Any woman who loves hip-hop has been asked, at least once in her life, "But aren't you offended? It's so demeaning toward women." Often it's held over our heads: "How do you square feminism and Jay-Z?" To be sure, "thug 'em, fuck 'em, love 'em, leave 'em" is hardly empowering. But neither is Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time." It's arguable that the preceding lyrics are more positive than they might seem -- Jay-Z is talking about the system, Britney's being sex-positive -- but on the whole, hip-hop is no simple score for women.
This week, Women's eNews has joined the fray with an article looking at how the spouses of well-known rappers refuse to speak out. Making a silly, and perhaps sexist assumption, I figured that an article in a women's news outlet would miss the subtlety of the conflict and decry hip-hop for producing a culture in which violence against women -- particularly black women -- is condoned if not celebrated.
We're happy to report that the article made no such assumptions; it is a nuanced and well-reported piece, rounded out by conversations with women who have been in abusive relationships with rappers, professors of African-American history and cultural studies, and domestic violence counselors. The only thing the piece could have used was some perspective from the male and female rappers themselves, who are often fingered as the producers, or at least midwives, of sexual and domestic violence.
Women's eNews spoke primarily with Elizabeth Mendez Berry, a journalist who did a longer feature on hip-hop and domestic abuse for Vibe magazine in March 2005. Berry explained that she had a difficult time tracking down women who would speak on the record about their experience with abuse, which she felt was symptomatic of hip-hop's "no snitching" codes, which apply both on the street and in the home.
One woman who was willing to speak on record, however, was Liza Rios, the widow of platinum-selling rap artist Big Pun (born Christopher Rios), the 697-pound rapper who died of a heart attack in 2000 at age 28. In the 2002 documentary "Big Pun: Still Not a Player," which Rios co-produced and which chronicles their tumultuous, often violent relationship, there is footage of Pun pistol-whipping Rios. After interviewing Rios for Vibe, Berry saw her as "a hero. She could have been a tragic first lady of hip hop but she decided not to be ... She could have been sort of 'a first widow,' a woman who gets sympathy galore because of her fallen (husband) and who doesn't rock the boat."
Indeed, the silent, consenting female is one of the only figures we see in mainstream hip-hop. Discussing the role of the video girl, Dr. Angie Colette Beatty, a professor of communications and African-American studies at St. Louis University, told Women's eNews, "We see black men being abusive to black women and we see black women not being offended. These globally transported images leave the impression that we (black women) are doing it to ourselves and that if we cover up and respect ourselves, the problem would go away."
But Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of African and African-American studies at Duke, is wary of the idea that hip-hop is the catalyst of violence and misogyny; his feeling is that "because hip hop is an easy whipping boy, there is a tendency to attribute the worst gender and sexual politics to castigate hip hop in lieu of having real conversations about domestic violence and other issues more broadly and individual artists within hip hop. We are critical of artists and of the channels, but are never really critical of corporate interests that are producing and distributing it."
Many questions arise from this conversation; to pose just a few: Is Paris Hilton or the slew of other celebrity waifs any better for women than the lyrics in mainstream hip-hop? Is hip-hop a "whipping boy" because its music is made by primarily black artists? Are survivors of domestic abuse who are not involved in hip-hop any more willing to openly discuss their experience?