The Untold Champions of Feminism in Hip Hop
By: Hillary Fink, owner of Elements of Hill
Identifying as a feminist and a fan of hip hop music often times comes along with public criticism, as well as generates an internal conflict that I am left to undertake. Mainstream hip hop has this way of tearing me into two, as its beats and lyrics leave me with two strivings that challenge one another. It is as though it is a separation of body and mind. I say this as there have been all too many times that I have been in my car and found myself raising the volume and moving to the beat of a hip hop song, all the while cringing at the lyrics.
Since its rise in the late 1980’s, hip hop has sustained a misogynistic theme. Much of this genre has been, and still is, made up of language that sexually objectifies and demeans women. Although misogyny still exists in hip hop today, it is much easier to find mainstream artists that use their music to advocate with a feminist perspective. It is not impossible to be a feminist and enjoy hip hop music, it is the matter ofbecoming acquainted with and supporting the artists that are producing songs that incorporate socially aware lyrics with a feminist objective.
Twenty-one year old artist Leaf from Brooklyn is creating music with a motive to empower young women. Her music features lyrics that switch up gender norms, challenges sexism, and provides a refreshing feminist perspective within the music industry. She has collaborated with Lil Yachty, best known for his song “Broccoli”, and Action Bronson. Her song “Sugar Mama” (2015) focuses on switching the stereotypical gender roles as she identifies with being a ‘sugar mama’, a role primarily recognized in society as being held most often by men. Leaf has used her rise to fame as a way to empower young female hip hop artists, and embolden them to stay genuine to their work and what it represents. This is especially important as there has been a dramatic decrease in female hip hop artists signed to major record labels. She has even partnered with Clapit, a social media entertainment network, where young hip hop and rap artists (male and female) can upload their work for a chance to be chosen for the opportunity to be mentored by Leaf herself. She is making positive strides to remain authentic and socially conscious, without allowing herself or her music to be morphed by fame and societal opinions.
A Palestinian hip hip group that is tackling not only the patriarchy, but other social issues ranging, but not limited to, poverty, racism, and the Israeli Occupation. Their work is largely protest driven, and they do not hold back when it comes to addressing social and political issues in their work. In their dynamic hit “#Who You R” (2015), they criticize the “hypocritical feminism” that exists within their society. They recognize the obstacles that are laid out when it comes to establishing and maintaining women’s rights, and they support and encourage the need to challenge those issues “She is not wrong, I am not right. When it comes to her rights and it's her right to resist”. Their lyrics are brutally honest and change evoking. They identify with an intersectional feminist perspective which is not always clearly established, especially in the music industry.
An American rapper from California, Ab-Soul is an artist signed to the indie record label Top Dawg. He is also responsible for creating the group Black Hippy, which includes Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, and Schoolboy Q. He identifies himself as a feminist, but his music and personal opinions have been met with criticism as they hold a great deal of disconnect between his lyrics and ideas. His work can be hypocritical, but it is clear that he is also working to introduce a feminist voice in a music scene that historically has been dominated by males and sells through keeping the patriarchal system alive. His song “Double Standards” is about exactly that, the double standards that women face in society. He addresses the different ideas, in regards to this topic, he has been taught based on different family members, and how this affected his disconnect when it comes to respecting women ”My auntie told me always treat my lady right / My uncle told me only love 'em for a night / You can see the immediate disconnection / Between a man and a woman, the reason for regression”. His work does not always hold consistency, but as an artist who has long been a socially conscious writer, he does not shy away from incorporating his understanding and perspective on women’s rights. It is a small leap in a positive direction, which should be encouraged and supported.
J Cole has long been a favorite of mine. His work is largely political, and addresses current issues from racism to societal standards. As with Ab-Soul, his work does contain contradicting ideas as he raps about empowering women and encourages females to stray away from negative beauty norms, but then quickly drops language that demeans and objectifies women. He does provide an explanation for the hypocrisy in his song “Role Modelz” as he identifies that the music industry has changed him "Then I thought back. Back to a better me, before I was a B-list celebrity. Before I started calling bitches `bitches' so heavily." This is not a way of accepting his misogyny, but his lyrics do provide an awareness of the need of a feminist perspective and how the music industry can encourage the misogyny in most artists’ work. It also provides a personal opinion as to why so many rappers quickly change their style of music, such as Ab-Soul, as sexism is a major selling point for hip hop songs to become mainstream.
Hip hop still has a long way to go when it comes to eliminating misogyny from its lyrics, and it will not happen over night. There are many artists that have changed their artistic styles and willingness to be consistent in supporting a feminist perspective, but, as J Cole has pointed out, in an industry that is sold through sexism it is easy for artists to be morphed into its ideals. As a feminist it is important to be mindful of this, and to be informed of the artists who are working to include feminism into their lyrics, no matter how big or small, and to support them. This is how the change begins.