Black Feminism and the Rap/Hip-Hop Culture: I Don't Want the "D"


Asha Layne | Women's Issues | Analysis | August 5th, 2019



"I was born to flex (Yes)
Diamonds on my neck
I like boardin' jets, I like mornin' sex (Woo!)
But nothing in this world that I like more than checks (Money)
All I really wanna see is the (Money)
I don't really need the D, I need the (Money)
All a bad bitch need is the (Money)" - Cardi B



With the advancement of technology, more specifically social media platforms, the plight of women of color has been widely discussed thanks to the Me Too and Say Her Name movements which challenged and revolutionized the thinking of dominant culture. Of profound importance, the inclusion of Black women and women of color in these social movements contested the sweeping generalizations of 'traditional' feminism. This would later lead to a widespread rejection of popular feminism ideologies, thus making way for a new wave of neo non-conservative ideologies on feminism.

This deviation between traditional and non-traditional feminism can be traced back to the Women's Liberation Movement in the late 1960s. During this period, the conditions and concerns of White middle-class women took center stage and addressed issues that inhibited their (White women) ability to live fully free lives rid from patriarchal oppression. This perspective would continue to serve as the backdrop on a series of feminine-related issues such as equal pay, sexual harassment, sexual violence, and violence against women. Not surprisingly, given the US's racially contentious history, it (Women's Liberation Movement) shamelessly ignored the different culturally-significant spaces that Black women (and women of color) occupied, leaving Black feminists to repeat Sojourner Truth's riveting question: "Ain't I a woman?" This essay explores the evolution of Black feminism through the lens of female rappers, who I argue add to the discourse of feminism, and more specifically Black feminism.

As a theoretical construct, feminist theory claims of being woman-centered historically has ignored the narratives and standpoints of women of color. Despite the popular question, "What about the women?" that has long served as the impetus behind the development of feminist theory, the answers to this question have traditionally focused their attention solely on the experiences of White women. Anchoring this sentiment is the emergence of Black feminism and Black feminist thought, which both sought to place the experiences of Black women at the center of its analysis, therefore offering a starkly different knowledge from that of mainstream feminism. According to Collins (2000), Black women in the United States can stimulate a distinctive consciousness concerning their own experiences. Collins, like other Black feminist scholars, understood that this knowledge produced by the narratives of Black women would transform how feminism is defined and understood by Black women (and women of color). Similarly, Kimberle Crenshaw also understood that the experiences of Black women could not be explained by race and gender alone but should also include the intersecting identities that shape their identity as a Black woman. This is best demonstrated by Black women (and women of color) in the rap/hip-hop industry.

Female rappers have (and continue) to take a melodic stance to verbally disseminate information on social issues and struggles that women of color face, such as: white supremacy, sexism, self-esteem, misogyny, patriarchy, sexual harassment, and gender-based violence. One can hear this in the music of both contemporary and non-contemporary female artists, who by applying Collins's theoretical framework share their narrative through standpoint theorizing. Standpoint theorizing is a sociological feminist framework which explains that knowledge of women's experiences is best understood from their social positions in society. In Yo-Yo's 1991 debut hit, You Can't Play with my Yo-Yo she explores what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated environment. She raps:

"If you touch, you livin in a coffin (word to mother)

I'm in the 90s, you're still in the 80s right

I rock the mic, they say I'm not lady like

But I'ma lady, who will pull a stunt though

I kill suckas, and even hit the block

So what you want to do?"

In listening to the words of female rap/hip-hop artists, the audience is able to recognize the nonconventional form of activism which has added to both the discourse of Black feminism and the music industry. In the above lyrics, Yo-Yo also explains that as a female in a male-dominated industry, gender often takes precedence over race and consequently adds to negative experiences Black female MCs in the industry often grapple with. Women of color in the rap/hip-hop industry have inarguably exemplify Collins's concepts of: standpoint theory, outsider-within, and matrix of domination, sidestepping any mention of scholastic sources or prominent experts in the field. One can easily identify these acts of black female activism in the rap/hip-hop industry in the work of contemporary artist, Cardi B. This is particularly well exemplified in Cardi B's debut album, Invasion of Privacy. In her song Be Careful, which explicitly examines infidelity and the double-standard concerns it raises, she raps, "I could've did what you did to me to you a few times. But if I did decide to slide, find a nigga fuck him, suck his dick, you would've been pissed." In Money, Cardi B colorfully explains that money and not a man's penis will meet her needs. She raps, "I got a baby, I need some money, yeah I need cheese for my egg." This album unapologetically proclaims that despite her (un)popular gender non-normative approach that she will be heard and respected regardless of anyone else's opinion. Therefore, demonstrating that, just like her female rap/hip-hop predecessors, she too unconventionally exemplifies black feminist activism.

Patricia Hill Collins's Black Feminist Thought explains that race, gender, and class are oppressive factors that are bound together. In relation to rappers, the commodification of female rappers in the industry and the hypersexual images of Black female rappers speaks to not only this intersection of race, class, and gender but also to the systemic cultural nature of exploitation that is inherent not only to the industry but also within dominant American culture. In both spaces (the industry and American culture), masculinity is directly related to power and violence, and reminds us of the pervasiveness of the White perspective in social institutions. In White-Washing Race, Brown et al. (2003) explains that the White perspective is not the product of salient characteristics, such as skin color, but of culture and experiences. The lyrical narratives shared by female rap/hip-hop artists demonstrates how women of color actively grapple with the many issues, concerns, and questions they experience culturally, socially, and politically.

Is the emergence of the outspoken, gender-bending, highly independent, and sexy female artist a new phenomenon for women of color? Collins highlights how the role of Black women always contradicted the traditional role of women in mainstream society. Collin states, "if women are allegedly passive and fragile, then why are Black women treated as "mules" and assigned heavy cleaning chores" (2000, p.11)? The placement of Black women as 'objects' and 'tools' for production under capitalism is intrinsic to the social, political, and economic arrangements of power in the United States. Black feminism deconstructs the established systems of knowledge and arrangements of power by showing the masculinist bias that frames these arrangements of power from a cultural lens.

The radical changes exhibited in the bodies of work of contemporary female rappers engenders the thesis of Black feminism through frequent displays of gender non-conforming behaviors while embracing the beauty of being uniquely deviant. No longer are women of color minimizing or editing their unique experiences, behaving in gender-conforming ways, or are ashamed of being labelled a 'bitch' for the sake of being accepted by mainstream culture and appeasing their male counterparts. Contemporary Black female rappers, similar to classic rappers such as MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, and Roxeanne Shante, continue to redefine not only gender identity but Black female identity in patriarchal structures.

Both gender identity and Black female identity are socially constructed through interaction and socialization. Following the tenets of symbolic interaction, gender and racial identities emerge out of social interactions which helps to define an individual's self. The formation of self is unique to women of color because of the location and situation they occupy in many faces of oppression. The marginalization, exploitation, and feelings of powerlessness are all too common in the tropes of women of color. Therefore, the gender-social identification of women of color does not examine solely "doing gender" but instead considers key factors that obfuscates women of color from "doing gender."

Women of color in the rap/hip-hop industry continue to demonstrate the spirit of Black feminism through nonconventional methods. Today, Black female artists (and women of color) have changed the way we define women's empowerment. The popularity of female MCs embodying androgenic characteristics through feminine appeal supports the narratives of many women who have mastered the proverbial quote, "think like a man." To condemn the hypersexual behaviors and language used by Black female artists is to ignore the historical truth that Black women (and women of color) were never defined by the traditional standards of being a 'woman.' Black female MCs have and will always continue to redefine what 'doing gender' is from a cultural standpoint, therefore adding to the Black feminism discourse.


Bibliography

B, Cardi. (2018). The invasion of privacy. CD. New York: New York. Atlantic Records.

Brown, Michael K., Carnoy, Martin, Currie, Elliott, Duster, Troy, Oppenheimer, David. B., Schultz, Marjorie, M., and Wellman, David. 2003. White-washing race: The myth of a color-blind society. Berkley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.

Collins, Patricia Hill. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Yo-Yo. (1991). Make way for the Motherlode. CD. New York: New York. EastWest Records America.