Review of Red Emma’s Panel. Bars to Blocks: Hip Hop 4 Social Change by Malka Herman
“Black girl sippin’ white wine/ put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.” There’s no denying the clever rhymes in Kanye West’s oh-so-romantic song I’m in it. There’s also no denying the misogyny and sexism that colors his and many other hip-hop lyrics popular in America today. But can we demand that hip-hop change its contradictory, often problematic ways? That was the question addressed at Red Emma’s town hall style panel: “Bars to Blocks: Hip Hop 4 Social Change.”
Jimmie Thomas, a filmmaker and founder of Curators of Hip Hop, moderated the panel made up of African American men at Red Emma’s. This was the kickoff for “Bars to Blocks” a weekend long event that explores how hip-hop can be utilized for social change and the messages this genre conveys. When Thomas asked his panel whether hip-hop artists have a responsibility to their audience, Shaka Pitts grabbed the mic. Shaka Pitts is the founder of Pit Fights, a hip-hop rap battle group for the youth in the Baltimore community.
“Hip hop artists gotta be real.” He explained, “We don’t have the power to say you’re an artist. You can do better.” This statement is problematic. Although art expresses personal opinion, it also connects to a larger audience. The audience absolutely has the right to encourage artists to create music that moves them and sends a positive message.
Jimmie Thomas followed up with a question about the treatment of women in hip-hop. Do hip-hop leaders not have any responsibility to censor or encourage less offensive lyrics?
Devon “PFK Boom” Neverdon cleared his throat. He runs Playing For Keeps— an afterschool service for children whose parents are in prison. He adjusts his sunglasses, “I understand those men. They’ve been exposed to that side of women. It’s what they relate to.”
It was troubling to hear these two men who have strong influence over the youth in the Baltimore community speak so flippantly about the way women are treated in hip-hop. If these active members do not want to help make a change, who will? They believe that the essence of hip-hop is to follow the age-old instruction, “Write what you know.” And they claim that these sexist lyrics are stemming from honesty and artists’ freedom of expression. It’s dangerous when people shrug responsibility for sexist, racist, and homophobic comments. By refusing to acknowledge personal obligation, these leaders are refusing to their job: they are refusing to lead.
Yet when the questions turn to other community issues such as the reason hip-hop is no longer a way to express the black political voice, the panel spoke about how rappers are often controlled by the industry and record label instead of the personal artist. Where was this answer when we were talking about sexism? Why is sexism a form of honesty but the lack of political hip-hop lyrics a result of industry control?
The panelists at Red Emma’s point to the beginning of hip-hop as a better time for the industry because artists were free from corporate influence. However, there were inherent contradictions within hip-hop that existed from its inception in the mid-1970s. Although the hip hop movement began as a way to express the opinions of African Americans who felt disenfranchised by society it was also controlled mainly by men. In an essay by Rebekah Powell she notes how even women involved in hip hop often prescribe to the objectification of women. She uses Iggy Azalea as an example. Songs like PU$$Y and Bounce are about female genitalia and objectification. In other words, Iggy used sexual language in order to succeed as a female artist.
Even though hip-hop is still a male dominated industry filled with sexist, racist, and homophobic messages there are also underground hip-hop movements moving in new directions. In Seattle there is a burgeoning community of artists who are using hip-hop as a medium for messages regarding violence, sexism, and racism. There are even some popular artists who are proving that hip hop does not have to be about negative stereotypes. In Macklemore’s popular song “Same Love” he sings, “If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me/have you read the YouTube comments lately?”
When the female-heavy audience at Red Emma’s pressed the issue of female treatment in hip-hop, the panelists became defensive. One woman spoke about how hip-hop is not a safe space for women and Shaka Pits had a quick retort, “The women who come to Pit Fights understand what they’re getting into. Sometimes they’re even more brutal than the men.” Even though this panel was meant to speak to hip-hop as a genre, Shaka Pits took the question personally. He didn’t speak to contemporary hip-hop anymore, he spoke about his own experiences teaching battle rap, a very different musical medium as it is meant to be confrontational, full of fast personal put-downs, and judged on the rappers ability to do so in a clever fashion.
Most women in the audience were not convinced. One stood and explained that the industry is not open. She said she would not feel comfortable singing in a space where people call her a bitch and a hoe, nor would she feel comfortable in an environment where most of the leaders are men. As she spoke there was a hostile shift in the room. The panel members voices rose and they sounded more aggressive. The audience members clapped in support of the women who stood up and voiced her concerns.
The very fact that these men on the panel felt so threatened by the questions regarding the treatment of women shows how far the issue of sexism and hip-hop still has to go. These men are the leaders of Baltimore hip-hop—the teachers and the heroes. They understand the need for hip-hop and social change. They just don’t consider sexism in hip-hop part of this change. It is not enough to claim artists write sexist lyrics because it’s how they feel. Artists write these lyrics either because they think it’s what people want to hear, or they are acting in ways that are discriminatory and demeaning. By supporting music that is not riddled with sexist images we can begin to create a space that promotes progressive values instead of standing in the way of meaningful change.
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Malka Herman is a Baltimore based writer with an unhealthy interest in music, theatre, and art that makes her uncomfortable.