CAN I BE A FEMINIST AND LISTEN TO RAP MUSIC?
By Maya Ebrahimpour
In the ‘90s, Snoop Dogg blessed us with his wholesome words in Dr. Dre’s “B**ches Ain’t Sh*t” when he rapped, "Bitches ain't sh*t but hoes and tricks / Lick on these nuts and suck the d**k."
More recently, in Jeremih’s song “Down on Me” which garnered significant airwave popularity, he sings, “If I do not fit, I'm gonna make it / Girl you can take it, Don't stop get it get it.” And this article would be remiss not to mention Chris Brown who constantly appears on our anti-feminist radar with his unsettling lyrics: “Just let me rock, f*** you back to sleep girl / Don’t say a word no (no, don’t you talk).”
Turn the radio to any hip-hop station, and chances are you’ll be bombarded by a barrage of questionable, misogynistic songs. The lyrics of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Jeremih aren’t anomalies – in fact, they serve as pretty effective representations of what most rap music sounds like.
Hip-hop was conceived in the 1970s in the Bronx as a spin-off of jazz and blues. Historically, rap music has always involved some degree of misogyny and many have attempted to discern its root cause. American sociologist Elijah Wood claims it is a result of skewed gender relations in inner-city neighborhoods in which men feel the need to degrade women to raise their own social status and self-esteem. Others attribute it to being a surefire way for rappers to gain success in the commercial realm.
As a feminist who also loves hip-hop music, I am constantly confronted with problematic, dehumanizing, and downright alarming lyrics that perpetuate violence against women. But here’s the thing: I sing along. It’s incredibly easy to not think about. The temptation to simply enjoy music for what it is and to ignore its more serious implications can be almost impossible to ignore. Like many others, I have become desensitized to the troubling words I listen to and support on the daily.
But is that the right thing to do? There lies a constant battle within the mind of anyone who identifies as a feminist and listens to rap music. Do we continue to sing along to ethically-ambiguous, sometimes threatening lyrics, attempting to overlook the creeping feeling that we’re doing something wrong? Or, should we do the complete opposite and boycott problematic music?
Even worse than misogynistic lyrics are misogynistic rappers themselves. The term ‘problematic faves’ was coined for artists like Chris Brown, XXXTentación, and Kodak Black, who have a long and frightening history of abusing women.
Chris Brown has been accused countless times of physical assault - both by his ex-girlfriend Rihanna, and of numerous female fans. In 2009, he assaulted Rihanna, leaving her with visible bruises, cuts, and swollen eyes and lips. In 2013, he forcefully shoved a woman to the ground at a club, tearing several ligaments in her knee. And in 2016, a fan tried to take a photo with him at a Las Vegas club, and he punched her in the face. These are just a few of the many sporadic, violent moments from Brown. Although he did spend a short time in prison - a mere 108 days to be exact - his popularity in the media and with young people has never dwindled and is continuously growing.
Similarly, XXXTentación has a harrowing history of violence towards women. The 20-year-old singer rose to popularity in 2015 at just 17 years old. In October of that year, his ex-girlfriend released a testimony detailing the gruesome record of abuse she endured from him. XXXTentación continuously threatened, assaulted and beat her while she was pregnant. He was also charged with false imprisonment and witness-tampering. Despite mounting evidence of XXXTentación’s crimes, his popularity has erupted among fans, lending his music to remain at the top of the charts.
Here, the controversial and long debated question comes to fruition: Can you separate the art from the artist? Many argue no, the words an artist sings and their respective actions become an inherent and definitive part of their identity. In an article on Artspace, Shannon Lee sums up this argument quite nicely: “Just because we can separate the art from the artist doesn’t mean we always should. It’s too convenient for established men who have made their careers off of images of women to have their misogynist abuses brushed aside with that simple, near canonized argument.”
However, others believe that problematic lyrics are simply a part of the persona and bravado of the artist. “If I were not able to separate the art from the artists, I think I would limit myself a great deal, and life wouldn't be nearly as interesting,” says Jessye Norman, an American singer.
Many of my friends, who wear their feminist identity with pride, echo this sentiment. They unanimously agree that Chris Brown sucks for hitting Rihanna, but continue to enjoy and listen to his music.
And can you blame them? Historically, women have always been told what they can’t do. No, you can’t vote. No, you can’t have an abortion. No, you can’t be the breadwinner of the family. No, you shouldn’t pursue a career in STEM. Why should women be punished by being told they shouldn’t listen to hip-hop music due to the musician’s choice to create music that objectifies women? It seems counterintuitive to claim someone is ‘anti-feminist’ if he or she enjoys rap music. Instead, we should take a deeper look at the systems of oppression and institutionalized sexism that encourage these lyrics to be written in the first place.
In pursuit of an answer to my original question, I asked my good friend and roommate Georgia, an avid hip-hop lover, for her thoughts. “Thinking critically does not have to be a separate process from enjoying something,” she said. “You can enjoy rap music, love it, and listen to it and still think critically about what it’s doing to our culture and what it means for you. And hopefully from that process of thinking critically, you’ll move towards not supporting artists who have more sexist content or a history of past abuses with women.”
So yes, you can listen to rap and still be a feminist. Hell, you can and should be able to sing along to catchy songs without compromising your integrity. But as Georgia so eloquently mentioned, there is a caveat.
I implore you to be cognizant and aware that sexist lyrics remain a substantial problem in our society. Words can have real consequences and it is imperative to understand the implications of what you are listening to. The mere process of recognizing certain songs and artists as problematic (in any genre of music, not just rap) holds great intrinsic value.
But for artists like Chris Brown and XXXTentación, who have a clear and documented record of abuse, I ask you to reconsider your loyalty to them. Although listening to their music may seem like a passive process, it signals your support. Each time you listen to their songs, it directly benefits them in the form of money and popularity.
In an ideal world, sexist undertones in music would cease to exist. But right now that is not realistic. Until we can achieve that, we need to think about the potential consequences that can arise from supporting certain media. And to think about the message being sent to future generations. Music and popular culture have the innate ability to influence and socialize young people. We need to be conscious of how the world around us not only reflects inequality but promotes and reinforces it. Recognition and self-awareness are the first steps to dismantling existing systems of oppression.
Moving forward, it is vital we hold artists accountable for their lyrics and actions, regardless of how much we love their music. We should encompass the fresh wave of activism in the entertainment industry following the #MeToo movement, and apply it to the music world. Recently, filmmakers and actors with huge notoriety, such as Harvey Weinstein and Woody Allen, have been called out and punished for their disturbing actions. If meaningful and lasting change can be enacted in an industry as densely packed with sexism as the film industry, why can’t it happen in the music industry as well? It can and will, but not on its own.
Whether you are a feminist, a hip-hop lover, neither or both, let’s use our collective power to radically change the way we listen to and interact with music. Let’s work together to create a fulfilling future in which the music world treats everyone with respect, no matter their identity.
Maya Ebrahimpour is an Editorial Contributor for Tough to Tame, and a second-year International Studies Major at UCLA. In her free time, she loves to travel, walk backwards as a campus tour guide, and eat vegan chicken tenders from late-night. Fighting for economic and social justice is her thing.