Date: Tue, 5 Aug 97 11:57:48 CDT
From: rich%pencil@UBVM.cc.buffalo.edu (Rich Winkel)
Subject: GL: Rap and the politics of sexism
Rap and the politics of sexism
By Sujatha Fernandes
5 August 1997
The 1995 Million Man March, initiated by black nationalist leader
Louis Farrakhan, which promoted the need for black men to take
responsibility for their lives and families, left many, including
black leader Angela Davis, wondering where black women fitted in.
Even Spike Lee's film On the Buses, which told the stories of a
group of men travelling to the march on a bus, didn't tackle this
Where, then, is there any debate about women, race and class? In
her new book Black Noise, Tricia Rose, a black academic in the
United States, argues that it is taking place within rap music.
Interestingly, Rose's arguments echo some of the debates
highlighted in Angela Davis' 1984 book, Women, Race and Class.
Davis said that not only are black women oppressed on the basis of
their class, gender and race, within the black community they have
to fight to assert their identity as women. This links their
struggle to the broader movement for women's liberation.
Davis described how, during the civil rights movement, when white
women accused black men of rape, the latter were often lynched. In
this situation black women would defend black men, while still
taking up their own harassment by black men.
A similar dilemma has emerged in rap in the 1990s, with the
establishment media, conservative politicians and some feminist
organisations dismissing rap as sexist and misogynist.
When a number of influential female rappers were questioned about
this by music magazines, they failed to criticise male black
rappers. Again, this is because they understood the context in
which their comments would be construed; rather than being
portrayed as a progressive force in rap, they knew that they would
be used to attack male rappers.
This is not to argue that sexism within rap or within the black
community should not be fought against. It should. Rap reflects
women's status in a sexist society, where women are often seen as
sexual objects and viewed in very violent terms.
Rap is replete with phrases describing black women as "bitchse"
and "whores", and male rappers asserting their sexual status by
reference to how many women they've "had" or raped. Women rappers
have also been assaulted by male rappers, such as the public
beating of Dee Barnes by Dr Dre from Niggers With Attitude in a
But to label rap progressive or reactionary on the basis of this
is a difficult task.
While rappers such as Ice Cube display misogynist attitudes, they
also deal with important issues such as police harassment, poverty
and youth crime. The media and prominent politicians deal portray
all rap as vulgar and thereby sideline the important issues that
black rappers raise.
As Davis showed, black women dealt with this kind of sexism by
organising within the black community and also by linking up with
their white sisters.
Today, black female rappers are taking on black rappers by
producing rap that projects powerful images of female black
sexuality and women's rights.
However, consciousness about sexism among female rappers is not
uniform, and sometimes male rappers such as Michael Franti from
Spearhead can display more political consciousness about women's
Much of the pro-woman rap also fails to challenge the power
relationships and courtship rituals, by often simply reversing the
rituals, putting women in a position of power. This puts the
responsibility for women's rights in the hands of black men
without challenging institutionalised sexism.
But this is in a context of the radical women's and black
movements being now much weaker. Rap cannot substitute for a
movement for black people's rights. As a part of popular culture,
it inevitably reflects all of society's prejudices.
However, in the absence of other forums, because of its key role
in popular culture, rap can also provide an important forum for
debate and consciousness raising among the black community.
A good example of women rappers raising political issues is Queen
Latifah and Monie Love's "Ladies First." Without attacking black
men, they present a history of the black women's movement,
including the role of activists such as Sojourner Truth, Angela
Davis and Winnie Mandela. The video footage includes images of
rural African women and other black women leaders.
Latifah strolls around in military gear replacing white regimes in
southern Africa with black power fists. Throughout there is a
strong identification with the powerful legacy of the black
struggle with the sampling of Malcolm X's phrase, There are going
to be some changes made here.
Music has always been a very important cultural tool in the
movement for black rights, and rap is no exception. A look at some
of the debates taking place within rap can provide an idea about
how the black community and women in particular are dealing with
sexism in the 1990s.
This article was posted on the Green Left Weekly [Image]
For further details regarding subscriptions and
correspondence please contact firstname.lastname@example.org