Emily Moon despairs at the tired cliches of women in mainstream Hip Hop and talks to Angela Martinez, kultural activist, educator and emcee, half of the Filipina hip-hop duo 1st Quarter Storm and finalist in the 2007 and 2008 Seattle Poetry Slams

"I would kiss Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Rihanna. I would marry Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Rihanna in Africa, I’d have 3 wives!
And I would avoid wearing condoms and have really big families."

 - 50 Cent

Hip-hop on MTV: booty poppin girls dripping with bling, gyrating in mini-bikinis around gangsters with guns. Explicit pimp-speak from hard men with  weapons, fast cars, and wads of cash. If you don't have all that you're a b*tch or a pussy - names meant for your ho.

When Nelly slid his credit card down a woman’s are*e in his 2003 tipdrill video  (see above pic) outrage ensued in the press.  Was he seriously putting it out there that women are objects to be bought, sold, and violated?  But years after the furore that followed that vid, nothing much has changed. Nelly went on to tell a forest full of obedient naked women to ‘spread their eagle’ and Beyonce vibrated onto the scene and changed the word ‘her’ to ‘it’ in ‘All the single ladies’.

So how did a culture built on empowering communities become commercialised into symbolic oppression of half the human race? You just need to look at how hip hop has flourished in places like Burma and Palestine, to see its potential to give a voice to the voiceless. Burmese youth defy the ruling junta's censorship using hip hop to dissent, as recently observed by Guardian journalist Jack Davies. And in Palestine young musicians use hip hop to express their own grievances. The 2008 documentary Slingshot hip hop brings this to life with the stories of Palestinian youth living in Gaza, the West Bank and inside Israel using hip hop to understand and cross the borders that separate them. But somehow, in America,  it all went horribly wrong.

Byron Hurt’s 2006 documentary, Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes goes some way into exploring why. “I hear women say ‘they aren’t talking to me when they say ‘bitches’ or ‘hos’ and I’m like ‘Yo they are talking to you!’.  Hurt says of his experiences whilst making the documentary: ‘It’s so unrecognised, so unchecked in our culture. It’s normalised’. Hurt, an activist and hip hop fan took an in-depth look at hypermasculinity, sexism, violence and homophobia in hip-hop culture. And it’s frankly depressing. Because the men are trapped in their roles too, their masculinity depends on the objectification, commodification of, and even violence against, women. They need to be hard to get respect and survive - and, ironically enough, they want this respect, gained in part by degrading women, to get female attention. "One of the flaws in being from the hood is everybody wants to be hard" laments Fat Joe. "Why can't we walk around clubs and smile at each other?".

So why have have the music industry encouraged this to all happen by putting the spotlight on particular artists? And cultural mega-power MTV, that was originally conceived for a youth audience? What the bloody hell are they doing sticking this kind of  blatant misogyny which maintains women in an underprivileged, undignified position on their screens 24/7 to be lapped up by the hormonal and inexperienced mass MTV audiences? Angela Martinez aka El Dia kultural activist, educator and emcee, half of the Filipina hip-hop duo 1st Quarter Storm and finalist in the 2007 and 2008 Seattle Poetry Slams (woah - busy lady!) tells La Bouche "The mainstream hip-hop industry as it exists today is really a microcosm of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that funds and supports it, selecting particular artists with particular messages and marketing them alongside sexist portrayals of women for mass consumption by the American public. Most consumers of hip-hop music today are white suburban youth. To appeal to their target audiences, many of whom have little to no contact with actual Black people or people of color, decision-makers in the mainstream music industries rely on racist and sexist stereotype-fantasies of Black people and women of color to help them achieve their end goal of continued sales."

So ultimately, would it be be fair to say all Hip Hop is sexist and misogynistic? Let’s not forget the girls who haven’t been grinding behind Usher - for decades some women have been carving out roles that don’t all buy into the bitches and pimps. Think of B-girls, MC LYte, Salt n Pepa, Queen Latifah, Lauren Hill, Ms Dynamite, Stush. But are these women making it in hip hop despite the sexism?

Can we look to other women in hip hop to provide more positive role models? Angela Martinez says 'I would hesitate to  categorize any artist as a positive or negative role models; most authentic artists are complex characters who exhibit strengths and weaknesses in their public (artist) personas as well as in their private lives, like the rest of us.  However, the nature of hip-hop is one of self-aggrandizement and self-promotion, not for its own sake but because the artist, or dancer, or rapper, or DJ has generally come from a place of social invisibility, so it is logical that in the art, one would strive to be seen as larger than life. This often includes breaking down the competition and expressing one’s toughness and invincibility, sometimes even to the point of mentioning violence against others. Even women who rap about violent things (Lil Kim, Foxy Brown) are, like the most violent male rappers, simply expressing elements of the cycles of violence that they themselves have been taught to value. And although you may not call them “positive role models” per se, that they are expressing it in their art instead of acting it out in their daily lives is definitely a positive thing."

But what about the tired cliches of women dripping massage oil shakin' their asses in ganster's faces?  It's 2010, so isn’t it time to hang up the thongs now?  "I do not see a reduction in the sexism in hip-hop of recent years" says Martinez "in fact, with the rise of the video-ho culture and its spread across  genres (see recent country-music videos for examples) I feel that this type of sexism (woman as commodity) is becoming more desired, normative and accepted by young women and men alike, and this definitely has a damaging effect on young women’s self-esteem and as well as obstructs healthy male-female relationships". LB!

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