A Feminist Call to Radical Hip Hop Heads

Dear UTA,

Hip hop wasn’t my thing a year ago. As a young, black, queer woman and budding feminist, I was out of touch with mainstream and underground hip hop and struggled to understand my connection to popular culture, specifically that created by folks of colour. I grew up on rap music but had lost hope. I didn’t believe hip hop had a place for me, especially with my burgeoning feminist consciousness.

Your interview with M1 (UTA 6) made me remember what the point was, for me and for the music I had abandoned: revolution. Reading M1’s memories of his history, and his thoughts on how black politics has changed over decades and how important it is to re-appropriate radical visions of the black power and the Panther movement, I was with him. And I agree that a radical politics of love is central to any transformative project.

But what about women? What about feminism? Why, once again, are we left out? If it’s “bigger than hip hop,” why are issues of sexism, misogyny, and homophobia still excluded? Why are we repeating the same tired mistakes of the past? The token gestures toward women and an incomplete analysis of the intersections of race and class with gender and sexuality in M1’s discussion made me sad that the hip hop revolution still isn’t coming, at least for those of us committed to anti-racist feminist politics.

Even though I thought I had abandoned hip hop, I always knew that hip hop had a place for feminism and that feminism had a place for hip hop. Just recently, I discovered hip hop feminism, a burgeoning field of scholars, rap artists, historians, journalists and others thoroughly questioning the effects of patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy, and heteronormativity on the scene.

So what is hip hop feminism and what does it respond to? As Mark Anthony Neal asks, is it just a “nameless, orphaned gesture towards the realities of sexuality and gender within hip hop,” or is it about something more? For me, rediscovering hip hop included taking up the challenge of finding a comfortable resting place in which I could find resolution to that ongoing dilemma: “how do I enjoy the beats and still be a feminist?”

You see, the four foundational aspects of hip hop provide a dreary scene for women and for feminist theorizing. Be it rapping, breaking, tagging, or DJing, women are often absent, are represented in small numbers, or are trying to survive intense sexism and homophobia.

A good beat makes me want to get into a song, but how could I bop my head to the beat in between being called a bitch and a ho? Even though this bothered me, I wanted to move beyond simply “counting hos and bitches,” or getting angry about the use of women as props. These things make me mad and make me want to revolutionize the music, but I also realize the immense potential hip hop culture has to really effect change.

Thinking about an engaged musical politics, or a hip hop feminism, raises several questions: what are the transgressive potentials of hip hop? What counterhegemonic narratives do rap music, rappers and hip hop feminists provide? How can we form a feminist response to the sexism, misogyny, and homophobia in hip hop and still claim access to the culture? How can we maintain a critical attention to histories that inform the experiences of people of colour in hip hop without losing ourselves to the capitalist and apolitical stance that seeps into many forms of cultural production? How can we complicate already stereotyped understandings of hip hop beyond the “bitch and ho” quandary? As Gwendolyn Pough, editor of Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminist Anthology, writes,

A hip hop feminist is more than just someone who likes and listens to rap music and feels conflicted about it. A hip hop feminist is someone who is immersed in hip hop culture and experiences hip hop as a way of life. Hip hop as a culture in turn, influences his or her world view or approach to life.

In his interview, M1 made a profound statement about the differences between the racist white power movement and the black politics he ascribes to: “Black Power…it’s about love.” This is a theme that comes up often in black feminist thought. For instance, bell hooks talks about the use of emotional feelings in her work as a teacher and community builder. She writes:

Looking at the anti-racist civil rights struggle, one of the most revolutionary movements for social justice in the world, it was clear that the focus on a love ethic was a central factor in the movement’s success….When as teachers we teach with love, combining care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, ?respect and trust, we are often able to enter the classroom and go straight to the heart of the matter…Love will always move us away from domination in all its forms. Love will always challenge and change us. This is the heart of the matter.

For hooks, the important part of learning is the sharing of knowledge without losing touch with emotions in an effort to be “objective.” I see this power in hip hop; the way passion combines with the love of music and the way people feel emotionally connected to a song, an artist, and more widely, the spirit and the culture behind them.

Pough also discusses the power of love in hip hop as a pedagogy of resistance. She calls this a “public pedagogy” and sees its potential for engaging others within an anti-racist and feminist project by combining the power of the beat with a radical politics of change. How do you get people to engage with their surrounding world and to make critical interventions? For Pough and other hip hop feminists, you must start with the love of the music and use that radical power of love to enact change. Tapping into that love can lead us, I believe, to a critical revisioning of the music culture that so many hip hop feminists are committed to.

So in order for this revolution to continue to be revolutionary, so that the music continues to be critical, we need feminism – hip hop feminism – to have equal place at the mic. We need to recognize the power of female emcees, the importance of critical queeruptions, and the value of an anti-racist critique in the movement. Women, queer folks, and anti-racist agitators must be included for this to work, and there are a lot of people out there doing that work, ensuring that the revolution does indeed come. If you want to check out some cool, radical, and feminist hip hop, you can start with Kia Kadiri (www.myspace.com/kiakadiri), Medusa (www.myspace.com/medusa), Keny Arkana (www.keny-arkana.com), M.I.A. (www.miauk.com), and Jean Grae (www.jean-grae.com).

Shana Calixte
Sudbury, Ontario