By Alice Barrett
This week we read and discussed an essay on Black Girl Dangerous by Martina “Mick” Powell entitled “Hold Up: A Lovingly Disgusted Note to Hip Hop.” The discussion started out slow, which is such an organic, interesting element of almost all academic discussions I’ve taken part in, but the difference for this one was that most of us found the reading logical and anticipated. We’ve all heard that rap and hip hop often employs sexist, homophobic, and oppressive positions. “Kids and their dang rap music!” or something.
Powell’s piece, we agreed, seemed personal in ways that criticism of rap often can’t be. She paints her history with rap music (seemingly a universal history for other black people, too) with intimate, detail-oriented phrases: “everything—every beat against bass, every drip of spray paint, every time your body contorts itself into a new shape—has a purpose.” Powell is a black queer woman discussing the problems she has with rap and hip hop’s discussion of black and/or queer women. Her complaints are the most valid complaints one could lodge; she experiences the way hip hop and rap have previously validated her experience, and she notes importantly that they still erase her.
“I want so much to love you endlessly but sometimes, it gets hard walking into a brick wall day after day, never being fully able to escape. As much as you confirm my existence and my struggles, you also erase me, ignore me, defile me. Sometimes you hate me so much that you keep repeating yourself over and over again and sometimes you want me so much that you can’t control yourself.”
Her writing is poetic and personal, and therefore effective. Perhaps someone who has noted oppression in hip hop and rap–and noted it only negatively, only to reinforce racist concepts, only to cement ideas of black men being violent and savage–will read this work and see the many facets of the hip hop and rap experience.
Some problems several members had with the piece was that it focuses solely on the sexism and homophobia in hip hop and rap, which could suggest if taken out of context that the only problematic parts of popular culture involve an art that has typically been associated with black males. Powell’s essay doesn’t seem to look at all of the forces that combine to create this homophobia and sexism in rap and hip hop. It focuses specifically on hip hop–which makes sense because of her own biography–but in doing this it fails to comment on society’s ingrained discriminatory practices. It does not comment on the appallingly oppressive lyrics in rock, in country, in alternative music. It comments only on hip hop and rap, which could certainly be virtuous in that the conversation is specific and more likely to be effective but is also race-specific. This seems to be a problem in lots of social justice work–how can we discuss specific injustices without scaling out to look at the patriarchal, white-washed society we constantly participate in?
We additionally discussed the opposite phenomenon, where specifically Macklemore was apotheosized for declaring–for setting the record straight, for deciding perhaps–that (!) it’s okay to be gay (!) in his song Same Love. He’s a white straight guy who confirmed that queerness is natural–and he’s a white straight guy who was worshipped for doing so. In this case, Macklemore wrote something super positive, criticizing the homophobia in some rap music and supporting the struggles of queer people. This should be valued, absolutely! He’s using his privilege to positively affect popular culture. How people received this, how he was described as the first person to talk about Actual Important Things in rap, as opposed to money and hoes, how he seemed to some to save and justify rap–these are the problems we should have with his work. We should find it problematic and disgusting that popular culture will ignore the beautiful, authentic work of past queer, black rappers to champion the commercialized, bastardized work of a white guy. We should be so, so sad that an artist like Kendrick Lamar was overlooked and erased in the Grammy’s for this song of Macklemore’s.
Finally, we discussed attempts to reconcile problematicism of things we love so, so much. Can I listen to Kanye even though he says fucked up things about women and queer people? Can I ignore Azalea Bank’s negative slurs in her attempts to point out problematic aspects of other artists’ work? How can one enjoy popular culture when racism, sexism, classism, homophobia stain so many aspects of it? We don’t know. We think pointing out problems is the most feasible way to be productive in the face of oppression. Perhaps we could use our commercial power to send messages, by boycotting the work of artists who enforce oppressive power structures, and perhaps we can be vocal about the problems we have with their work. We don’t know. It does not appear that one cannot enjoy culture that participates in discrimination and oppression; instead, maybe, we need to realize why artists are reinforcing oppressive ideas, especially when they’re reacting against other power structures they’ve experienced. We need to demand more. We need to reject any ideas of Macklemore’s superiority in rap (and especially the race-tinged aspects of this). We need to look at valuable essays that note the multifaceted aspects of love and culture.