For hip-hop’s 50th anniversary this year, “Turning 50: Looking Back at the Women in Hip-Hop” recognizes the women who shaped the genre. The series includes articles in print and online, a public syllabus highlighting women and hip-hop, and digital conversations with “hip-hop feminists” in music, journalism and academics.
This week, we highlight two important voices and pioneers in hip-hop feminist studies:
Tricia Rose, a professor of Africana studies at Brown University, was born and raised in Harlem and the Bronx in New York City. Her groundbreaking book, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994), explored the emerging culture of hip-hop and helped to establish the birth of hip-hop studies. Her work addresses Black feminisms, Black women’s sexualities and systemic racism.
Gwendolyn D. Pough, a professor of women’s studies and rhetoric at Syracuse University, is renowned for her scholarship on hip-hop feminism, begun with her seminal work, Check it While I Wreck it: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere (2004).
Both Rose and Pough spoke with Ms.’ Janell Hobson ahead of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary.
Janell Hobson: What is your relationship to hip-hop and hip-hop culture?
Tricia Rose: I have an ambivalent relationship to hip-hop culture. I mean, hip-hop as a historical phenomenon is something I’ve always been really interested in. Early on, I was very curious about how it came to be and how it was being received and the way it participated in racial ideas and gendered ideas. So, my relationship to that is very question-oriented. But my relationship to the notion of hip-hop culture is a little bit more fraught, because there’s a lot I’m troubled by about the culture.
Hobson: Could you say more about that?
Rose: It’s hard for me to figure out how to be as critical as I think one needs to be … I tried to negotiate that in my second book on hip-hop, which was called Hip-Hop Wars, when I tried to distinguish between affirmational and transformational love, in that affirmational love is critical; people need to know that they’re loved no matter what, but transformational love, which is “this is off limits and let me tell you why,” is also critical for our growth. And there isn’t much space for the latter that has a love ethic in it. There’s just “hip-hop is terrible” and “it should be banned” from the Right wing. But in terms of really thinking about how to love something and say no, to have a legit reason why, that’s hard to do these days.
Hobson: Since we are looking at hip-hop at 50, what one word would you use to describe it during its infancy days versus how it is today?
Rose: A word from the early days would be hopeful, playful, community-minded, not for sale in its vision. And today I would say it’s the gateway to fame, not community-minded, very individualistic. It’s very market-based.
Hobson: So, to you, hip-hop was once hopeful in its early days, but now it’s more cynical?
Rose: Yeah, and also I think understandably many people have given up on the idea that there’s any livelihood in having a Black art form that serves the Black community, because there’s no place to perform. Everything is digital, public space has been destroyed; the entertainment and community public space. I mean you really don’t have a local place. Jazz clubs are gone, blues clubs are gone, so where could you say ‘hey I want to try out some new rhymes or some new poetry?’ Very few cities have such venues in our communities, so we are more cynical and can’t really nurture that music. Artists can’t say, ‘hey, I’m doing this for the community, I’m teaching kids, I’m doing this.’
Hobson: We no longer have that grassroots sense of community?
Rose: I think between the marketing and the things that sell [commercially], that make you think, ‘hey, I gotta say what I gotta say to get paid out here.’ It’s hard to argue with that. I used to be like 50 cent, who said ‘Get rich or die trying,’ but it’s a crisis. That’s why I said the culture is cynical. And that’s not just hip-hop. When Black people absorb that point of view, that is a special tragedy. Because I think we’ve always been able to turn inward and invest in our community: the Masons, the churches, the sororities, the whatever, because we want our community to survive. I think we have lost a bit of that sense of community, because we’ve been decimated and the [outside] world has come in and taken over.
Hobson: Your comments make me think of a recent conversation I had about how Black experiences are hard to digest – hence the banning of Black history books and “critical race theory” – but our music has always been embraced, which made me think, “Just teach African American history to a hip-hop beat; they’ll listen!”
Rose: That’s both true and not true, but I see what you’re saying. I would say also that the marketing of hip-hop is so marginalized, the culture of political critique is often left out. I mean, we have a string from Gil Scott-Heron all the way to the early 90s where some versions of musical spoken word allowed us to follow a visible and continuous thread. But the more mainstream hip-hop got, the less it was able to really articulate that in a public way. At least in the underground, you already had to have a political consciousness to pursue it.
Hobson: You’ve contributed so much to these political conversations in your scholarship, especially around women’s representations in hip-hop. Do you believe the hip-hop image of womanhood has improved, stayed the same, or gotten worse?
Rose: I would generally say that it has not changed significantly in a way that would make me happy, and I say that including the female emcees who I think are still being contained by the idea that their power is dependent on an explicit form of narrative about their own sexuality. That if they don’t perform sexual agency through sexual excess, then they don’t get heard. Their agency is limited in how they perform sexual excess. That’s fine for a couple songs, but it’s boring after a while; it even makes sex sound boring, frankly. To me that’s just narrow. Imagine someone saying, ‘brothers, we’re gonna give you a track and have you be Mandingo. Take your shirt off, show me your muscles. Ooh, that’s empowerment!’ Isn’t that a pretty narrow scope?
That’s why I wouldn’t say that it has improved, because improving would be diversification; not just pretty images, but not just upright respectability politics either. I want a range of self-possessed narratives and many more women. So, the narrowness of content, the few numbers of women involved, the fact that they are far more about what they look like than what they’re saying as artists, all of that feels pretty much the same to me.
Why do women have to perform sexuality to be visible?
Hobson: That’s a good question!
Rose: Men don’t have to do that; they can do whatever they want. They use prowess as a symbol of their value, but they don’t have to get naked to do it. We cannot, women cannot.
Hobson: No, women are expected to assert their sexual side.
Rose: Exactly. Well after all the sexual sides we perform, what about the rest of our humanity? There are a million things we could be talking about. People want to say there are so many diverse kinds of sexualities and narratives, but why are we still in the sexuality box? I’ve written a whole oral history on Black women’s sexuality, so I’m clearly not uncomfortable with sexuality, but it’s just one piece of a big old puzzle.
Hobson: What do you think of the argument that these representations provide space for women performers to express sexual agency and empowerment?
Rose: We have to be very careful about thinking about these representations as a kind of empowerment. Because the concentration of these predominant images means that those people have to perform those things to be visible. Visibility is not empowerment.
Hobson: As a pioneer of hip-hop studies, what are your hopes for the field’s continued evolution?
Rose: One thing I’ve been saying the last 15 years is that we can’t allow the record industries’ marketing tactics to dictate who we celebrate in terms of the latest artists, the latest songs. They should not drive our sense of critical engagement with our own culture. That would be like letting Hollywood decide what part of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon we’re supposed to like. Just as with any of our various poets and artists, we don’t need the industry or the marketing or the magazine culture to tell us who to like and why. I feel as though we have allowed that to happen in hip-hop, which has only escalated a number of the problems we’ve been talking about: the commercialization, the narrowing of the images, the equation of explicit sexual behavior with freedom, with something positive and empowering. To me what we need to do is to ask our intellectuals to have the same level of critical disposition that we’re asking of the artists. There’s too much at stake.
Hobson: What are your thoughts on the evolution of hip-hop?
Gwendolyn Pough: The wonderful thing about hip-hop is that it is so much a part of youth culture. And each new generation of people that enter hip-hop change it to fit what they need it to be. The hip-hop that is practiced by the current youth doesn’t look or sound like hip-hop from the 90s.
Hobson: It’s because hip-hop is so defined by youth culture why everybody is shocked that hip-hop is now 50 years old! But each generation has had some kind of stamp on it. Does that mean that hip-hop can’t grow old?
Pough: I think that’s debatable. It grows and evolves based on who’s participating. I think the people within hip-hop can grow old as we have seen! I don’t know about you, but I was eight or nine when “Rappers Delight” came out. Hip-hop is 50, and I’m fifty-something! So, I think parts of it can grow old. But I also think that the remix, the ways in which hip-hop has always borrowed from the musical past … it’s always been old and young at the same time… The music has always been intergenerational.
Hobson: And that’s the sampling part. Even if the young folks don’t recognize that this is actually coming from somewhere else.
Pough: You’ll hear the beat from when you were dancing in the 90s to Biggie and then you hear some new rapper sampling it in their song, and the kids think it’s new, and you’re like, oh that’s not new. So that’s the continual thing, just like our parents were telling us back in the day, ‘nah, that’s James Brown!’ The music itself has always been that way, the culture too to an extent. Especially now when you have people who were born and living in houses where nothing but hip-hop was played.
Hobson: I’m thinking of your classic book Check it While I Wreck It, which turns 20 next year! If you were to do a new edition, what do you think you would need to do to update it?
Pough: I would really have to interrogate and question why there was this dearth of women rappers for 10-plus years, when all we had was Nicki Minaj. Women rappers were having a hard time just even getting signed or just having any kind of staying power. So, I think looking at the whys and what happened there and then what had to happen for us to have what we have now. I wouldn’t want to call what we have now a renaissance of women rappers, but we definitely have more of them, and they’re not all the same. They’re rapping about different things, coming from different places, so it seems to be a time of renewal for women rappers, and I don’t know how long that’s going to last.
Hobson: Do you think this is a positive moment for women in hip-hop?
Pough: It is a great moment where we can have Meg the Stallion, and even the older women are coming back. There seems to be this kind of energy around the woman rapper; this kind of renewed interest in women rappers I think is also something that I would touch on if I were doing some kind of update. But Check It While I Wreck It was always interested not just in rap but looking at hip-hop as a culture. Because you have to look at hip-hop as a culture in order to see all the ways that women have really pushed hip-hop forward and went unrecognized while doing so.
Hobson: Would you say women’s representations in hip-hop have improved, stayed the same, or gotten worse?
Pough: Has it gotten better? I don’t know. I think hip-hop is part of US culture and world culture, and the world is still sick with sexism and misogyny. Hip-hop is not in a bubble, so it’s not going to get better before the rest of the world gets better.
Hobson: I was mostly thinking of shifts in the music. There was a time during the music-video era when the so-called “video vixen” was the main image of women in hip-hop, but now, it feels as if the video vixen basically grabbed the mic. We see the sexualized performances of rappers like Meg Thee Stallion, Cardi B, the City Girls, and now Ice Spice and Latto. It seems that we went from what you talked about in Check It While I Wreck It, about how women rappers had to perform a kind of hard masculinity before the Lil Kims and Foxy Browns and, later on, Nicki Minaj, opened up a more sexual persona. That representation seems to have colored the current landscape.
Pough: Lil Kim and Foxy Brown made it acceptable for women to have a public sexual persona in hip-hop in ways that maybe the women before them couldn’t. They were often the only woman in the crew, so if you’re the only girl in a basement full of guys trying to get your turn on the mic, you’re probably not trying to be very sexual in that setting. I remember when I was 16 trying to be a little rapper, and I was not in my sexiest clothes. I was trying to not stand out because then they will try and hit on you, and then if they hit on you and you don’t respond in a way that they want you to respond, then it could be violent. You’re still trying to be safe. So, I definitely can see why a Queen Latifah or MC Lyte was dressed the way they were dressing, because you don’t want to be seen as sexual. And that doesn’t even address the legacy of Black women already being read as always sexually available just because we’re Black women. In that context, I think both Lil Kim and Foxy Brown were refreshing because they said, ‘Yes, I can talk about sex. Yes, I can be sexy and sexual.’ I’m glad that still exists because we need it. It’s freeing for so many people. I think it’ll be interesting to see how long this new renaissance of women rappers last and what kind of talent continues to come out of it. I hope it lasts at least a few more years.
Hobson: I’m curious to see how this cultural landscape evolves. I wonder also how much of that is shaped by hip-hop feminist scholarship, and platforms like the Crunk Feminist Collective and other scholars who have left the ivory tower, so to speak, and expanded beyond the academy onto social media, which brings a critical lens to these projects so that people can have a different read of them.
Pough: That would be an interesting thing to look at just in terms of how many hip-hop feminist classes we have now, and how our students, who are out there creating Tik Tok content and all of this stuff based on the things they’re learning, are circulating knowledge. That gets circulated to the culture. I think it would be really interesting to look at how hip-hop studies and hip-hop feminist studies have shaped culture.
Hobson: I would love to see scholarship exploring that subject.
Pough: It’s so interesting to think about hip-hop feminism and the impact it’s had on so many people since Joan Morgan wrote When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. I think we wouldn’t have Crunk Feminist as it evolved without Chickenheads, right? Look at Sesali Bowen with Bad Fat Black Girl: Notes from a Trap Feminist. She created this whole new trap feminism, based on hip-hop feminism, but it’s created for this generation, and really based in trap music and trap hip-hop. Hip-hop feminism is continuing to evolve.
Hobson: What is your favorite hip-hop anthem for women’s empowerment or feminism?
Pough: It is hard to pick just one favorite hip-hop anthem for women’s empowerment I have so many that I still know all the words to and will get hype to as soon as the beat drops. But if I had to pick one it be Roxanne Shante’s “Roxanne’s Revenge.” I pick “Roxanne’s Revenge” because it gave us the “answer rap” as a legitimate response/reaction to sexist rap lyrics from men and it invented the “clap-back” before any of us knew what a clap-back was. “Roxanne’s Revenge” remains my all-time favorite because I still remember what it felt like to be a teenage girl listening to that Mr. Magic World Premier and hearing another teenage girl go so hard and I still remember all the lyrics and will rap them without even being asked to do so. “Roxanne’s Revenge” opened up the flood-gates for numerous ‘Roxanne’ songs and gave women the option of creating their own answer raps to other songs. I will always love it!
Join Ms. for a special plenary, “Surviving Hip-Hop: A 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Women Who Shaped the Culture” (featuring Joan Morgan, Dee Barnes, Drew Dixon, Toni Blackman and Monie Love), set for Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, at the annual National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Baltimore, Md.