boy's network that keeps women's voices marginalized. It's the fact that so ridiculously few up-and-coming MCs, DJs, producers and industry/label people are female. It's a system that keeps men and men's perspectives front-and-center in every aspect of the game. It's an extension of the sexism that permeates the rest of society. And it's definitely not just the mainstream's problem.
A NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY
Just to be clear, my use of the terms "indie-rap" and "underground rap" isn't a dictionary definition one; I'm not talking about all hip hop that is released independently or every artist out there who isn't on the radio. That would represent a huge range of styles and would be another discussion entirely. I'm talking about "indie-hip hop" as a specific subculture-- the backpackers, the "conscious" rap heads, the community who listens to acts and crews like Rhymesayers, Def Jux, Quannum, Doomtree, Living Legends, Blackstar and Sage Francis.
And this is an important point to make, because I don't think this conversation should be entirely focused on criticizing the artists themselves; this isn't about censorship. It's about examining broader cultural trends that affect and are affected by everyone--the artists, the promoters, the fans and the consumers. Too often we forget that "hip hop" isn't just rappers and their wacky adventures. It's a culture, an ecosystem that includes all of us, and we all have different roles to play.
MY LYRICAL LYRICISM IS SO LYRICALLY SEXIST
As I mentioned above, sexism in hip hop really goes beyond rappers saying stupid things. However, rappers (even underground rappers) do sometimes say stupid things, and we may as well start there.
One particularly relevant example of how indie-rappers perpetuate sexism is the casual use of the word "bitch." In contrast to the mainstream's explicitly misogynistic use of the word, underground MCs more often use it toward other men as an insult, as a challenge to some imaginary wack MC’s or critic's manhood.
But when used by a man in this fashion, that word is inherently sexist, no matter what context it's used in and no matter what the individual rapper's intention is. Even when used as a simple expletive at the end of a particularly vicious punchline, even when directed at no one in particular, "bitch" is inherently feminine AND inherently negative. There's really no way around that. A man calling another male MC a "bitch" is, whether he knows it or not, saying "you're woman-like and that's really bad."
And this is, of course, something a LOT of indie rappers are guilty of, myself included (though not anymore). Even so-called "conscious" rappers and artists who consider themselves feminists do this, convincing themselves that the word is really just an all-purpose insult along the lines of "fool," a word that has nothing to do with women as long as they're not directing it AT women. But you can't separate the eggs once they're already baked into the cake.
The point of all this is that the impact of the word is more important than the intention of the speaker. It may be a subtle thing, but even subtle things can be dangerous when they're so universally normalized, as the use of that word is in indie hip hop culture.
And it's not just about specific words. With underground hip hop lyrics, sexism manifests in even more subtle ways. How many songs about women feature realistic representations of those women? In her essay on sexism in emo music (a similarly deluded subculture when it comes to sexism), Jessica Hopper had this to say:
"...there were songs about women, but they were girls with names, with details to their lives, girls who weren’t exclusively defined by their absence or lensed through romantic-spectres… women had leverage, had life, had animus and agency to them. Sometimes they were friends, or a sister, not always girls to be bedded or pursued or dumped by. They were accurate, and touched by reality.
"And then something broke—And it wasn’t Bob Nanna’s or Mr. Dashboard’s sensitive hearts. Records by a legion of done-wrong boys lined the record store shelves. Every record was a concept album about a breakup, damning the girl on the other side. Emo’s contentious monologue—its balled fist Peter Pan mash-note dilemmas—its album length letters from pussy-jail—its cathedral building in ode to man-pain and Robert-Bly-isms—its woman-induced misery has gone from being descriptive to being prescriptive. Emo was just another forum where women were locked in a stasis of outside observation, observing ourselves through the eyes of others..."
Read the whole thing if you can find it (I couldn't, so no link). Anyways, while indie hip hop songs about women aren't always heartbroken diary entries, a lot of the above still applies. Quite often, you also get a layer of self-deprecation that further clouds the sexism, as if the fact that the perfect, voiceless and inanimate pedestal woman made the loser anti-hero feel bad somehow makes up for her hollow characterization. Women are very rarely characterized at all-- in melodramatic breakup raps they're defined solely by their absence, and in feel-good, "positive" sex jams they're perfect and beautiful and thoroughly inhuman.
For people who are used to criticizing Nelly for swiping a credit card through a woman's ass, this might all seem like pretty harmless stuff. When you compare the subtle sexism of indie hip hop to the rampant, explicit sexism of mainstream hip hop, it becomes easy to forgive some of the artists who are at least trying to not be complete chauvinists.
That may be true, but I think it's doubly important to talk about sexism in indie hip hop because no one's doing it. Everyone knows 50 Cent is sexist; fewer people are willing to examine the sexism of their "conscious" heroes, a more realistic and prevalent sexism that mirrors the way sexism often plays out in our own lives. This is sexism that often comes wrapped in a big box of good-intentions, sexism that's so huge and interwoven into the very fabric of the culture that it can be hard to even see. But we need to start seeing it; that's the first step.
UNDERGROUND HIP HOP: NO GIRLS ALLOWED
We can talk about song content all day, but I'd argue that the bigger issue here is lack of representation. Much respect to Jean Grae, Invincible, the Anomolies crew, Desdamona, Ang13, Dessa, Psalm One, Maria Isa, Bahamadia and the other great female rappers out there, but they're drops in the bucket when it comes to indie hip hop as a whole, which is solidly and overwhelmingly male-dominated.
Why is this? I'd have to assume that at least part of the reason is the above-mentioned sexism (subtle or not) in the lyrical content of a lot of indie-rap. Who'd want to dive into a culture where you're disrespected? Also, an interest in underground hip hop often grows out of an interest in mainstream hip hop (i.e. kids like MC Hammer, then later discover Mos Def, then later start rapping), which is so often explicitly sexist; not to mention the lack of female role models for young, aspiring female MCs. Finally, I'd point to the physical way in which most rappers get started: you find some like-minded souls (statistically, probably men) to build with, you book some shows through promoters or venue booking people (again, often men), you network with other artists (who are usually men); it's a community experience. With women so often on the outside-looking-in to begin with, it can be hard to build that initial community (UPDATE: here's a piece I wrote all about this idea).
I won't go too far into why women are underrepresented in indie-hip hop. I think there are many reasons. I'm more interested in what we, as a community, can do about it.
And this isn't about tokenism. I don't think we should throw some wack female rapper on every bill to fulfill some kind of quota. That only compounds the problem. This is about starting at the roots and really building a community that can be truly representative, cultivating the talent that's definitely out there and breaking down the barriers that stand in the way. A few ideas:
1. More attention given to young women in hip hop afterschool programs and youth hip hop clubs. If you're a facilitator, don't assume every girl wants to sing the hook. Focus recruitment and seek out girls who want to rap (or DJ or produce); they're out there.
2. Actively seek out and support (with your money, when possible) good female artists. I mentioned a bunch of great ones a few paragraphs ago, and there are more out there. And don't do it out of the goodness of your bleeding heart; this isn't a handout to the poor, scrappy girl-rappers. Do it because they're dope and deserve more attention than they get from the male-dominated hip hop media.
3. There's always someone who says: "You don't like sexist hip hop? Then make some that isn't sexist!" I think this is a cop-out response to this topic (after all, not everyone who doesn't like sexist music is a musician themselves), but it's not horrible advice in and of itself. As artists, we can confront sexism head on, or at the very least be conscious of how it plays out in our work. Challenge yourself, especially if you identify as a man; it's not just on the women to fight this battle-- we have roles to play too.
4. If you're a promoter, event-organizer or label person, try to put together more representative bills. Again, not through tokenism, but through the hard work of getting to know everyone in your scene, doing research on fresh female artists and not being content to just bring the same ol' artists in for every event. And let’s not forget—there’s profit in this too; it’s not all altruism. Representative bills can draw new and bigger audiences—everybody wins.
5. Organize larger-scale events that celebrate women in hip hop. The Twin Cities has "B-Girl Be," Madison had “Femme Fresh,” NY hosted the Womanhood Passage Fundraiser (a “special evening acknowledging the strength, beauty, leadership, challenges, and successes of women in Hip-Hop”), and there are more across the country. These events can inspire future artists, can create opportunities for current ones, and can recognize the important (and oft-overlooked) contributions of past ones.
And those are just a few ideas. I'm sure there's a lot more we can do too.
WHY SHOULD I EVEN CARE ABOUT ALL THIS?
To some, hip hop is a boy's club and that's just not worth even attempting to change. It always has been male-dominated and it always will be. It's just the fundamental nature of the culture.
But I think this is a defeatist attitude. If hip hop is sexist, it's because we made it that way and continue to make it that way, and we can definitely do something about it.
And this isn't altruism; I don't care about fighting sexism in hip hop because I'm a wonderful, enlightened person. I care about it because by marginalizing and silencing women's voices, we're missing out on a lot of incredible art that either isn't getting heard or isn't getting made to begin with. That's a shame. Indie hip hop shouldn't be just a bunch of straight 20-something males in black hoodies nodding their heads in some grimy club; it should reflect the diversity of its roots and influences. By recognizing the sexism (and racism, and homophobia, etc.) that's there-- even when it's there in some of our favorite music-- we can begin to move toward a truly representative community.