For rap's female fans, a delicate dissonance

by Hunter Harris / Beacon Staff • September 10, 2015

Straight Outta Compton—the summer’s big screen adaptation of gangster rap group N.W.A.’s rise to fame—did more than properly suggest to unknowing Emerson College students the proper origin of “Bye Felicia.” As the fifth highest August opening ever, according to Dateline, the sprawling origin story of gangster rap’s greatest group did more than make a lot of money. Witty one-liners and talented actor lookalikes aside (special shoutout to Paul Giamatti for reprising his role from Big Fat Liar), giving protest rap a mainstream narrative has put rap culture’s flagrant blindspots into renewed perspective.

As an art that began as one predicated upon the shared black identities of its creators and listeners, American rap in mainstream is an unexpected phenomena. When Kanye West declared rap as the new rock and roll, that conclusion held more weight than was initially clear. It’s more than Fetty Wap and Drake holding staple spots on drive time radio—legend rappers have appealed to audiences beyond the Beats-owning fanbase. Jay-Z has Tidal, Snoop Dogg has his wacky friendship with Martha Stewart, Ice Cube has whatever family-friendly comedy pays the bills.

What rap does not have, however, is gender parity, and this isn’t breaking news—hip hop is dominated by men, to be sure, but it’s also perceived as masculine in nature, no matter the gender of the rapper or listener. As a woman who has grown up listening to rap, whose Spotify playlists are comprised of A Tribe Called Quest deep cuts, this is isolating. Even when women are empowered to write and share verses that express female agency, success, and sexuality in language that isn’t traditionally masculine, their work faces the same risk of being silenced as in the traditionally less cool corporate America. In the years since its 2010 release, Nicki Minaj’s stellar verse in “Monster” (from Kanye West’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’) was almost discarded in the studio: “[I] thought about taking Nicki’s verse off of “Monster” because I knew people would say that was the best verse on the best Hip Hop album of all time or arguably top ten albums of all time,” Kanye said in that famous summer interview when fellow rapper and radio host Sway “didn’t have the answers.”

Music is important to black people in a unique way in that it’s especially important to blackness. From the slave-sung spirituals that have endured in today’s church hymnals to the mics of emcee’s, black music hasn’t just acknowledged black bodies—it requires them, empowers them, and even dares to praise them. Rap is just one more iteration of this phenomena, and the  lyrics penned by black musicians recognize and document black lives. That’s why I love it, why it speaks to me, how it will always have political appeal in addition to its aesthetic one. It’s just so unfortunate that the black lives being documented are hypercritical of womanhood.

The story of Compton-bred rap group N.W.A. blown up on the big screen, however, prompts an examination of exactly whose black lives are being represented. Members Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube (and lesser-known members MC Ren and DJ Yella), and the contemporaries who didn’t make the film’s final cut spit verses and drop bars sharing who they advocate for: men.

This is a familiar narrative. As much as I love hip hop and regard it as one of the highest art forms, it exists in and of the world, and is just as susceptible to our culture’s inequalities. What feels different about sexism in this genre, though, is that so often I—as a woman of color, as a feminist, as an aspiring mediaite—willingly buy into it. Watching Straight Outta Compton, listening to “Monster,” quoting Biggie Smalls… I’m complicit in work that often devalues and degrades people who share so many aspects of my identity.

I’m not the only black woman who feels this way. To coincide with reviews of the big-screen adaptation of N.W.A.’s story, Brooklyn-based writer Jamilah Lemieux reminded Straight Outta Compton fans of the rap heroes’ notorious misogyny and chided the film for expecting a nearly free pass. The brash, prideful, “Fuck Tha Police” attitude that Eazy, Dre, and Cube made famous included more than lyrics suggesting violence against cops. Women—especially those of color—also bore the brunt of gangster rap’s lyrical blows. “The idea that a group that was so absolutely harsh on black women (and spoke proudly of nihilistic violence against other black men) would be reimagined as some sort of American heroes or champions of blackness is disheartening,” Lemieux blogged for the Washington Post in August.

There’s no answer to this, or if there is, I certainly haven’t found it. It’s a curious quandary when the songs that serve as the soundtrack to one protest play into the basis of another, suggesting a heinous disparity. Hip hop’s blindspot for feminism is more than a quantitative calculation, but a qualitative balancing act, wherein fans whose identities aren’t strictly black, straight, and male are required to juggle pride and powerlessness, often within the same Rick Rubin beat.

Gangster rap, ‘conscious’ rap (a pitiful misnomer popularized largely by ignorant writers), whatever you want to call it, I love it. Tomorrow I might not. It is, as director Ava DuVernay tweeted in August, a delicate balance: “To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser. Because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours.“