Tuesday, September 22, 2020

For The Hip-Hop Feminist In Me

Feminists are subjected to endless scrutiny for their pursuit of women’s equality and advocacy for women’s rights. Some people believe that a woman classifying herself as a feminist does so at the expense of damaging her relationships with men. Other opponents of feminist thought and ideology are mistakenly convinced that feminists are eager to abandon all male companionship and to adopt an accepting stance of all pro-woman rhetoric – no matter how tinged it is with elitism and racism.

Yet, these unfortunate myths do not consider all the different representations of feminism like womanism (feminism embraced by figures in the African-American community) or Third World feminism (feminism supported by women outside of Western contexts). But for those of us who were born just before the 1980s, on the cusp of a turning point for hip-hop music and culture, there is still another form of feminism that is more relevant – hip-hop feminism.

Hip-hop feminism is a term that was coined by New York-born journalist-come-author, Joan Morgan. Starting as a freelancer at a slew of newspapers and then maturing into an entertainment writer at Vibe magazine, she challenged old-school feminists in a major way. Raised listening to hip-hop music as well as questioning the ever changing roles of women in the world, Morgan published When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life As a Hip-Hop Feminist, a book that drastically transformed thinking about feminism in 1999 at the impending turn of the century. Her debut work became a handbook for practically every young woman who found herself torn between a love for hip-hop music and a hatred for the lyrics relegating us to the status of chickenheads, golddiggers, hos, skeezers and tricks.

Morgan was not the only one helplessly straddling an admiration for hip-hop music and detesting its disparaging messages towards women. Established spoken word artist and playwright, Sarah Jones, made a lasting impression with her poem, “Your Revolution”, in which she openly decried the words of some of the most influential emcees of the time, announcing, “Your revolution will not happen between these thighs/the real revolution ain’t about booty size/and though we’ve lost Biggie Smalls/your Notorious revolution/will never allow you to lace no lyrical douche in my bush/your revolution will not be you smackin’ it up, flippin’ it or rubbin’ it down/nor will it take you downtown or humpin’ around.” Jones’ insightful commentary displayed a new angle for feminist thinking, that of young, ambitious women refusing to wholeheartedly accept the isolating male-centered nature of hip-hop music.
Infamous rapper Kimberley “Lil’ Kim” Jones, who made a name for herself as the explicit Queen Bee of Junior Mafia, a solo artist and later as a spokesperson for M.A.C. Cosmetics, also categorized herself as a hip-hop feminist of sorts. Her declaration left many hip-hop feminists, already divided along major rifts, in tiffs about whether Kim could ever wear such a title. Her lyrics, which praised using sex for material gain, were clearly misleading and could not qualify as identifiably feminist anthems. Still, as Kim explained to countless magazine scribes, she was insistently a feminist to the core because she heralded a new sort of women’s empowerment – using the punanny to fatten her purse.

After I attended Spelman College, a small women’s institution in Atlanta, Georgia, that encouraged thorough interrogations of feminism, its applicability and how we could adapt it into our lives, I began to wonder how I could make hip-hop feminism my own. As a young woman moving between feminist readings in the classroom and hip-hop headliners in the club, I struggled to reconcile the two. Professors talked about the significance of feminism in asserting my position as a young female university student eager to enter the world, but the hip-hop I heard on the radio was telling me another story. In all of its glory, I still struggled to understand how to separate the hip-hop video vixens I saw shaking derrieres for directors like Hype Williams and Little X on MTV from how I could earn my due respect with the confusingly misleading iconography.

I have been an unabashed hip-hop fan for the past twenty-years, ever since I got my first cassette, L.L. Cool J’s Bigger and Deffer, on my eighth birthday, and listened to it everyday trying to follow his flow. However, something shifted inside me between the time I fantasized of reciting the album verse for verse and when Morgan’s book became my indispensable hip-hop feminism guide twelve years later. Or after Jones’ poem became that often recited mantra for self-proclaimed fed up female hip-hop heads everywhere. There was a turning point somewhere between when Lil’ Kim started transitioning from a little girl on the block to a young woman chasing dreams of making money off of her lyrical prowess and ultra sexualized image. It became harder for me to understand how to remain real with myself as a hip-hop consumer firmly grounded in feminism and simultaneously manage to get past male interpretations of my femininity.

*Abimbola Cole from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is in Botswana to do field research for her Ph.D dissertation on Ethnomusicology.

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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.