A Critical Look at Hip Hop

Hip hop and the culture built around it has been under critical gaze for years. Though hip hop has its roots in reclaiming cultural expression and voicing political issues, by the time Sherley Anne Williams and Tricia Rose wrote their critiques and the documentary and panel Hip Hop vs. America aired the face of hip hop had changed. Three of the main issues of content and the environment of hip hop brought up by critics are the focus of money and commercialization, power and violence, and attitudes towards as well as representation of women.

The issue of violence in hip hop is talked about extensively by Williams in her article Two Words on Music: Black Community. She mentions the aspect of fantasy when she states

Rappers’ fantasies about killing white people, in general, or policemen, in particular, are no more than the letting off of steam about the almost unbearable racist pressure under which most of us live; these fantasies are not the ones that are acted upon.

She continues to explain how the violence in the community happens mostly in group and that, and the lyrical content which glorifies it, is what worries her. It is when the content turns from a tool of fantastical catharsis to a catalyst of community disruption and violence that it is acted upon and re-informs popular music to continue reflecting it.

During the Hip Hop vs. America panel Nelly and T.I. speak about another fantastical element of violence in hip hop; the popularity of it leading to many rappers who did not grow up in the violent and harsh environments they rap about. They both cite their experiences growing up in these communities as why they choose to speak about them in their songs. Black music, and music in general, is reflexive by nature in this way. A problem does arise though when lived experiences such as these are mediated and glorified by those who do not live them. It leads to a disconnect with politics and purpose and adds to the growing inauthentic nature of popular culture and for that to be taken, without critical analysis, as reality.

Sexism and the attitudes towards and representation of women were discussed in length in both Williams’ and Rose’s articles as well as during the Hip Hop vs America panel. In her article Black Texts/Black Contexts Tricia Rose states that

[misogyny in rap music is] a manifestation of a long-standing set of gender relations.

She disputes other writers and thinkers, such as Williams, who place misogyny in rap music as a result of the history of assault on Black America and suggests that it has been present in the Black community for a long time in different forms. She also speaks about the absence of Black women rappers which is better today but still a major issue. I can only think of three popular Black female rappers with recent releases; Nicki Minaj, Azealia Banks, and Angel Haze; and know of a possible future release by Missy Elliot. That is by all means not an exhaustive list as they are what I could list off the top of my head. I work in the music industry and I see possibly one Black female rapper come through the studio for every 50 or more male rappers.

During the Hip Hop vs America panel the panelists focus mostly on the representation of women in hip hop culture. The only Black female artists they mention are pop/R&B artists and in regards to the fact that they show more substance filled choreography with female dancers than is seen in male oriented videos. The absence of discussion of female rap artists during the panel echoes Rose’s statements. The panel touched on the hypersexualization of Black women in hip hop videos, the focus on body parts instead of personhood, and the lack of role representation other than as a dancer or model. Another link between Rose’s article and the panel discussion is when Dr. Michael Eric Dyson says that “the reduction of Black womens’ identity” did not start with hip hop but can be seen also in communities, especially churches, in the way that women do a lot of work without having access to leadership roles. He states, like Rose, that misogyny precedes hip hop culture and is the product of a long standing system of patriarchy. This system not only upkeeps harmful representation and attitudes towards women, but also lends to the absence of women rappers.

The effects of the commodification and commercialization of hip hop was brought up by Williams in the conclusion of her article. Though she doesn’t specifically mention the business aspect of hip hop she speaks of it’s influence as a form of major media on Black youth when she says

What trickles down to kids on my block is that what they’re doing must be all right because it is celebrated, not just in heir own songs, but in white people’s stories, rapped about by some heavy-weight dudes and sisters at colleges and conferences…

She nods to the mediation of hip hop by white executives and power holders in the industry as well as talking about how this content is normalized in her community.

In Hip Hop vs. America many of the panelists and interviewees talk about how, in 50 Cent’s terms, “racy” content sells whereas political and other more diverse content does not. When discussing the degrading representation of black women in hip hop videos T.I. gives an example that if he were to make a video with women dressed as school teachers wearing conservative suit jackets and long skirts that the video would not be accepted to be aired on BET. During the panel discussion Stanley Crouch mentions how 4 out of 5 hip hop albums sold are bought by white consumers. Though there is a lot of discussion about the relevancy of that statistic I believe it is telling of the fact that the consumer base who ultimately determine what content makes it to stores reflects the demographics of the US population as a whole. In other words I believe the responsibility of further mediation or critical analysis does not belong only on Black hip hop artists or the Black community.

This leads to the discussion of how these representations of money, power and violence, and attitudes toward women are reflected and impacted in American society. It’s cyclical, the content that becomes popular is was American society as a whole decides to buy. The socio-cultural factors that lead to popular content in rap are complex factors concerning all of American society. The reflexive story-telling nature of hip hop creators is not the same source or reasoning behind why middle class white males purchase their music. The wants or needs of society as a whole, with possible trends of reaffirming masculinity and yearning for the American dream of financial success and prominence, reflect in what becomes popular content in media. It is with this mediation that the inauthentic “reality” of popular media informs society and reinforces normalized violence and individualist attitudes which prioritize materialism over humanism.

This also leads to the further upkeep of misogyny in the Black community and American society as a whole. The objectification of women and reduction of their agency and personhood in media is upkept due to a long standing patriarchal system. These attitudes lead to the continuing high rates of violence towards women, rape and sexual assault, and discrimination which effect all women in American society but more so women of color due to the added intersection of race. This is something that needs to be continually challenged in every form of media and in communities and institutions.


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