Misogyny in Hip-hop: In defence of Nicki Minaj
I recently went to an Emerging Writers Festival event called ‘Amazing Babes’ where I heard a fantastic speech about feminism and hip hop, which mirrored many of my views on the subject.
Hip-hop is fundamentally misunderstood: there is a flawed popular perception that all hip-hop is about popping champagne in the club surrounded by gyrating women. Although this does apply to a subset of hip-hop, it is not representative of the genre as a whole.
My affinity for hip-hop stems from it’s roots in spoken word poetry, I love how it can be defiant, politically conscious, raw and angry. Hip-hop that questions the status quo and seeks to subvert societal power structures.
Hip-hop artists are also often adept and underrated poets, their creativity and ability to stretch the boundaries of language is mind-bending. For instance, in ‘Life’s a bitch’ by Nas, the line ‘Keeping this Schweppervescent street ghetto essence inside us‘ is still one of my favourite uses of wordplay. Or Gil Scott Heron (although not strictly a hip-hop artist, a forefather and influential figure in hip-hop), who had a prodigious ability with words, writing songs like ‘Sex education Ghetto Style’ with lyrics like:
‘I was doin’ it when I was a colored boy of /
eight or nine or ten
I had never heard of Sigmund Freud /
but hell I was doin’ it then
I was doin’ it in my teenaged years /
when I was running the ghetto streets
Now I had never seen me no ink blot test /
but it still felt good to me.’
My major issue with poetry is it’s stuffy reputation, and what I love about hip-hop is that is democratizes poetry and creates a space for voices that are invisible in the ivory tower of academia and the canon of celebrated literature. I believe hip-hop plays a role as a powerful medium for people to express their stories.
On the other hand, being a feminist and a fan of hip-hop is fraught with issues. The attitudes towards women within this male dominated space can be extremely problematic (and at times, absolutely abhorrent). For instance, I think Kanye is a musical genius, but I find his lyrics (particularly on ‘Yeezus’) stomach churning. A few examples are lyrics like ‘eating Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce’ and ‘I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.’
Within this paradigm of hip-hop misogyny, I find the success of Nicki Minaj heartening. She’s carved out a unique space for herself within this ‘man’s world’ on her own terms. Her sexuality is brash, unapologetic and playful, and she is uncompromising in pursuit of her artistic goals.
She’s very outspoken about the double standards and backlash she faces as a woman ‘trespassing’ on a male space.
‘When I am assertive, I’m a bitch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss. He bossed up. No negative connotation behind ‘bossed up’, but lots of negative connotation behind being a bitch.’
Her hypersexualised persona means she’s often dismissed and her music is criticized as being ‘regressive’ for women and ‘setting feminism back decades.’ I think that’s a really simplistic prism through which to view Nicki Minaj, and is based on respectability politics and slut shaming.
To understand the difference between Nicki Minaj twerking in Anaconda and a voiceless woman in a male rappers music video, it’s important to understand context, intent and ownership. Framing any display of female sexuality from the perspective of the male gaze is incredibly regressive and stifles women’s sexual self determination.
In Anaconda, Nicki reclaims ‘Baby got Back’ from it’s fraught origins of the male gaze and uses it as an anthem for her own empowerment and expression of body positivity. This is set against an over-the-top jungle themed backdrop (could be interpreted as a subversion of the racially charged fetishization of women of colour with terms like ‘jungle fever’). She subverts Eurocentric beauty ideals and experiments with her own sexual persona with candyfloss wigs and an aggressive, swaggering confidence that is usually only the purview of male rappers.
Even the infamous lap-dance scene with Drake which is criticized as ‘detrimental to feminism’ isn’t about female objectification and subjugation. The lap dance isn’t about Drake. Nicki Minaj is in control. It is not about submission, it’s an act of seduction. Drake is a passive spectator, his hover-hand swatted away by Nicki, a defiant articulation of the power of consent.
On one hand, Emma Watson is upheld as a paragon of modern feminism because she fits the ideals of acceptability within a patriarchal power structure: she’s white, conventionally attractive and does not express her sexuality in an overt way, so she is championed as a universal feminist voice.
On the other hand, Nicki Minaj is a woman of colour, immigrant and female rapper who subverts hegemonic structures and refuses to comply with these standards of respectability by rapping about her sexual prowess and embodying an aggressive and confident sexuality.
Sexuality is not antithetical to empowerment. So if you believe in an inclusive and intersectional feminism which is based on choice, then stop policing women’s choices through respectability politics.