I’ve got 99 problems but feminist guilt ain’t one

 

There is lavish killing here, perhaps enough to satisfy all male black readers.

These are the words of Zora Neale Hurston, in her contemporary review of Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of five short stories and one essay, concerning the lives of African Americans in the pre-civil-rights era.  And yes, racial issues permeate the book; it is easy to see why Hurston feels it would appeal to a predominantly black readership.  But male? Why does she consider violence in literature as specifically gratifying for men?As a feminist – or indeed, a woman – it is never comfortable to admire works which have been categorised as masculine, or worse, misogynistic.  But should such classifications, justified or not, preclude women from appreciating certain art forms?For me, the area in which this uncomfortable reconciliation between personal and artistic politics is most prevalent is hip-hop.  As a genre, it is often considered an expression of male dominance, and female exploitation, a claim for which there is some evidence: Jay Z’s masterpiece, The Black Album, contains a number of misogynistic references, most famously in ‘99 Problems’.


While the artist uses derogatory terms for the female, this is not the driving force behind his work.  Here, any misogyny is secondary to the aesthetic appreciation of the work: the lyricism of the rapper is all about flow, rhythm and rhyme.  To judge hip-hop in terms of its sexist references, is to fundamentally misunderstand it.

Nevertheless, I maintain some degree of discomfort with proclaiming that I enjoy a genre of music which refers to women in such a vile way.  But does my discomfort with sexist terminology mean should I prefer Emilie Autumn’s ‘feminist’ music?

‘Does Jesus like my hair, well I don’t think he fucking cares’.  Take that patriarchy, and your imposition of white male heroes upon me! What about Jesus’ wife? Why do we never hear about her? Answer: sexism! I for one am far more interested in what Emmeline Pankhurst thinks of my hair.

NOT

In my humble and subjective opinion, and I stress this is just an opinion, Autumn’s music is definitely, completely fucking worthless.  While it’s true, ‘hair’ does almost rhyme with ‘cares’, a good musician this does not make.  Nor does it make me a bad feminist for saying so.

 

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13 responses to “I’ve got 99 problems but feminist guilt ain’t one

  1. This is an interesting article, and it’s not my place to overrule you on how the gender politics of this music affects you, but I would however defend the importance of the lyrics in hip-hop. Firstly, while I recogise the unique influence of pace and rhythm in hip-hop, I think you’ve slightly undervalued the lyrical content here. Though I’m hardly an avid listener, what I’ve heard from groups like public enemy, NWA, and others of that generation were genuine, meaningful comments about their social and racial backgroud. And though people like JZ might not live up to this others do.

    As for people like JZ, 50 cent and the like, I worry that there is at least an unconscious danger here. Just like in the 50s when gender roles were so heavily demarcated, I think that even the casual listener to music which depicts females as ‘bitches’ or ‘ho’s’, there could be some kind of conditioning that is potentially unhealthy.

  2. Hi David,
    there is really no need to defend the lyrics in hip-hop to me: my aim for this article was not to play down the importance of lyrical content, but rather, to express my unease with references to women within the genre, an unease coherently reflected by you, when you state your worries that for ‘even the casual listener to music which depicts females as ‘bitches’ or ‘ho’s’, there could be some kind of conditioning that is potentially unhealthy.’

    However, your remarks contrasting Jay-Z’s music with that of NWA, arguing that the former contributes to the negative portrayal of women, while the latter made ‘genuine, meaningful comments about their [own] social and racial backgroud.’, is ignorant at best. It made me wonder whether you were familiar with the NWA record ‘She Swallowed it’. In case you’re not, below I have included an excerpt:

    ‘This is the bitch who did the whole crew
    She did it so much we’d make bets on who’s the ho’s
    we’d love to go through
    And for the shit that she does give her a drum role
    Because the dumb bitch licks out the asshole
    And’ll let you video tape her
    And if you got a gang of niggaz, the bitch would
    let you rape her’

    I must say, I found your assertion that ‘JZ’ doesn’t ‘live up’ to the heights of political and social comment reached by 80s hip-hop artits particularly jarring. To be blunt, by saying this, you really betray your inexperience with the genre. As for placing Jay-Z in the same category as 50 Cent, I don’t even no where to begin…

  3. I really can’t argue with that. I’m not familiar with that much of NWA, for instance, though I do know some.

    The lyrics there are indefensible, but in my defense, groups like NWA (i.e. from that era) are nonethless also well known for – as I say – the sociopolitical content of their music as well as influences which aren’t quite so comercially driven as they are in today’s genre.

    Similarly, I may have undervalued JZ’s work (especially by comparing ot to 50 cent which, even to me, seems jarring in retrospect) and while he may deal with more important issues than I gave him credit for, that does not excuse the appart misogyny in his lyrics, although as I said before, it is not for me to prescribe offense when none is taken.

  4. even with respect to the above quotation: bad lyrics…but it is a bloody groovy tune.
    maybe that’s why a so much french hiphop sounds so ace.
    i mean, have you ever read a translation of the modeselektor track 2000007?

  5. I have a couple of things to add to this…

    I think that when thinking about the lyrical content of rap music, especially that made by black men, the following quotation from Barack Obama speaking about Malcolm X should be held in mind:

    “I find the sort of policy prescriptions, the analysis, the theology of Malcolm full of holes . . . I did even when I was young. I was never taken with some of his theorising. I think that what Malcolm X did, though, was to tap into a long-running tradition within the African-American community, which is that at certain moments it’s important for African-Americans to assert their manhood, their worth. At times, they can overcompensate, and popular culture can take it into caricature – blaxploitation films being the classic example of it. But if you think about a time, in the early 1960s, when a black PhD might be a Pullman porter and have to spend much of his day obsequious and kow-towing to people, that affirmation that I am a man, I am worth something, was important.” (source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/24/bridge-life-rise-obama-remnick)

    Hence black men seeking to dominate women in their music can be seen to be part of that tradition of self-assertion. Whilst this conclusion is churlish, reductionist, and probably racist, I think it contributes to understanding why these things are rapped about.

    Also, the last part of your original response, David, troubled me.

    You said:

    “As for people like JZ, 50 cent and the like, I worry that there is at least an unconscious danger here. Just like in the 50s when gender roles were so heavily demarcated, I think that even the casual listener to music which depicts females as ‘bitches’ or ‘ho’s’, there could be some kind of conditioning that is potentially unhealthy.”

    At best, this is very naive, at worst ignorant. The reference to ‘unconscious danger’ seems to be suggesting a view where you (or, in this case, the white middle-class) recognise a danger that the black (ostensibly) working class are not aware. As such, it seems to be hinting towards a kind of cultural superiority. I’m sure this is not what you had in mind at all, and I’m sure that I’ve probably done your argument a great injustice; but I think that the argument is flawed.

    The following quotation from the ever insightful Stuffwhitepeoplelike blog should also inform our thinking:

    “Even as you read this, white people are telling other white people about the golden age of Hip Hop that they experienced in a suburban high school or through a viewing of The Wackness.

    If you are good at concealing laughter and contempt, you should ask a white person about “Real Hip Hop.” They will quickly tell you about how they don’t listen to “Commercial Hip Hop” (aka music that black people actually enjoy), and that they much prefer “Classic Hip Hop.”

    “I don’t listen to that commercial stuff. I’m more into the Real Hip Hop, you know? KRS One, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, De La Soul, Wu Tang, you know, The Old School.”

    Calling this style of music ‘old school’ is considered an especially apt name since the majority of people who listen to it did so while attending old schools such as Dartmouth, Bard, and Williams College.” (source: http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/11/18/116-black-music-that-black-people-dont-listen-to-anymore/)

  6. Just to be clear Daniel, while I see why you’ve come to that conclusion, that specific point didn’t have anything to do with race. My concern was for female listeners (of any race) in their formative years, who also happen to enjoy hip-hop that also happens contains misogynistic assertions. My point was also not meant to suggest that teenage girls are helplessly impressionable (I know you didn’t accuse me of this, but it just occurred to me), but to warn that when demeaning gender prescriptions are so ubiquitous (as in the 1950s, for instance), there is a danger that the prevailing sentiment can have an effect on them.

    As I say, the point wasn’t about race. Clearly hip-hop, though dominated in practice by black men, is not only listened to by that demographic. This is why, while I understand you raising the argument from stuffwhitepeoplelike, I find it reductionist. ‘Commercial hip-hop’ is manifestly not only enjoyed by black people, just as ‘old-skool’ is not just enjoyed by the white middle classes (though don’t get me wrong, i’m sure there’s a certain middle-class discomfort with the hip-hop of today).

  7. Daniel,
    You’re your comments relating to white people’s self congratulatory “discovery” of 80s hip-hop are spot on. Often, the distinction between “commercial” and “classic” hip-hop, is not one of quality or content, but era.

    This is significant of a weird white anxiety about black music; Bob Marley, Ali Farka Touré, Chuck D, Gil Scott Heron and Miles Davis are all proudly consumed by the white middle class, while Jay-Z’s headline slot at Glastonbury was considered controversial. It seems that the acceptable face of black music is not that of a young African-American man, but of an old/dead/African/Jamaican, who hasn’t released any records for a while.

    However, your statement that black men ‘seeking to dominate women in their music can be seen to be part of that tradition of self-assertion.’ (even if it derives from something Mr. Obama said), is one which is just bullshit. I remain completely unconvinced by the concept of hypermasculinity; the black man’s dominance of women is no more influenced by race than the white man’s, nor is it any more acceptable. To suggest that it is, smacks of white colonialist guilt.

    Even in this excerpt, freedom, justice, and all that good stuff the civil rights movement emblemises is seen through the eyes of men. It’s really frustrating, that anger at inequality is considered a typically male phenomenon; how did women’s frustration and anger at racial oppression manifest itself? While a male ‘black PhD might be a Pullman porter and have to spend much of his day obsequious and kow-towing to people’, for whom the ‘affirmation that I am a man, I am worth something’ is empowering, what was the black woman doing? Probably cooking, shagging, mothering, and wondering why they never made it to university themselves. Just as Hurston does in her review of Wright’s book, you have inaccurately classified violence or aggression, as specifically gratifying for the male.

    With regards to hip-hop, Rob’s short but sweet contribution really gets to the heart of the matter; if we were to continue this debate, we would need to define what it is that makes music good, and what makes it offensive.

    David, your concern ‘for female listeners (of any race) in their formative years, who also happen to enjoy hip-hop that also happens contains misogynistic assertions’ is a little misplaced. While I sympathise with your discomfort with sexist references in rap, hip-hop by no means corners the market when it comes to sexist lyrics. I considered compiling a list of misogynistic white music to support my argument, but I couldn’t be bothered. On a completely unrelated note, I’m off to listen to track 3 of the classic Neil Young album Harvest.

  8. I’m quite happy to accept that Han. While I think the misogyny is more prominant in hip-hop, I would never suggest it is the only genre (or artform) guilty of it.

  9. The worst mistake one can make when listening to hip-hop is to over-cerebralise it. It’s also not really worthwhile to deconstruct it to political/social components. It is what it is, and how it became what it is is very easy to understand.

    Han, the misogyny in in hip-hop is there to be enjoyed and celebrated. As with violence in an action movie, it is an essential component of its genre. It doesn’t mean you buy into misogyny being acceptable, any more than you think someone being shot in the face is acceptable. You are, however, still allowed to guiltily (if this makes you feel better) enjoy it.

    I think the best way this conversation could play out would be as follows:

    “There’s a concern that the misogynistic elements so pervasive in hip-hop are alienating female listeners and angering feminist observers.”

    “That’s cuz bitches be crazy.”

  10. Han, I think you took my argument to a conclusion that was beyond what was stated by the premises. I admitted the ridiculous nature of the conclusion that I had drawn, and I had by no means meant it to be definitive. I just thought it is one way of thinking about this issue, and thought that the Obama quotation was interesting when read in this context.

    I’m specifically referring to what you wrote here:

    “I remain completely unconvinced by the concept of hypermasculinity; the black man’s dominance of women is no more influenced by race than the white man’s, nor is it any more acceptable. To suggest that it is, smacks of white colonialist guilt.”

    I think this is an extremely unfair response to what I had written. This is where your conclusion goes beyond what I was saying. My comment was a fair inference from the quotation I used. I was contributing to the debate, I was not suggesting something that smacked ‘of white colonialist guilt.’ My response was informed completely by what I know about hip-hop and the Obama quotation (and the article it was taken from), and nothing more. I was not seeking a definitive answer to the issue, I was just positing an idea that you effectively shot down.

    Furthermore, your treatment of the Obama quotation as a whole was, I thought, to miss the point. I’m sure you read the article, and when you read the article the quotation makes perfect sense. Obama was talking about his personal development, how he was informed by what he saw about it. To ask, ‘what was the black woman doing?’ in response to what Obama said was to move the discussion into a new zone and I think is also a straw man argument. Whilst I agree that it is always necessary to ask questions like that and to respond with such passion, I think that it has widened the parameters of the debate too far. It changes the context of the quotation, and as such is not a fair criticism of the point I was making.

    The reason why the quotation shows that ‘all the good stuff’ in the civil rights movement is ‘seen through the eyes of men’ is because Obama is talking about himself, his development, and not the movement as a whole. Again, I think it is treating the quotation as something it is not. It is the expression of a totally subjective, personal opinion that I used to illustrate how it could be used as a generalization. This was probably a mistake, which you have astutely demonstrated.

    So, whilst it is a weak defence, I think that you misunderstood my post.

    Stefan, when you put an issue like this in front of a bunch of earnest students there’s no way you can over-cerebralise it. Well, you obviously can, as we have just demonstrated.

  11. Daniel,

    I apologise if you felt I ‘shot down’ your ideas, but surely you must concede that by asserting that ‘black men seeking to dominate women in their music can be seen to be part of that tradition of self-assertion’ is a statement which will arouse a response such as mine. Not only is this a fairly essentialist position to take, but it serves to justify misogyny, even if this was not your intention.

    In your response, you say:

    ‘I admitted the ridiculous nature of the conclusion that I had drawn, and I had by no
    means meant it to be definitive.’

    Hmm…strange how you defend so vehemently a position which you yourself admit is ‘ridiculous’. Maybe my conclusion does go beyond what you were saying, but in lieu of any suggestion by you of practical application of this way of thinking, I believe my reference to hypermasculinity is justified; it is the logical path to follow from your starting point.

    I couldn’t agree more that your ‘comment was a fair inference from the quotation’; my issue wasn’t with your summarising skills, but with the application of this to a debate regarding misogyny in hip-hop.

    ‘your treatment of the Obama quotation as a whole was, I thought, to miss the point…Obama was talking about his personal development, how he was informed by what he saw’ Exactly! You’re clearly aware of the subjectivity of the piece you used. As such, I’m baffled as to why you would apply it to a cultural movement with such wide scope as hip-hop.

    ‘To ask, ‘what was the black woman doing?’ in response to what Obama said was to move the discussion into a new zone…’. By this, I think you mean I moved the discussion about a quotation which you largely failed to successfully apply to the topic, towards that which was being debated.

    ‘…I think that it has widened the parameters of the debate too far’. You’re right: I widened the parameters of a debate which concerned the treatment of women in black music to include black women.

    I’m sorry for inferring that you suffered colonialist guilt, but hey, better to be a colonialist who feels guilty, than one who doesn’t, right?

    I don’t know, maybe my aggressive response to you was due to my own frustration with the subordinate position of women, and the female tradition of self assertion…no wait…that’s bullshit.

  12. Han, you must have seen that as soon as I asserted my argument, I immediately played down its credibility.

    I wrote: “Hence black men seeking to dominate women in their music can be seen to be part of that tradition of self-assertion. Whilst this conclusion is churlish, reductionist, and probably racist, I think it contributes to understanding why these things are rapped about.”

    The final clause of the second sentence is the most important. I wrote ‘contributes to understanding’; I did not write ‘explains’, I did not write ‘justifies’, I did not write anything definitive. I merely sought to add a new angle to look at the issue. I also did not write ‘this is I view I hold’, ‘this is a view I hold dear’, or ‘damn straight, that’s how it should be.’ What I did say was that the conclusion was ‘churlish, reductionist, and probably racist.’ I thought I had distanced my own views from those I was positing enough with that ‘disclaimer.’

    I chose a succinct and powerfully worded conclusion so as to make the argument flow. I chose the sentence I did because I thought it added a sort of Q.E.D. to the end of my argument: it fits with the quotation well and is an effective summary of the view that I was trying to put forward. Not the view that I support, merely a view that I was putting forward.

    But of course I’m going to defend what I wrote, I wrote it; if you can’t defend what you’ve written, then you shouldn’t have written it in the first place. I do ‘concede’ that an argument like what I put forward will elicit such a passionate response. I also don’t have a ‘practical application’ for what I put forward, it was meant to be a kind-of thought experiment, not a statement of fact.

    The main point of the Obama quotation was for these two sentences:

    “I think that what Malcolm X did, though, was to tap into a long-running tradition within the African-American community, which is that at certain moments it’s important for African-Americans to assert their manhood, their worth. At times, they can overcompensate, and popular culture can take it into caricature – blaxploitation films being the classic example of it. ”

    I see the mistake I made now though. I moved from the reference to Malcolm X to African-American men. That is not what Obama said. Obama was referring to the whole community, not one half. So I made a logical error in my argument, fine. I’m not good at philosophy, nor arguing.

    But! I still think that the quotation is interesting with regards to our current debate, specifically the reference to asserting ‘their manhood, their worth.’ As soon as I read that in the original piece I thought of the lyrics of gangsta rap. In my mind, gangsta rap is primarily associated with asserting ‘manhood’ and ‘worth.’ Perhaps this is a short-sighted view of gangsta rap, I’ll readily admit I am no expert of the intricacies of gangsta rap. So, perhaps this is an example of lazy thinking on my behalf. I quite happily tapped into the stereotypes of rap with wanton disregard for the consequences.

    Ok, so now I see that my argument was weak, lazy, and contained a logical error. Good. So now along with churlish, reductionist, and probably racist’ we can now add invalid, incorrect, and ill thought out to the list of things that are wrong with the argument.

    My main objection to your response was not about my over-all argument, it was just that I thought you were looking at it in the wrong way. I guess you could say that this was typical patriarchal desire to have control over words, especially over the women who may be reading those words.

    So, in conclusion: my original post was stupid and should not be taken seriously.

    My true views on the matter are as follows: I deplore and despise misogyny of any kind, wherever it may be. There are parts of rap music that disgust me. But, I like the rhythms, the rhymes, the flow of the rap, and also of course the beats. I am ill at ease with the misogynistic aspects of music, and don’t tend to listen to the really ‘rough’ stuff. But, to be too puritanical about this kind of thing is a mistake. Stef’s view is probably the easiest one to take, and most popular, but one that I am still ill at ease with.

  13. so shouting to the masses “i got 99 problems but a bitch (meaning a female) ain’t one” is something you, a self-proclaimed feminist approves of? I’m pretty sure that makes you a bad feminist. Your views are:
    Good beats/flow/whatever > not supporting degradation of females.
    no matter what your reason for doing it, supporting artists like these IS supporting sexism. I’m sorry that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

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