What We Forget When We Talk About Hip-Hop’s Women Problem
By Zeba Blay
Consider this: there is a glaring double standard in the way that we talk about hip-hop music and misogyny.
There’s been a resurgence of both interest and criticism of the ‘90s rap group N.W.A ever since promotion for the new music biopic “Straight Outta Compton” began earlier this year. The film, chronicling the gangsta rap group’s rise to fame, has been praised for highlighting the parallels of racial tensions between 1987 and today. It has also been commended for humanizing a group that was largely demonized in their day for their blunt lyrics about life in the hood.
Al Pereira via Getty Images N.W.A in 1991, after the departure of founding member Ice Cube
But “Straight Outta Compton” has also faced some harsh (and valid) criticism, mostly because it largely glosses over the rap group’s unapologetic sexism. Key female N.W.A collaborators like rap artist Yo-Yo have been omitted entirely from the film, while the overall presence of women has been relegated to mothers, girlfriends, and groupies, all in the periphery. The group’s most notorious instance of violence and misogyny, where Dr. Dre viciously assaulted hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes in 1991, isn’t addressed at all.
The film’s release has forced the remaining members to address their treatment of women in the past. In an interview for the August 2015 issue of Rolling Stone, rapper Ice Cube vehemently defended use of the words “bitches” and “hoes.”
“If you’re a bitch, you’re probably not going to like us. If you’re a ho, you probably don’t like us. If you’re not a ho or a bitch, don’t be jumping to the defense of these despicable females,” the rapper/actor explained.
He continued, “I never understood why an upstanding lady would even think we’re talking about her.”
The interview has added fuel to the ongoing scrutiny that Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and N.W.A have received over the past few weeks.
Since the 1980s, hip-hop artists have been accused of objectifying women, demeaning women, and promoting violence and sexual abuse against women. They’re guilty of colorism, too — the praise of “lightskinned hoes” and the denigration of darker skinned women is evident even in the controversial casting call for “Straight Outta Compton.”
In examining hip-hop’s past treatment of women as it relates to N.W.A, we’re forced to appraise how hip-hop treats women today. It’s safe to say that not much has changed.
Last year, Rick Ross ignorantly included a drug-rape lyric in a verse for the song “U.O.E.N.O,” while Lil Wayne had to apologize for the lyric, “beat the pussy up like Emmett Till.” Kanye’s West’s last album “Yeezus,” highly divisive, has been called out as one long hate letter to women, and objectifying music videos from artists like Drake and 2 Chainz persist.
Youtube | Kanye West holding a woman’s decapitated head in the video for “Monster”
Hip-hop has a long, sordid, and complex relationship with women. Female MCs including Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Salt-N-Peppa, Lil Kim, and Nicki Minaj still aren’t taken seriously as lyricists in a male-dominated genre driven by bravado and machismo, where the distinction between “despicable females” and “upstanding ladies” is made on the whim of male artists.
But it’s not just hip-hop that has a misogyny problem. All music does. Rap music isn’t the only genre with degrading and demeaning lyrics about women. Videos like Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” featuring scantily clad models came before, during, and after some of the most objectifying rap videos.
Sexism is rampant in the punk, metal, and indie rock scenes. And while there’s been criticism of non-rap genres before — the campaign for parental advisories and censorship of hair metal bands in the 1980s for instance — hip-hop seems to be an easy and constant target.
It makes sense why it’s most often the scapegoat. Hip-hop is global, wildly popular, and mainstream in a way that many rock genres aren’t nowadays. But there are complexities in the way that hip-hop misogyny must be approached. We can’t talk about hip-hop, an art form born in the Bronx and popularized by black and Latino youth, without talking about race. Tied up in these critiques are perceived ideas about black masculinity as aggressive, toxic, inherently dangerous. It’s not just the music, but who is making the music that seems to make it so offensive.
So how do we reconcile this?
This isn’t an argument for absolving hip-hop of its ongoing sins. And it isn’t to say that one form of misogyny in music is worse than another — a Dr. Dre song called “Bitches Ain’t Shit” should be critiqued the same way as a NOFX song called “Punch Her In The Cunt.” But we must also address the fact that the narrative of male hip-hop artists universally hating women persists, while there continues to be very little critique of other, white-dominated genres.
Critiques of hip-hop must be contextualized. First of all, not all hip-hop perpetuates sexism. And rape, violence, and the degradation of woman are not a “black thing.” Sexism in rap music didn’t spring forth solely from black culture, which seems to be implicit in commentary about hip-hop. Rather, the sexism we see in some hip-hop music is a reflection of the sexism that we see in society as a whole. It’s important to remember this.
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?
Hip-hop most definitely has a problem with women, and it’s one that needs to be addressed in a real way. That’s clearly evident by the fact that, 20 years later, Ice Cube can still defend the music he made with N.W.A — seminal, but still highly problematic. What’s disturbing though is that while we’re at least reckoining and grappling with the realities of hip-hop, how we can both love the music and critique it in a meaningful way, the same conversation about other genres hasn’t really started. It isn’t right that the totality of hip-hop is thrown under the bus while the rest of a super sexist industry gets a pass from having to actually deal with its relationship to women. It’s a subtle, but profound double standard, and it needs to be acknowledged.
Originally published on The Huffington Post.