Feminism & Hip-Hop Conference Notes, Part 2

Again, these are just my notes, and they are transcribed verbatim, though I will try to explain what they mean where necessary. The following comes from a panel including Spelman College professor Beverly Guy-Sheftall, cultural critic Joan Morgan (who wrote seminal work When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-Hop Feminist) and Professor Tricia Rose.
Panel begins with Sheftall on Spelman and the boycott of Nelly’s “Tip Drill.” She reads a couple of the letters received after the boycott got mass publicity, but clarifies the letters they do not represent the majority opinion, which was generally derisive of the boycott. (It led to Nelly’s rather gutless cancellation of his own concert, and the “Boycott” was in fact just a plea to Nelly to discuss his content with Spelman students like Moya Bailey.)
The first letter she received is from a man who is incarcerated: it includes: “Sunday morning is the only time people can watch rap videos..the guards love the videos and know all the lyrics. Black and white guards love the lyrics which demean black women.”
The second letter is from a black mother of a two year old, talking about her “struggles in this nation which continues to hate the poor.” That there is a pervasive historic precedent of obscene racial/gender stererotype circulating around the black woman, Sheftall says, “as sexual beings who deserve whatever behavior men subject us to.” She then derides the glorification of pimp culture, the fact that 76% of young black men watch BET for six hours a day, and the negative images of black manhood in a racist, sexist culture. She describes strippers in videos as “half-naked slaves,” and calls out the heterosexism and homophobia in rap lyrics.
JOAN talks. Defines “hip-hop feminism” as “not an easy sell,” though gets teary and says she is “elated and empowered” that the conference is happening (she’s been working towards this since she was one of the first hip-hop critics ever for the Village Voice in the ’80s, and was a pioneering voice for hip-hop feminism). She says, “hip-hop feminism has never been a comfortable relationship” and then says most rappers today are “badly behaved and not that interesting” and that “hip-hop as I knew and loved it is pretty much dead to me,” and that she “misses the golden era aesthetically” and that most of all:
“Sexism is bad for art, and it’s bad for hip-hop.” “Sexism poisoned the art form.” “Hip-hop is stunted by sexism, intermalized racism, and capitalism.”
Joan talks about the multiplicity of women’s roles in the golden era and then talks a bit about Lil’ Kim, that in her early days she was offering “real stories in terms of women who had power,” but that when she fell “madly in love with biggie” she felt she had “no voice without him” and Kim, who was once an MC with a potent message, became became a caricature of herself. She recommends the book The New Black Man by Mark Anthony Neal–black male feminist, one of my favorite writers, and Morgan’s childhood friend.
Morgan says that she doesn’t mourn hip-hop’s death, because “If hip-hop dies, I know another black art will follow. It always does.” But that “You are being handed something vital and if you care about this music at all, please recognize your power,” and then the hip-hop quotable, “Feminism: I live that shit like a verb.” She stresses the importance of “cross-generational, intra-racial alliances” in combating sexist hip-hop.
TRICIA ROSE. She begins: “Hip-hop is in a state of crisis for two reasons. One: misogyny. Two: capitalism. Hip-hop has always been an indirectly commercial art form that’s used reformulated commodities. It has always played a part in the marketplace by using spraypaint, turntables, other purchased items. But in 8/9 years it became completely immersed in consumer culture, internalizing the logic of consumption.” She talks about the pimp/hustler idea as being side-effect of internal exploitation, marginalization, and legitimate participation that takes up the logic of explotiation: “be a player or get played.”
She says that in this capitalist rap climate, the traits of compassion and vulnerability are marginalized in order to reduce the risk of explotiation. She talks about the iconography involved, that you cannot be valued in hip-hop culture without going from the “producer to player to platinum,” (money/power/respect) and she indicts the “paucity of language about gender consciousness.” That in the larger culture there is great hostility towards:
black culture
poor people
women
AND pop culture
which produces blanket attacks on the music to further marginalize all of the above. What is wrong with hip-hop, she says, is that it has “taken up this conversation and normalized it” (What Sasha always describes to me as “people who listen to rap lyrics” vs. “people who believe in them”).
Rose then shows her “manipulation of the funk” card: “what wouldn’t I listen to over a hot beat?” and talks about the idea of the underground as political progressive sphere: “The underground isn’t saving us just cause it’s underground,” and anyway, the underground is generally relegated to the “sophisticated internet-based fanbase, which is not where most hip-hop fans are listening.”
JOAN says we must examine how misogynistic hip-hop affects women and our sense of agency and complicitness, and that it’s also a self-esteem challenge. That feminism is a constant ongoing process and we must look at how hip-hop informs black female desire, how it influences black America and how America’s version of the criminalized, hypermasculine black man influences black womens’ notions of desire. Joan says that hip-hop feminism requires constant internal exploration and analysis and you have to be willing to DO THE WORK and CHALLENGE THE PATRIARCHY and see how it informs our NARROW NOTIONS OF LOVE.
Tricia Rose says: this is bigger than Nelly and that record labels and major corporations like Viacom are part of it, but that “I don’t expect anything else from Viacom… I do expect artists to be responsible; artists claiming a stake in the community [claiming they are street] and acting as if they’re not responsible for what goes on there is bullshit; they’re affected by it, but they’re not irresponsible.
She says “hegemonic forces say we’re not in charge, but we need to illuminate the fissures in the system.” I.e. what Moya Bailey did at Spelman.
Tricia Rose then brings up the idea of the “ride or die chick,” as being passive/submissive, and wonders how women are complicit with our own plight. Some solutions: “more progressive, anti-capitalist, anti-racist classes for grades k-12; get young black women and men to start reading.”
Bevery Guy-Sheftall, oh so fierce, interjects: You do not disrupt the patriarchal white supremacy by sitting around watching BET.
Joan suggests we look to positive role models as we look for power that isn’t totally male identified, and addresses the idea of Lauryn Hill as feminist icon; that perhaps it wasn’t just the god factor in Hill’s disappearance, but that perhaps she’s been disallowed to be one: “I’m Jamaican,” says Morgan, “and those Marley boys are tuff.” Then Morgan cites New York’s barbaric Rockefeller drug laws as a factor influencing the increasing number of women in prison.
Rose talks about consumer resistance and says “don’t buy it if it sells over gold,” and addresses consumer power: “Don’t be overly romantic about it, but don’t be so cynical to think that it won’t change the world.”
Someone in the audience brings up the fact that we are discussing women in hip-hop but it’s not just “video hoes” acting like “hoes,” that there are plenty of white women like Paris Hilton and Girls Gone Wild flashing their breasts on camera etc.
Rose retorts, “You can have a thousand whorish white women but it doesn’t result in the whorification of white women as a group.”
Morgan responds: “Paris Hilton is extremely empowered in white society and she has captured the public imagination, which carries large cultural currency.”
Rose says the “diversity of black experience and black reality is totally absent in hip-hop. They are talking about a thumbnail of it: a dominant fantasy about black criminality.”
Audience question: “How can we be feminists and enjoy hip-hop?”
Beverly Guy Sheftall, fierce again: “Stop buying music that insults black women and black men.”

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2 Responses to Feminism & Hip-Hop Conference Notes, Part 2

  1. Thanks for posting this. Enlightening.

  2. AquaMoon says:

    Along the lines of Hip Hop and Feminism…
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    Volume II ~ Brothas…Wassup sun? combines choreography, poetry, recorded and live music, and singing. Through the loving and critical eyes of Black womyn, AquaMoon’s compelling new stage production asks: ‘Who and what are Black men?’ Volume II addresses multi-layered issues including relationships, family, abuse, power and image, and encourages men to take part in this complex dialogue. AquaMoon (camil.williams and veronica precious bohanan) is a Chicago-based, youth and womyn-centered writing, performance, and artistic team. AquaMoon upholds its motto ‘Dismantling the Culture of Silence’, by helping to bridge the gaps between the streets, hip hop feminism, performance activism, and academia.
    http://www.spokenexistence.com

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