“Can’t Hold Us Down”: Our Tolerance Of Misogyny In Hip-Hop

The struggle’s all over, right ladies? After all, now that those pesky “gender stereotypes” have fallen by the wayside, we’ve earned the right to watch hip-hop’s current leading ladies shake off the shackles of sexism to don their snug, spandex onesies and represent our fair gender with their shock-rock shtick about lustful endeavours.

After all, if Salt-n-Pepa can talk about sex, why can’t they? Didn’t “None Of Your Business” pave the way for ‘Lil Kim to ask us, “How Many Licks”? And it’s safe to assume that Rihanna’s channeling “Free Your Mind” with “S&M”. Expression is expression – just take off your clothes.

But isn’t the medium the message?

It’s easy to forget that following the Black Power movement, the genres of funk, soul and yes, even disco evolved into the now-established MC culture, introducing the masses to the likes of the Sugahill Gang and Grandmaster Flash, and drenching listeners with relatable commentary, understandable fear, precious hope and above all – power.

So imagine how women felt when Salt-n-Pepa’s 1986 debut hit shelves and not only perpetuated the urgency of the decade’s most influential genre, but had the guts to address misogyny and sex from a female perspective. Include the arrival of MC Lyte (the first female hardcore rapper signed to a major label) and Queen Latifah, and women’s place in the predominantly male-oriented genre was relatively solidified.

Then as years progressed, forces like Mary J. Blige, TLC, Eve and Lauryn Hill began populating hip-hop’s gritty, hardcore, sexist landscape and used their dynamic personalities to speak on behalf of a gender that was loudly being told to shut it.

Their response? To give the proverbial finger and instead pave the way for the likes of Da Brat, Foxy Brown and even ‘Lil Kim, whose raunchy contributions to Junior M.A.F.I.A. were a welcome reprieve from Biggie’s infamous “bitch please” agenda.

But that’s the thing about novelties: they wear off. And nearly 30 years after hip-hop’s matriarchs told us to “Push It”, we’ve got ‘Lil Kim and Nicki Minaj playing dress-up and overshadowing their clever prose with the race to fit into a doll-sized box.

So whose fault is this? I think we know. Because personally, I’m over the concept of finger-pointing and blaming society for keeping us down. Does it? Yeah, sure. But there comes a time when we’ve got to look at ourselves as women and wonder what the fuck is going on.

Why is it that the godmothers of hip-hop once used the genre as a mouthpiece for social commentary, when it’s now evolved into how many words you can rhyme with “dick”? Is there nothing else to talk about? (Though using the subject of sex as a lyrical safety blanket is another issue altogether.) Why can men be poetic while women are expected to address domestic violence while wearing short-shorts in front of a burning house? We don’t expect the same from female rock ‘n rollers, but in hip-hop, “that’s just the way it is”.

I disagree. Artists like Northern State and MasiaONE are gritty, poetic, honest and (gasp!) female, and you’d hardly see them accept a place within a hip-hop hierarchy that demanded them to shake it next to a “more capable” male figure.

The reason Barbie’s prevailed over integrity is because it’s easy. Certain women in hip-hop have perpetuated the cycle of misogyny because to be popular and objectified has been the go-to for women since teenage boys liked breasts. ‘Lil Kim and Nicki Minaj aren’t stupid – they’re quite the opposite. But instead of using the attention to bring attention to sexism, they’ve embraced it, singing the age-old, chauvinist song in which “empowerment” means “I’m so confidant, I demand you look at my ass.”

And maybe to some women, it does. But like the girls in high school who just wanted to wear their combat boots and be recognized for their intellect or sense of humour, the popular, push-up bra wearing population insisted they were the minority – because to the public, they are. There’s a reason it’s shocking when a fully-clothed woman emerges onstage and sings about empowerment – because if you remember the ‘Lil Kim-Christina jam, not even their short-shorts and a fire hose could “hold them down”.

Oppression is old news, and so is our willingness to accept it. But if we’re going to look to Nicki Minaj as the future of hip-hop, perhaps we should ask why she’s striving to be a living doll – or why we as women are so willing to champion it. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

image – Philip Nelson

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