Is Hip-Hop Feminism Alive in 2011?

Queen Latifah; Nicki Minaj
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.


Hip-hop's babies weren't dealing directly with issues of invisibility brought on by systems of segregation the way the generations were that came before them. Instead, they were grappling with being front and center as the most loved and most hated stars of global popular culture. The popularity of hip-hop made black youth cool and desirable, which was in complete opposition to the unavoidable stereotypes in the media that illustrated them as gang members, welfare queens, drug dealers and teen mothers.

"The manifestos of black feminism, while they helped me to understand the importance of articulating language to combat oppression, didn't give me the language to explore things that were not black and white, but things that were in the gray," Morgan says. "And that gray is very much represented in hip-hop."


This gray area includes the contradictions of loving an art that is reluctant to include you; loving men who, at times, refuse to portray you in your totality; and rejecting sexual objectification while actively and proudly embracing your sexuality. Although hip-hop feminism has gone through phases, it has always, at some level, dealt with these incongruities.

"Hip-hop feminists have been consistent in championing women's rights, which encompasses everything from sexuality to abuse," says Marcyliena Morgan, founding director of the Hip-Hop Archive in the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. "And that has always been irrespective of what men in hip-hop were doing."


What the Future Holds

So what should hip-hop feminism look like in 2011? Instead of being reduced to an anti-misogyny movement or to a rallying cry to give more female MCs the mic, hip-hop feminists hope that it will incorporate a women-centric worldview, where the realities of the hip-hop generation's women are taken into consideration at every turn. It doesn't just complain about the lack of female MCs but actively addresses the reasons there are fewer female MCs now than there were in the late 1980s, and why there are only a few types of female MCs that make it to hip-hop notoriety.


"We don't even know what to make of her, and we don't even know if she's straight or not," Morgan says. "I want to see the creation of language that pushes us to have a more in-depth conversation about Nikki Minaj, that doesn't just compare her to Lil' Kim, because she is not Lil' Kim."

And perhaps Minaj doesn't know what to make of herself. As she once told an interviewer, "[W]hen I grew up I saw females doing certain things, and I thought I had to do that exactly. The female rappers of my day spoke about sex a lot … and I thought that to have the success they got, I would have to represent the same thing, when in fact I didn't have to represent the same thing."


For up-and-coming female MCs, the opportunity to be recognized as Grade A performers who can co-exist and share stages with Grade A male rappers may be the difference between a hip-hop feminism that works and one that doesn't. Nicki Lynette, a Chicago-based artist whose music blends hip-hop, funk and pop, says that she didn't realize she held feminist views until she was asked to do an all-female showcase and mixtape.

"I said no because I think it's anti-feminist to make women in hip-hop a sideshow," Lynette told The Root. "A show that includes several hot MCs, both male and female, and is less concerned about making the distinction between men and women makes more sense to me."


But perhaps hip-hop feminism's most important task is staying keenly attuned to the needs of the hip-hop community. Hip-hop feminism, just like any branch of feminism, should use activism to effect real social change. This requires all members of the hip-hop generation to get on board. 

So it's not just women who are tasked with tapping into the creative resources that give hip-hop's women a voice. "Mark Anthony Neal's work is a good example of this," says Marcyliena Morgan. "The one thing that hip-hop feminism has taught anyone is that feminism must include the efforts of the entire community, men and women alike."


Akoto Ofori-Atta is The Root's editorial office manager.

If you want to see what's hot on black Twitter, check out The Chatterati.Akoto Ofori-Atta is the editor of The Grapevine. Like her Facebook page and follow her on Twitter.