The Problem With Hip Hop

Photo via Ja Rule’s Instagram, one of the photoshopped images of 50 Cent posted to Ja Rule’s Instagram account. It negatively insinuates that 50 Cent is a transgender woman.

On October 26, 2018, Curtis Jackson—better known by his stage name, 50 Cent—celebrated the most recent development in his decades-long ‘beef’ with fellow rapper Jeffrey Atkins (Ja Rule). Atkins had played at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on October 10, a show which Jackson confessed to buying 200 front row seats to—just so they would be empty. Jackson announced this fact in a series of posts across social media platforms, one being a picture where Jackson himself was photoshopped into the empty seats. The world of hip-hop laughed along with Jackson at Atkins’ expense, and Atkins took the jibe in better spirits than before in the history of their feud—one that has included slander, homophobic insults, physical altercations, and even a stabbing—with a tweet that stated, “I get under [50 Cent’s] skin… I love it!!!” That was, until Atkins decided to share a number of photoshopped images across social media platforms that were intended to assert that Jackson was a transgender woman.

In a music genre that is still as male-dominated as hip-hop, the surrounding musical community is bound to bear the mark of a cultural concept known as hegemonic or “toxic” masculinity, where men are identified as dominant societal figures over women, marginalized groups of men, and other gender identities that are perceived as “feminine” and inferior in comparison. The notable aspects of toxic masculinity are emphasizing masculinity as superior to other ways of living and self expression, with the defining qualities of masculinity being strength, dominance, a lack of emotional expression, violence, and suppression of femininity in oneself and others.

Anyone familiar with hip hop will immediately recognize where these hallmarks of toxic masculinity fit into the genre; “A lot of hip-hop is based around feuds, battles, an idea of proving that one rapper is the better and stronger one of the two,” says Mia Barnes, Franklin alumnus and noted hip-hop fan. The markers of toxic masculinity aren’t only seen in the public antics of and feuds between artists, but in the lyrics as well. Many of the most popular artists and movements within the genre have been party to bragging about extreme violence, insulting and degrading women and members of the LGBTQ community, and dominating each other physically and financially by whatever means necessary with no remorse (see artists such as: Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G, Eminem, DMX, Offset, 6ix 9ine, and even earlier Tyler, The Creator). In the context of a song, these words may seem inconsequential, especially assuming that most lyrical claims of disrespect, violence, and crime are exaggerated if not entirely false. However, it is from these fictitious assertions of dominance that all too-real-feuds like that between Jackson and Atkins are given ammunition, both literally and figuratively. These artists have survived their decades of childish spite and occasional bouts of violence; others, like Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G, and recently XXXTentacion have not been so lucky.

Hip-hop has grown in cultural significance perhaps more quickly than any other musical genre of the past century; its key artists’ influences are far-reaching and again, unlike any other kind of music, it is inextricably connected to the modern narratives of Americans living on the margins—specifically poor and minority communities in urban areas across the country. However, toxic masculinity isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, an inherent part of the art form; it comes from the social and cultural surroundings the genre was forged in. It is in these communities where toxic masculinity can be the most damaging, although it is famously and sufficiently present amongst white males of all age groups and income classes; in a country where young, poor men of color are already institutionally oppressed, it is partly this presence of toxic masculinity that holds them down further by turning them against each other and against themselves, and paradoxically their experience of being oppressed and marginalized leads them to further develop a culture of toxic masculinity in self-defense.

As the public understanding of toxic masculinity develops and the general opinion on issues adjacent to it changes, something like a sea change has taken place within the genre. The number of women who have successfully involved themselves with the world of hip-hop has been steadily on the rise since the 1990s and has shown no signs of stopping, with recent successes including Nicki Minaj and Cardi B (two artists who themselves have a feud, one that is not difficult to view as a consequence of toxic masculinity encouraging the two to think the industry is only big enough for one “token” female artist); particularly among millennial artists like Kendrick Lamar, Tyler, The Creator, and BROCKHAMPTON, parodies of the ideals of toxic masculinity have grown popular, alongside the positive discussion of gender and sexuality politics, rape culture, and more. This artistic progressiveness seems to run parallel with the public consciousness beginning to tackle these concepts with more of an open mind, and fans are not displeased with the genre catching up to public opinion. “As a gay, female hip hop fan, it can be really really hard sometimes,” says Barnes. “But right now I only have hope for the future of hip hop. You see artists like Young Thug playing with gender roles in the way they dress. [You see] groups like BROCKHAMPTON talking about queerness and rape culture in their songs.” Oliver McFadden (12) similarly says, “It is exciting to see so many of these artists who are open-minded and can model a new generation of [hip-hop] that’s more accepting and less structured around hyper-masculinity.” These artists have been courageous to make such bold statements in the context of a musical community that is so famously volatile and closed-minded on account of the prevalence of toxic masculinity. However, these moves aren’t made exclusively in service of society and the hip-hop community, but in service of the artists’ own creative needs. “I think that toxic masculinity stifles creativity,” Barnes says; “Some of my favorite art tackles letting go of the shackles of a pressuring male society, especially in music. I think the best example is Tyler, the Creator—he started by writing songs interlaced with vicious slurs, describing dark sex acts and violence against women. His music was known for being violent and provocative; but with his 2017 album Flower Boy, Tyler explored his budding realization of personal identity and sexuality. We see Tyler tweeting about how he no longer wants to make ‘angry music’ because he’s moved past that and matured. Flower Boy is easily Tyler’s most critically successful album to date. It’s a magnificent piece of art that is successful because it breaks free of toxic, masculine, tropes. As Estelle sings in the Flower Boy song Garden Shed :‘Don’t kill a rose/Before it could bloom.’ Killing the artist’s personality with masculine ideals and stifling emotional vulnerability can stop amazing ideas from coming to fruition.”

Then, in the face of this “new generation” of rap, why do we still see artists like Atkins and Jackson using the old ways of homophobia, transphobia, and general aggression as still-acceptable forms of hip-hop discourse? Why does Eminem think he can, on his 2018 studio album Kamikaze, use a homophobic slur in insult to Tyler, The Creator? Why can artists like XXXTentacion and Kodak Black face real legal consequences for their physical abuse of women, yet see little decrease in their loyal fanbase? For every instance of a progressive, forward-thinking contribution to the genre, there exists an unequal amount of evidence that toxic masculinity is still present and powerful as ever. “Obviously, we’re still going to have rappers calling each other f*ggot over stupid beef and [are still going to] see rappers like Kodak Black abusing women and being celebrated,” Barnes says. “But I think that it’s becoming less tolerated, and hip-hop is heading in a better, more diverse and more understanding direction.” McFadden echoes this sentiment, adding, “The art form has a ways to go, as much of it carries the same themes of toxic masculinity and sexism that were part of its conception. But make no mistake: Toxic masculinity in hip hop will go nowhere unless the universally oppressive patriarchy is dismantled, and men and women can be true to themselves and not gender roles based on nothing but archaic culture.”

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