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Confessions of a Male Feminist Hip-Hop Fan

“Wake up, sisters (and brothers)
Take back the mic
and take back the night
and take back the right
to rhyme
unmolested and uncoopted
by corporate controlled media
fueling machines of politics, war, and music.”

— Janell Hobson, Hip-Hop Hegemony

If there is one plucky intellectual barnacle that I grapple with everyday as a Black masculine-presenting feminist, it is this: I can jam out to a hip-hop song and think little of the misogynist vitriol spewing from my earbuds. The two, hip-hop and feminism, seem antithetical, mutual anathema to be kept as far away from each other as possible. And yet I often take a break from my beloved bell hooks by head nodding to Slaughterhouse or Eminem—“Slut, you think I won’t choke no whore / Till her vocal cords don’t work in her throat no more!” Hegemonic violent masculinity is placed proudly on display, wielded and unsheathed to bruise and batter women, used to silence and render voiceless those women who deign to assert their humanity.

What kind of feminist am I, I ask myself, to find in sexist and misogynistic songs what I think to be the illest and melodic lyricism since my mother’s soothing sonorous cardiac beat during my natal gestation? It is deeply alluring, this melodious misogyny (a term coined by Treva B. Lindsey)—the sonic pleasures offered by popular music forms such as hip-hop that are characterized by the denigration and exploitation of women and their bodies. Perhaps my enjoyment of dexterous lyricism conveying anti-feminist sentiments is all part of the messy, complex struggle of one who does feminism every day. Perhaps this tumultuous struggle is generative, illustrative of what hip-hop feminist Joan Morgan calls “fuckin’ with the grays”: a type of feminism that intersects racial and class boundaries to address issues of female-identified individuals of all spectrums; a feminism that asserts the necessity of a feminist politics and theory to account for the messiness and lived contradictions of human experiences. So what does my hip-hop feminism, as a tatted Black dude, look like?

Mic check, one two, one two!

Hip-hop feminist: simply put, “women[-through-]men who step up and speak out against gender exploitation in hip-hop.” A hip-hop feminist is, in the words of Aisha Durham, is one who is committed to:

[the] sociocultural, intellectual, and political movement grounded in the situated knowledge of women of color from the broader hip hop or the U.S. post-civil rights genera- tion who recognize culture as a pivotal site for political intervention to challenge, resist, and mobilize collectives to dismantle systems of exploitation

Okay cool, we got that out the way. Now, when I say “hip-hop” I’m talking historically and etymologically, not that stuff you hear on the radio. (Though, to be sure, since radio-played hip-hop is mainstream hip-hop it carries a lot of influence and, thus, a lot of the misogynist tripe that I—we—must interrogate.) On M K Asante’s account, the “hip” in hip-hop comes from the verb “hipi” in the Wolof language (spoken by the Wolof people in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania). “Hipi” means “to open one’s eyes and see;” it means enlightenment. The “hop” comes from the Old English word for “to spring into action.” So hip-hop is, in a nutshell, enlightened action, ya dig?

My hip-hop, while no doubt still trading in sexist concepts and lyrics, is very much concerned with enlightened action—Mos Def’s call for racial justice in “Mathematics;” Common Market’s construction of female subjectivity and consequentialness in “Love One;” Gemstone’s critique of hip-hop’s arrogance and veneration of violence and drugs in “Fire In My Heart.” And my Black hip-hop feminism, inflected by my epistemic limitation as a cisgender dude, asserts that hip-hop is a fertile site for radical liberation. As Gwendolyn Pough maintains, “the objectionable elements of hip-hop are part of what make it valuable to feminism because they provide the opportunity for students to analyze and hone their skills of critical analysis.” Hip-hop should be tapped by the contemporary feminist movement to speak to younger feminists, particularly those of color, insofar as hip-hop can be valued for its critique.

But my work is a bit different, I think, from the Black women who proclaim their hip-hop feminism. Black women have long critiqued the sexism of men, heteropatriarchal systems, and the implicit sexism in the African American vernacular tradition. I need to do that now too. Men are not exempt from using their privilege in order to infiltrate and subvert spaces governed by male hegemony. In short, my job is to heed what Michael P. Jefferies says:

Hip hop feminists of all stripes need to be honest about their own inconsistency, and it is especially important for straight men to interrupt these patterns. Affect and feeling are bodily phenomena, and while women’s bodies are often rightly positioned at the center of hip hop feminist criticism, emphasis on male bodies as political sites must be increased. Men who are sexually attracted to the women objectified in hip hop performances and benefit from heteronormativity have important antisexist work to do, namely, repudiating male and straight privilege and affirming the authority of our own experiences as conflicted hip hop heads.

I need to step up, “rep my [masculine] set,” using the privilege and whatever clout I have via my male embodiment, and intervene in the misogynist discourse of hip-hop. While Pough avers that reading the lyrics of prominent female rappers against the grain “wrecks” the dominant discourse in hip-hop, my position in the heteropatriarchal structure housing hip-hop is to embody feminist language on a body coded as male and thus anti-feminist (to an extent), providing an alternative masculine discourse. Feminism and dismantling the patriarchy are not the sole jobs of women and trans folks. My hip-hop feminism as a Black male puts me in the position of inhabiting that feminism and in a sense rewriting what Black masculine subjects contained in hip-hop discourse can be.

And this inhabitation extends to the very fibers of one’s everyday life. Language, in its broadest sense, is a way hip-hop functions in ordinary, everyday practice. Hip-hop happens on the body, in one’s walk, one’s speech, how one dances, how one recites their favorite lyrics, and it is in this sense that my hip-hop feminism must be enacted and inhabited through the rewriting of what (Black) masculinity can be.

What, then, do I want my Black male hip-hop feminism to be? I need to acknowledge this first:  I am not free from the fetters of sexism as I, a male-identified subject coerced into buying into hetereopatriarchal structures, am implicated in the very troubled spaces of power I seek to militate against. In other words, there is no “safe space” free from the sexist smog surrounding us, and me in particular who carries the history of male domination on his body. And it is because of this that, as many hip-hop artists state, you better recognize.

My Black male hip-hop feminism will not question the motives or actions of women in hip-hop, good or bad, whether video vixen or artist, because, as historian Robin D.G. Kelley aptly states, “Distinguishing ‘bad’ women from ‘good’ women ultimately serves to justify violence against women by devaluing them.” My Black male hip-hop feminism will not give a free pass to “conscious” rappers because they rhyme, on occasion, about The System and racial profiling. My Black male hip-hop feminism expands the center of the social work that hip-hop can and has done, not de-centering Black cisgender bodies that are subject to things like police brutality, but “encourage[ing] an expansive center and co-extant Black subjects and subjectivities. This both and mode of engagement to theorizing Black violability refuses a hierarchical/competitive approach to addressing oppression and also recognizes and rejects the continued flattening of the Black violable subject as a cisgender, heterosexual male” (Treva B. Lindsey). Bring wreck to the mechanisms sustaining racial and gender oppression. Check yo’self.

Through enacting this hip-hop feminism through my Black male embodiment I not only intervene in the realm of hip-hop as it is narrowly conceived; I intervene in the larger systemic mechanisms that control hip-hop production. Hip-hop is not only historically a counter-hegemonic (“street” subculture) phenomenon but also a hegemonic one (successfully corporate commodity). My goal is to intervene not only in hip-hop but also the corporations that profit from hip-hop’s “immoralities” because it is they who generate this ethos of misogyny and sexism. Ask yourself, as M K Asante does:

Who sponsors rap? Who buys the most rap? Who promotes death and violence? Who backs ignorance? Who exploits rappers? Who profits from Black-on-Black violence? Who owns the radio stations? Who owns TV? Who owns who, you and your crew? Who runs the media? Who runs radio? Who, who, who?  

Who is my Black male hip-hop feminism for? Who does it seek to rail against? This—systems that maintain oppressive codes of conduct—is who, and they surely better recognize.


[image via x]

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Written by Marquis Bey

Marquis Bey is an unapologetically Black feminist Ph.D. student in Cornell University's English department studying Black Feminist Thought, African American Literature, and Transgender Studies. He has published a number of academic articles on race and gender, and also writes for more public forums on the topics of feminism, Blackness, and language. Aside from his "academic jam" (thank you for the phrase, Kristen), Marquis enjoys watching cartoons, working out, collecting cat posters, and losing touch with the outside world by receding into the tumultuous recesses of his own mind.

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