The internet has been ablaze in the wake of Ashley Judd’s comments about hip hop in her book, All That is Bitter and Sweet. She wrote:
As far as I’m concerned, most rap and hip hop music — with its rape culture and insanely abusive lyrics and depictions of girls and women as ‘ho’s’ — is the contemporary soundtrack of misogyny.
But how far off is she really? If we’re honest, we know there’s “some” truth in what she said.
Let’s get some things out of the way early. We know that this statement doesn’t apply to all hip hop. There are thoughtful, creative artists whose music is not based on denigrating women. Mos Def, Talib Kweli, J-Live, The Roots, Toki Wright, Shad, Pigeon John, P.O.S., and Blitz The Ambassador, are some that come immediately to mind. And there are plenty of women who represent hip hop, as both MCs and spoken word artists. Think Invincible, Jean Grae, Jessica Care Moore, Toni Blackman, Bless Roxwell, to name a few here.
So, what I think Ashley is guilty of is over-generalization. But the fact is that too much of hip hop does, in fact, denigrate women, be it through lyrics or videos. Recent examples such as Kanye’s Monster video or most of the work of recently celebrated teenagers Odd Future fall in this bucket. And Girl Talk samples what I think are some of the most vile examples of hip hop for his mashup albums.
What you end up with is work that creates an environment that devalues women. And it’s true: Rappers talk about women in the third person, as sexual objects or body parts, or women are seen gyrating half-naked in videos as a symbol of some dude’s material success. Call women bitches and hoes enough times over dope enough beats and an attitude gets normalized.
Hip hop is a global pop cultural phenomenon. It not only defines how a generation sees itself, but it also has become the shorthand for what’s cool around the world.
But on it’s way to becoming that billion-dollar industry, hip hop failed to grow up. Global retailer Walmart went through similar growing pains. As economist Umair Haque notes in his book, The New Capitalist Manifesto, as soon as the company made it to the top of the Fortune 500, society’s expectations rose as well, as evidenced by the attacks on it by labor and environmental activists. So, is it so shocking that many of us have a higher expectation for hip hop, since it, too, stands atop the cultural mountain? Further, is it at all shocking that Ashley Judd—someone who’s not part of the hip hop community—perceives hip hop the way she does? Once you’re able to dictate terms of a discussion, peoples’ expectations about you change, for better or worse.
There is no power—or freedom—without responsibility.
For too many rappers “keeping it real” went wrong a long time ago. Even though the world is listening, too many engage in the fiction that they’re just talking to their boys on the block. Now, it’s one thing to say something to friends: There’s context; people understand where you’re coming from; and there are probably shared values and ways of looking at the world. But when you take some of these songs and blast them around the world, the context disappears. We’re left with only the words.
There are those who will defend hip hop by saying that it’s only reflective of American culture, one that clearly doesn’t value women. I mean, if it did, there wouldn’t be a gender pay gap. And, yes, we live in culture whose values are way out of whack: Cut the tax bills of billion dollar corporations to zero, while at the same time cutting social safety nets and education spending for the most vulnerable. All in the name of some recently found idea of “fiscal responsibility”. Is this the culture the black community wants to reflect? Just because parts of American culture are morally bankrupt, doesn’t mean hip hop—and by extension black culture—also has to be.
Some tried to point out the misogyny in rock and country music. Remember when you were a kid and you got in trouble with your friends? Remember when you tried to make the case that, “They were doing it, too” line? That didn’t stop your parents from tearin’ up that behind, did it? No, because you were expected to know better. Another way to think about it: The they-were-doing-it-too argument is like low-level Nazi soldiers after the Holocaust saying, “I was only following orders.” That’s a shameful cop out.
Thing is, every one of us always has a choice. Hip hop has to grow up, and take responsibility. It starts with the artists, but we as audiences have a responsibility, too. If you’ve got grown men who want to act like teenage boys in their albums, then maybe we should stop supporting them. We are under no obligation to continue circling the wagons around the artists or parts of an artform that don’t reflect where we want our culture and community to go.
Men, particularly, need to start speaking up when we see negative culture being produced and spread. It’s often the few who are willing to speak out that give others the courage to do so. Unless we take a compassionate, principled and firm stand, hip hop will never shake the image, held by many such as Ashley Judd, that it is a breeding ground for misogyny.
Women, hip hop, and our community all deserve better.
- Ru Johnson: Bad Rap: Ashley Judd calls hip hop the soundtrack to misogyny. Is she right?
- Kevin Powell: In Defense of Ashley Judd