The term ‘hip hop feminism’ is associated with performances of feminism within hip hop culture, but also with feminist texts that draw on hip hop culture as a foundation. It was coined by the writer Joan Morgan. Hip hop feminists often position themselves as a counter movement to other types of feminism that are regarded as too academic or oblivious to the intersection of gender and race. For example, Joan Morgan begins her book When Chickenheads Come To Roost with a description of the kinds of feminism she encountered as a student: two types of white feminism that either positioned itself as anti-male or envious of male power that certain types of feminists desired for themselves. Even when Morgan learned about black feminism, she felt that it was a feminism of Black intellectuals and not the kind of feminism she could relate to in her everyday life. Bascially, she had the choice between ‘white women’s shit’, or ‘black but ‘not crew” (2017: 38).
Morgan’s aim was then to assemble a feminism that could ask questions that were considered problematic in most other feminisms, for example about the possibility of enjoyment of privileges gained through sexism (e.g. men paying for women’s meals on dates), or the attraction of women to hypermasculine and even sexist men: “…how come no one ever admits that part of the reason women love hip-hop – as sexist as it is – is ‘cuz all that in-yo-face testosterone makes our nipples hard?” (Morgan, 2017: 58) Most of all, she wanted to move beyond the victim/oppressor binary. As she puts it, she wanted a feminism that was “brave enough to fuck with the grays. And this was not my foremother’s feminism” (2017: 59).
Hip hop feminism can be seen as a direction that is independent of second and third wave feminism, as proposed by Black Studies scholar Kimberley Springer and German hip hop feminist and rapper Reyhan Şahin. Şahin further defines hip hop feminism as a “theoretical and practical enactment of intersectional, sex positive and inclusive feminist ideas and concepts that draw on critical analysis of gender roles within hip hop culture” (2019: 111). In her book Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, the author Tricia Rose describes hip hop feminism as an opposition to blackness as a ‘tangle of pathology’ (e.g. propensity for poverty, sexual deviance, youth delinquency, crime) and to the undermining of Black cultural expression (Black culture as a threat or as a culture lacking in value).
Many hip hop feminists place an emphasis on enacting a joyful and understanding feminism that breaks down unhelpful binaries. Morgan, for example, talks about men’s nihilist macho behaviour in terms of depression, and calls for women to not expect feminism to be performed in an unachievable pure form. While themes in hip hop feminism include challenges to sexism in both rap and society, including the ‘Madonna-whore complex‘, rape culture, homophobia, inter-female sexism and lack of solidarity, and claims to ‘performative’ sexism (sexist artist personality vs private non-sexist personality), the aim is not to just point fingers at men. As Morgan writes: “We can’t afford to keep expending energy on banal discussions of sexism in rap when sexism is only part of a huge set of problems.” Neither should women be reprimanded for trying to appeal to men, especially when the system is set up this way.
Instead, Morgan advocates open minded dialogue: “The keys that unlock the riches of contemporary black female identity lie not in choosing Latifah over Lil’ Kim, or even Foxy Brown over Salt-N-Pepa. They lie at the magical intersection where those contrary voices meet – the juncture where ‘truth’ is no longer black and white but subtle, intriguing shades of gray” (Morgan, 2017: 62). Related to this focus on female empowerment through dialogue, Morgan and other hip hop feminists insist on joy as a central strategy of hip hop feminism: “Black joy is crucial to our survival.” (2017: 248) This is echoed by the rapper Junglepussy in a 2016 interview: “I know that feeling that I feel when I see a black woman wake up, love herself, and go chase her dreams. That feeling for me is enough. It doesn’t matter who’s doing it, if they’re well-known or not known at all. That’s enough for me.”
Hip hop feminism has been met with several criticisms. Reyhan Şahin diagnoses some feminist hip hop with a lack of anti-capitalist critique, especially since capitalism is connected to gendered and racist oppression. Other authors have found that hip hop is often portrayed as a male domain to which feminism is brought, rather than hip hop being taken as a neutral form of expression that can be performed by any gender. The greatest tension with regard to hip hop feminism, however, revolves around hip hop as a scapegoat for society’s problems (Rose, 2008, Şahin, 2019). Here, hip hop feminists have to navigate the desire to defend hip hop from accusations of sexism, homophobia, capitalist sympathy etc, versus the desire to hold hip hop artists to account for instances of internalised oppression.
Another exciting thing about hip hop feminism is its uptake in different cultural contexts. As the popularity of hip hop is spreading across the world, and hip hop is becoming part of other music styles, so is hip hop feminism. Examples include the work of rapper and academic Reyhan Şahin who, growing up as an Alevi Muslim in Germany, uses sex positive hip hop to combat White/Christian patriarchy as well as Turkish/Muslim patriarchy. In South Africa, female rappers Busiswa and Sho Madjozi came out of the poetry scene and are influencing feminist debates globally.
Bernt-Zooks, Kristal (1995) A Manifesto of Sorts for a New Black Feminist Movement. The New York Times Magazine. November 12, 1995.
Larnell, Michael (2017) Roxanne, Roxanne. (Netflix film)
Morgan, Joan (2017 ) When Chickenheads come to roost. New York: Simon & Schuster.
The Root (2019) Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and Hip-hop Feminism, Explained. (link to YouTube video) Unpack That.
Rose, Tricia (1994) Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover & London: Wesleyan University Press.
Wallace, Michelle (1990) When Black Feminism Faces the Music and the Music Is Rap. The New York Times. July 29, 1990.
eNCA (2019) Busiswa on her music. (link to YouTube Video)
Morgan, Joan (2017) She begat this: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Rose, Tricia (2008) The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop–and Why It Matters. London: Hachette.
Şahin, Reyhan (2019) Yalla, Feminismus!’ Stuttgart: Tropen. [In German]
Springer, Kimberley (2002) Third Wave Black Feminism? Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 27(4)
Rapsody (2019) Rapsody Brings Balance To Hip Hop. (link to YouTube video) XXL.
Jazmen Styles (2018) I like Studs… (link to YouTube video)
Beyoncé (2014) ***Flawless feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (link to YouTube video)
Cardi B (2019) Press. (link to YouTube video)
J Capri (2014) Boom And Bend Over. (link to YouTube video)
Junglepussy (2014) Bling Bling. (link to YouTube video)
Lady Leshurr (2016) #UNLESHED. (link to YouTube video)
Leikeli47 (2018) Attitude (link to YouTube video)
Lizzo (2018) Boys. (link to YouTube video)
MC Lyte (1993) Ruffneck (link to YouTube video)
M.I.A.(2012) Bad Girl. (link to YouTube video)
Missy Elliott (1999) She’s a B**ch (link to YouTube video)
Mona Haydar (2017) Hijabi (link to YouTube video)
Nadia Rose (2016) Skwod (link to YouTube video)
Nicki Minaj (2018) Barbie Dreams. (link to YouTube video)
Princess Nokia (2016) Tomboy (link to YouTube Video)
Princes Vitarah (2018) Do you eat A**. (link to YouTube Video)
Queen Latifah (1993) U.N.I.T.Y. (link to YouTube video)
Salt N Pepa (1991) Let’s Talk About Sex. (link to YouTube video)
Sampa the Great (2019) OMG. (link to YouTube video)
Sho Madjozi (2019) Huku. (link to YouTube video)
Spice (2014) Like A Man. (link to YouTube video)
Tierra Whack (2018) Whack World. (link to YouTube video)
TLC (1992) No Scrubs. (link to YouTube video)
Why do authors insist that hip hop feminism is both a distinct and an important direction of feminism?
Can you think of examples of hip hop artists or songs that feel ‘feminist’ to you? Explain why.
What distinguishes hip hop feminism from other feminisms in pop culture e.g. Riot grrrl feminism?
Do you think it is useful to bring academic and ‘everyday’ feminisms closer together? If yes, how could this be done? If not, why not?
Submitted by Angela Last and Kirsten Barrett