Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Does Rap Have a Problem with Rape?

[Trigger warning: this post contains song lyrics that, though abbreviated, should be offensive.]

Actress Ashley Judd thinks that rap and hip-hop music have a problem - specifically that they contribute way too much to our nation's rape culture.

In her memoir, “All That Is Bitter and Sweet”, Judd attacked several hip-hop artists for their misogynistic lyrics. In the memoir, released last week, Judd writes:

“As far as I’m concerned, most rap and hip-hop music – with its rape culture and insanely abusive lyrics and depictions of girls and women as ‘ho’s’ – is the contemporary soundtrack of misogyny.”
She later clarified:

“…What I’m being accused of is condemning rap and hip-hop as a whole, and the whole community and when they say community, they mean the fans, and African-Americans, it’s become so generalized. My intention was to take a stand to say the elements that are misogynistic and treat girls and women in a hyper-sexualized way are inappropriate. The male dominance that is displayed, and the reinforcement of girls’ and women value and identify as primarily sexual, is not helpful in any artistic expression, in any cultural form, whether its country music or in television story lines.”
It's true that rap and hip-hop are often used as a scapegoat for things wrong with our society, but before you dismiss Judd as a hater, and thus dismiss her comments, peruse this article from The Root that argues that she's right.

Tragically, rape is common in American culture, and rap music sometimes reflects the rape culture of American society. The encouragement of male aggression and the support of violence against women are regular features of popular rap music. Check out this verse from Notorious B.I.G. in "Dead Wrong": "Biggie Smalls for mayor, the rap slayer/The hooker layer ... Hail Mary full of grace/Smack the b--ch in the face/Take her Gucci bag and the North Face/Off her back, jab her if she act funny with the money/Oh you got me mistaken, honey/I don't wanna rape ya/ I just want the paper." Jay-Z's verse on Kanye West's "Monster" alludes to raping and pillaging.

Although these lyrics should be ascribed to the artistic personas of these major hip-hop figures, I still reserve the right to critique, challenge and hold the authors of these artistic personas accountable for their music, especially if it is contributing to one of our greatest social challenges: gender equality and the freedom of women not to live in fear of violent assault.

That said, rapping specifically about rape is not what rape culture is all about. The ways in which some rappers promote attitudes that normalize sexual violence against women and children are the more common culprits of rap's rape culture. Consider these lines from West's verse in "Monster": "I put the p--sy in a sarcophagus/Now she claiming I bruise her esophagus." I am more than willing to grant artistic license to any of these rappers, as long as they are willing to be publicly accountable for the ways in which these verses promote attitudes and mentalities that contribute to rap's rape culture -- as Snoop did on Larry King Live.

When Jay-Z signed Jay Electronica to Roc Nation label, it seemed like a triumph of underground hip-hop culture -- the talented Jay Electronica, along with Jay-Z's formidable business and promotional acumen, could change the game for the better. Instead, the rapper has elected to use some troubling language in his live performances, polling his audiences to inquire if women "like being choked during sexual intercourse." Many feminist bloggers and activists challenged Jay Electronica directly.

For the survivors of violent sexual assault and for those of us who understand that sexual assault against women is a critical problem for all of us, this sort of thing is simply unacceptable. Maybe I am sensitized to this because my daughter just turned 10. But I'm also aware that even though individuals must be responsible for their own acts, too many are susceptible to subtle (and unsubtle) cues -- from pop culture and the public sphere -- that subject women to male dominance, and reaffirm the sexism and misogyny that lead to sexual violence against women.

The Root article also makes the important distinction between rap and hip-hop music and hip-hop culture. Hip-hop culture has a history of working for social justice and has spawned some amazing activists, some of whom use rap and hip-hop music as their platform. However, mainstream rap and hip-hop music really has a woman problem that demands addressing.


lisbeth said...

I think it's misleading to suggest that this is a problem that's specific to hip hop music or particular hip hop artists. Clearly some--hardly all--hip hop artists use lyrics and imagery that perpetuate the rape culture. But why single out this particular form of artistic expression? This is a problem that is pervasive in American media and culture very broadly. When movies and television present women in a highly sexualized fashion and suggest that violence and domination can be eroticized, this also facilitates a rape culture. When politicians seek to redefine rape so that it specifically refers only to violent assault, that promotes a rape culture. When Kobe Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, and Charlie Sheen face minimal consequences for *admitting* that they've been violent towards women, this too perpetuates a rape culture. So why is this post about hip hop artists without taking into consideration all these other forms of culture and media that do the same thing?

Women's Resource Center said...

This post was in response to Ashley Judd's comments about hip-hop, but you are absolutely right that misogyny is not exclusive to any one genre of music. The purpose of this blog is to examine all of the aspects of our culture that perpetuate violence against women. We hope you will take the time to read some of our other posts that look at different types of music, as well as our posts that challenge movies, the media, etc. It sounds like we are very much on the same page.

lisbeth said...

Thanks for your reply. Can you point me to some of the other recent posts that have addressed rape culture in other contexts? I'd be interested to read those analyses as well.

Women's Resource Center said...

Usually our posts are about domestic violence or violence against women more generally. Here are some examples:

And since you mentioned Charlie Sheen: