New stories

Is Hip-Hop Feminism Alive in 2011?

Joan Morgan coined the phrase back in 1999, but what does hip-hop feminism look like today? Is it Queen Latifah? Nicki Minaj? Or the 10-year-old girl calling out Lil Wayne?

Queen Latifah; Nicki Minaj

In 1992 Dr. Dre released his single "Bitches Ain't Sh--," complete with a chorus that emphatically reduces women to nothing but "hoes and tricks." In 1996 Akinyele famously sang "Put It In Your Mouth," a song that flooded radio airwaves and clubs across the country.

Fast-forward to 2003, and Nelly releases a video for his single "Tip Drill," in which he famously slides a credit card between the cheeks of a video vixen's bottom. And then there was, of course, the Don Imus incident, when he justified his "nappy-headed ho" comment by arguing that black men regularly call their women out of their names in hip-hop songs.

There is no shortage of these cringe-inducing moments that have made women question their relationship to hip-hop. But these moments don't go completely uncontested. From Queen Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y." ("Who you callin' a bitch?") to a 10-year-old's heartfelt plea to Lil Wayne urging him to speak highly of women, hip-hop feminism has almost always been just as audible as the crass catcalls. While one might be hard-pressed to find a song of the "Put It In Your Mouth" variety in heavy rotation today, hip-hop feminists still have a job to do in railing against a male-dominated culture.

Hip-hop feminists are like other feminists in that they advocate for gender equality. Where they part ways from other feminist groups is that they operate in and identify as part of hip-hop culture, as expressed in their choices in music, dance, art and politics.

Leaving Behind Rap's Misogyny

For some, the term "hip-hop feminism" offers up quite the enigma. Critics position misogyny as hip-hop's cardinal sin, which raises the obvious question: How do women actively participate in a culture that seems to hate them so vehemently? For self-described hip-hop feminists, attempting to answer that question is not their only task, since understanding what hip-hop feminism is and isn't goes far beyond responding to women-bashing sentiment.

"I could care less about what these boys are expressing in their lyrics, whether it's misogynistic or sexist or not, because we've had that conversation," says Joan Morgan, author of the seminal book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-Hop Feminist. Today's hip-hop feminists, she says, should be focused on addressing other critical issues, like challenging the "respectability politics" that keep black women from freely expressing their sexuality.

"I was never talking about tracks made by female artists," Morgan says of her book, which was the first to articulate the dichotomy of hip-hop feminism. "I was talking about hip-hop culture, and the ways that people move through it. I don't think a hip-hop feminist critique can do the work it needs to do if it can't analyze all of it."

Black Feminism vs. Hip-Hop Feminism

To be certain, hip-hop feminism was born out of a need to understand the many cultural, social and political conditions that afflicted women of what Baraki Kitwana called the hip-hop generation, comprised of people born between 1965 and 1985. Black feminism, a wave of thought and activism largely influenced by the civil rights and black power movements, was not equipped to consider the issues of women belonging to the hip-hop generation.