During my final year of university, I remember hanging out with friends by a lake one summer. One friend set up his new hookah pipe as a dozen of us settled on a picnic mat, preparing for a laidback evening of good conversation and music. I offered up my iPod to the friend-of-a-friend who had a portable speaker and was controlling the music. But as she scrolled through my music library, the mood soured; she looked at me aghast, berating me for my choice of “un-feminist” music.
One by one, she read out the titles of songs by Eamon, Busta Rhymes and other artists whose names I can no longer remember, who rapped profanities that I no longer feel comfortable typing on my keyboard, disgusted. As a woman, I shouldn’t be listening to such music, she told me.
Her public admonition of my music choices irked me, but I didn’t let her condemnation get in the way of my enjoyment. I continued to jam to rappers such as R Kelly, Fat Joe, Lil Wayne and Lil Jon. My favourite artist as a teen was Eminem. I memorised all the lyrics to Without Me and was certain that his songs enriched my own vocabulary – especially after he revealed that he studied the dictionary as a child. In my 20s, my late-night solo drives were incomplete without my car pulsating to Lil Wayne. Sure, the lyrics could be vulgar but, despite this, I genuinely enjoyed the music – the raspy voice, the penetrating beats and the speed at which he dropped what I thought were witty rhymes. It made me feel carefree and confident as I drove with my windows down and volume cranked up to the maximum.
More than a decade later, if one of his songs comes up on Spotify, I quickly press “next”. I’m the mother of two young children now, and my car jams currently consist of Cocomelon, Disney soundtracks and occasional Bollywood beats. I cringe at the thought of my four-year-old daughter hearing one of the hip-hop songs I once loved. The explicit lyrics, the not-so-subtle innuendoes and the music videos that accompany many of these songs on YouTube – just the thought of her consuming this sort of content at her age makes my stomach turn.
Some may find my new attitude to what was once my favourite music extreme. But something has changed since I became a mother. I realise I was naive and desensitised as a teen, ignorantly listening to chart-topping hip-hop, oblivious to how it can demean women. For many of the artists I once listened to, it has become clear their song-writing may indicate deeper misogynistic perversions. R Kelly has been convicted of child sexual abuse, while Sean Combs was accused of rape and physical abuse, and Soulja Boy of sexual assault.
Of course, this isn’t solely a hip-hop issue – the prolific Black feminist author bell hooks rightly emphasised that we cannot blame one, predominantly Black genre of music for the sexism that plagues all levels of our society. Still, with age and experience, I have come to recognise some of my once favoured artists to be purveyors of propaganda that’s harmful to my gender, and I feel a responsibility to filter the voices I allow into my personal space – especially since there are other little ears listening too.
Now, if I listen to some of the older tracks by Eminem, a man whose poster I once put up in my bedroom, my stomach turns. I think about the misogynistic messages hidden in some of his lyrics, and the sexism, violence and abuse they sometimes glorify, and can’t comprehend why I ever listened to these songs the first place.
I shudder at the thought of my daughter hearing, repeating and internalising the lyrics to these rap songs I once proudly memorised as a young woman – lyrics that unfortunately still remain etched in my brain. I’m innately aware that my lifestyle choices, be it my commentary about clothing or my taste in music, will influence her. In an age when social media causes body insecurities, where women are consistently sexualised on screen, and when governments can backtrack on the rights and freedoms granted to us, I need my daughter to know her worth as a girl – a sense of self-worth that the music I used to listen to would only diminish.
I now wholeheartedly agree with that young woman by the lake who wore her feminism on her sleeve. These songs truly are derogatory to women – and if I am a feminist, why would I champion them? If there’s anything I have learned about intersectional feminism over the past few years, it’s that you can’t be selective about your feminism – or the moments you choose to call yourself a feminist.
That’s not to say all rap is bad. There’s one track I have no qualms blasting out in front of my children, especially since its lyrics seem so timely and relevant today – Where is the Love? by Black Eyed Peas. But when it comes to songs that blatantly vilify and objectify the female gender, I’m out, for good.
Hafsa Lodi is a fashion and culture journalist and the author of Modesty: A Fashion Paradox