Hip-hop is an oppositional cultural sphere deeply rooted in the historical, socio-economic, and political consciousness and experiences of disadvantaged urban black youth of the late twentieth century (see George, 1998). Hip-hop culture, an intersection of yearning, prophetic imagination, and social alienation (Rose, 1994), encompasses not only rap music and videos but also particular forms of attitude, language, dance, and dress; is described as the new global cultural dominant. In addition, it represents the voices and visions of the culturally, politically, and economically marginal and disenfranchised.
Since the beginning, women have played important roles in the evolution of hip-hop culture, especially rap music (Veran, 2001). They have played pivotal roles as artists, performers, producers, writers, and industry executives. There is also no doubt that women have largely influenced rap technique and style, ultimately shaping aesthetic standards and technological practices. Another important role of women in the hip-hop culture is that, through their music, women artists challenge conventional gender roles in the society.
The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate, through the examination of women’s rap music, that women in hip-hop try to provide alternative views about the role of women in the society. In particular, this essay will discuss some discursive strands that serve to highlight how women hip-hop/rap artists confront traditional gender roles. These strands include talking back to men in defense of women and demanding respect for women, and women’s empowerment, self-help, and solidarity. This essay assesses the extent to which the music of such artists as Roxanne Shante, Salt-N-Pepa, Eve, and TLC defy gender norms.
Defending Women and Demanding Respect Women’s defense of themselves against sexist assault takes many forms in hip-hop. In many of their songs, women present playful taunts and boasts in attempts at reclaiming women’s respect and restoring injured pride. Here, women rappers are guided by the classic feminist theme of fighting patriarchy. Their lyrical messages counteract and contradict masculine power assertion and serve to raise women’s consciousness about their plight. One of the earlier women rappers whose songs talked back to men, in attempts at protecting themselves, getting back their respect, and fighting sexism is Roxanne Shante.
It is widely recognized that her 1984 response to U. T. F. O. ’s “Roxanne, Roxanne” launched the “dis” tradition in rap – a convention wherein artists respond to one another’s recorded boasts and taunts, and attempting to establish their own credibility as the best. Basically the purposes of dis songs are to reclaim the respect of someone who has been put down; to put a person exhibiting hubris in his or her place; or to bait another person and rustle up “drama”. In Shante’s “Roxanne’s Revenge”, these purposes were invoked. The song conveys that Roxanne is not just easy prey, thus establishing women’s respectability.
In addition, the song knocks all men with too much confidence down a few notches, all while conveying to the world at large that women had lyrical skills and could rap, and thus compete in what had been established as a man’s world. The following lines give a flavor of her rap: Everybody knows it’s me, yeah, the R-O-X-A-N-N-E, yeah Down with everybody fresh and everyone that I possess And every time I do it right-a, everyone is sure to bite-a Every time I do it, yeah, you know it is-a me-a. ——- Yeah, I am fly but don’t take this And everybody knows I don’t go for it
So, if you’re tryin’ to be cute and you’re tryin’ to be fine You need to cut it out ’cause it’s all in your mind Tryin’ to be like me, yeah, is very hard You think you are God, but you do eat lard. Female rap group Salt-n-Pepa’s “Tramp” (1985) is also an early example of dis rap. The song starts with an irritated reply “What’d ya call me? ” implying that the female persona has been called a tramp. In a period when women’s sexual choices were being re-negotiated, this song was a timely and relevant expression of women’s need for both respect and sexual agency.
The female speaker urges all women to pay attention and listen to her since disrespect towards women is very common: Now what would you do if a stranger said hi? Would you dis him or would you reply? If you answer there is a chance That he will think you want what’s in his pants Am I right, fellas? Tell the truth Or else I’m-a have to show and prove You are what you are, I am what I am It just so happens that most men are… tramps. Near the end of the song, the female speaker addresses an approaching male “tramp”: “You’s a sucker!
Get your dirty mind out the gutter. You ain’t gettin’ paid, you ain’t knockin’ boots, you ain’t treating me like no prostitute!. ” She then returns her attention to other women: “Then I walked away…You’re on a mission, kid–yo, he’s a… tramp! ” The function of this Salt-n-Pepa’s song is not only to open the eyes of women who are subjugating themselves to get a man, but also to men who assume that their preying game is not transparent to women. There is no doubt that this song challenges traditional notion about women as tramps.
Other dis songs tackle more serious issues facing women. For example, Eve’s “Love Is Blind” (1999) centers on women abuse. In this song, Eve rises to the defense of the woman and confronts the male behind the abuse. The song starts with: “Hey, yo, I don’t even know you and I hate you. See, all I know is that my girlfriend used to date you? ” How would you feel if she held you down and raped you? In the next verse, the female speaker asserts that she does not even know the perpetrator and she wants to kill him over the pain he had caused her girlfriend.
She attacks his being a player, his twisted belief that education is not for women, and his lack of financial and moral support to his children and their mother. Moreover, the speaker is angry about his abusive behavior. “Love Is Blind” reaches its climax in the third verse when the speaker’s friend died after a beating. She wants the perpetrator dead: “I ain’t God, but I’ll pretend. I ain’t start your life, but, nigga, I’mma bring it to an end. And I did, clear shots and no regrets, never. ” In the end, Eve declares that the love between women is stronger than the love between women and men.