- Hip hop Feminism and Failure
A few years ago, I attended a hip hop conference at a revered university on the East Coast. The final panel of the evening featured a number of prominent writers, scholars, and activists, each presenting important research at the nexus of hip hop and social justice. The session was riveting, as the presenters dissected the prison industrial complex, hip hop and human rights discourse, issues of commoditization and cultural appropriation, and a host of other topics. After the discussion, I joined a few of the speakers at a nearby restaurant and lounge for drinks. As we settled into a corner near the bar, sipping ginger ale and other libations, 50 Cent's "Disco Inferno" blared in the background. The age range of my cohort spanned roughly twenty years, and to the best of my knowledge, none of them held 50 in especially high esteem as a lyricist. "Socially conscious" does not begin to describe the attitude of the group; again, the presenters live at the intersection of hip hop education and activism. But everyone hypnotically nodded his or her heads as the chorus hummed, "do ya thing like there ain't nothin' to it/ shake, sh-sh-shake that ass girl."
This essay addresses hip hop feminist failure and frustration. Much feminist analysis rightly focuses on those who remain hostile to antisexist activism, and the deep institutional roots of male supremacy and heteronormativity. Since the publication of Joan Morgan's When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip hop Feminist Breaks it Down (1999), a number of writers, scholars, and activists have claimed the "hip hop feminist" label and added to the intellectual tradition.1 Members of this group assert themselves as part of the hip hop generation(s) or lovers of hip hop who are committed to combating sexism without condemning all hip hop cultures as fundamentally sexist and socially toxic. The disjuncture between traditional (white bourgeois) feminist theory and personal experience lies at the core of Morgan's text. This essay moves one generational step forward, attending to the challenges of melding the theory, lived experience, [End Page 277] and material realities of hip hop feminism. As someone that is invested in hip hop feminism but often falls short of the ideals and goals feminism demands, I am complicit to a degree in the failures that that this essay engages.
The piece is organized across three conceptual landscapes. First, I address what I call "stimulus-based inconsistency" by discussing the tensions of hip hop masculinity and hip hop feminism. Second, I address the notion and function of hip hop genres, with special attention to the category of "socially conscious" rap. The distinction between "commercial" and "conscious" hinders feminist analysis. It is a distortion of hip hop practice derived from the corporate investment in genre making and a shallow understanding of rap music. I am especially resistant to those instances where categories are assigned to performers themselves, rather than just musical performances. Finally, I turn my attention to the challenges of maintaining an insurrectionary ethos within hip hop feminist studies, as all hip hop scholarship gains a foothold in the academy.
The opening vignette about hip hop scholar/activists vibe-ing with 50 Cent is a classic example of stimulus-based inconsistency. One of the difficulties in describing this phenomenon is that descriptions of the way music changes our bodies oscillate between notions of (1) "affect" and (2) feeling/emotion. Affect is prepersonal intensity.2 It is the sensation that hits us and impacts our bodily state before we consciously process its meaning. It is not a feeling, nor is it an emotion, as both require our awareness and the projection of meaning. When music moves us, its affective capacity changes our body first, before we process and interpret the sounds and lyrics. Without isolating ourselves from all forms of stimulus, especially the presence or idea of other people, there is no way to control our capacity to be affected. Music changes us, whether we want it to or not.
When we are really feeling the music, affect may act in concert with the added emotional and intellectual value we...