Misogyny in Rap Lyrics
Sexism and misogyny exist throughout our popular culture. Even with that in mind gangsta rap is pointed to more often than other music genres as posing a serious problem in its presentation of women and the heavily misogynistic view that this involves. It is unclear who is potentially at fault here: for some, it is the music industry and its continued endorsement of such music, whilst for others it is the rappers themselves who write and perform the lyrics in question. Otware (2011) states that “Sexism, misogyny and homophobia permeate the music” (Otware, 2011, p31) which demonstrates how significant an issue this can be. However, it is also clear that the individuals who buy this music are also endorsing it and, potentially, are the reason why it continues to be made.
Since the 1980s there has been an increase in the popularity of gangsta rap. The audience for the music comes from all different social classes and cultures. Both men and women listen and dance to the music, and there has been a significant rise in the number of juvenile listeners as well who learn the words and sing along – a worrying thought for many parents, given the misogynistic and violent content as discussed by Otawa (2011) when he discusses the idea of “the real nigga” as being an individual who is aggressive and violent without showing remorse (Otawa, 2011, p23). Does that mean they all hate women and support the misogyny in the lyrics? It seems unlikely and since rap music is often accompanied by a strong, catchy beat, it might just be this that they enjoy rather than the anti-women lyrics. As a result, it is fun to dance to rap and often, in a club scenario, for instance, it is the beat and not the lyrics that people respond to. Of course, there is also the potential for a section of rap listeners to be people who enjoy listening to how others are disrespected and who take pleasure in listening to lyrics which portray women as ‘hos’ and ‘sluts’ rather than in more positive terms. Equally, since a large proportion of listeners are white men, it could also be argued that some of this population may take pleasure in hearing about the degradation of black women in a world where the black population are increasingly powerful. This idea is discussed by Otawa (2011) when he states that “The excessive deployment of demeaning and denigrating language towards women, especially black women, permeates [gangsta rap]” (Otawa, 2011, p24). This highlights the fact that rap’s misogyny is not only sexist but deliberately racist too.
This paper offers the thesis that the demand for rap music seems to demonstrate that the misogyny in rap music is reinforced because there is something about the lyrics that is appealing to the listeners, and since there is a definite demand for the music then the misogynistic themes are sustainable.
Gangsta rap presents a significant juxtaposition between the negative criticisms it receives and the vast popularity it enjoys. Herein lies the problem with regards to its misogynistic content: it is criticized by many and yet endorsed by many more. There is an audience for the music that keeps performers like Snoop Dog and others touring with sold out venues around the world. The CDs sell, radio stations play the music and television runs their videos 24 hours a day, such as on MTV Base. And yet, the lyrical content continues to grow in controversy even though there is a broader spectrum of people complaining today – it is not just white, middle class mothers who don’t want their children listening to it now. In recent news, a law student was taken to court over the contents of a note which contained the beginnings of lyrics that discussed a shooting like the one seen at Virginia Tech some years ago. These lyrics were deemed to be of a threatening nature and the man was taken to court to assess his threat. However, what happens when misogynistic lyrics cease to be private musings and begin to be publically embraced? If the fear was that the student’s lyrics could incite violence when it was on such a small scale, it begs the question of why lyrics which are so blatantly anti-female are knowingly released into the public forum every day, as discussed by a number of studies and not least that carried out by Otwana (2011) in his repeated discussion of the misogyny in rap. If the government were willing to censor such a meaningless token of rap lyrics, why do they continuously allow misogynistic lyrics to be unleashed upon the public – many of whom are young, impressionable listeners?
Adam and Fuller (2006) rightly point out that rap music isn’t the only part of culture that incorporates misogynistic messages. They comment that the rappers are mimicking the environment in which they live. They theorize that the “use of misogynistic ideology in rap is a result of widespread racist and sexist dogmas colonizing the minds of African Americans in general” (Adam & Fuller, 2006). This idea is one which helps to demonstrate the negative effect that rap’s misogyny could have on younger minds. African American culture is often portrayed as being quite patriarchal and so, as a result, rap music’s misogyny only serves to perpetuate this idea meaning that future generations of young, black men could grow up to assume that women are solely there for the purposes of sex and domestic servitude. Given the devotion of many rappers’ audiences, these musicians should be reinventing the idea of women in African American culture and helping to present a more positive ideal which would help to demolish these preconceptions. The effect of this misogyny on the viewer or listener is potentially palpable: if a young, impressionable boy grows up with these images around him, it is entirely possible that he will be socialized into thinking that this is an acceptable way of treating women and that they are there solely for his sexual gratification. The study by Adam & Fuller (2006) addresses misogyny in rap lyrics through the idea of art imitating life: the lyrics are designed to represent real life and society as a whole which detracts from the impact of such anti-female messages on listeners. The situation is such that rap listeners are desensitized to the misogynistic messages and are actually exposed to such things in most areas of life anyway.
The effect of these lyrics and videos is the idea that listeners of rap music or viewers of rap music videos may well become indoctrinated with these misogynistic ideas that are so readily available and that this is both detrimental to the female population as well as the African American culture who are openly presenting themselves as being women-hating, gun-toting, uneducated sex addicts – an image which is not justified by the vast majority of African Americans living today. It begins to beg the question of why rap music is so popular and perhaps it is this controversy which attracts people: it might be that they feel they are ‘allowed’ to embrace their politically incorrect sides within the safety of the excuse that ‘it’s just music’ or ‘it’s just artistic expression’ and without having to ever justify themselves in the process (Otwana, 2011, p25). Frequently, this artistic expression (and in the case of rap music, this takes the form of misogyny) ‘allows’ individuals to not need to be politically correct based on the idea that they have freedom of speech and often, the politically incorrect statement can derive the best reactions in listeners in as much as they are designed to shake foundations. African American culture is often portrayed as being quite patriarchal and so, as a result, rap music’s misogyny only serves to perpetuate this idea meaning that future generations of young, black men could grow up to assume that women are solely there for the purposes of sex and domestic servitude. Given the devotion of many rappers’ audiences, these musicians should be reinventing the idea of women in African American culture and helping to present a more positive ideal which would help to demolish these preconceptions. However, as Roberts (1994) discusses, rap is distinctly anti-feminist and will therefore fail to uphold anything other than misogynistic messages (Roberts, 1994, p246).
However, rap and its fan base are quick to assert that there are some positive aspects of rap lyrics and that, in practice, not all lyrics need to be viewed as misogynistic but rather an attempt at re-asserting the black man’s stake for power in society. Iwamoto, Creswell, & Caldwell (2007) have researched feelings on rap with a Phenomenological Inquiry designed to give qualitative results and was designed to assess the reaction to rap music of three ethnically diverse groups of students. The results demonstrated no difference in the students based on ethnicity, gender or class. In practice, the study found that rather than focusing on the misogynistic messages, the listeners were more able to focus on the positive messages such as the strong, black role models as well as the feeling that they were able to relate to other young people from a similar background as their own. The interesting and somewhat worrying inference here is that these young people may have experienced a warped interpretation of what life is like for these people as rap, traditionally, portrays its stars as being grotesquely over-paid and over-sexed. However, it is clear that rap music’s beats are almost more engaging, to its listeners, than its lyrics and this does soothe some of the concerns with regards to its misogynistic content. It does, however, indicate that whilst many are lured into listening by the catchy bass line, they are then subjected to a barrage of misogynistic lyrics which might go some way to explaining why rap is both unappealing in its anti-women message but why it is also so popular simultaneously.
Along the same line as this, the participants found that they were more able to empathize with the experiences of racism which rappers discuss, rather than feeling that rap made them more inclined to behave in a racist way to others. It is clear from these findings that whilst rap music may discuss misogynistic themes, it may not actually endorse them. When compared to the discussion of racism (which encouraged empathy in its listeners as opposed to an incitement of racist feeling), it is clear that rap also, potentially, encouraged young people to see how women should not be treated rather than encouraging the listener to treat them badly. It has been discussed that, as an art form, rap music only really reflects society as a whole. If this is true then the effect of rap music and its misogynistic tendencies are simply just a symptom of a far wider problem which its listeners are likely to already be a part of anyway (Cheney, 2005, p4). The same can be said for many young, white rap listeners who feel unsatisfied with their own lives for a variety of different reasons. Look at recent examples of young, white men lashing out at the world: Virginia Tech and Columbine to name but a few educational massacres. The former was perpetrated by a young man of Asian descent whilst the latter was carried out by young, white men. In both cases, the young men did not feel accepted by society and grew resentful of a world which just did not incorporate them into its cultural structure (Weaver, 2006, p111). Rap music is representative of this feeling as it portrays centuries of feeling like this due to racism, slavery and segregation. Its listeners are people who feel segregated within a high school or the workplace, for example, and its metaphor of frustration is one which can be applied to the lives of many individuals (Weaver, 2006, p21).
Equally, rap music has come to be a mainstream representative of the lives of black people everywhere and the struggles that the generations before them have experienced. For many, rap music is an artistic expression of frustration thanks, in part, to the centuries of repression which African Americans have experienced. Cheney (2005) brings up the theme of resentment that black men felt for always being treated as invisible, criminal and barred from opportunity. It is, therefore, arguable that by objectifying women, black men are attempting to establish themselves as a viable and powerful demographic. By creating the misogynistic lyrics and the music videos that they do, they are essentially ‘taking control’ of something rather than being continuously shunted back to the bottom of the pile. The same can be said for the emphasis that is placed upon expensive possessions and wealth as it helps to perpetuate a new, more powerful image of the African American man. So the question here is whether the objectification of women in rap helps to make men feel as though they are bringing women back down to a level which they (the men) feel more comfortable with. Equally, it has been noted that 2 Live Crew lyrics demonstrate a black awareness of the white male fear of the black male rapist: “For oppressed black males aware of this white terror of black male sexuality, it is gratifying to wield such power” (Cheney, 2005, p4). In some respects, it is this attempt at re-asserting black power that perhaps makes rap as popular as it is.
For centuries, black men have been pushed down and forced to fulfill a warped stereotype of being ‘less than the white man’ through slavery and the perpetuated myth that black men are more criminally inclined and less intelligent. By contrast, in rap music, black men are presented as being in charge: they have money, women and power and therefore, it is this which causes rap music to be so popular amongst listeners. Oware (2011) states that through its misogynistic tendencies, rap musicians are able to fly the flag for a new generation of powerful, rich and business-savvy black men. For example, artists such as Jay-Z who in the song, 99 Problems refers to women as ‘the bitch’ and discuss women in, frequently, derogatory terms but who, in reality, are running successful businesses and clothing lines whilst also being publically involved with Beyonce. In this instance, Jay-Z may present himself as a misogynist through his lyrics but in practice, he is a devoted husband and father-to-be suggesting that his artistic persona is not the same as his true one. For his listeners, this presents his lyrics as being purely speculative art as opposed to a guide on ‘how to treat women.’
The truly fascinating aspect of modern rap is that female rappers are becoming more and more mainstream with artists such as Queen Latifah becoming a well-known name. However, for the most part, they are ignored by books about rap and their chart success is significantly less prominent than their male counterparts. Terry Teachout (1990) claimed that “women in the world of rap are largely, if not exclusively, objects of transient sexual gratification” (Roberts, 1994, p245). In truth, this lack of popularity clearly fits in with the idea that women are seen as being objects of control by male rappers and that listeners, however consciously, prefer to see their male rappers continue this theme rather than endorse the work of a female rapper as she does not conform to their attempts at control and power. Rose (1994) states that “[female rapper’s] media status as antisexist rappers is necessarily accompanied by an understanding of male rapists as uniformly sexist” (Rose, 1994, p147) and thus demonstrates the idea that rap music will continue to be the firmly centered in misogynistic terms.
It is clear that for many of the African American culture, there is a presiding tension between what they are and who they want to be and through rap music, the artist is able to present himself as being powerful and masterful through his misogynistic approach to women – something which many young people feel is missing in their lives. Listeners of rap music may well feel that there is a lack of respect towards them and that by emulating the message in rap music, they too will be able to have the money, women and power that rap music portrays. Therefore, in a manner of speaking, rap music provides its listeners with a strong, positive point of aspiration as instead of taking their frustrations out in a violent way, they are being presented with a creative outlet which can allow them to express themselves and without harming others or getting into trouble.
Rap allows its musicians and listeners to feel more powerful and more in control in a world which, traditionally, has attempted to keep the black community down. Rather than being a literal presentation of how black people feel, perhaps rap is more closely attributed to being a metaphorical presentation of the effect of centuries of repression. It is this that attracts fans of rap music: young people who feel trapped in their small-town existence, or in a family who they don’t feel respect or understand them, or even in circumstances where they are victims of abuse. The potential for reasons why listeners of rap music wish to feel more powerful is ever-expanding and endless and as such, rap music will always be a popular form of metaphorical expression for angst, repression, frustration and feeling controlled.
The audience of gangsta rap is able to shut out the misogynistic messages or understand them as an exaggeration or metaphor emotions. The emotions may be explosive anger and frustration. Rap music is a metaphorical representation of repression and segregation which is likely to be felt by many black people but also, goes some way to explaining the fascination with rap music experienced by white people too. Increasingly, the world is divided into social groups and sub-cultures and many white people feel unaccepted by the majority of mainstream society too, giving rise to their appreciation of rap music as a whole. There are many dynamics working to over emphasize the misogynistic, murderous and other ingredients in gangsta rap. This again demonstrates why an increasingly broad demographic of people enjoy rap music today as its presentation of frustration due to repression is something which many feel in their day to day lives. This, in part, explains rap music’s popularity. However, it is clear that to fully understand rap’s popularity and the abundance of misogynistic lyrics it presents to its listeners, it is first important to understand the centuries of historical neglect experienced by the black community and the continued stereotypes of the lazy, unintelligent black man which is still popular today. It is clear that rap’s lyrics provide both negative and positive messages to its listeners: the negative being its over-riding desire to control women whilst its positive is that instead of responding violently to the repression and frustration, it is an opportunity to express oneself without getting into trouble for it. Therefore, whilst the misogyny is an unacceptable method of doing this, it also provides rap listeners with a sense of control and power which they may not always be able to feel literally in their lives.
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