Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Even before I realized it, rap music was soundtracking much of my early life. My older brothers were constantly blasting Outkast, the lingo of Southern hip hop making its way into their vernacular and in turn mine. When I was eight, I heard The College Dropout by Kanye West and actively subscribed to hip hop, not only immersing myself in the musical genre, but also allowing it to shape my cultural identity. It was not until a few years ago, however, that I realized the importance of hip hop to Black America. This realization accompanied the solidification of my own black identity. I am a fair-skinned biracial man, raised in suburban Tennessee and it took me a minute (actually more like 15 or 16 years) to develop an effective framework for navigating the complexities of race and reinforcing my blackness. Hip hop played a significant role in the formulation of my black identity.
To a hip hop fan, Straight Outta Compton is a vigilante saga that feels as authentic as it is problematic. Directed by F. Gary Gray (Friday, The Italian Job, Law Abiding Citizen) and executive produced by NWA members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, the biopic is stunning and well-told. With events hand picked and arranged by those who lived through them, the film is a shiny, thought-provoking origin story with sociopolitical commentary that is not only relevant, but also identical to the the current social justice climate. Despite this, the narrative makes no attempts to address the story’s relationship with other social issues, namely gender politics.
I recently read a piece by feminist scholar, Sikivu Hutchinson, that focused on how SOC was in a reality that contains sustained violence towards women. In addition to identifying the primary role of women in the film as sexual objects (the casting calls for the movie were unbelievably sexist and colorist), Hutchinson argues that Straight Outta Compton strategically glosses over the gross misogyny of the members of NWA by excluding the group’s unquestionably sexist lyrics and only vaguely alluding to instances of partner violence among members of the group. Most notable is the domestic violence history of Dr. Dre, who, in 1991, severely beat former hip hop TV host Dee Barnes in 1991 and suffered little to no consequences.
Hutchinson uses NWA’s cases of partner violence as well as the group’s overtly sexist lyrics to support a crucial narrative: hip hop fundamentally sponsors the endangerment of women.
Criticisms such as Hutchinson’s are far from new. Until recently, and even prevailing today, a large majority of mainstream media attention granted to hip hop music has focused on its violence, misogyny, materialism and overall detriment to social discourse. A 2006 documentary explored the perilous nature of hip hop’s masculinity and questioned, much like I do every day, the compatibility of hip hop and gender equality. I feel it necessary to defend my love for hip hop and, more specifically, articulate my affinity for an enormously influential musical entity that seems to thrive on the exploitation of women.
We must acknowledge that it is counterproductive to demonize rap music for its lackluster gender dynamics. It is important to keep in mind that hip hop’s misogyny is merely a symptom rooted in the ailments of Black America. It is illogical to simply abuse hip hop for being an usher of misogyny without contextualizing the perilous conditions of the communities in which hip hop calls home. Should we be enraged when fragile, expendable black lives do not uphold standards of respect for black women when they are not expected to do so for their male counterparts, or even themselves?
By no means am I condoning misogyny nor am I justifying N.W.A’s violence against women. What I am doing is claiming that there is room in hip hop for feminism and that, by investing ourselves not only in rap music but also in the cultural and political power of hip hop, we can become better feminists.
Rap narratives are transparent representations of marginalized communities. They recount the conditions that contribute to the collective Black experience in America. While N.W.A anathematizes the police as an occupying force in minority neighborhoods, they also trivialize the lives of women because they are participants in communities in which the systematic devaluation of Black women is acceptable.
I firmly believe that hip hop is the most powerful method of storytelling Black Americans have for tangibly relating the lived experiences of both black men and women. Joan Morgan asserts that hip hop’s “informative narration” is an indispensable tool with the capacity to create spaces for examining gender relations. Not only has hip hop served as an outlet, giving otherwise unheard individuals a voice, but also it has become the most honest and revealing art form that requires less interpretation than it does understanding.
I’m not writing to condemn this film or hip hop in general by aligning with a basis that the culture is somehow exceedingly sexist or misogynistic. While Straight Outta Compton is a romanticized origin story of one of the world’s most influential musical groups, it is also a reminder of the political power and social potential of hip hop.
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (New York: Random House 1984), 65.
Joan Morgan, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost (New York: Simon & Schuster 1999), 80.
Featured image courtesy of Stitcher.com