My mother would stubbornly insist on having sit-down family dinners as often as physically possible. Often, these meals would consist of brief anecdotes about my parents’ work frustrations, neighborhood gossip, or my most recent book assignment for class. I usually had nothing to contribute aside from answering their questions with the least amount of information possible before I scooped another twirl of spaghetti into my mouth. But this time, I had something on my mind.
“I have something to announce to you both, “ I said, trying to hide my nervous shaking with some façade of confidence. Both of my parents put down their forks and raised their eyebrows simultaneously.
“I think I should be allowed to buy parental advisory CD’s.”
This request wasn’t the bold statement my parents had expected. They didn’t have a clue what was going to come out of my mouth. But this family rule, prohibiting me from purchasing any explicit music that wasn’t previously censored, had been grinding away at my temper for some time now. I was eleven years old, attending an inner-city public middle school. I was bound to hear explicit language regardless of my parents’ restrictions. It only seemed fair that I should be able to purchase Eminem’s latest album without the corny edits. My mother thought otherwise.
“Name an album you want to buy,” she proposed, “and we’ll look up the lyrics and talk about why I don’t you think you should be listening to it.”
Perfect, I thought, I’ll pick an album that’s about love and companionship. I’ll prove her wrong.
So there we were, looking up the lyrics to Ja Rule’s most recent album “Pain is Love.” I know, you’re probably laughing now, because I naively picked an album titled “Pain is Love.” What I initially thought would be my mother’s soft introduction to a softer side of hip-hop turned into an endless nightmare of “I told you so.”
At the obliviously confident age of eleven, I was trying to explain why I should be able to listen to Ja Rule rap about his so called “love” of women, with lyrics like: “Hold down on the bed while I’m yankin your braids/Thug style, you never thought I’d make you smile/While I’m smackin your ass and fuckin you all wild.” I had convinced myself, perhaps because of the song’s catchy hook, that this was a love song.
Sometimes I find myself, eleven years later, still turning a blind eye to the ever-prominent displays of violent sexism in hip-hop. For whatever embarrassing reason, I’ll cringe at one mention of the word “faggot” buried in a song centered around sexually dominating the entire female population. This conflict appears in my hip-hop critique, too, as a few of my close friends have confirmed. I’ve written countless pieces praising rappers–Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and Common to name a few–for their socially-conscious messages without so much as addressing the rampant misogyny in their verse.
Playing the “naïve brainwashed victim” role isn’t a substantial excuse. I’ve close-read far too many hip-hop lyrics to try and pretend like rappers don’t objectify women in disgusting fashion. Rather, I’ve been puzzled about how to appropriately criticize this glaring conflict.
Just as hip-hop embraces the “Black CNN” role for reporting inner-city violence, the genre’s widespread sexist imagery is a testimony of much broader, equally complicated problems within our societies double standards on gender and sex. We can label all mainstream hip-hop as offensive, sexist garbage, but that won’t change the fact that women are objectified in all areas of artistic expression, fashion, the workplace, and countless other platforms.
I don’t intend to give rappers a free pass on their sexist content. But rather than dismissing its presence as simply wrong or shameful, we’re better off asking more critical questions: why is misogyny so frequently used to assert excellence or status? Why do rappers feel the need to objectify women, or use them as metaphorical subjects to claim dominance?
I don’t have simple answers to these questions. I do know that rapping about money and hoes is the easiest way to get a hit single on the radio. Countless rappers align with this role of a sexually dominant pimp, in part because they feel pressured to perform that image, not necessarily because they believe everything they say in their lyrics. From the schoolyard cypher to the BET Awards, hip-hop finds itself grounded in a braggadocios mindset. Every rapper wants to be at the top, and this guy at the top has plenty money and plenty women, so why not start rapping about making it rain at the strip club?
Then, there are rappers who are simply being honest about their sexist thoughts. Sure, we can blame them for openly discussing their misogynist state of mind, but do they really deserve more culpability than any other 20-something straight male who objectifies women? We can criticize rappers for perpetuating the idea that sexism is acceptable, and we should. But we must also recognize that their lyrics display the brutal truth about the tainted relationship between men and women in our society.
The problem, as I see it, is that men are born into a culture that glorifies sexual dominance over the opposite sex. The alpha male is the ultimate desirable image, whether it be a CEO, rapper, or a pimp on the streets. It’s the same glorified image that convinced me that Ja Rule was singing a genuine love song when he bragged about yanking braids and smacking asses.
I’ve made it a personal goal to criticize rappers more often for their sexist lyricism. Even my favorite rappers are responsible for perpetuating an image of a sexually dominant, and inherently successful man. But let’s take it a step further, and recognize that hip-hop isn’t here to paint a pretty picture about the world. Hip-hop will always thrive on screaming the candid reality of our societal problems into our ears. If we dismiss these rappers as repulsive scoundrels, then we just can’t handle the truth.