The year was 1979 and hip-hop music burst onto the mainstream scene, causing ripples and waves around the music industry. Body-moving beats, catchy rhyming lyrics and energetic MCs gave the world a new musical genre that reflected the lifestyles and experiences of those living primarily in inner-cities, and quickly became a nearly universal language for Black and Latino youth.
The early music ranged from introspective reflections on economic and racial struggle to lighthearted dance music that brought people together to have a good time. Eventually, much of the music became more sexual in nature, and the male-dominated genre began to draw attention and come under fire for the sexually explicit nature of the songs.
In 1990, Miami-based rappers 2 Live Crew were sued and arrested for their album’s obscenity, and in 1992, the obscenity ruling was overruled. (The Supreme Court refused to hear the state’s appeal.) Basically, they won the legal right to be “as nasty as they wanna be,” and this groundbreaking court case changed not only hip-hop, but opened the doors for artists of all genres to be as sexually explicit in their music as they wanted to.
But was that necessarily a good thing? Are the often-degrading messages in the music by popular male rap artists good for women? How do women reconcile enjoying the enticing beats of catchy dance songs with the lyrics that usually come with them? I personally support free speech and freedom of expression, and I think it’s the responsibility of the consumer to decide whether or not to listen to such music. There have been female hip-hop artists, like Missy Elliott, who have made sexually overt, danceable music that wouldn’t be considered degrading. Some even consider her music empowering for women.
Many of the ladies I spoke with said that they focus primarily on beats not lyrics. Women generally feel disconnected from misogynistic lyrics and don’t feel the artists are talking about them, but about other women. Some women said they stopped listening to certain artists after digesting the lyrics to certain songs and finding they simply couldn’t stomach it anymore. Almost everyone said they never actually purchase the music, but will shake to it at the club or when it comes on the radio… if no one is around to judge them.
Cydnee thinks that women disconnect from the lyrics as a coping mechanism, because accepting or embracing the lyrics is accepting degradation. She says we do what we can to cope with the disrespect. Nathalie agrees, suggesting that women play dumb; she admits that she intentionally turns her brain off just to enjoy the music.
Ivy thinks of it as “taking it back” or reclaiming her sexuality when she listens to and enjoys the hypersexual, sometimes degrading music. Brittney, on the other hand, asks, “How does ‘taking it back’ apply when it was never meant to be in our possession in the first place?” Alexia simply treats the music like something she knows is bad for her but dabbles in from time-to-time, like alcohol and junk food. Kalyn argues that, sometimes, the music helps set the tone when she wants to get freaky with her husband. Women agree that moderation is important and being consciously aware of the lyrics allows for them to remain uneffected, self-esteem and self-image wise.
Alicia flat out refuses to listen to it anymore, saying, “I stopped listening and couldn’t go back. I became sensitized and offended. I won’t condemn others who enjoy, but I refuse.” Like Alicia, I’ve come to a point when I simply cannot listen to much of the music without feeling my own negative reaction. I also acknowledge that there are some popular songs that will have me shaking it and dropping it low at the club with everyone else.
We have a choice, as stated earlier. We don’t have to listen to or purchase this music. We can also contextualize it. Henry Louis Gates Jr. testified on behalf of 2 Live Crew during their trial, asserting that their music simply contained Black English vernacular and reflected youthful sub-culture; it was art, he argued. I think most of us can separate the gratuitous lyrics from the entertainment factor. For the most part, we can enjoy a sexy song that makes us want to drop it low and get freaky with it without being forced to accept the complete degradation of women. There are alternatives out there, we just have to look for them.
Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.