Some of us are brave, a reflection on hip hop

This is a guest post from a true talent, J. Victoria Sanders. Don’t sleep on her critical perspective.

“Some of this is about the music, as violence and disrespect condoned in one form can only lead to violence and disrespect condoned in another. Some of this, however, is part of the deal. The adoration of celebrity is hero worship. And to worship a hero is to trade part of yourself that is not real. A hip hop groupie sacrifices herself to the heightened emotionalism, eroticism, and rhythm of colored men who think themselves gods.” — Karen Renee Good, Vibe Magazine, August 1999.

How could anyone miss the memo that February is Black History Month? Bless their hearts, the world turns to our favorite figures every time, and with good reason. Langston Hughes’ birthday was on February 1, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth have legacies so big we should never ignore them, and my sweetie just reminded me that Benjamin Banneker designed not just Washington D.C., but also Philadelphia.

My mind is somewhere else. Specifically, my thoughts turn to All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men: Black Womens Studies.” Jay-Z’s “Decoded” is finally on my nightstand, Steve Harvey’s relationship drama is in my side-eye view and Kanye West’s album sits in a pile of CDs on a table somewhere in my house, while I consider a vision of black manhood I’ve never seen in my lifetime.

Blizzards and Egypt have moved the slow-news-day evergreen about America’s Black Single Woman Problem out of small news holes, thankfully, even if What Is Wrong With Us has continued to linger. If something is wrong with us, at least part of it may be that we are wedded to images of black men that, when reinvented and tweaked with the creative fervor that only black folks can add to an equation, can build up the most maligned parts of ourselves. But it requires for us to loosen the standards that white women are never asked to relinquish – to exchange our feminine mystique for submission, acceptance and silence.

For us to be invisible groupies of music we love with a posture that looks like it hates us.

I say this as a proud member of the hip hop generation, the behemoth zeitgeist born and developed in the Bronx, where I was raised. Other girls rock out to talented assholes when they’re young, before they know better and leave it alone. Maybe it’s my allegiance to an indelible symbol of black masculinity superimposed over rap artists that has kept me locked in an abusive relationship with the delicious music and culture that has usually devalued and confused me. This is like when someone bad mouths your cousin, let me make it plain: it’s OK if you say Chuck is not the sharpest crayon in the box, but let someone else utter a word and it is OVER.

I can’t stand to hear C. Delores Tucker or random white people or anyone else talk about hip hop – it makes me want to fight like I did the time I spat all the lyrics to “Ladies First” verbatim in front of my sixth grade class and Teisha and I scrapped in the schoolyard because she forgot a verse. Hip hop, still, seems regarded as black boogeyman culture that perhaps on a fluke became a global billion-dollar industry. Instead, this manifestation of the scraps of whatever existed when it was just beginning is the only art to which I ever felt unarguably entitled. It was about making something beautiful out of whatever paint or dance or music that had been left for us to gather up. And now, the poor person’s art form is globally successful. As a young artist and writer, I respected that it existed at all. I wanted to mirror its ascendance in the world, gather all the scraps of life left behind for me to and shine anyway.

So, the misogynistic parts of it trouble me. The woman-hating that runs parallel to any other industry, to most religions and in our culture at large throughout history in hip hop is a manifestation of America’s general woman-dismissing culture. I can distance myself from the objectification of magazine advertisements, the absence of dark-skinned black girls generally from magazines and roles where they are desirable objects of love, and in positions of power as non-exotic anomalies.

But, some of us are brave. Or not, when it comes to love. Hip hop was my first love. Few outlets exist for continual constructive criticism of the culture and music from a black female perspective (with notable exceptions including Bitch, blogs like Jezebel, Racialicious, Feministing and other blogs I’m probably missing). Essence tried with Take Back the Music for a limited time, but that vanished too quickly. I wanted them to keep going, but I knew eventually, maybe like others, I would go back to making excuses for black men who believe women who believe too much in their own value are high post, unworthy, need to be put in their place, not lovable, not fuckable, not marriageable unless they aspire to some long-listed ideal of mysterious video vixen beauty or ability.

So, black men act out, and after years of reciting their shitty lyrics, I would think, “They have it hard enough without having someone who should be on their side bitching about them. So what they called me out my name. It wasn’t me! It was those other hoes!” But grown people mean what they say. They say what they mean. And my dumb ass was buying it. The music that raised me poisoned me, too. Even when I meant to break up with the music I loved and settle for less broken horizons.

Kanye West and his rise to prominence has made me think more carefully about how and when I became so adamant about the line in the sand. In the days of Apache, Biggie, Busta Rhymes —  I didn’t care enough about myself or even believe in a future womanhood enough to think I didn’t deserve to be called out my name. My first boyfriend was a rapper, he rapped with his boys on the street corners of the Bronx, and I loved him more than anything else in the world, so I wanted to rap too. I did. For five seconds.

I became enamored of hip hop because I wanted to be a part of anything that helped the black men I knew and loved and wanted a future with to do anything other than sell crack (or smoke it) or kill one another. In the Reagan era, when it became clear that the War on Drugs was going to send a lot of black men to prison, before I was familiar with what Angela Davis calls the Prison Industrial Complex, before I sat face to face with the flesh and blood brown skin of the men who were living it, I knew that my man was big and brutal looking and that if he didn’t find someway to channel his energy — the creative and the angry — he would find himself in the penitentiary upstate.

So, some of us are brave. I wasn’t really; I tried to become the Gangster Bitch Apache, rapped about. He wanted a hyperfeminine (read: submissive) woman when he wanted her to be but tough and ready to fight if my man needed me. It was a mind fuck, but I liked it, because it felt like a real identity outside of having a big butt and a smile (I smiled real nice) or being a light-skinned video chick (I was out of the equation there on all counts.)

When I got grown, a mysterious process that’s still unfolding most days, most of it was delicious to the ears but abhorrent to the soul. I was walking my dog when I realized that Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’” is only palatable to me when first I substitute words like “pimp” “bitch” and “hoe” or words like “hustling” into a female-appropriate metaphor for something else. My translation means I’m the one in charge, not the hoe. Of course, if a real pimp saw me or any other feminine black woman, he would assign me a different title for sure. The same is true for hustlers. I am a hustler baby, Jay-Z said, I’d sell water to a well. I love that quote, except it does require co-signing by way of reinvention. My version of hustler includes honest, sometimes corporate or academic work. It means working the hell out of anything I do – from writing to singing to reading and teaching. I know, from the context of beats, rhymes and life, this is not what most rappers mean.

I’d feel so much better if when I became a woman, I left that little girl shit alone.

But then came Kanye West, who embodies all of the promise and challenges of black artists in the 21st Century, which makes him the most interesting person in music and utterly the most fascinating hip hop artist of my generation. He is obnoxious, flashy, genius, misogynist, broken, handsome, funny and irrepressible.

At a time when hip hop is thirsty to be both credible and true to its roots, since that’s what ultimately makes something real hip hop, Kanye West looks like the only black man who gets to (and wants to) exploit the black male Cool Pose and use the culture’s obsession with the cult of personality to his advantage. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a compendium of brilliant napkin notes and melodic misogyny, was probably named album of the year based on a unique equation: Kanye is the physical manifestation of the id of 98 percent of existing male adolescents (Outbursts! Great clothes! Tweeting! Lesbians who…fell in love with a straight man!)  and most immature grown men + his unscripted buffoonery is better than anything Reality TV + people are thirsty for good music (not even great) no matter what kind of half-finished trash an artist flings at his/her fans which adds up to the seductive idea that our generation’s only true genius is fighting his demons in public, vulnerable and obscure at once.

(Please, read Latoya Petersons womanist critique of his Monster video when you get a chance if you haven’t.)

But none of my critiques of Kanye are even about him as much as they are about the collective inability of black women fans of hip hop to move beyond the point of talking about having our feelings hurt by people who tell the same boring ass stories about us to ourselves to the point of feeling empowered enough about what history tells us about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result to choose a different ending to this narrative. Life is really short and even if we still don’t make as much as men when it comes to cents on the dollar, we can speak with our attention or lack of it. I am trying, then, from this point forward, to pay as much attention to good music, that lifts me up, that makes me feel good about my womanhood and all my ancestors who came before them, as possible, and disregard the rest – as good as it sounds, as much as it once meant to me. As long as these new horizons moving toward the history I want to make are not as broken – that’s all that matters; It’s all that ever did and all that ever does.

J. Victoria Sanders is a journalist, writer and journalism lecturer at the University of Texas Austin. She lives with Cleo, her mastiff/shepherd in Austin, and blogs at jvictoriawrites.tumblr.com

Join the Conversation

  • lmarvin88

    I’m sure you’ve read/heard bell hooks’ commentary on hip-hop and the patriarchy? Also, “Rhyme & Reason” is an awesome documentary on hip-hop culture and has a great segment about sexism.

    And I’d like to give a shout out to DJ Pam the Funkstress for being an incredibly talented woman and part of the very intelligent and skilled rap group, The Coup. She doesn’t get enough notice:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdbAQ0VSciw&playnext=1&list=PL3192DDD3791AB930

  • http://feministing.com/members/jvic/ J.Victoria

    I’m not sure I’ve read bell hooks’ take on hip hop. I’m a huge fan of her work in general though, and I’ve been reading her since I was in 7th grade. The Coup and Pam the Funkstress were not a group I knew about until I lived in Oakland about five years ago. It would have been wonderful to have been exposed to her when I was younger, though.