Hip-Hop, Gender, Race, and Capitalism

When students at Spelman College cancelled Nelly’s appearance due to his misogynistic portraying African American women in a video, hip-hop and rap came under particular scrutiny for an issue both dominant within the industry yet, despite is visceral appearance, little discussed. But how responsible are the artists themselves for their continued sexism in their music?

Mark Anthony Neal was insightful to point out that the industry thrives on sexism, and that asking artists to promote a feminist vision would be asking them to drop their contracts and start selling far fewer records. After all, radical acts like the Coup are, despite their vision, small players in the industry as a whole. Yet clearly by playing this game, the major artists are responsible for proliferating sexism the potency of which alters the mores of huge segments of the youth population. 

This insight turns our attention to an issue fundamentally important if we want to address the pervasiveness of sexism in hip-hop and society in general: the role of capitalism in not just reinforcing but actively promoting the dominant views  (which are, at this time, reactionary towards women, the LGBTQ community, etc).

Acting according to demand, major record companies produce and distribute music that people will buy. So as long as music is produced via a demand system and sexism continues to exist, so will its presence in music. With the exception of extremely rare artists who have both attained a national audience and are brave enough to challenge their base, it seems artists lack the capacity to change the system themselves without a large change in the consumer base. In lieu of some form of direct censorship (or indirect, in the case of Wal-Mart, whose “family-based” approach to music has artists censoring themselves out of fear of losing a huge market)-which I am personally opposed to-there is little chance that the industry itself will change this paradigm on its own. 

On the other hand, as spokespeople for hip-hop and (in some cases, worldwide) celebrity-idols, artists actively promote misogynistic viewpoints. They aren’t simply passive elements of capitalism but participants whose voice greatly influences youth opinion and continue to reinforce the same views in new generations of music listeners and makers. By making sexism part of their image they aren’t just allowing it to become acceptable among youth groups but setting a standard by which youth are supposed to treat each other as a prerequisite for acceptance. 

Thus challenging the sexism in hip-hop and rap requires not only looking at sexism writ large in society but how capitalism continues to promote it. Developing a larger, dynamic and holistic strategy to this problem means addressing distribution as well as the product itself. Sexism cannot be cured without understanding its influence on, and how it is influenced by, capitalism.

Building a thoughtful and dynamic radical theory requires addressing every issue of oppression. This means looking at the interactions not only between capitalism and sexism, but politics and racism as well.  In this case, there are a few things we can do to make small changes in the system now, but the effects of which become larger over time.

First, we can promote the activities of students like those of Spelman College, whose level of consciousness can alter youth consciousness in a dramatic way. When it comes down to it, what really influences behavior is not the celebrities themselves but whether or not our peers accept us. If positive visions can grow, very understandable fears of non-acceptance could fall apart. This challenges both predominant gender views and the consumer base of major corporations-and we know how much they fear the vacillation of youth opinion (as is seen in their struggles to control it).

Second, and very importantly, we can provide a space for young, anti-sexist and radical artists within the community. Being an artist is difficult enough. Being an artist who challenges the very system takes provides her or him with financial stability takes an immense amount of courage. Major record companies are infamous in their attempts to drown small artists. It is therefore imperative that we, as consumers and fans of the music, support these artists not only through actually paying for their music but becoming involved in our city’s music scene. The more Clear-Channel and other corporations devour venue spaces, the harder it will be for alternative acts to be visible. Working to open new spaces for these artists-like the new Milwaukee Venue Project-that cater to the youth community with all-ages access, low prices and the possibility of participation in the space itself could go a long way towards affecting what people see and support.

Of course, the focused issues of sexism in a particular genre are directly related to large-scale oppressive elements. For example, where are we more likely to see African-American role models today, in music or politics? American consumer capitalism keeps people of color out of real public discourse. As long as this continues, how can large-scale consciousness shifts take place? How can radical and progressive activist organizations really consider themselves as such when they lack such essential viewpoints? These issues likewise require addressing.

Hip Hop itself is not only a challenge but also an opportunity. Few things influence the youth as much as music and pop culture. While it may require larger changes within society to alter the sexism of hip hop, attaining small goals within the hip hop community will, through their deep impact on youth consciousness, sow some of the seeds from which genuine changes can grow. 

The author can be reached at [email protected]

See also: Mark Anthony Neal, Critical Noir; and Moya Bailey, Dilemma

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