Male Privilege and Sexism in Hip Hop Culture

Sexism and gender inequity are never too far beneath the surface when a man in the music industry chooses to criticize a female rapper’s lyrical content. Recently, record and television producer Jermaine Dupri appeared flummoxed in an interview when asked to identify any good women who rap. He responded: “I can’t really say. I feel they’re all rapping about the same thing. I don’t think they’re showing us who’s the best rapper. For me, it’s like strippers rapping and as far as rap goes I’m not getting who’s the best.”

Dupri’s misogynist and sexist remarks drew a sharp rebuke from women artists — and male artist 6lack. Platinum-selling artist Cardi B was the most notable artist to respond.

In addition to promoting a sex-positive message in her music, Cardi B also advanced a market-based argument for rapping about her body. “First of all, I rap about my p— because she’s my best friend, and second of all, it seems like what people want to hear.” She then responded to Dupri’s sexist comments with a message of solidarity with other women who “be rapping their a**es off.”

Dupri’s remarks demonstrate an incredible lack of self-awareness for a man who helped Da Brat, the genre’s first platinum-selling woman artist, break into hip hop.

They also reflect an obliviousness of contemporary rap music’s gendered landscape. The list of women artists enjoying critical, if not commercial, success keeps growing: Nicki Minaj, Rapsody, and Megan Thee Stallion, among many others. Dupri’s interview also underscores two long-standing problems embedded in hip hop culture. First, in various ways the industry has systematically limited the growth of female rap artists. Second, the Black male gaze is often incapable of acknowledging, let alone evaluating, women and genderqueer hip hop artists without relying upon sexism and misogyny. Tricia Rose, Joan Morgan, Feminista Jones, and many other Black and women of color feminists have documented and critiqued the gendered inequities entrenched in hip hop culture. Cristina Verán’s account in Vibe Magazine’s Hip-Hop Divas of the first all-woman group, the Mercedes Ladies, illustrated the ways in which they dealt with sexual harassment from other rappers, negative gendered stereotypes, and getting shortchanged by managers and concert promoters.

Verán quoted rapper Sheri Sher, who said, “Everyone else got paid... but we would have to almost fight the promoters or try to beat up our manager for it.”

As BuzzFeed’s Katie Hasty and others have pointed out, the broader music industry’s inability to adequately address gendered inequities reflects the ways that sexism operates in hip hop.

The Grammys’ treatment of women rappers as a category is a glaring example. The Grammys presented awards for the category of Best Female Rap Solo Performance for two years, with Missy Elliot winning both the 2003 and 2004 awards. The Recording Academy eliminated the category in 2005 reportedly due to the lack of eligible women rappers and submissions by record companies.

The elimination of the Best Female Rap Solo Performance award points to the problem of sexism and the reliance on market-based factors to determine when and how much record companies should invest in women who rap.

Dupri’s comments referencing why he failed to sign more women artists since breaking Da Brat in the early 1990s are also troubling. According to Dupri, women rappers “weren’t doing the numbers I felt I needed for my company.” Many of the women artists featured in Ava Duvernay’s documentary My Mic Sounds Nice pointed out these inequities. Cardi B punctuated her Instagram post decrying Dupri’s comments with the same argument: the industry does not sign, support, and promote women artists in a manner similar to their male counterparts. Dupri’s comments also magnify the problem of the Black male gaze that has mostly governed hip hop culture. His argument that women who rap are “strippers” and focus too much on rapping about their bodies and telling tales related to sex work presumes that artists such as Cardi B cannot rap or that their looks are “too distracting” to notice their skills. Dupri’s comments implicitly set up a harmful false binary between rappers like Cardi B (“the strippers”) and those who, as Cardi B stated, can “rap their a**es off.” This false binary reinforces structural sexism within the industry — women who rap are only allowed to inhabit one legible identity. They can either be “sexy” or they can be “hard” or “conscious.” But this false binary also makes people in the industry, including fans, miss the reality that is right in front of them: women artists are as capable of inhabiting and expressing a multitude of identities and experiences as anyone else. This is what makes Cardi B such a phenomenon. Critics and fans marvel at her artistry, personality, presentation, politics, and probably most importantly, her self-determination and her desires to be “unbossed.” Dupri recently announced that he would form the SoSoDef Female Cypher, presumably to support women rappers. More women rapping is the simple answer. More women in positions of power in the hip hop and music industries would help remedy the systems’ inequities. Yet, signing more women who rap still lets men who participate in hip hop culture off the hook. The complex answer to the problem falls on men: how do we undermine the male gaze governing hip hop culture? It shapes our preferences, the ways executives evaluate women and genderqueer rappers, and also the ways critics assess art. Undermining the cisgender male gaze in hip hop culture will allow us to recognize the diverse personalities, aesthetics, and artistry that exist right in front of our faces.

About the Author

Austin McCoy is an Assistant Professor at Auburn University. He is an historian of African-American History and 20th Century U.S. politics, social movements, and hip hop culture. Austin is also a public scholar, publishing current social criticism in numerous media outlets, including The Washington Post, Nursing Clio, and Black Perspectives and Public Books.