A Bad Rap

Is rap music mysogynistic, or is it just plain stale?

In an age when Bob Dylan is making commercials for Victoria’s Secret, it might not seem far-fetched to conclude that American music as a whole has followed the natural course of life: it was born, grew up, fell to the clutches of major record labels, and finally sold out to a lingerie company.

The synthesis of female sexual objectification and musical commercialization present in Dylan’s Victoria’s Secret commercial is, to many critics, a defining feature and matter of controversy for another musical genre. Among cries of protest against the aggressivity of lyrics, whispers of change have recently been heard among hip-hop’s fans, who don’t want to see their music take the same turn as popular rock and country. “Take Back the Music,” a hip-hop songwriting contest sponsored by Essence Magazine and the Berklee College of Music, is emblematic of the voices currently challenging artists and consumers to re-think the elements that define rap music, opposing not only its occasionally misogynistic messages, but the major-label influence on the its image.

ENGENDERING DEBATE

Cynthia Gordy, associate editor of Essence Magazine, a lifestyle publication for black women, says that the contest promotes a “balance in mainstream hip-hop’s messages.” Part of this balance involves the gender representation in mainstream hip-hop.

“We felt that the mainstream culture of women was hypersexualized,” Gordy says. “I think that the issue is that there is now just some very one-sided images in this music.”

Negative messages in hip-hop music have long been a topic of concern among worried mothers and professors of popular culture alike, who call for the genre to be reformed. But controversial values are not the trademark of hip-hop generally. Tracy D. Sharpley-Whiting, the director of Vanderbilt’s program in African American and Diaspora Studies, agrees that though misogynistic and violent messages are often heard through public outlets, hip-hop’s full creative spectrum is concealed by major record labels and commercial radio. There has been a widespread struggle to reconcile the artistic expression of hip-hop’s participants with the objectionable, one-dimensional view of hip-hop that has recently come to represent the genre as a whole.

“It’s not, ‘You listen to hip-hop and then you go do these horrible things to women,’” Sharpley-Whiting says. The author of “Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women,” Sharpley-Whiting argues that American culture in general is over-sexualized.

“If you try to block the music, you’ll have other things [that are promoting this message],” she says. “You can turn off the radio, but you can’t turn off the culture.”

Salamishah Tillet, a professor of African-American literature at the University of Pennsylvania, does not see hip-hop as a problem in itself, but as an easy target for those concerned with the flaws of American society.

“Hip-hop is a reaction, and a reflection of what is going on,” Tillet says. “I think that if all the violence in the American culture gets reduced to hip-hop, that’s a problem. I think it’s easy to say that, ‘I’m not going to let my children listen to hip-hop,’ and have it be the scapegoat for all social ills.”

RADIO’S NOT RAP

The perceived dengeneracy of hip-hop provides the rationale for another balance that the “Take Back the Music” contest is hoping to achieve—between the uninventive and the creative. Those involved with the contest seek to disrupt the creative stagnancy that stems from the monotony of mainstream hip-hop’s misogyny. Many people in both the contest and the genre’s broader community feel that while innovative music is being produced, it isn’t available from commercial radio stations or major labels. Thus, some critics argue that while hip-hop music has controversial lyrics, it doesn’t actually say anything.

“What gets on the radio is not hip-hop,” Tillet says. “It’s a part of hip-hop. The industry pushes certain artists and not others. There are a lot of artists that do really creative and insightful things. The artists...are a part of a machine, and the machine picks and chooses what it promotes.”

There is the possibility, however, that this machine will soon play less of a role in shaping the public reception of hip-hop. As record sales continue to decline and digital music becomes increasingly popular, fewer people are turning to the conventional channels for new sounds.

“The record industry is in terrible trouble,” says Alec Foege, author of “Right of the Dial: The Rise of Clear Channel and the Fall of Commercial Radio.” “If anything, the influence of labels in the fragmented media landscape that we’re experiencing now is declining by the day.”

Members of the hip-hop community are not looking for the misogynistic music on the radio to be censored. “We aren’t saying that commercial hip-hop should be censored,” says Allen Bush, spokesman at Berklee. “We’re saying that there should be an alternative.”

Foege, who served as a rock critic for Rolling Stone and Spin, believes that controversial lyrics don’t necessarily equal bad music. “A lot of the time artists that have been criticized for putting out misogynistic messages, put out some of the best records too,” he says, pointing to Eminem and Dr. Dre as examples. “If you look back to the 50s and what people were saying about rock and roll and Elvis Presley, it’s very similar kinds of criticisms. The critics aren’t exactly the same and you’re dealing with a different level of obscenity than you were then, but the tone of the complaints is the same.”

OLD-SCHOOL NOSTALGIA

While some artists have released misogynistic yet innovative hip-hop, some argue that this doesn’t condone potentially offensive subject matter. Byron Hurt, director of the film “Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes,” recognizes that while certain songs can have artistic merit and contain negative lyrics, that doesn’t justify misogyny. “We need to have artists second-guess creating lyrics that are anti-woman in the same way that they would second-guess writing something that is anti-Semitic,” Hurt says.

His film looks at the ways in which males in hip-hop culture portray an exaggerated image of what masculinity is. Like many others, Hurt believes that the focus on misogyny and homophobia in hip-hop overwhelms its more creative aspects, but that the solution to this problem goes beyond merely creating more positive hip-hop. “That’s like saying, ‘I don’t like racism, but we just need more not racist things said,’” Hurt says.

Hurt misses the late 1980s, the period in which he says the most substantive hip-hop was being created. Short of going back in time, Hurt wants to see the music’s negative aspects eliminated; such a move would result in what he calls a “new, brilliant black genre.”

“I feel like there are a lot of people who are not happy with where hip-hop is and a lot of people long for it to go back to the days when hip-hop had more substance,” Hurt says. “People are very nostalgic about hip-hop.”

BEYOND BLING

Yo-Yo, a Grammy-nominated female rapper, is also nostalgic for the days of “old-school” hip-hop. She hopes to bring more female artists into the music’s new era and has made it her mission to spread the message of female empowerment in hip-hop. As a judge for “Take Back the Music” and the host of the new VH1 reality series “Ego Trip’s Miss Rap Supreme,” Yo-Yo hopes that she will be able to help a new generation of hip-hop artists be more creative.

“The creativity level in hip-hop just sucks,” Yo-Yo says. “It’s just dumbed down to people who have great talent but can’t really channel it. They don’t know where to send it.”

Yo-Yo, who also teaches a class on lyrics at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles, recounted an instance in which she asked her students to write without mentioning partying, drinking, bad relationships, “bling bling, or how fly they were.” On the day that the assignment was due, no one had written anything, because they claimed that they didn’t know what to write.

“They just had to be creative, to come up with a story,” Yo-Yo says. “That was so hard. Back in the day, that’s all hip-hop was, was storytelling.”

The overall goal of the “Take Back the Music” contest is to help change the way that artists and the public approach hip-hop, both in its creation and its reception. This year’s grand prize winners, Jennifer “Nesi” Chanesi of Rhode Island and Justin “Jae Guttah” McGibbon of Pennsylvania, won full scholarships to the 2008 Berklee Five-Week Summer Performance Program. Through prizes like these, the “Take Back the Music” contest hopes to assist the participants in developing their music and talent, further diversifying the current music scene.

“When hip-hop was still a subculture, there was a lot more diverse set of music to offer,” Gordy says. “That people think there’s only this one type of music that can sell is ridiculous. [The contest] is in response to the cookie cutter, formulaic music we see today. Besides being misogynistic, honestly, it’s boring. This brings music that’s not only thought provoking, not only creative, but new and fresh.”

—Staff writer Beryl C. D. Lipton can be reached blipton@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Rebecca A. Schuetz can be reached at schuetz@fas.harvard.edu.