Have you ever listened to the lyrics of Mystikal’s ‘Shake ya ass’? For the uninitiated, it is a song that can cause even the most ardent feminist to become a frenzied bacchanal on the dance floor. But, “shake ya ass, show me what you workin with. I came here with my d*ck in my hand. Don’t make me leave here with my foot in yo’ ass”, hardly alludes to someone who believes in gender equality. And Mystikal, a word of advice: you may be hankering for some action but at least hold something a little less conspicuous. A glass of champagne p’haps?
It is all too easy to dismiss these disturbing lyrics with the trite excuse that it’s ‘just hip-hop. After all, rap music and hip-hop have long been mired in controversy for their blatant misogyny, which emerged in the 90s, when lyrics that trafficked purely in lewd language flourished into a hip-hop sub-genre. Yet songs laced with crude and brutal expressions of sexism shows no sign of budging. Juelz Santana’s “There It Go (The Whistle Song),” was a chart hit that is as close to a street harassment anthem as a song can come, with lyrics like “move your thang/there it go/I don’t need to ask I proceed to grab“. Such lyrics are as indefensible as those songs which spew vulgarities “Imma beat dat p*ssy up” and implore women to ‘bend over’.
Vulgar glorification of pimping and female-ownership hasn’t prevented artists such as Snoop Dogg and Ice T from gaining mainstream acceptance. Snoop Dogg is, after all, a man who has walked women in dog chains and dog collars across concert stages and spouted lyrics, which explicitly advocate violence against women. “Can U Control Yo Hoe“, isfull of some real clangers: “You’ve got to put that bitch in her place/Even if it’s slapping her in her face … This is what you force me to do.” And yet such raw misogyny is overlooked by his apparently colourful charisma and quirky dress sense.
Chris Brown is one of the best examples of this “cultural amnesia”. Having violently abused his girlfriend, Rihanna, to the extent that she had to be hospitalised, he is now not only considered musically relevant, but has also subsequently won an MTV Music Award, and has a sold-out tour. Most worrying of all, a large proportion of Brown’s fan base are teenage girls, who, during his Grammy performance, sent tweets out to the tune of: “I’d let Chris Brown beat me up any day”. Despite the fact that he’s purring that, “No is not an option. Are you ready, I’m a take what’s mine”.
Consider the gross double standards. Eminem was pressurised to apologise for his homophobic lyrics. And so he should be. How, then, can we allow misogynistic lyrics to be treated differently? All the bass in the world cannot disguise Tyler’s disgusting message, from ‘The Creator’: “We go skate, rape sluts and eat donuts from Randy”. Songs such as these subscribe men to a distorted guideline of how to measure their masculinity. They propagate the myth of women as a monolith: a sex object that can be used and abused in any form to satisfy the sexual desires of a man. When men are taught that sex is a commodity, and women are taught that it’s an emotional experience, you’re not going to end up with a functional market or indeed a set of norms for establishing relationships. Instead, you have a recipe for anger and entitlement.
Undoubtedly music fuels misogynistic attitudes by contributing to the belief that women’s bodies should be sexually available, but it does not create that perception alone. It begs the question, then: why do musicians around the world feel confident that audiences will sing along to lyrics that demean women? The sentiments behind that music do not exist in a vacuum. They thrive in religious texts, the lack of female legal protections, daily street harassment and social attitudes towards women.
Of course, rappers are not the only proponents of misogyny in popular culture. They are far from the first. The music industry has been saturated with a sprawling jungle of misogynistic imagery, from country musicians bemoaning a “no good woman” to craggy faced rock stars boasting of their latest conquest.
Rap and hip-hop music are, in principle, forms of oppositional culture that offers a message of resistance, empowerment, and social critique. But this intentionally avoids analysis of explicitly misogynist and sexist lyrics. To overlook the lyrical content is like eating a sandwich without the filling. Granted, gangsta rap is all about bravado, self-regard, macho posturing and, tenuously, fun. But that does not excuse the content. It is, in many cases, simply a mantle for misogyny.