Redefining Masculinity in Hip-Hop (Know Your History Podcast)
Posted on January 12, 2012
“I sometimes feel bad for criticizing hip-hop. But, I guess, what I’m trying to do is get us men, to just take a hard look at ourselves.” – Byron Hurt
“The definition of manhood might not been the way to go anymore. We need something different, something new.” – Kevin Powell
From childhood we are socialized to believe in a binary gender system, men and women. Each with attached expectations for dress, behaviour and sexuality. For example, men are taught that visible emotions are not acceptable. We are told not to cry, even if we legitimately hurt ourselves. Male role models such as parents, teachers, or coaches will tell us to shake it off, get up and move on. We get the message that we need to be tough and that showing weakness is a bad thing.
These behaviors are often reinforced with verbal taunts. You throw like a girl. You run like a girl. You scream like a girl.
Those phrases that paint the feminine as something undesirable are doing a lot more than simply teasing young boys.
As babies, we are often adorned in blue as opposed to pink which is reserved only for females. We use language to describe things as feminine or masculine.
We don’t think much about what it means to be identified by our gender. Oftentimes we don’t think at all about this. Some people can go their whole lives without ever thinking about their gender role.
J.L. Austin, a Brittish philosopher, believed that language was not passive, that it could actually shape our reality. Thus, in some situations, we are not just saying something, we are performing a specific action.
Judith Butler, a feminist theorist and author, looks at how we talk, act, and dress. Her theories of performativity illustrates how “gender is thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis, the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as culture fictions.
In other words, we behave in certain ways and continue to act in those ways to reinforce this unwritten definition of our genders. What it means to be a man is agreed upon by most of us who carry out this fiction of manhood in all that we say and do.
This fiction of manhood sets up an “artificial binary relation between the sexes.” And hip-hop reinforces this binary with its over the top imagery. We show ourselves to be tough with our lyrical content, or style of dress, and the way we present ourselves as gangsta or thug.
I was influenced by the golden era of hip-hop. Most rap groups or artists in the early to mid 1990s did not dance or even smile to make themselves look tougher. To this day, I do the same thing.
It’s almost as if we create this good vs evil universe where anything even remotely considered to be feminine is bad.
For the next half hour, we will be taking a close look at ourselves – men in hip-hop music and culture. We will look at the roles we play as men in this music and how they are flawed and ultimately harmful. It’s time for us to take up arms and redefine what it means to be a man.
Let’s start off with a quotation from Ted Porter. He gave a very inspirational Ted Talk that I encourage all of you to go and watch. It’s well worth ten minutes of your time. This is a little portion of what he had to say . . .
“Now I also want to say, without a doubt, there are some wonderful, wonderful, absolutely wonderful things about being a man. But at the same time, there’s some stuff that’s just straight up twisted. And we really need to begin to challenge, look at it, and really get in the process of deconstructing, redefining, what we come to know as manhood.”
That’s right. We have it twisted. Things aren’t right with the way we portray ourselves in this culture. And if we look at what our performance really does, we can see that it reinforces traditional conceptions of gender.
Byron Hurt illustrated this tendency in hip-hop with this brilliant metaphor, “We’re like in this box. And in order to be in that box, you have to be strong. you have to be tough, and you have to have a lot of girls. You gotta have money, you gotta be a player or a pimp, you gotta be in control. You have to dominate other men, ya know, other people.
Ya know, if you’re not any of those things, people call you soft or weak, or a pussy, or a chump, or a faggot. And nobody wants to be any of those things. So everybody stays inside the box.”
That is a great way to define performativity. We want to show that we are tough, that we are real men. Anything outside of that prison scares us. So we stay within it and we don’t even think about how we are performing this fiction of manhood. A fiction that has us displaying our heterosexuality in more blatant.
It might be easier to see this in rap songs since the rapper is usually male and usually reciting rhymes from the point of view of a stereotypical male. This can probably be traced back to the very roots of this music.
Hip-hop started with the DJ. The DJ would play records to get people dancing and sometimes would get on the microphone to say a quick rhyme to hype up the crowd. These rhymes were often an exercise in bragging and it was all in fun. At least that was the context and it still is for a lot of people.
I have often heard the kids calling anything they don’t like as gay. This is once again a reinforcement of the compulsory heterosexuality that we as a society seem very quick to uphold and defend. But not all of us feel this way. We can stand up and say something when we hear the gay insult.
In fact, MC Lars did just that with his track “Everyone’s a Little Bit Gay.” I’d like to play that song for you right now. We’ll be back to continue looking critically at what it means to be a man in this society and in hip-hop culture. Stay tuned.
MC Lars had a lot to say in that song. He said things that you don’t normally hear in hip-hop. You’d be hard pressed to hear another rapper defending homo-sexuality on a track. In fact, most rappers are so scared of saying anything even remotely considered to homosexual. They want to make sure their image is on par with that of the hyper-masculine tough guy.
But MC Lars let us know that staying inside the box isn’t a good thing. He raps, “they ban gay marriage they say it’s weird /
But tradition comes from habit and tradition comes from fear.”
So, if this hyper-masculine posturing that we so often participate in is simply a habit, then it is a habit that we can break. We first need to see it though. We need to see how it is harmful, and how we can help change it.
I do that by speaking up whenever I hear a gay slur in the classroom or on the playground. Sometimes speaking up is not enough. A conversation has to follow.
It’s easier to see the problem behind gay slurs if you replace the word gay in those slurs with another word. Just for effect, I will sometimes repeat the offensive phrase with the name of the person who said it. “That would be me like saying, ‘That’s so Michael’ for everything I thought was stupid. That usually does this trick.
The words we use have power. We often don’t stop to consider that. We let words fly without thinking about what they really mean, and how they might be offensive to others.
We need to stop using language that divides us. We cannot continue to villainize everything outside of the hyper-masculine identity we’re accustomed to in hip-hop.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson put it this way, “The greatest insult that a man might imagine for another man is to assume that he’s less than a man and to assign him the very derogatory terms that one usually associates with women.
The insult is double. It’s both an assault on women, but it’s also a reinforcement of a negative and malicious form of masculine identity.”
I never thought much about my masculine identity before. I don’t think that is something we often do. It’s definitely not something we do often in hip-hop music. In fact, other than the MC Lars song we just played, I can only think of one other song off the top of my head that deals with how we use language to construct and reinforce what we think it means to be a man.
Think of how many times you’ve heard a derogatory term being aimed at a woman in this music. We are quick to call them bitches or hos in our lyrics. This shows an inherent disrepect for women that we shouldn’t stand for any more.
It’s high time that we stop dividing the genders and can come together in unity.
That was Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” She starts off by saying, “Instinct leads me to another flow / every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a hoe / Trying to make a sister feel low / You know all of that gots to go.”
That song came out in 1994 and I remember being shocked to hear the word “bitch” not being censored out. It made me take notice of the video and the message.
So, we can see that rappers do call attention to our use of language and the construction of gender. Unfortunately that is not the dominant message we get with this culture we call hip-hop.
When I interviewed Eternia, she put it this way, “I do think that in general there’s really only one or two voices in hip-hop, two dominate kind of narratives. And I think that hip-hop should represent every slice of life, every slice of culture, and every slice of the world globally, not just America. So I think that’s one thing in which my culture, hip-hop, lacks, is having a voice for everybody not just for certain demographics.”
That dominate voice is a masculine one that purports a compulsory heterosexuality. A male dominated form of music that pushes aside anything other than the tough, powerful male figure.
Most rap fans will be able to name their Top 20 MCs. Go ahead and ask a rap fan next chance you get. I bet that they will not include one female artist in that list. If that’s the case, ask them to name their Top 5 female rappers. I’ll bet some will be hard pressed to name 5. And if they do name 5, they will probably just name the handful of female artists who have managed to make any sort of mark in hip-hop culture, names like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Lauryn Hill, Salt N Pepa, and most recently Nicki Minaj.
Why is it so hard for female artists to break through?
It’s partly due to the artificial binary we often see in Western culture. No matter how far we have come in the past hundred years or so, women are still seen as inferior or less than men.
Eternia has been making quality music for nearly 15 years. She still has to prove herself daily to the hip-hop audience in order to be taken seriously.
“It would be much easier to hit the game being faceless and genderless and let people listen to the music and all of a sudden become fans, and then an album in be like, ‘Ha-ha, I’m a chick and you didn’t know. I tricked you! ‘cause I bet they’d listen to it and like it.’ That’s all I have to say.”
Is that even possible?
Well, first we’d have to get past the language we use on a daily basis that places masculine on the side of right and feminine on the side of wrong. Women are identified with their gender and their sexualized features. They are often treated as objects in music videos, song lyrics, and in real life situations.
We have a lot of power in this culture and I think we don’t take that seriously enough. We have the power to make music videos such as Shad’s “Keep Shining,” videos that show women are important and valued.
That was Shad. He has a lot to say in that song, and it just goes to show the power we have in this culture. He actually criticizes the dominant narrative we see in rap music. He suggests that we can show a different side by honouring and respecting women. We shouldn’t be ashamed of showing our feelings and to put it in our lyrics.
He says, “It’s funny how words like, ‘consciousness’ and ‘positive music’ can somehow start to feel hollow, it’s become synonymous with polishing soft collagen lips.”
That lyric illustrates how we how we use language to maintain the artificial binary between the genders. We do it all the time without even thinking about it. Hip-hop is especially guilty of using feminine terms or language to describe things we see as undesirable. We really need to stop doing that as a culture.
Shad also tackles the lack of female artists within hip-hop. He says,
And I’ve been known to talk about women
on a track or two
I talk to women, I just can’t talk for women
That’s for you
We need women for that
More women in rap
Even tracks like Kwali’s Four Women
That’s still only half the view of the world
There’s no girls rappin’ so we’re only hearin’ half the truth
What we have to lose? Too much
Half our youth aren’t represented, the better halves of dudes”
I love that verse. He readily admits that things need to change within this music. That we need to hear from women more frequently in this music. I whole heartedly agree. I listen to female rappers a lot. We play female MCs every week here on DOPEfm. I am regularly bumping music in my car or my MP3 player by Eternia, Kadyelle, Dessa, Kool Kyrs, and Nilla, among others.
We will continue this discussion in next episode of Know Your History. We’ve only just scratched the surface here. It really is time to redefine what it means to be a man in hip-hop music and culture. And that responsibility falls to us men.
I hope this show has inspired you to think about these issues. The next time you hear a rapper call a women a bitch or a ho, you could start a conversation about it instead of silently accepting that this is a part of our culture, because it doesn’t have to be.
Let’s change the perception of masculinity in hip-hop. Let’s do it by sharing this episode, by sharing the original article I contributed toThe Word is Bond dot com, by having discussions about it on our radio shows, or blogs, classrooms, street corners, and everywhere people talk about rap music or hip-hop culture.