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Hip-hop feminism is loosely defined as young feminists born after 1964 who approach the political community with a mixture of feminist and hip-hop sensibilities. It shares many similarities with black feminism and third-wave feminism, but is a distinct self-identification that carries its own weight and creates its own political spaces. Throughout third-wave feminism, many constructs were destabilized, including the notions of "universal womanhood", body, gender, sexuality, and heteronormativity.
Hip-hop feminism was created by feminists who felt that black feminism was not equipped to consider the issues of women belonging to the hip-hop generation. The term hip hop feminism was coined by the provocative cultural critic Joan Morgan in 1999 when she published the book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip Hop Feminist Breaks it Down.
Hip hop feminism is based in a tradition of black feminism, which emphasizes that the personal is political because our race, class, gender, and sexuality determine how we are treated. An important idea that came out of early black feminism is that of intersectionality, which T. Hasan Johnson describes in his book You Must Learn! A Primer in the Study of Hip Hop Culture as "a term that argues that race, gender, sexuality, and class are interlinked and used to shape hierarchical relationships in American society". Hip hop feminism is a different kind of feminism than "traditional" feminism; it is a way of thinking and living that is grounded in different lived experiences than the "traditional" feminism of the Women's Liberation Movement, which was a mostly white movement and was more interested in advancing women's rights than civil rights. The Hip-Hop feminism movement gained traction primarily because there was no avenue for young black women. As human rights activist, Shani Jamila states in her book, Can I Get a Witness, "As women of the hip-hop generation we need a feminist consciousness that allows us to examine how representations and images can be simultaneously empowering and problematic." Many female rappers, such as Queen Latifah, embody and convey feminism, yet she does not identify as a feminist because "it is considered too white, too middle class, and too hostile to black men. Some writers locate Latifah's story in "Third Wave" feminism, as representing a race-conscious, sexually open feminism that rejects Second Wave white feminist elitism and racism, and also black sexism and homophobia". The Second wave of feminism unfolded in the context of the anti-war and civil rights movements due to the growing self-consciousness of minority groups around the world. As many women and men involved in hip hop culture are not white, they will have a different way of viewing the world; a desire for intersectional change in the spheres of how both women and non-white people are treated in America.
In the book Hip Hop's Inheritance: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Hip Hop Feminist Movement Reiland Rabaka explains, "women in the hip hop generation have consistently deconstructed and reconstructed feminism and womanism to speak to the special needs of their life-worlds and life-struggles, their unique lived-experiences and lived-endurances. In the process they have produced an unprecedented form of feminism—a "functional feminism," according to Morgan (1999), that is 'committed to "keeping it real"' with respect to the critique of interlocking and overlapping nature of sexism, racism, and capitalism in the lives of black and other nonwhite women' (pp. 61–62). Seeming to simultaneously embrace and reject the fundamentals of feminism, the women of the hip hop generation, like the hip hop generation in general, have blurred the lines between the 'personal' and the 'political' by critically dialoguing with a culture that commonly renders them invisible or grossly misrepresents them when and where they are visible".
Later in the chapter, Rabaka explains the connection between media, hip hop, feminism, and intersectionality: "Hip hop feminists critically comprehend that mass media interpretations of hip hop, as well as the mass media's widely disseminated distorted stories about hip hop, are actually part and parcel of the ongoing social construction and maintenance of race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality, and other identities. All of this is to say, hip hop feminism is much more than feminism, and it focuses on more than feminist issues, misogyny, and patriarchy. Hip hop feminists use hip hop culture as one of their primary points of departure to highlight serious social issues and the need for political activism aimed at racism, sexism, capitalism, and heterosexism as overlapping and interlocking systems of oppression [...] hip hop feminists are simultaneously expanding the range and uses of intersectional theory and complicating what it means to be both a hip hopper and a feminist".
Joan Morgan believes that "more than any other generation before us, we need a feminism committed to keeping it real. We need a voice like our music; one that samples and layers many voices, injects its sensibilities into the old and flips it into something new, provocative, and powerful. We need a feminism that possesses the same fundamental understanding held by any true student of hip-hop. Truth can't be found in the voice of any one rapper but the juxtaposition of many". In the book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down, Morgan identifies as a feminist and discusses how she loves hip-hop which was known for being misogynistic and homophobic. This, Morgan notes, are things that seemingly go against feminist ideologies. Morgan comes up with the concept of "fucking with the greys" which to her meant embracing contradictions such as being a feminist while at the same time loving hip-hop and even enjoying the parts of it that are patriarchal and misogynistic.
Since Morgan coined the term in 1999, it has been suggested that hip-hop is a queer, and always has been. According to Rinaldo Walcott, debates about hip hop, homophobia, and queers have failed to acknowledge the centrality of non-heterosexuality to hip hop and rap cultures from its very inception. Furthermore, because hip hop emerges out of the odd (or queer) histories of urban black diaspora communities, the claim that hip hop and rap culture has always been queer is neither revisionist nor a play with language—even if both might be needed in the contemporary settlement of a straightened out hip hop. Walcott argues that it is precisely in the context of a straightened out hip hop that a queer sociality and definitely a homosociality animates some of hip hop's most excited moments as the soundtrack of contemporary urban life and beyond.
As opposed to making the easy claims that rap music is sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, Marc Anthony Neal suggests we look for possibilities in the genre, moments that rupture the hegemonic script of what most folks who do not listen to hip hop imagine it to be. He asks that we look at the gestures by individual rappers that work in the service of queering hip hop by providing a fluid or dynamic representation that belies a static and monolithic rendering of the music. Neal looks to Jay-Z, a fixture on the hip hop landscape, and assesses the gestures he makes that trouble traditional black masculinity in hip hop representation, particularly as the rapper has tried to negotiate his presence in a genre so tied to youth while he continues to age. For Neal, queer means a departure from rap masculinity as it is normally rendered. He cites Jay-Z's dress, video treatments, and global presence as markers of his queering hip hop masculine performance. However, he notes that Jay-Z's somewhat alternative performance still maintains hegemony as exerted through classed and raced representations of masculinity.
Brittney Cooper, who teaches a seminar about hip-hop feminism at Rutgers University, believes, along with Aisha Durham and Susana M. Morris, that hip-hop feminism remains deeply invested in the intersectional approaches developed by earlier black feminists. To them, Hip-Hop feminists must insist that women and girls of color remain central to analyses, particularly in light of critical gender approaches that treat black women as an addendum to intersectional approaches black women have honed, effectively relegating them to the sidelines of a stage they built. Within hip-hop feminist studies, hip-hop and feminism act as discrete but constitutive categories that share a dialogic relationship. They see hip-hop feminism as a generationally specific articulation of feminist consciousness, epistemology, and politics rooted in the pioneering work of multiple generations of black feminists based in the United States and elsewhere in the diaspora but focused on questions and issues that grow out of the aesthetic and political prerogatives of hip-hop culture. Thus, Hip-hop feminism is concerned with the ways the conservative backlash of the 1980s and 1990s, deindustrialization, the slashing of the welfare state, and the attendant gutting of social programs and affirmative action, along with the increasing racial wealth gap, have affected the life-worlds and worldviews of the hip-hop generation.
In "Using [Living Hip-Hop] Feminism: Redefining an Answer (to) Rap", Aisha Durham defines hip-hop feminism as "a socio-cultural, intellectual and political movement grounded in the situated knowledge of women of color from the post civil rights generation who recognize culture as a pivotal site for political intervention to challenge, resist, and mobilize collectives to dismantle systems of exploitation". She goes on to further expand on hip-hop feminism as a distinct movement aimed at examining and engaging with the effect culture has on shaping black female identity, sexuality, and feminisms. According to Durham, hip-hop feminism "acknowledges the way black womanhood is policed in popular culture ..." and "recognize culture as a space for feminist intervention—especially when we do not wield power in traditional politics."
Hip-hop feminism is different from traditional feminism, according to Julian Sonny's article How Feminism in Hip-Hop Could Bring Real Chances To A Sexist Industry, because the gender equality goals that artists attempt to achieve is on a more cultural level to make space in a scene where they may be rejected from and objectified against. "Hip-hop feminism is not a novelty act surfing atop the third wave of difference in the academy. It is not a pinup for postfeminism put forth by duped daughters who dig misogynistic rap music and the girl-power pussy politic of empowerment. Hip-hop gains its popularity from its oppositionality and from its complicity in reproducing dominant representations of black womanhood."
Hip-hop feminism acknowledges the problematic, misogynist nature of culture and its formative effects on women (especially young black women) and empowers them by enabling participation, response, and owning self-identification. "For some, the term "hip-hop feminism" offers up quite the enigma. Critics position misogyny as hip-hop's cardinal sin, which raises the obvious question: How do women actively participate in a culture that seems to hate them so vehemently? For self-described hip-hop feminists, attempting to answer that question is not their only task, since understanding what hip-hop feminism is and isn't goes far beyond responding to women-bashing sentiment." Hip-hop feminism can be influential towards social change. Trevor B. Lindsey's scholarly article "Let Me Blow Your Mind: Hip Hop Feminist Futures in Theory and Praxis", demonstrates that Hip-hop feminism can be used as an explanation for social justice and as a practice in education because it covers a broad spectrum of minorities and their lived experiences which can combat the conception of hip-hop being for Blacks and males.
The mediums for initiating social change are growing, and hip hop is one of those mediums. Rabaka observes that "the majority of hip hop feminist mobilization at the present moment seems to emerge from cyber-social networks, mass media, and popular culture, rather than nationally networked women's organizations based in government, academic, or male-dominated leftist bureaucracies"; as a result, music videos, which appeal to popular culture, can be disseminated as mass media through cyber-social networks, making them a perfect platform for motivating change. Abiola Abrams, an author and inspirational speaker who has appeared on BET and MTV represents a more mainstream voice in hip hop feminism. Her hip hop feminist play "Goddess City" produced at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and 2007 debut novel Dare, a love story retelling of Faust set in the hip hop world, are key works fusing hip hop culture with women's empowerment. T. Hasan Johnson believes hip hop can work as an intersectional platform: "Hip-Hop can be the site whereby such meditations and re-evaluations can occur, offering participants the opportunity to re-imagine masculinities and femininities in a multitude of ways to suit a variety of contexts".
Rabaka explains out the way in which creative mediums such as hip hop can be used to wreck the interlocking systems of oppression in America:
"The point is to offer the women of the hip hop generation feminist and womanist alternatives to the patriarchal (mis)representations of womanhood spewing out of the US. culture industries. As Gwendolyn Pough (2004) pointed out, because hip hop's sexism is so prevalent, and because there is only so long that the women of the hip hop generation can embrace either the super-strong black woman or video vixen identities, hip hop feminists have "found ways to deal with these issues within the larger public sphere and the counter-public sphere of hip hop by bringing wreck to stereotyped images through their continued use of expressive culture'". Whether they meant to or not, "the women of the hip hop generation have created a body of work that offers up feminist or womanist answers to many of the hip hop generation's most urgent interpersonal, cultural, social, and political issues" and "recent feminist scholarship suggests that in its own controversial and/or contradictory way the hip-hop feminist movement may very well be the most politically polyvocal and socially visible manifestation of the ongoing evolution of the Women's Liberation movement prevalent in contemporary US society".
In the world of hip-hop feminism, women are the catalyst. In 1992, Mary J. Blige released "What's The 411?" under Uptown Records and was considered the pioneer of hip-hop feminism. Women such as em-cee Missy Elliot and Queen Latifah followed suit. In 1995, Queen Latifah broke the glass ceiling of black women in hip-hop by winning a Grammy for her song "U.N.I.T.Y." which revolutionized hip-hop feminism's ideal of sexual empowerment and the autonomy and ownership of the female black body. Behind Queen Latifah came hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill became the best example of hip-hop feminism with record-breaking worldwide sales of her album "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" and by winning five Grammy awards in 1998 (Hobson and Bartlow, 5). They mimicked the rap rhetoric of males in the scene and generated a massive amount of attention. Missy Elliot was often seen dressed similar to male hip-hop artists and utilized the same body language and aggressive delivery of her lyrics as a means of protest while still preserving her femininity.
According to Katherine Cheairs, these artists were connecting the link between hip-hop music and the feminist movement. From these revolutionaries stemmed current popular artists like Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Azealia Banks and so on that have been made relevant by popular culture. For example, in the early 2000s, Ciara and Beyoncé followed Missy Elliot's style of male mimicry with hit songs such as "Like A Boy" and "If I Were A Boy" to highlight the lack of respect black women were given as well as to show the juxtaposition of black men and black women in society.
Fast-forward to the 2010s, and hip-hop feminists have moved passed the male rhetoric and doused the genre in feminine prose. For example, many modern hip-hop feminists utilize their voluptuous figures in a commanding manner rather than adopting male rapper outfitting and lyric style. Aisha Durham writes that hip-hop aided in creating a style icon out of the female black body. Additionally, Nicki Minaj utilizes the female black body as a power symbol. In fact, in the 2011 issue of Ebony magazine, Minaj asserted her place in the hip-hop world that she can stand on her own in the male-dominated genre and use her body in an empowering manner rather than an oppressive one. Rihanna is another mainstream hip-hop feminist. In her most recent album "Anti," her lyrics assert black female independence. Given Rihanna's past, the hip-hop feminist scene looked to her as a role model to stand up for domestic violence against the black female body.
Imani Perry references Cade Bambara who "asks us to consider the use of metaphors, themes, and other ritualized structures to create meaning in American film". She quotes, There is the conventional cinema that masks its ideological imperatives as entertainment and normalizes the hegemony with the term "convention", that is to say the cinematic practices—of editing, particular uses of narrative structure, the development of genres, the language of spatial relationships, particular performatory styles of acting—are called conventions because they are represented somehow to be transcendent or universal, when in fact these practices are based on a history of imperialism and violence.
Perry notes that "when it comes to feminist messages, often the words and language of a hip hop song may have feminist content, but the visual image may be implicated in the subjugation of black women" and points out "the tensions between text and visual image in women's hip hop". Hip Hop feminism and the objectification of the black female body in music videos has also become a subject of visual art, exemplified in artist Michelle Marie Charles's 2012 video Explicit and Deleted, which was included in the 2013 exhibition at the Cue Art Foundation Goddess Clap Back: Hip Hop Feminism in Art, curated by Katie Cercone and featuring artists such as Damali Abrams, Kalup Linzy, Narcissister, Rashaad Newsome, Noelle Lorraine Williams and Hank Willis Thomas.
Callia Hargrove in "What Hip-Hop Taught Me About Feminism" references how hip-hop feminist icon Nicki Minaj empowers her audience by being herself without restraint. She cites her music video "Anaconda" Nicki Minaj states in response to the video, "I wanted to create a song that embraced curvy women. I wanted to be sexual but be playful with it" (quoted. in Hargrove).
However, there are some opportunities for women to resist a Hip-Hop video culture that simply fetishizes their bodies and limit them to what Rana A. Emerson calls a "One-Dimensional Womanhood". This resistance became extremely prevalent in the 1990s with artists like Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott, and Lauryn Hill. Rather than conforming to this hyper-sexualized, and powerless image these women used their music videos to challenge these heteronormative and patriarchal motifs, by asserting their independence and strength.
In her book Black Noise, Tricia Rose speaks to the lyrical and visual objectification of women within hip hop, primarily attributing narratives of sexual dominance as a means of coping with a lack of normative indicators of heterosexual masculine power. These, she writes, may include insecurities associated with self-worth, racial discrimination, and access to various types of resources. Although a common stigma associated with 90's rap through present is a marriage of pornography and music, Rose argues that to solely attribute this hypersexualization to hip hop is to ignore the embedded sexist social norms the emanate through dominant culture, despite these interactions being less visible. "Few popular analyses of rap's sexism seem willing to confront the fact that sexual and institutional control over and abuse of women is a crucial component of developing a heterosexual masculine identity."
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Few popular analyses of rap's sexism seem willing to confront the fact that sexual and institutional control over and abuse of women is a crucial component of developing a heterosexual masculine identity
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