In 1973, 25 dollars and a mission to go back-to-school shopping pushed adolescent Cindy Campbell to host an event that would inadvertently lead to the genesis of hip-hop.
Campbell planned and hosted what is now known as the “Back to School Party,” which featured the first hip-hop star and “Father of Hip-Hop” DJ Kool Herc, who is also her older brother. Campbell’s influence is often forgotten, but without her ambition and drive, hip-hop would not have been born that year.
Forty-seven years later, Megan Thee Stallion, a successful female rapper and artist with two number-one hits in a year, is using her platform to bring attention to violence against Black women and the need to protect them in a The New York Times op-ed.
Women occupy — and have occupied — a complicated role within the world of hip-hop, where hypermasculinity has long been ubiquitous, according to Professor Ellen Gorman, who teaches “Race, Rap and Power” in the English department.
“The notion of a kind of Black masculinity stems all the way back to slave tropes of the Black male, where Black men are responding to that conditioning and the referential notions of them as ‘boys.’ So then their response [in hip-hop] is pushing back in a machismo way,” Gorman said in an interview with The Hoya. “The hyper-machismo, the hyper-sexuality in rap and hip-hop — all that requires and depends on the subjugation of women.”
Female hip-hop artists and groups like MC Lyte, TLC and Queen Latifah are some artists who have attempted to counter the treatment of women as sex objects with lyrics about men being untrustworthy and no good. Others like Lil’ Kim have leaned into their sexualization as a way to own their sexual power, according to Gorman.
In their music and performances, female rappers have broached topics traditionally accepted for men — but not women — to discuss, according to Professor Robynn Stilwell of the department of performing arts, who teaches courses on race, popular culture and American music and cinema.
“I think there is a certain power in saying, ‘Well, you talk like that, we’re gonna talk like this,’” Stilwell said in an interview with The Hoya.
Female artists have weaponized themes often used to objectify women by transforming them into a source of pride, according to Stilwell.
“Where I do think there is empowerment is in taking aspects of women’s sexuality that aren’t talked about or talked about with some sort of disgust and actually making them a positive,” Stilwell said. “I think that’s actually really powerful.”
Women hip-hop artists often try to normalize taboo topics and the female experience by creating a space in which women are able to rap about things that affect them. This empowerment is not without critics, however, who claim that these women are not representing the traditional ideal of femininity. But this claim is only leveraged against women whenever women succeed, according to Stilwell.
“I mean, you only have to look on social media whenever a woman makes a point, and especially if she really lands a point, then the response is always incredibly sexualized,” Stilwell said. “It always comes with, at the minimum, some sort of denigration of her femininity, assuming she wants femininity.”
There has been an observable rise in the commercial popularity of female rappers, and perhaps some changes induced by the #MeToo movement, as well, according to Professor Anna Celenza of the department of performing arts, who teaches about American music history and the music industry.
“A lot of women, especially the big names including Cardi B, have very recently, especially after the #MeToo movement, taken control of their sexuality presented in hip-hop,” Celenza said in an interview with The Hoya. “Therefore, women have become more involved with hip-hop.”
This notion of taking control of one’s sexuality is not actually as new as it may seem, however, and is ripe with its own complications, according to Gorman.
“Lil’ Kim gets a lot of heat from scholars and even a lot of music critics who say, ‘Owning your sexual power — that never works.’ Because at the end of the day, it’s the male gaze. To say you’re a bitch means you’re succumbing to a sexual power that’s never yours to own anyway,” Gorman said. “That’s a conversation that’s always ongoing still, and especially with Beyoncé.”
Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B and Rico Nasty are some figures in the hip-hop world who are trying to complicate that thinking about female desire, but the backlash against “WAP” this summer is evidence of the fact that society is not so welcoming to that conversation about women’s sexual power, according to Gorman.
“‘WAP,’ obviously, really freaked people out,” Gorman said. “And that showed us that I think we have a long way to go in terms of thinking about female desire, outside of some kind of religious patriarchal notion of what women are allowed to have.”
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