The Complex Intersection of Gender and Hip-Hop

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Bakari Kitwana, author of The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture; Aya de Leon, a writer, performer and instructor at the University of California, Berkeley; and hip hop writer kris ex, co-author of 50 Cent's autobiography From Pieces to Weight, talk about gender and rap music.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

When it comes to gender and music, hip-hop usually gets a bad rap - homophobic, sexist, male dominated, the list goes on. Back in 2004, Rapper Nelly canceled a charity performance at Spelman College after widespread protests. His "Tip Drill" video showed a credit card swiped down a woman's rear. The furor helped spawn "Essence" magazine's Take Back the Music Campaign in 2005. And who can forget the recent controversy over shock jock Don Imus. He used ho, a word many rappers have been using for years.

So what's the line between slander and free speech and who gets to draw it? Joining me for a special Roundtable is Bakari Kitwana, author of "The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture." We've also got Aya De Leon, a writer-performer and an instructor at UC Berkeley. Her one-woman show "Thieves in the Temple" talked about women reclaiming hip-hop. And writer Kris Ex, co-author of "50 Cents Autobiography: From Pieces to Weight." Welcome everybody.

Mr. KRIS EX (Co-author, "50 Cents Autobiography: From Pieces to Weight"): Hey, how are you doing?

Ms. AYA DE LEON (Instructor, UC Berkeley): Great to be here.

Mr. BAKARI KITWANA (Author, "The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture"): Hello.

CHIDEYA: So Aya, I'm going to start with you and full confession. We've known each other all the way back since college. "Thieves in the Temple" - you, I remember at one point, you were talking about it and you said, no one is going to come rescue hip-hop. I've got to do it myself. Yet, still, we see a world where, if anything, hip-hop has gotten more male dominated since you did your one-woman show back in 2004. So what do you attribute that?

Ms. DE LEON: Well, if we look at the history of hip-hop, we see since the beginning, women have been participants and practitioners of the art. And there's always been a whole lot of sexism in hip-hop, about how women artists are treated and about how women are spoken of in general. And it's not any special hip-hop sexism. It's just a reflection of the garden-variety sexism of the society.

And those women artists have always reflected a wide diversity of experiences and points of view. But nowadays, we see a rap music industry promoting one extremely narrow set of images of rap music. And it's influenced by gangster movies and pornography aesthetics. And the women are portrayed as pornographic objects. And as many of the female artists speak, they speak in the voice of the porn star.

And of course, meanwhile, the hip-hop underground continues to reflect the diversity of the art. But the industry isn't really interested in the diversity or even really the art. It's more interested in products and profit. That's why it's an industry. So I think it's important for people to understand the difference between the history of hip-hop and underground hip-hop and the rap music industry.

CHIDEYA: Kris, I was talking with the rapper Eve once, years ago; and she talked about how she used to battle rhymes. She used to get into the cipher or the circle with men. And one thing that always is a question in my mind is that, that women are not in the game because they don't battle rhyme, because they don't test their skills, or is it because they're shut out from telling their stories?

Mr. EX: Well, I think that one of the problems with the female emcees is that their narratives are always male-centered narratives where it's become, I'm going to become a battle rapper which is what males do, that's a male aesthetic. That's not so much of a female aesthetic. I think that female emcees have to find their own narratives to put them out there in a way that reflects their experiences and what their belief systems are, as opposed to either catering to males - to male beliefs systems or trying to tear down male belief systems.

CHIDEYA: Why does the male belief system, though, as expressed in so many rap artists that are popular today, really put women in a position of submission? I mean, you know, you've co-authored 50 Cent's autobiography. He's not the only person who comes to mind, but he certainly - there's never very much talk in mainstream rap about women as equals.

Mr. EX: Well, I think that we can't treat rap as if this aberrant force that comes out of this pristine society. We live in a society that is male dominated, that is homophobic, that is misogynistic. And the only problem that hip-hop has is that hip-hop has not learned how to put those messages across in a way that gets over on people, whereas a bare ad can have a scantily clad woman on it and, you know, no one bats an eye when they see that. No one bats an eye when they see sex selling cars, American Express, Jamba Juice or whatever, you know, whatever that sex sells in this country, no one bats an eye. But hip-hop hasn't learned how to be as subtle with this, so we do have Nelly swiping a credit card through a woman's crack and it becomes a problem.

CHIDEYA: Bakari, Kris was just talking about a male-dominated society, but one of the great ironies, I think, of the black community or communities is that, very often, for example, at church you'll have the male preacher but then all the women are running various committees. You'll have the black man being venerated in certain ways, but then a bunch of female-headed families. What kinds of things are we not learning from seeing the videos? What kinds of things are going on behind the images?

Mr. KITWANA: Well, I think that what we're missing when we tune in to the images alone, we are missing an entire generation of young people and how they're experiencing and living gender. I think that Byron Hurt, who directed the film, "Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes," is as much a relevant voice within the hip-hop community as 50 Cent or any other rapper. I think Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, who wrote the book, "Pimps Up, Ho's Down," is as relevant of a voice within the hip-hop generation as Snoop Dog.

I think that what happens with hip-hop is we've taken hip-hop and we've given it this great visibility, not only in terms of the representation of young people, but also its disrepresentation of the dominant form of black popular culture.

CHIDEYA: But let me press you on this. I mean, you're one of those people who certainly would be counted along with the other social theorists that you mentioned. You have gotten a lot of notice for your series of books on hip-hop. But you're never - you could take all of the people who've read your book and put them in a straight line, you know, extending, trying to extend from one coast to the other, and then 50 Cent's lined would wrap around the entire country, do you know what I'm saying? So in what…

Mr. KITWANA: Right.

CHIDEYA: In what sense does - and I'm a huge fan of cultural criticism and do it myself, but in what sense can people like yourself, who are analyzing the genre, have even a fraction of the influence of people who are practicing it?

Mr. KITWANA: Well, I think, that's a good point. I mean, I think, one of the things that I've argued over the years is that we need an alliance between cultural critics and intellectuals and hip-hop artists, and I think that's what the hip-hop political movement has been about - trying to bridge those gaps. I think that there's a lot of good that the influence of a 50 Cent or Snoop Dog or JZ can have if we begin to create these alliances. I think that, unfortunately, that hasn't been encouraged. But, I think, we're starting to see more of that - most certainly within the independent hip-hop scene.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, if you're just tuning in, we are NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. We were just talking to Bakari Kitwana, author of the book, "The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture." We've also got Aya De Leon, a writer-performer and instructor at UC Berkeley, and Kris Ex, co-author of 50 Cent's autobiography "From Pieces to Weight."

Aya, I'm turning back to you on this level. When you have hip-hop now being taught in universities by people like yourself; and you teach practice of poetry, performance poetry, as well as the theories behind it; we have reached a certain level of maturity, haven't we, in the cycle of hip-hop. It's been around for three decades. Where do we go from here? We're sitting around now talking about it but where, for example, do people who actually want to perform, go from here?

Ms. DE LEON: Well, I think that what Bakara Kitwana was saying is really important. I think that there need to continue to be a lot of connections between the folks studying hip-hop and writing about it at the academic level and practicing it. For example, when we study hip-hop in my course in the fall, I'm going to have all my students get in the cipher and experience what it's like to take those artistic risks and free styling.

And I have to say that, you know, "Thieves in the Temple: The Reclaiming of Hip-Hop." Basically, as a feminist and a critic, I sat on the sidelines of hip-hop for many years, kind of upset about it, complaining about it, not liking where it was going. And I decided that what - the best thing that I could do to bring my perspective into hip-hop was to become a hip-hop artist, to become a rap artist and to become a hip-hop theater artist.

And I think, particularly, there's a need for the infusion of women as artists. And that's one of the things that I pushed because - since hip-hop is the dominant cultural form of our time and of the past couple of generations, I think it's really important for women to figure out what's in our way, from bringing our voices forward, not just in kind of standing off to the side talking about hip-hop, but really getting in there.

And the other thing that I try to do in the piece, is I have a character named Lady Triple X Rated, and she looks pretty familiar in terms of her outfit and her blonde wig and her high heels as one of these, sort of, sex kitten emcees. But one of the things that I try to create in that character is an ability for people to see what's between the lines of these women's stories. I really appreciated what you all were saying before about women's stories.

And so you have women out there saying I'm sexy. It's all I want. Yeah, big daddy, we can do it your way, whatever you want. And where is the narrative of that woman's brokenness that shows up in between the lines. And people tell me after they see my show, they can never quite look at a video the same again because when we see women's bodies and women's worth in the context of this pornography aesthetic, there's so much that isn't being said.

And I appreciate what was said about women meaning to tell our own stories. I think that that's the disconnect between independent hip-hop and mainstream hip-hop that there are so many women's stories that don't get amplified by mainstream media. And we can't wait for them to discover us and find us and become interested in us. We need to be telling those stories to each other in independent venues and fighting for independent distribution, independent labels, independent bookings, independent hip-hop, which has always thrived in an underground fashion and continues to do so.

CHIDEYA: Kris, you know, and Bakari, I want to ask you about something that I talked about. I met this young woman - 19 years old, Asian American, hip-hop activist, went to the National Hip Hop Political Convention. And I asked her about Jay-Z's "99 Problems," you know, and the refrain is: I got 99 problems but a B ain't one. And I said what do you hear when you listen to that. And she said, well, what I hear is what men think, and I want to know what men think. And, you know, she wasn't one of these people who said, well, he's not talking about me. But she was just, like, I want to know what's in the mind of the men.

So is there a situation, Kris first, where there is this battle of the sexes where women are looking at these rappers and saying oh, well, they think this of me? Well, it's good that I know it because I know I can't trust them. I know I can't be a partner with them. I know I can't raise kids with them. And men might be looking at the image of the video vixens and saying, well, you know, women are gold diggers. Is this contributing to a failure for men and women to connect? Kris.

Mr. EX: Well, I think it's more symptomatic of a failure of people to communicate that these things are happening because those are caricatures, those aren't real people. You know, there's no - even as someone was just saying, when you have a gold digger or you have whatever it is, the sex kitten or the video vixen that these are whole people. They're not one-dimensional characters that just have this one aesthetic to them. And if you're not dealing with whole people, you're not - I don't know what you're dealing with. You're dealing with a fantasy. You're dealing with illusion.

So all of these things that are in the - that we're treating hip-hop as if it's this monolithic state, but it's not. But most of the things that come across on a mainstream, those images are very one-dimensional. No one gets up and pop champagne every morning. No one gets up and slaps their woman every morning. No one - you know, the same person that does slap their women or doesn't trust women, or that same person that is trying to get money from that person as a gold digger or whatever, you know, she has her own fears, her own insecurities. She has her dreams. She has her foibles. And none of that is being told. It's just these one-dimensional things.

So when we have these conversations taking place, I think, it's a manifestation of the inability of people to communicate with each other as human beings. And it's easier to say, well, you're just an idiot, or you're just a gold digger, or you're just a player as opposed to saying that, you know, you're a broken person who has these issues, and this is how you're choosing to deal with them.

CHIDEYA: Bakari, do you think, though, that there is - you know, people talk about art imitating life and life imitating art. There is power to art or else it wouldn't be such a big part of our lives, not just hip-hop, but all the different forms of it. Are these messages actually giving people a playbook for how to act?

Mr. KITWANA: I think that absolutely. And this has been the concern for a very long time from people like C. DeLores Tucker and Calvin Butts, sometimes not necessarily understanding hip-hop as a cultural phenomena, but certainly being concerned about the impact that it could have on our communities.

I wrote a book in 1994 called "The Rap on Gangsta Rap" that really talked about what was happening in the images and how - where would we go if these images and if these ideas were presented to another generation? We look at the power and influence of hip-hop with what we call the hip-hop generation, people born after the Civil Rights Movement. And you take someone like Snoop Dogg and others and we see that in terms of popular culture, the black exploitation era playing heavily into how we define ourselves and how we define our relationships, which is why this whole pimp-ho culture is so strong within hip-hop now.

And question for me becomes, what happens to this next generation of young people who grew up with hip-hop as the mainstream popular culture? I think absolutely these images will have to affect their relationships. There's a very important study that came out of the University of Chicago earlier this year by political scientist Cathy Cohen. The project - it's called The Black Youth Project, and she - and the survey interviewed over 1,500 young people - black, white and Latino. And the young people, the black kids said absolutely that they were seeing these images of women and images of men and they felt that they were negative.

So I think that the two things that's important here. One, that young people are tuned into the images, but two, young people are being critical of the images as much as people outside of the hip-hop community are critical of them.

CHIDEYA: So they have some distance. We only have about a minute and a half. I'm going to ask you guys to be very brief and run through - give us, not everyone who listens to this show listens to hip-hop - give me a song or an artist that people should be listening to to understand what's going on today. Kris?

Mr. EX: Wow. There are so many, but off the dome I would have to say Dead Prez's "Let's Get Free."

CHIDEYA: Okay. Dead Prez. Very much underground, very much political. Bakari?

Mr. KITWANA: Wow. I'd say Zion I, Mr. Lif, Immortal Technique and others.

CHIDEYA: Aya?

Mr. KITWANA: I'm listening to an artist out of New York named Blitz(ph) right now. He's kind of blown up the underground scene.

CHIDEYA: Okay. And Aya?

Ms. DE LEON: I just have to go old school and say I love my old school Queen Latifah from the golden era and early '90s. And I really encourage folks to study the history of women in hip-hop.

CHIDEYA: (Singing) U.N.I.T.Y.

Ms. DE LEON: That's right, baby.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: All right. On that note, Bakari, Kris, Aya, thank you so much.

Mr. EX: Thank you for having me.

Mr. KITWANA: Thank you.

Ms. DE LEON: It's been a pleasure.

CHIDEYA: By phone, we were speaking to Aya de Leon, a writer, performer and instructor at UC Berkeley. Writer Kris Ex, co-author of 50 Cent's autobiography, "From Pieces to Weight," and he joined us from NPR's New York studios. And Bakari Kitwana is author of "The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture." He joined us from WCPN in Cleveland, Ohio.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS & NOTES, a possible cease-fire with one of Africa's most notorious rebel groups, and our staff song pick of the week.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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