Admittedly, I am a newbie to the hip-hop game. Two years ago, the extent of my collection was basically some old school BEP and Blackalicious, as well as a slew of hip-hop influenced music like 311, Beck, or Rage Against the Machine (neither of these are exhaustive lists, but you get the idea). But in the short time that I’ve been actively involved in this community, my appreciation has localized primarily on the element of perseverance. Sure, the artistic integrity that I’ve witnessed in some of the artists we’ve met has been incredible… and the BBoy moves I’ve seen have certainly been amazing. But to be honest I’ve been a fan of strong “artists” for most of my life. The talent, discipline, self-expression, etc… that makes hip-hop a truly artistically viable genre are universally shared by classical saxophonists (such as myself), blues greats, and introspective alternative rock musicians alike. It’s the focus on perseverance that makes hip-hop so unique in my mind, and the prevalent idea communicated through the good hip-hop music that “there isn’t anything on this Earth that’s going to stop us once we put our minds to it” that really resonates with me. In my opinion, it’s this element that I don’t find so much in other genres, this element that makes hip-hop so alluring to so many people, and this element that really defines hip-hop.
This perseverance is empowering, as it was intended to be. But power can be seductive, and as it is gained it can tend to bring out the selfish side in people. (Just remember the Lord of the Rings!) I could probably write an entire book about this, but I’ll try to stick more to the topic at hand. Suffice it to say that having an empowering culture is a great thing, but if the culture neglects to emphasize the reasons and goals for uplifting people, then it might turn out to be a lot like giving a loaded gun to a child. You tell a generation that they can do anything if they put their minds to it, and that they’re fully capable individuals… but when they don’t really know what ought to be done with that power, the consequences can be undesirable to say the least. The power that is sought is ultimately destructive in nature and harmful to the community that nurtured the individual in the first place.
Compounding this unguided quest for power is the harshness of the particular environment that is to be conquered for some hip-hop artists. There are a lot of hard places to live in this world, and even in this country. Many neighborhoods have eroded to the point of feeling like war zones (again raising far too many complicated issues to be dealt with here). These circumstances call for a different way of realizing perseverance through “difficult” circumstances. If your difficult circumstances are low self esteem, oppressive parents, a crappy job, or just not having much money then you must seek to empower yourself in ways that build your character, enhance your sense of independence, find a greater purpose in your life, or redefine the “value” in things money can buy (respectively). But if your difficult circumstances involve the looming threat of being attacked, shot at, or otherwise killed then those particular empowering elements might not seem so relevant. Instead, you focus on building your sense of invincibility and all-around toughness. The harder and more untouchable you can make yourself, the more power you will have to rise above the circumstances of your environment.
One must wonder at the increasing prominence of this method of empowerment in hip-hop though. Surely not all of those rappers are from such vicious backgrounds and environments? Even if they are, what about the other artists who have continued to seek artistic mastery as a source of empowerment? Why have they been pushed into obscurity and labeled “underground?” I think that at a certain point, the supportive and healthy competitive spirit of the hip-hop community was simply replaced by the need (or greed) to empower oneself more than the other guy. The more credibility, props, record sales, [insert other typical status symbol] that can be acquired, the more successful you are. Once a few artists publicly achieved a certain kind of power, they raised the bar for all of the other aspiring artists out there. Rather than focusing on what was really important, new aspiring young artists are seduced by the idea of having more than mere artistic mastery. Moreover, this is now the standard that must be met if they are to rise to the popular expectations set by those before them, regardless of whether this type of power is actually relevant to their circumstances.
The original focus of this piece was to be the treatment and role of women in hip-hop, and I believe that the misguided quest for power and need to meet the bar set by predecessors in a competitive culture are to blame. To some, this may seem overly harsh or an exaggerated parallel, but I think that the criminal motivations behind rape yield great insight into the treatment of women in hip-hop. Ask any criminal psychologist, cop, Google, or CSI fan (for that matter) and you’ll find out that most rapes have nothing to do with sexual desire, but rather a need to demonstrate and exercise power over the victim. Once an individual begins to quest for power and dominion, it’s not unnatural for people (and particularly women in this case) to be reduced to a means to an ends. Essentially, in these environments the human elements necessary for actual love and positive sexuality are extracted and replaced by a need to exercise control and mastery.
As power for the sake of power is sought, then even if hip-hop artists aren’t objectifying women to the degree of enabling actual crimes, they are still more likely the use derogatory terminology in songs or unhealthy imagery in music videos. The real point is that the tendency to objectify women in hip-hop stems directly from the need that many artist have to demonstrate power, and their level of control over other people and situations. The reasons for feeling the need to demonstrate this type of physical mastery rather than artistic mastery of a craft are the real culprits. The shift in priorities of mastery over one over the other are the cause for the less than desirable evolution of hip-hop over the past few decades. It’s spot in the limelight has served to exacerbate the issue by increasingly raising the bar for aspiring artists to demonstrate the wrong types of mastery.