Sean Carter, who performs under the name Jay-Z, has apparently vowed never again to use the word bitch in the wake of the birth of his daughter, Blue Ivy Carter. And while I celebrate and congratulate his new fatherhood, this vow didn’t impress me.
It doesn’t begin to address his role in contributing to and profiting from the global power of a hyper-sexist brand of hip-hop masculinity. I need to hear quite a bit more about how he feels about this legacy and its impact on millions of black girls and boys before getting all teary-eyed.
Sure, hip-hop didn’t invent sexism, nor has it been the only musical genre to profit from promoting it. The vast territory that is popular music is a treasure trove of sexist ideas and images. And it is also true that racist, rightwing critics have targeted hip-hop as a way to continue the demonization of black men while remaining silent on countless other sexist images, sounds, and stories that define U.S. culture.
As I noted in The Hip Hop Wars, just because your enemy is wrong, it doesn’t make you right. It is quite true that hip-hop has played a starring role in making sexist ideas sexy, visible and funky. Through the power of black music, style, swagger, and lyrical creativity, Jay-Z and many other highly successful rappers (e.g, Snoop Dog, 50 Cent and Lil’ Wayne) have expanded the visibility and value of aggressively sexist lyrics. And, frankly, if you want to find openly celebrated sexism against black women, there is no richer contemporary source than commercial, mainstream hip-hop.
This hasn’t happened because commercially powerful artists have randomly or dutifully dropped a sexist word here or there to punctuate an infectious beat. Whole identities in countless songs rely on excessively sexist behavior and name-calling to define the protagonist’s power and importance.
More than in any other genre in the history of black music, commercially celebrated hip-hop swagger depends on a brand of manhood that consistently defines black women as disrespected objects. And fans of all racial background, but especially young white males, who make up the bulk of U.S. consumers, eat it up.
Black women know much about the brutality of colonialism, racism, economic exploitation, and incarceration and their targeted impact on young black men. In the interest of protecting black men and boys from the extraordinary violence they face, many women have spoken out on behalf of men and remained silent about the violence done to women. They worry that naming their own suffering will add to black male suffering. But the forces aligned against black men roll on anyway, don’t they? And, as Audre Lorde so powerfully reminded us, “Your silence won’t protect you.”
Some members of the hip-hop generation have spoken up. Some young women have courageously responded in protest; and films Daphne Valerius’s The Souls of Black Girls and Byron Hurt’s Beyond Beats and Rhymes challenge fans on the subject. But the biggest players in commercial hip-hop — the artists and the major corporations that promote and distribute them — have shielded themselves from sustained engagement and accountability.
A progressive, feminist, anti-racist community is not born, it is made. Through widespread exchange of ideas about how these injustices are perpetuated we learn why it is in all of our interests to fight for justice for all. This is why direct engagement and accountability matters so much. It should not be about finger pointing, or separating “them” from “us.” Part of the power of sexism and racist sexism is their capacity to seem so normal they almost disappear from view: They recruit us all into participation even when we know better.
But at the same time, we cannot continue to defend or silently condone commercial mainstream hip-hop’s hefty contribution to the hostility and disrespect endured by black women. To do so is not to defend black men or hip-hop; it is to defend sexism against black women.