November 9, 2006 – Vol. 42, No. 13
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Hip-hop and feminism attract a full house

Vidya Rao

Whether you’re talking about Spellman College students protesting the image of black women in Nelly’s videos or Essence magazine’s “Take Back the Music” campaign, it’s no secret that feminism and hip-hop have had an unarguably tumultuous relationship. Media types and academics alike have moved on from questioning the legitimacy of hip-hop as a cultural movement. Now they’re grappling over the question of whether or not feminism and hip-hop can co-exist and even complement each other.

This was the topic of discussion in last Thursday’s “Get Real About Feminism, Racism and Hip-Hop” forum held at Simmons College, sponsored by the Center for New Words and the Simmons Institute for Leadership and Change (SILC).

“Hip-hop is a part of the culture,” said SILC Director Diane Hammer. “What happens in culture outside of college campuses needs to come into college campuses — the last thing we want to be is an ivory tower.”

The event featured Patricia Hill Collins, author of “From Black Power to Hip-Hop” and professor of sociology at the University of Maryland-College Park, as well as Imani Perry, author of “Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics of Hip-Hop” and associate professor of law at Rutgers University-Camden. Over 300 students, faculty and community members attended the event, with many crowding into the hallway of the auditorium.

“I was asked to just come and chit-chat with a few people at a bookstore,” joked Collins. “This is a few people?”

Hill addressed the audience on the broad topic of black feminism and nationalism, providing a framework within which to understand the current role of hip-hop.

“A profound shift happened in the post-civil rights era, from the 1970s to the late 1980s,” she explained. “People were forward-thinking and had the notion that life would be better than the lives of their parents.”

Hill went on to explain some of the ways in which the problems that plagued blacks back then still have not been solved. In an abstract sense, she added that the larger society’s view of blacks as being “cultural deviants” and “exotic” remains the same.

“This is what I call the ‘changing same’ of social injustice,” she said, with heads nodding throughout the audience. “[The narrative of] hip-hop disrupts this story — that the black American dream is possible for most blacks.” Hill added that some of the tension between hip-hop and feminism stems from hip-hop’s roots in black nationalism.

“Black women have historically been positioned with one foot in each of the discourses [of feminism and nationalism] with significant problems in both,” she said.

Perry took over from this point on, elaborating on the relationship between hip-hop and feminism.

“I am increasingly uncomfortable talking about feminism and hip-hop,” she declared. “We are in the midst of the pornification of our culture, and the misogyny that exists in hip-hop is a reflection of that, not the cause. Feminists often look at hip-hop from a standpoint of elitist condescension.”

Both Hill and Perry pointed to the corporate nature of today’s hip-hop as the vehicle for the negative representation of black people. “Corporations need to create and sell marketable images,” said Perry. “The traditional stereotypical ideas of black sexuality, black culture and black people are easy to sell and easy to buy.”

Perry addressed the argument that the sexualized images of black women in hip-hop videos and lyrics might be empowering, at least financially, rather than exploitative. “It might be empowering for the individual in the video,” she explained, “but it isn’t for the black women everywhere who are groped, harassed and asked to ‘shake it like a saltshaker.’”

Neither believes censoring artists or video models is the way to curtail this problem. “We need to ask ourselves what turns us into willing consumers of such material,” said Hill. “Then we need to use our financial power to stop supporting those specific products and images.”

Hill went on to say that often, discourse around the exploitation of women in hip-hop does not address the real issue, or becomes lost in racial and generational bias. “Older folks will say to me, ‘Boys need to pull up their pants and girls need to pull down their dresses,’” she said. “That is the current level of political discourse.”

The forum ended with several comments and questions from audience members. One audience member came forth with a list of empowering female emcees, including Bahamadia, Medusa and Jean Grae. “These women are hip-hop. I am hip-hop. And hip-hop has had a profound influence on my politics,” she affirmed.

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