Rap and the politics of sexism


By Sujatha Fernandes

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 question.

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 "bitches" 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 club.

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 issues.

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.