My favorite lyrics in hip-hop come from the song “Brown Skin Lady” off the 1998 album Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star: “Damn she fine, I think I add the R-E in front of that/And she is she D to get with a cat like me.” What I like about it so much is that Talib doesn’t stigmatize a woman’s sexuality nor does he co-opt it for his own benefit. He recognizes her qualities beyond the physical, calling her both fine and refined, a clever way of showing how to compliment a woman beyond the superficial. The whole song is actually a powerful tribute to women, praising both beauty and poise. It’s characteristic of the type of hip-hop I listen to. But so is “There He Go,” a song from ScHoolboy Q that contains the lines, “Ass fat, throw it back, I can’t believe you wifing that/ Deepthroat, seven or eleven, she’s a double gulp.” This is the type of hip-hop I turn down when I roll up in the Whole Foods parking lot—not because I’m white, but because I’m a woman.
For a long time, I’ve struggled to reconcile my position as a feminist with my love of hip-hop, and the contradiction is even more glaring when I look back at articles I’ve written for Recess. My last Editor’s Note was a denunciation of the word “crazy” as a gendered adjective, and my most recent music review was Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, an album I readily gave five stars despite it being propelled by the desire to f**k some girl named Sherane.
Listening to these albums could be seen as sanctioning appalling types of sexist behavior and attitudes that I would never tolerate in real life. This isn’t even mentioning the blatant homophobia or excess materialism that pervades the culture as well. But I’m not condemning hip-hop culture for breeding this attitude—the issues that contribute to it are too historical and nuanced to place blame, especially coming from someone outside of that particular lifestyle. I can only speak as a consumer of the art that it produces and defend my choices. And as unnatural as it might sound to group both A$AP Rocky and Stravinsky in the same category, they are nonetheless both music artists. It’s just a lot easier to defend liking Stravinsky than a guy who raps, “I be that pretty motherf**ker.”
Defending hip-hop begins by accepting an Aristotelian view of art, which sees art as another representation of truth as opposed to leading us further from the truth (the Platonic view). These descriptions are ineloquent distillations, but they get to the heart of how Aristotle, and most of us today, view art—influenced by and reflective of life. Songs calling women “hos” and “bitches” expose a different perspective that doesn’t necessarily resemble ours. Just because I don’t find these views valid in my life doesn’t mean their usage invalidates the rest of hip-hop music.
Such dissonance speaks to the purpose of art—to entertain, soothe, heal, shock, enlighten, etc. I turn to hip-hop for all of these things, not for a message on how to live my life. My beliefs about treating women respectfully were formed outside of any kind of art. They are uncompromising and will always be more reflective of who I am as a person than hip-hop music will. Yet I can see the merits in art created from of a misogynistic culture because I know what I would do in real life if I heard someone call a woman a bitch. In my mind, listening to a rapper degrade women is not comparable to degrading women myself, nor does it necessarily increase the likelihood that I will do so in the future.
That said, I don’t feel the need to defend every aspect of hip-hop music. The lack of female emcees (and the ones who manage to achieve fame in the current music climate) is an Editor’s Note unto itself. I’ll stick with the example of shock rap, a subgenre that in my opinion is far less nuanced and defensible than any other type of rap. Examples of shock rap are songs like Tyler, the Creator’s “Tron Cat” and Eminem’s “Kim,” where the perceived measure of success is defined by an initial reaction of horror. Then what? Both rappers I mentioned are undoubtedly talented, but I just can’t defend a lyric like, “Rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome.” It’s too appalling a reality to find merit in, and my bodily reaction to reject it will always be stronger than rationalizing its contributions to hip-hop. That is my line in the sand, and it forces me to examine a moral hierarchy I’ve created for myself. Good art does that. And everyone has a different line in the sand when it comes to hip-hop. Do you listen to hip-hop because it reinforces your dormant mentality of misogyny and viewing women as sexual accessories? Do you listen to it for entertainment and overlook the more troublesome lyrics in an otherwise creative and intelligent piece of music? Or do you not listen to hip-hop at all because the culture contributes to a society where gender inequality is the norm? All of these positions are valid if you can find a way to defend them in a personal yet critical way. I’ve struggled with this idea of being a feminist and a hip-hop lover for a long time because it’s never felt like a comfortable position. But at least I’m scrutinizing it to better understand how I can like what I like. It’s a lot more productive than just turning on the radio and saying, “That Kanye song is dope.”