Sex and Commerce in Hip Hop

September 30, 2011

Words by Samuel Murray

Today hip hop is often accused of being a misogynistic art form that promotes the degra- dation of women, in music videos and in lyrics. The number of female emcees on the scene is tiny compared to the number of male emcees. Women are more likely to frequent music videos shaking thay bootay and dancing around the artist in only underwear and bling. Check out Jay-Z’s video for Big Pimpin’; pre- Beyonce.

These videos may suggest that the entire musical genre stands for the oppression of women, but women were involved in the hip hop music and cultural scene from its incep- tion. Artist such as Mercedes Ladies, MC Lyte, Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliot were huge in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s within the newly emerging hip hop landscape and their influence is still credited today. Joan Morgan, author of My Life as a Hip Hop Feminist says, ‘we thought of hip hop as ours; there was no “this is a male field and we’re trying to break in” ’. So what has changed since the good old days?

As mainstream popular music began to embrace the genre, hip hop gained massive commercial value. Simultaneously, the number of female artists on the scene declined rapidly. Women were required for their bodies rather than their voices. They were seen but not heard. Established female artists began to feel pressure to show more flesh in their videos and photo-shoots as the focus of their hip hop product moved away from the lyrics.

Why? A quick answer is that sex sells, that the capitalist marketplace caters for the needs of the (straight) male, and that within an androcentric system money turns the female body into a commodity to be sold. This is only half the story because it fails to explain why the process wasn’t happening to women anywhere else in the music industry. Rock artists like Flo- rence Welch express themselves whilst fully clothed so why can’t rap artists?

The fact is that music industry executives’ biggest target audience for both rap and rock are reasonably well-off, young, white people. Florence Welch ticks all of these boxes and, as music in any way she likes. Hip hop, however, was formed by poor, black people who were expressing what life was like in the ghetto, a context unknown to the well-off and white. In order for industry execs to package hip hop into a marketable product that appealed to their paying audience, they must take control of the music. Commercial hip-hoppas cannot represent themselves because what they express does not translate to the mainstream. Check out Lupe Fiasco’s Word’s I Never Said.

Highly commercial hip hop sells white people’s representations of black people back to themselves and this is what drives its misogyny. Capitalism notoriously takes advan- tage of the worst aspects of humanity, and in this instance, racist notions about black people being ‘primitive’ become the raw material to make money quickly and easily. So it makes perfect sense that women in commercial hip hop are silenced, denied agency, rendered a mere supplement of the male artist.

Within commercial hip hop the black female body has become the canvas onto which such fantasies about women and race can be painted so that the hegemony of the white male can be maintained. This is possibly because the white male has the big money and the black community (male and female) don’t. Women can only have certain roles and can only be rep- resented in an overtly misogynist way within commercial hip hop because racist stereotypes about black people make for cheap fuel to keep the fires of commercialism burning.

So, how can hip hop’s women become lib- erated? Women have lost the freedom to represent themselves through the creative agency of hip hop. Essentially, it is commerce that stands between the female hip hop artist and her audience, when ideally it should be the mechanism that brings the two together. Industry executives should realise that music lovers aren’t looking for the same formulated template that has been endlessly repackaged under a new name. Music lovers crave the nuance and art that is expressed in the voices of those who are left to speak for themselves. The thousands of hiphoppas – including many women – who have represented their lives are the true voice of hip hop and are the ones who deserve to be on the radio.

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