Sunday, December 24, 2006

In The Dock: Misogynistic hip-hop

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: Misogynistic hip-hop

The case for the prosecution (Caskared)

To start of with, I would like to point out that I don’t like misogyny in any genre (gasp!)... anti-women electropop or plainsong are just as much in my no-likee list as hip-hop, it’s just that hip-hop seems to be the most overtly misogynist.

Also, early on, I would like to point out that by singling out misogynistic hip-hop is not to by default say that anti-men hip-hop is good at all either, but as is not as prevalent as the anti-women stuff I’ll leave that topic for another time and place.

So, to the case in hand. It’s not the actual music of hip-hop (although some ain’t to my taste); it’s the lyrics, videos and associated culture that has rippled out into wider society due to its popularity that makes calling boys and girls pimps and hos OK that bugs me. There are a whole tangle of things; I’ll pull at a few threads here that apply to recent hip-hop.

Hip-hop began in the tough, rough inner cities of the USA, and although now it is pretty global, lots of the most prominent stuff still comes from those places. The poverty cycle is rife, people have to survive and hip-hop is one way out. Inevitably roots are recounted in lyrics and imagery, no bad thing. A depressingly large number of women (and minority of men) are driven to prostitution and in some hip-hop this role of women is glamorised. Take the world of 50 Cent: women in his lyrics and videos are only there to please men, they’re subordinate to his control. Certainly his videos aren’t made for women... In 'PIMP' the ladeez strip off completely while Fiddy and Snoop letch around them. In 50’s lyrics in 'Candy Shop' the hos (or ho ho ho’s, it is Christmas! Sorry) brag about how great they are at their jobs, and how much money they are going to make from him. Where 50 plays the pimp, he mocks how he’s exploiting his lady workers, oh, and calls them bitches (he pops in a little homophobia too 'In Da Club'). Sure, there are some women who genuinely choose the profession, but the message of a glamorous sex industry is sent out to such a mass audience. What is a product of an unfortunate part of society becomes a catalyst.

In Nelly’s, Snoop’s, Lil Wayne’s videos, the male gaze is catered for in the most basic women-in-bikini way. Sometimes it’s parody a la 'Gravel Pit' by Wu Tang Clan. Fantastic song, but the well-covered men being the bosses of the pit while the women are tied up, the lovely Paulissa Morgan sings strongly as she writhes. It has an audacity and they do make light of it being Neanderthal... like lads’ mags ironic porn it’s funny, but not for long. In Chamilionaire’s world he prefers women from behind, and he can’t "help but to help myself". There are plenty of lyrics about what the young fellas would like to do to the ladies, and it’s not pretty, sometimes violent a la Ja Rule and Eminem. Not to forget the raps about women who should do anything to keep their man: the ride-or-die chick. Nice.

Women are in the vast majority not MCs (although this is changing!), they’re supporting voices, once again just playing out the will of the male artiste/producer. No wonder there’s so much male-oriented imagery. Thing is, it’s largely not even real beauty – the airbrushing, the plastic enhancements... it’s idealised in a way that says women should aspire to be like this, to please the men.

The medium can’t help but be reductive, and there is no moral obligation or accountability to society, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. There is an argument that nekked ladies is a celebration of the female form, that not liking it is fusty and the women really want to be nakedy. But is it their choice, and do they also want to be reduced to being at disposable service to the men-folk? Of course some yes, and I’m teetering on the brink of so many huge discussions here... but my basic point for this little rant is that misogynistic hip-hop gives an acceptable face and makes popular the idea that women are only here to look good, and to be subordinate to men, supporting an environment that allows sexism to continue. Calling women a ho, bitch, yeah, funny, only not really.

The case for the defence (Jonathan S)

I’m gonna have to come at this from a tricksy angle, as defending misogynism in any shape or form is not something I wanna do, but I’ll take this, if I may, as an opportunity to argue that anyone who decides to ignore or deride rap tunes which exhibit sexist lyrics may be making a creditable moral stand, but is also volunteering to miss some of the best music and lyrics ever, for there is as much to admire as deride in a genre which continues to dazzle linguistically and, frankly, beats indie-rock’s tepid songsmiths into a cocked hat. Or should that be a cocked GAT?

I remember the first rap record I fell for: walking around all summer with Snoop’s ‘Doggystyle’ on constant repeat, wondering whether I could justify loving music which was so gloriously technicolour and funky and simultaneously so lyrically VILE. And there’s plenty to baulk at on that record, and others of its ilk, but not so much that I want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Although ‘Aint No Fun’ features some of the worst lines in rap (Korupt’s verse in particular, where "cause she ain't nuthin but a bitch to me" is pretty much the most acceptable line) it also features Nate Dogg’s disarming confession:

"...cause I have never met a girl
That I loved in the whole wide world
"

Ben Folds does a pretty good rendition, actually, of Dre’s ‘Bitches Ain’t Shit’ where he drops the accompaniment out altogether to isolate Snoop’s one moment of vulnerability:

"I kick in the do', I look on the flo'
It's my little cousin Daz and he's fuckin' my ho, yo
I uncocked my shit...
I'M HEART-BROKE.
But I’m still loc’ed.
Man. Fuck that shit.
"

As my musical palette expanded, I got used to this split; I would be appalled by the misogyny of a lot of rap and then amazed and intrigued by the complexity of the rhymes spun by people like Biggie and Nas. Of course, with the likes of De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def and Roots Manuva it’s possible to listen to conscious, intelligent rap that DOESN'T denigrate women, but ignoring misogynist hip-hop altogether means missing out on extraordinary treasures.

The genre’s right-out-in-front wordsmith, Nas, straddles this divide. Sure, ‘Rewind’ includes pretty unpleasant lines about women. But it also features the rapper spinning together a story with remarkable skill, describing his day backwards:

"Sitting in back of this chair, we hitting the roach
The smoke goes back in the blunt, the blunt gets bigger in growth
Jungle unrolls it, put his weed back in the jar
The blunt turns back into a cigar
"

Ice Cube’s rhymes, meanwhile, may concentrate on playin’ ball and fuckin’ hos, but just when you’ve got ‘It Was A Good Day’ down as a hymn to brainless hedonism, Cube raps:

"Plus nobody I know got killed in South Central L.A.
Shit. Today was a good day.
"

Elsewhere, so much stereotypically misogynistic hip-hop just contains stunning observations, whether you agree with them or not; try AZ’s verse on Nas’s ‘Life’s A Bitch’, beginning with the following:

"Visualizin' the realism of life and actuality
Fuck who's the baddest - a person's status depends on salary.
"

John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, meanwhile, recently observed, "There's not a rock writer as good as Ghostface. He's just shocking":

"We left the jewelry store, feelin' like we left the morgue
We was frozen, and I brought an iced-out Trojan
That's for pussies whose golden, who got Toney wide open
I put my ring up to my man's waves and seen an ocean
Move like a wolf, kid, in sheep's clothing
Snatch the money bag off the milk truck and kept boating
I be potent like Ibuprofen, I be coastin'
"

Hip-hop can be unpleasant in a variety of ways – chiefly in its rampant misogyny. On the other hand, it’s often wildly creative, articulate and honest; it has its roots in celebration and liberation and is often created in an environment of poverty and exploitation. Deriding it as "misogynist hip-hop" means having to ignore a wonderful tradition of black-hearted story-telling, exhibited to stunning effect in songs like Eminem’s ‘Stan’, Biggie’s ‘Things Done Changed’ ("My mom's got cancer of the breast / Now ask me why I’m motherfuckin' stressed") or Slick Rick’s ‘Lodi-Dodi’. Rap may be better WITHOUT sexism, sure, but that’s not the way it works – hip-hop is dark, unique, shocking, offensive, frustrating, sensational.

It may offend your ears, but it’s unputdownable.

* * * * *

Thanks to Caskared and Jonathan. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until a week on Friday (5th January) to make up your mind...

18 Comments:

Blogger Damo said...

Ahhhhhhhhhhh... tough. Really tough.

Misogyny in anything is rubbish. I hate being in a crowd of blokes having a drink and then someone says about a disagreement with their partner and all the 'typical women' stuff starts up. Erm, no. There's a strange and pathetic irony in the fact that not getting involved in saying women are rubbish actually brings on the jibes about one's sexuality. I'm a straight bloke - and women make me happier than, well, anything.

But the prosecution argument is trying to pull on the fact that a) there's more to it than that and b) the question of whether we're singling out a genre again. I'm going to have the bravery to treat it in isolation. All misogyny (whether or not dressed up in a wider explanatory context) turns me off, so guilty. For me, being misogynistic because you've never been in love is no better than justifying racism by saying you've had problems with a person of a different ethnicity at some point. That sounds more controversial than it's meant to be but my basic point is - I don't think you can choose which prejudices can be made "acceptable" within context and which can't.

4:28 pm  
Blogger James said...

Guilty. I am not down on any of these guys, necessarily, and the defence is right to say that there are many jewels to be found in the ghetto. It may be one thing to reflect that misogyny exists, but it is another to claim it your own - and this, sadly, is what too many artists have done. If we were talking racist hip hop, there would be no debate - misogyny is no different.

Jonathan S has presented a valiant struggle in an unwinnable argument as far as I can see... Guilty.

5:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I can't abide hip-hop and so, notwithstanding the misogyny, it's a "guilty".

8:39 pm  
Blogger SwissToni said...

I'm sorry, but I can't bring myself to vote. I'm desperately aware of how little knowledge of hip-hop I have, and I can offer little more except to say that misogyny is stupid wherever it is found - which is obvious to everyone, isn't it?

Well done to caskared and (especially) to jonathan s for stepping up to this thankless task (and at a pretty thankless time of the year too)... but sorry. No vote from me.

ST

11:14 pm  
Anonymous Pete said...

As much as I love hip-hop (i.e. the "intelligent" side such as Roots Manuva), the misogynistic nature of some of it has become a little tiresome, particularly in the in-your-face videos.

Admittedly, I haven't grown up immersed in the society and culture that most of the artists come from, so perhaps I'm naturally going to be biased against something that mainstream society finds repulsive.

Nevertheless, it seems to be such a reoccurring theme in so many hip-hop songs (and their accompanying promo material) it's become bland and tedious, let alone offensive.

Just for once it'd be nice to see the hip-hop lads appreciate that the misogyny isn't something to be proud of. Perhaps a touch of irony a la Jonas Åkerlund's video for "Smack My Bitch Up"?

Ultimately, I have to agree with James' comment. Openly racist music is appalling, so why should openly misogynistic music be regarded any differently.

Guilty.

12:48 pm  
Blogger mike said...

Guilty, but Jonathan puts up a superb case for the defence.

2:15 pm  
Blogger jonathan said...

Bah, I'm losing quite comprehensively here, aren't I? Well, it's pretty hard to really argue with most of Caskared's arguments - I can't bear the likes of 50 Cent or Ja Rule either, and my argument loses a lot of power if you substitute those names for the rappers I identified. And obviously misogyny sucks.

Do none of you own NWA records though? Or listen to garage, reggae or dancehall? Or own 'Murder Ballads' by Nick Cave?

Or read books by John Updike or Martin Amis, come to that!?

2:19 pm  
Blogger Damo said...

I own Murder Ballads by Nick Cave. I seem to recall he kills women AND men...

I've also got a few records which could be described as offensive in the same way that Derek and Clive were. These things are always a matter of individual judgment and if I ever think that the person singing it means it/lives it, I feel dirty listening to it. That's not restricted to hip-hop, it is (to give one example) one of the many reasons I had for hating Limp Bizkit...

3:59 pm  
Anonymous Nick The Snick said...

I likes me a bit of hip-hop, but generally try to avoid the posturing, macho, homophobic, mysogynistic, (and frankly quite dull) gangsta stuff. Regardless of his lyrics, I find Fiddy's beats and voice far less interesting to listen to than Roots (both Manuva and The) or The Beasties.

There's loads of great hip-hop out there that sounds great and doesn't denegrate half the planet's population. Remove the sexism and hatred and you still have a genre good enough to survive on it's other genuine merits.

Guilty, no hesitation.

7:27 pm  
Anonymous alison said...

I'm finding this a hard one. I'd argue till I lost my breath that there is a place for art which is obscene, provocative and offensive. But as a woman I hate this music and its sentiments. I’m not sure if I’m missing hidden irony or failing to appreciate a cultural difference which deems the lyrics and imagery acceptable. I have to assume that the women who sign up for the videos or self-reference as bitch and ho in their own music must be doing so consciously. And I’d defend their right to do so, I guess I just find it depressing. I think I’m going to have to abstain, not because neither of the arguments have convinced me but rather because both have.

3:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm really not comfortable with the premise of this debate. In my mind, which may be wrong, it boils down to "is a bad thing bad" the answer to which is "yes it's bad" which doesn't really say anything.

It also goes far beyond the music itself - the fact that this sort of thing is popular across a wide spectrum of society, including some women I might add, is the real issue and I don't think that can be solved by simply finding a certain form of musical expression guilty.

On top of this, hip hop is not the only genre where this happens - Metal has its fair share of sexist posturing for example, and it's not just misogyny - homophobia is a pretty big issue.

If I'm going to force myself to make a judgement I'll have to say Not Guilty on the basis that misogynistic hip hop is a symptom of a wider problem. It's given power from its acceptance by society. Once society changes it will no longer have that power and won't be a problem (just as, for example, casual racism from the early 20th century is not considered a problem today because we've moved away from that.) It'll just be music and lyrics without the cultural resonance.

To put it another way, the popularity of misogynistic hip hop shines a bright light on the misogyny prevalent in society that we might prefer to otherwise ignore. For that alone it serves a useful role and must be permitted.

A qualified not guilty then.

6:45 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

Pete: You're being a bit unfair there, I think.

The topic of the debate came about (as did all the others) through one person suggesting something they'd like to either prosecute or defend and then someone else signing up to provide the opposing case. In this instance, Caskared proposed prosecuting misogynistic hip-hop and Jonathan took up the gauntlet - I imagine as a challenge to see if he could defend the indefensible. And (apologies if this sounds patronising, Jonathan - it's not meant to) it's a testament to the strength of his case that there has been some debate and Caskared's argument has evidently had to do some work.

Ultimately, though, it's the prosecution case that wins out for me. Misogynistic hip-hop is guilty, just as misogynistic strains in any form of music would be. Just because certain attitudes are deeply ingrained in a certain culture doesn't mean that those attitudes are thereby exempt from being considered morally reprehensible.

Jonathan: Like Damo, I can't agree that Murder Ballads is misogynistic, but for a different reason - namely, that Nick Cave is very obviously (or at least I would hope it's obvious to the listener) playing a role, creating a character, narrating their actions and speaking their thoughts. Similarly, to claim writers like Martin Amis and Bret Easton Ellis are misogynist and cite 'Money' and 'American Psycho' as evidence would be misguided. By contrast, rappers like 50 Cent insist interminably that they are keeping it real and being themselves - so when misogynistic sentiments trip from their lips it's a far surer indication of a repellent attitude towards women.

8:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow... this is deep; real nice. May i quote u in my project?

6:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guilty! The reasons for it are not good enough in my opinion.

It's just another man making excuses. It's because so normal for these images/lyrics to be around us that no one wants to challenge it.

I think another problem all together is the fact these women are mostly African American in these videos and are being presented not much different to the way they were seen by slave owners.

These black artists are still slaves really just this time to their own ignorance, lack of respect for each other and women and also to money. Which is why until someone takes a stand or this hip hop culture will just stay the same.
These rappers (and the women who are in the videos/those women who don't challenge these views) need to take responsibility for their actions. This should not define black culture! People like Obama should!

10:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fuck you politically correct cunts! go suck some more dick.

women are bitches, treat 'em like prostitutes and you will feel better about yourself. lol.

7:01 pm  
Anonymous Generic Viagra said...

Hey Mr. Anonymous, let me ask a question: if you take a little piece of bread out of a big dog shit, is it shitty? Well then, let ask you another question: where did you come from? A giving birth dick? I don't think so!
So my final question is, are you a shitty piece of bread or a human being?

8:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My ex boyfriend is a famous hip hop journalist. Told me right to my face that I shouldn't talk to him about hip hop because I can't. He is a selfish loser on and off camera, LOL.

1:52 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Slick Rick song is Ladi Dad, the Snoop cover version is Lodi Dodi. Also, Slick Rick performed that as MC Ricky D. JUST SAYING.

11:41 am  

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