Lily Kershaw is a journalist and student studying French and Portuguese at Oxford University
When it comes to modern Hip Hop, there is no shortage of women taking centre stage. From Doja Cat to Megan Thee Stallion, these women are making their voices heard, and are not afraid of revealing the intimate details of their desires, their bodies, and their relationships. Their performances are not purely limited to their music, but their image itself has become just as valued as their voices. Their music videos are crafted to perfection, containing outfits that perfectly reflect the often highly explicit sexual nature of their lyrics, in a manner that is as artistically impressive as it is sexual. Doja Cat is particularly notable for this; her multiple outfit changes in music videos such as ‘Rules’, ‘Juicy’, and ‘Cyber Sex’ perfectly capture her music’s atmosphere. Unquestionably, these are all examples of artistic expression, lending female artists a platform to express their sexuality in a manner that women have often been shamed for.
... these women, express not only sexual liberation but a rejection of the idea that their sexuality is dependent on the male gaze
Through both their lyrics and their videos, these women, express not only sexual liberation but a rejection of the idea that their sexuality is dependent on the male gaze, instead, drawing more focus to their own desires and the pleasure they derive from their own bodies. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘WAP’, primarily focuses on female pleasure, using metaphors about things like ‘macaroni in a pot’ to express their sexuality in a light-hearted manner. This very song met a significant amount of backlash upon its initial release, particularly as a result of its provocative music video. So the question becomes, are these examples of sexual expression empowering or just objectifying?
Hip Hop is a genre dominated by black voices and, as such, when we talk about the sexism within this musical space, we should not ignore how it also interacts with race. For centuries, black women, particularly in America, have been limited by stereotypes that often place a significant focus on their inherent sexuality and, thus, their “savagery” compared to their white counterparts. This history has encouraged a hypersexual perception of black women, a history which is only further perpetuated by these female artists who continue to profit from the dehumanising and objectifying ideals which they encourage through their music. It is, of course, encouraging to see how the commercial success of female rappers is often equal to that of their male counterparts, yet what is this success worth if it is built upon misogyny and encouraging a narrative which actively hurts other women? If anything, this commercial success reinforces the idea that women’s value in Hip Hop is reliant on their overt sexuality; as long as they help to sustain the idea that women are sex objects, they will continue to sell records. This seems to be a problem particularly for black female artists who are encouraged to be hypersexual for their short-lived time in the spotlight before being spat back out by a vicious music industry that forgets female artists just as quickly as they find them.
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... black female artists are encouraged to be hypersexual for their short-lived time in the spotlight before being spat back out by a vicious music industry
Equally, however, it is worth asking, why do we care? Why does every action committed by a woman in the public eye have to be an act of female empowerment? Not every female artist exists to empower women, this is yet another example of the unrealistic expectations placed on women which do not exist for their male counterparts. These women are famous because of their talent and music, not necessarily because of their politics or feminism. The fact that it is so unacceptable for these women to consensually objectify themselves, is a further example of the sexism rampant within our society.
From Notorious BIG’s ‘Nasty Girl’ to Kanye West and Lil Pump’s ‘I Love It’, misogyny in Hip Hop seems to be widely accepted as long as it comes from a man. Yet, when faced with the more nuanced question of whether a woman sexualising herself may truly be considered misogynistic, it seems that everyone has an opinion. So what’s the issue here? Is the consent of women in platforming their own sexuality the problem? Equally, it is worth noting that women taking ownership of their bodies and talking about sex in their music is not limited to Hip Hop, but pretty much spans every genre, from Pop to Country. As such, the particular attention and mass criticism that female hip hop artists garner when they speak about these topics begs the question, do we have a problem, not just with female sexuality, but with black and brown female sexuality? Lana Del Rey’s past criticism that ‘now that Doja Cat, Ariana, Camila, Cardi B, Kehlani and Nicki Minaj and Beyonce have had number ones about being sexy, wearing no clothes [...] can I please go back to singing about being embodied, feeling beautiful by being in love even if the relationship is not perfect, or dancing for money?’, definitely seems to draw on this hypersexualising black women; while her music covers similar topics to those of the minority artists which she had named, her whiteness allows her to be seen as more gentle, and her music to have more depth despite covering the same subject matter.
Shouldn’t our critique not be aimed at the artists so much as at an industry that feels women, more specifically black women, are only marketable when they are sexual?
Overall, the question of whether or not female rap is empowering is a limiting one for several reasons. Not all women can or will be empowered by the same things because we are all different and unique individuals. Therefore, asking whether or not Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, or any number of Hip Hop artists are truly empowering in their messaging, is a question that can never reach a conclusive answer. Further to this, the argument that all female artists have a duty to be empowering is unfair, as, as previously mentioned, female artists seem to be held to a higher standard, making it even tougher to rise within a notoriously sexist and fickle industry. With this in mind, shouldn’t our critique not be aimed at the artists so much as at an industry that feels women, more specifically black women, are only marketable when they are sexual? Is it not the industry’s expectations that promote outdated stereotypes about black female sexuality, more so than the artists themselves?