J: on public discussions about commercial hip-hop and/vs.? black women

22 04 2007

Amidst the cable tv pundits and Oprah shows “taking on” the misogyny of hip-hop music following Don Imus’ comments about the Rutgers women’s team, I was reminded of an earlier cycle through the hip-hop-is-the-root-of-all-negative-images-of-black-women discussion.

While the subject of the effect of hip-hop music on popular images of black women has long been a topic of conversation in some areas (as well it should, I want to be clear that I do actually think this is an important issue to think through and talk about – my impatience is really about the way these discussions are being had right now), the last time I know of that there was such widespread public interest was around 2 Live Crew’s obscenity charges regarding their As Nasty As They Wanna Be album. Here’s a recap:

“In June 1990, the members of the rap group 2 Live Crew were arrested and charged under a Florida obscenity statute for their performance in an adults-only club in Hollywood, Florida. The arrests came just two days after a federal court judge had ruled that the sexually explicit lyrics in 2 Live Crew’s album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, were obscene. Although the members of 2 Live Crew were eventually acquitted of charges stemming from the live performance, the Federal court determination that As Nasty As They Wanna Be is obscene still stands. This obscenity judgment, along with the arrests and the subsequent trial, prompted an intense public controversy about rap music, a controversy that merged with a broader debate about the representation of sex and violence in popular music, about cultural diversity, and about the meaning of freedom of expression…”

“Two positions dominated the debate about 2 Live Crew. Writing in Newsweek, political columnist George Will staked out a case against the Crew, arguing that Nasty was misogynistic filth and characterizing their lyrics as a profoundly repugnant “combination of extreme infantilism and menace” that objectified Black women and represented them as legitimate targets for sexual violence.

The most prominent defense of 2 Live Crew was advanced by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an expert on African-American literature. In a New York Times Op-Ed piece, and in testimony at the criminal trial, Gates portrayed 2 Live Crew as brilliant artists who were inventively elaborating distinctively African-American forms of cultural expression. Furthermore, Gates argued, the characteristic exaggeration featured in their lyrics served a political end: to explode popular racist stereotypes about Black sexuality precisely by presenting those stereotypes in a comically extreme form. Where Will saw a misogynistic assault on Black women by social degenerates, Gates found a form of ’sexual carnivalesque’ freighted with the promise to free us from the pathologies of racism.”(via Kimberle Crenshaw article cited below)

Since the 2 Live Crew debate happened before my time, I was grateful for Kimberle Crenshaw’s recap and thought others might find it helpful too as a reminder that these are well-worn arguments being trotted out as new discoveries: racism & white supremacy are blameless (”innocent”) for negative stereotypes about black women – whereas ultimate responsibility for stereotypes and assaults against black women is attributable to the ‘destructive pathologies’ of hip-hop music.

However, I was even more grateful for Crenshaw’s black feminist perspective on the issue and the insights it brings to today’s discussions. I would absolutely recommend reading her entire article Beyond Racism and Misogyny: Black Feminism and 2 Live Crew (published originally: Boston Review 16, no. 6 (1991): 6, 30-33, and available online here), however here is some of what she says:

“As a Black feminist, I felt the pull of each of these poles [Wills and Gates’ positions above], but not the compelling attractions of either. My immediate response to the criminal charges against 2 Live Crew was ambivalence: I wanted to stand together with the brothers against a racist attack, but I wanted to stand against a frightening explosion of violent imagery directed at women like me. My sharp internal division – my dissatisfaction with the idea that the “real issue” is race or that the “real issue” is gender– is characteristic of my experience as a Black woman living at the intersection of racial and sexual subordination. To that experience Black feminism offers an intellectual and political response: aiming to bring together the different aspects of an otherwise divided sensibility, it argues that Black women are commonly marginalized by a politics of race alone or gender alone, and that a political response to either form of subordination must be a political response to both. When the controversy over 2 Live Crew is approached in light of such Black feminist sensibilities, an alternative to the dominant poles of the public debate emerges.

The first time I listened to 2 Live Crew, I was stunned. The issue had been distorted by descriptions of “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” as simply “sexually explicit.” “Nasty” is much more: it is virulently misogynist, sometimes violently so. Black women are cunts, “‘ho’s,” and all-purpose bitches: raggedy bitches, sorry-ass bitches, lowdown slimy-ass bitches. Good sex is often portrayed as painful and humiliating for women…”


And here we are again. Some things are clear: (1) too much hip-hop music contains hateful and violent descriptions of women; (2) these messages are hurtful and often constitute a sexualized attack the basic humanity of black women in particular; (3) hip-hop music that denigrates women sells…big; (4) the image of hip-hop music in these discussions is itself a stereotype – there is plenty of hip-hop out there that does not describe black women in this way, not to mention that black women also make hip-hop music.


Who pays the price?:

“Those of us who are concerned about the high rates of gender violence in our communities must be troubled by the possible connections between these images and tolerance for violence against women. Children and teenagers are listening to this music, and I am concerned that the range of acceptable behavior is being broadened by the constant propagation of anti-women imagery. I’m concerned, too, about young Black women who, like young men, are learning that their value lies between their legs. Unlike men, however, their sexual value is a depletable commodity; by expending it, girls become whores and boys become men.”


“Nasty is misogynist, and a Black feminist response to the case against 2 Live Crew must start from a full acknowledgment of that misogyny. But such a response must also consider whether an exclusive focus on issues of gender risks overlooking aspects of the prosecution of 2 Live Crew that raise serious questions of racism…”

“While using anti-sexist rhetoric to suggest a concern for women, the attack [on 2 Live Crew’s music] simultaneously endorsed traditional readings of Black male sexuality. The fact that most perpetrators and victims are of the same race is overshadowed by the mythical image of the Black male as the agent of sexual violence and the white community as his victim. The subtext of the 2 Live Crew prosecution thus becomes a re-reading of the sexualized racial politics of the past…”

The double-bind:

“While concerns about racism fuel my opposition to the obscenity prosecution, I am also troubled by the uncritical support for, and indeed celebration of, 2 Live Crew by other opponents of that prosecution. If the rhetoric of anti-sexism provided an occasion for racism, so, too, the rhetoric of anti-racism provided an occasion for defending the misogyny of Black male rappers.”


“The defense of 2 Live Crew took two forms, one political and one cultural, both of which were advanced most prominently by Henry Louis Gates. The political argument was that 2 Live Crew represents an attack on Black sexual stereotypes. The strategy of the attack is, in Gates’s words, to “exaggerate [the] stereotypes” and thereby “to show how ridiculous the portrayals are.” Thus, Gates concludes, 2 Live Crew and other rap groups are simply pushing white society’s buttons to ridicule its dominant sexual images.

Gates’s use of laughter as a defensive maneuver in the attack on 2 Live Crew recalls similar strategies in defense of racist humor. Racist humor has sometimes been defended as an effort to poke fun at, or to ridicule racism. More simply, racist humor has often been excused as just joking; even racially motivated assaults are often defended as simple pranks…”

“Implicit in these defenses is the assumption that racist representations are injurious only if they are devoid of any other objective or are meant to be taken literally… African-Americans have frequently protested such humor, suggesting a general recognition within the Black community that “mere humor” is not inconsistent with subordination. The question of what people find humorous is of course a complicated one, sometimes involving aggression, in-group boundary policing, projection, and other issues. The claim that a representation is meant “simply as a joke” may be true, but it functions as humor within a specific social context and frequently reinforces patterns of social power…”

“Clearly, the fact that the Crew and the women it objectifies are Black shaped this response. Had 2 Live Crew been white in blackface, for example, all of the readings would have been different. Although the question of whether one can defend the broader license given to Black comedians to market stereotypical images is an interesting one, it is not the issue here. 2 Live Crew cannot claim an in-group privilege to perpetuate misogynistic humor against Black women. They are not Black women, and more importantly, they enjoy a power relationship over them. Sexual humor in which women are objectified as packages of body parts to serve whatever male-bonding/male competition needs men have subordinates women in much the same way that racist humor subordinates African-Americans. That these are “just jokes” and not meant to be taken literally does little to blunt their demeaning quality–nor for that matter, does the fact that the jokes are told within a tradition of intra-group humor…”


“Gates advances a second, cultural defense of 2 Live Crew: the idea that Nasty is in line with distinctively African-American traditions of culture and entertainment. It is true that the “dozens” and other forms of verbal boasting have been practiced within the Black community for some time. It is true as well that raunchy jokes, insinuations, and boasting of sexual prowess were not meant to be taken literally. Nor were they meant to disrupt conventional myths about Black sexuality. They were meant simply to be laughed at, and perhaps to gain respect for the speaker’s word wizardry.

Ultimately, however, little turns on whether the “word play” performed by 2 Live Crew is a postmodern challenge to racist sexual mythology or simply an internal group practice that has crossed over into mainstream America. Both versions of the defense are problematic because they each call on Black women to accept misogyny and its attendant disrespect in service of some broader group objective. While one version argues that accepting misogyny is necessary to anti-racist politics, the other argues that it is necessary to maintaining the cultural integrity of the community. But neither presents a sufficient reason for Black women to tolerate such misogyny. The message that these arguments embrace–that patriarchy can be made to serve anti-racist ends is a familiar one with proponents ranging from Eldridge Cleaver in the sixties to Sharazad Ali in the nineties. In Gates’s variant, the position of Black women is determined by the need to wield gargantuan penises in a struggle to ridicule racist images of Black male sexuality. Even though Black women may not be the intended targets, they are necessarily attached to these gargantuan penises and are thus made to absorb the impact. The common message of all such strategies is that Black women are expected to be vehicles for notions of “liberation” that function to preserve their own subordination…”

“While it may be true that the Black community is more familiar with the cultural forms that have evolved into rap, that familiarity should not end the discussion of whether the misogyny within rap is acceptable. Moreover, we need to consider the possible relationships between sexism within our cultural practices and the problem of violence against women…”

Violence against women of color:

“Violence against women of color is not presented as a critical issue in either the anti-racist or anti-violence discourses. The “different culture” defense may contribute to the disregard for women of color victimized by rape and violence, reinforcing the tendency within the broader community not to take intra-racial violence seriously. Numerous studies have suggested that Black victims of crime can count on less protection from the criminal justice system than whites. This is true for rape victims as well–their rapists are less likely to be convicted and on average serve less time when they are convicted…”

A black feminist perspective:

“Although there are times when Black feminists should fight for the integrity of the culture, this does not mean that criticism must end when a practice or form of expression is traced to a particular aspect of culture. We must determine whether the practices and forms of expression are consistent with our fundamental interests.

The question of obscenity may be settled by finding roots in the culture, but obscenity is not our central issue. Performances and representations that do not appeal principally to “prurient interests,” or that may reflect expressive patterns that are culturally specific, may still encourage self-hatred, disrespect, subordination, and other manifestations of intra-group pathology. These problems require group dialogue. While African-Americans have no plenary authority to grapple with these issues, we do need to find ways of using group formation mechanisms and other social spaces to reflect upon and reformulate our cultural and political practices.

I said earlier that the political goals of Black feminism are to construct and empower a political sensibility that opposes misogyny and racism simultaneously. Converging this double vision into an analysis of the 2 Live Crew controversy, it becomes clear that despite the superficial defense of the prosecution as being concerned with the interests of women, nothing about the anti-2 Live Crew movement is about Black women’s lives. The political process involved in condemning the representations that subordinate Black women does not seek to empower Black women; indeed, the racism of that movement is injurious to us.

But the implication of this conclusion is not that Black feminists should stand in solidarity with the supporters of 2 Live Crew. The spirited defense of 2 Live Crew was no more about defending the Black community than the prosecution was about defending women. After all, Black women–whose very assault is the object of the representation–are part of that community. Black women can hardly regard the right to be represented as bitches and whores as essential to their interests. Instead the defense of 2 Live Crew primarily functions to protect the cultural and political prerogative of male rappers to be as misogynistic and offensive as they want to be…”

“The development of a Black feminist sensibility is no guarantee that Black women’s interests will be taken seriously. In order for that sensibility to develop into empowerment, Black women will have to make it clear that patriarchy is a critical issue that negatively impacts the lives not only of African-American women, but men as well. Within the African-American political community, this recognition might reshape traditional practices so that evidence of racism would not constitute justification for uncritical rallying around misogynistic politics and patriarchal values. Although collective opposition to racist practice has been and continues to be crucially important in protecting Black interests, an empowered Black feminist sensibility would require that the terms of unity no longer reflect priorities premised upon the continued subordination of Black women…”


Although I am still thinking through specifically how these insights might be applied to thinking about misogynistic language in hip-hop broadly, Crenshaw’s analysis does make a few things about the public discussion surrounding Don Imus’ invocation of rap music as a justification for his use of derogatory words about black women clearer than ever:

  1. Acknowledging the obvious misogyny of some hip-hop lyrics is an important starting place for those of us who are concerned about violence against women of color.
  2. However, not all public condemnations of hip-hop’s depictions of black women are driven by an authentic concern for depictions of black women’s humanity – often such condemnations are anchored by racist stereotypes about black male sexuality, and can serve to promote these stereotypes in an insidious fashion.
  3. Even those who are condemning hip-hop’s depictions of black women out of a true concern for black women’s best interests, can become unintentionally complicit in propagating racist stereotypes about black men.
  4. This public discussion is occurring in a mass-media environment that is antithetical to complex perspectives on issues of race and gender – and this is a problem.
  5. Racism and misogyny are not mutually exclusive. Don Imus was just as racist when he attributed his comments about the Rutgers team to rap music, as he was when he made the comments in the first place. Derogatory references to black women are no less misogynistic when they come from hip-hop music, than when they come from Don Imus.

– J




2 responses

23 04 2007
Donna Darko

Thank you, J. for this and Crenshaw’s 1991 article. You are voices of reason. I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now and hope your conference goes well.

And who knew Skip Gates circa 1991 = Eldridge Cleaver?

23 04 2007

Thanks Donna! Your support is very much appreciated. And re: Skip Gates, yeah I guess we can take heart that at least some things have changed – maybe he can too b/c Crenshaw set him straight about 5 different ways in this article. See you around –

– J

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