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Should I Be Offended?

2 December 2010 364 views 4 Comments

By Michelle DeBique

As a woman, hip-hop enthusiast and writer, the question I am asked most is not, my list of greatest rappers of all time, or my picks for the emcee to look out for in the new year, I am asked for my opinion on the relationship between women and hip-hop. Most people, particularly men, expect that by asking this, I will then take the opportunity to launch into a lecture, bemoaning the evils of hip-hop and vilifying all emcees as misogynistic, testosterone-ridden buffoons. “But surely Michelle”, they inquire, ‘on behalf of all women, aren’t you offended?’

Well, yes I am a woman but no, actually I’m not offended. I am the first to admit that the representation and role of women in hip-hop could use some revamping. I am just as tired as most women are of seeing the bikini-clad, booty shaking video vixen gracing the pages of countless hip-hop magazines and websites. I would also prefer, that in order to be taken seriously or to receive any shot of success, a female did not have to be co-signed, endorsed or flanked by one or more moderately talented, male rapper(s).

Women have always had a contentious relationship with hip-hop, riddled with many complexities and challenges. There seems to be a constant battle between each side to find a better way to understand each other, maintain mutual respect and ultimately co-exist happily and peacefully.  Sounds just like you and your significant other, huh?

Despite these troubling aspects, to suggest that hip-hop as a culture inherently harbours a lack of respect for women is not only unfair but, just plain ignorant.  The beauty of hip-hop is that it is rich in both quality and quantity. There is an abundance of hip-hop so appallingly awful even the staunchest hip-hop apologist couldn’t defend. And then, there is this plethora of beautiful, positive, soul enriching hip-hop that while perhaps not as popular as the crappy stuff, is still worth recognizing.

Some would suggest that you would have to do some major crate digging to find these positive examples, but a close examination of some of hip-hop’s most famous faces could yield great results.

Every emcee has a formula, a shtick if you will. When it comes to women, each rapper takes their formula and tackles the subject of women very differently. There is the “Sympathizer”, the rapper who, through their lyrics, addresses the trials and tribulations faced by women with eloquence, dignity and respect.

A great example of this is Nas who in his song “Reason” states, ‘Picture a Black nanny and a baby in a basket pushin’ down 5th Ave, she never had it, it’s not hers to begin with. She gives it breakfast, baths and dinners. Treats it so tender while her own kids live alone at home with no phone on. Ain’t had a good meal in so long….”

These lyrics offer a jarringly accurate depiction of a single mother, struggling to provide for herself and her children. In this example, Nas’ subject is not demeaned or ridiculed, instead he uses his music as a forum to shed a much needed light on an unfortunate reality too many women are forced to reckon with.

Another and perhaps more famous approach to women in hip-hop can be seen in Tupac Shakur, whose anthem “Keep Your Head Up” despite being released decades ago, continues to strike a chord with women to this day.

The iconic video, featuring a young Jada Pinkett-Smith walking down the street to the jeers and catcalls of men, to the famous opening lines, ‘Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice, I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots’ illustrate an acute level of female sensibility.

The lyrics demonstrate a man’s appreciation for the beautiful skin so many black women struggle to accept and appreciate while the video’s imagery hopefully shows men how utterly ridiculous it looks trying to holla at a female while in a car full of goons.

There are some emcees that think the art of wooing is as simple as listing sexual conquests and bedroom skills however there are others who are way more skilled. Rapper LL Cool J is perhaps the best example of what I like to label as “The Casanova”. Renowned for penning one of hip-hop first ballads “I Need Love”, LL not only uses his good looks and physique in order to appeal to a female audience, but the dedication of a large part of his musical repertoire to the female form, makes him an easy female fan favourite.

In one of his most famous hits, “Hey Lover” the rapper asks ‘What your man got his hustle on gotcha type scared? Break ya off a little chump change to do your hair? That seems to be enough to satisfy your needs, but there’s a deeper level if you just follow my lead’.

These lyrics place his unrequited love on a pedestal, while also showing her that she deserves much more than she is receiving in her current relationship, both sentiments many women could benefit from listening to.

Every so often, we are also graced by the presence of the “Broken-hearted Lothario’, the emcee who doesn’t take heartbreak as an opportunity to slander the virtue of their former loves, instead they dare to show an emotion very rare in hip-hop; vulnerability. These emcees have loved and lost love and use their lyrics as dedication to the ones that got away.

The Roots single “Silent Treatment” features rapper Black Thought readily accounting for the errors of his ways, through self-reflection, an approach very different to the one most of us use when dealing with a failed relationship. There are many examples of the bitter-side of break-ups in hip-hop (see Ghostface Killah’s Wildflower, for an especially good one) but here,  Black Thought is not only regretful, but damn near desperate for a reconciliation. Buoyed by the signature, soulful, jazz-infused Roots sound, he virtually begs his lost love, to throw him a line, anything, in the form of communication after their parting of ways, a brave but effective means of showing his adoration for his former paramour.

Hip-hop juggernaut famous for his braggadocios lyrics, Jay-Z penned the tearjerker ‘Song Cry’ in this vein as well. Again, without defaming the virtue of his former love, the song depicts Jay-Z’s vivid recollection of a relationship gone south. His refrain, ‘I can’t see ‘em comin down my eyes, so I gotta make the song cry’ again, illustrates vulnerability and shows the emcee’s ability to love, choosing to use his music as an outlet for his pain.

Sure, you’re probably thinking that Jay-Z and Tupac especially are horrible examples, that defeat my argument altogether. The two are considered to be amongst the most notable culprits in the ‘crimes’ against women in hip-hop but that is exactly why I think they work in this context. If they were truly misogynists, or individuals with no respect for women, could they make songs like the ones mentioned?

Of course, I would much rather hear an emcee use terms more flattering to women and yes, I would love to see them embrace females much more equally however, their failure to do so, in my eyes is not an offence. Instead, it illustrates the contradictory, tortured soul of artists in hip-hop. These emcees are not saints but certainly not devils, as they posses equal parts of good and evil. They may have made transgressions against women however, they have also paid homage to them and in my opinion, these transgressions should not and cannot overshadow their more positive showings.If anything, they illustrate the great room for improvement in all hip-hop artists and allows for more discussion on how hip-hop can evolve and elevate itself from soundtrack of the streets to collective voice of all people.

What is debatable is not the acknowledgement that the disrespect of women in general is wrong; it is the perception that hip-hop and hip-hop artists should be defined as inherently disrespectful. Ultimately, music is merely a reflection of the state of society. We all have seen examples of indiscretions against women outside of hip-hop therefore, is it fair to hold a mirror up against hip hop culture while neglecting to shed light on the misogyny that is present all over society?

Let us not taint the legacy of hip-hop with generalities. Instead, let us celebrate the impact hip-hop has made and look forward to a future where it just keeps getting better and more inclusive of women altogether. In the interim, this woman will continue to love hip-hop, despite it’s shortcomings. Unconditionally.

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  • jason b said:

    people just can’t seem to read between the lines. even songs like “baby got back” is a tribute to women who stay real to them self. having curves and a big booty wasnt even fashionable when that song came out. but for some reason some people consider it to be sexist.

    very good article!!!

  • VM said:

    Very nice article about what wholesome examples of hip hop look like! I think your article answers a different question than the title seems to ask… (or at least what I that it asks)

    Correct me if i summarize incorrectly: You aren’t offended by Hip hop as a WHOLE because of some examples of “hip-hop so appallingly awful even the staunchest hip-hop apologist couldn’t defend”.

    But you also aren’t saying that those bad examples don’t offend you though. Is that fair?

  • Saki said:

    I totally agree that misogyny in all sectors of society needs to be adressed. Like you said hip hop is rich in quality and quantity, rather than be offended I prefer to focus on the quality music that is released. Excellent article.

  • Candice said:

    Great article! I look forward to hearing more from you.

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