Artwork originally appeared in #42, the Noir issue.
Bitch Media is celebrating 20 years of award-winning, nonprofit, feminist response to pop culture. The original version of this article was printed in the The Noir issue of Bitch magazine, Winter 2008. It appears here with a new introduction from original author Latoya Peterson as a part of the special 20th anniversary edition of Bitch magazine.
Since this interview was published, printed hip hop media is a shadow of its former self. Outside of Complex, most of the big, definitive stories about hip hop are broken on mainstream sites and blogs. (Former Vibe editor Clover Hope, the person who gave me most of my hip hop bylines, is now working for Jezebel.) As a result, discussions that directly challenge the landscape of rap and hip hop mostly play out over social media. And often, critics, former hip hop journalists, fans, and musical hopefuls debate, discuss, and transform work by posting responses on platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud.
One of the most powerful of these occurred recently, when an aspiring artist named Ceresia took Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” changed a handful of lyrics, and added some strategic facial expressions—and, in doing so, provided a completely different dimension to the hit; her video currently has more than three million views. I’m not sure what artists like Ceresia, and the radically changed climate in which hip hop is made and consumed, portends for the continued existence of thorough, longform critique like Tricia Rose’s. She and fellow academics may have an even more vital role to play in documenting and critiquing the culture of hip hop—there may not be many outlets dedicated to running deep, thoughtful engagements with hip hop in the future.
Tricia Rose knows hip hop culture. As a preeminent scholar and professor, Rose delved deeply into the impact of music on race and cultural dialogue in Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, which won the American Book Award in 1995.
She continued her exploration of the subject by co-editing Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture and took a look at Black women and sexuality in Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk About Sexuality and Intimacy.
And in the recently released The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop—and Why It Matters, Dr. Rose deconstructs the real issues behind the now common arguments both for and against hip hop culture. Deftly weaving analysis around the basic talking points that always arise when discussing hip hop culture, Rose unveils the real issues behind the debate: Black women’s sexual agency, the commodification of hip hop culture, how hip hop has become a stand-in for “Black youth culture,” and—most important—how to move the conversation forward.
Latoya Peterson: What motivated you to focus specifically on hip hop for this book, particularly when so much of Black youth culture has started to try to expand out of these kinds of monoliths of our own identity? There’s a burgeoning movement to celebrate Blacks who are kind of reclaiming our legacy in rock ’n’ roll, in hardcore, in punk.
Tricia Rose: That scene’s been burgeoning for 20 years, so I’m looking forward to a big takeover. [Laughs.]
Well, I chose to focus on [hip hop] for a few reasons. One, my first book, Black Noise, was one of the first full-length academic treatments of hip hop. And it was fortunate to be very well received, and has played a formative role in the field, and I’m honored by that. I’m grateful for all the success that project afforded me, and I hope it helped in positive ways.
But I also found that the dramatic changes that took place in the music and culture were not really being addressed head-on by lots of other people. There was an implicit [sense of], Let’s find what’s still productive and helpful. Let’s focus on the underground. Let’s find something transgressive and politically interesting about Jay Z or Lil Wayne. Let’s do anything but confront what I call the elephant in the room. And the elephant in the room is the corporate takeover of Black popular culture, the disgraceful narrowing of the aesthetic terrain [of that culture], and the ways in which that has helped reduce the aesthetic legacy of hip hop and basically bury the underground.
So I wanted to say, Look, this problem can’t be answered by just finding the one artist [who] does the things we like, or even the ten artists who do. This has to be confronted by a radical, critical consciousness about gender, about sexuality, about class, about economic exploitation, about mass-media exploitation, about Black middle class culpability at the level of corporate involvement. About white investment in Black minstrelsy. If we’re going to change this terrain, Black rock kids [could] stand a chance, right? If alternative hip hop stands a chance, its chance depends on our ability to slay this beast. And the way to slay this beast is not through some communist, you know, reformation…but by developing a critical form of engagement with the market, [one] that demands a different consciousness and transformation that makes us less gullible to loving whoever has been put on the radio ten thousand times that day.
You also talk a little bit about the mutual denial that comes from both sides of the aisle in the hip hop wars. And how the conversation gets so structured into what you’ve termed five arguments and five counterarguments that it’s very difficult to progress into the real meaty issues that surround what we’re discussing. Can you talk about why the mutual denial in the hip hop wars is so dangerous?
The hip hop wars have created a sense that there are two very opposite positions about hip hop: [As] the cause of all these problems, or it’s just a reflection of problems, and people are just trying to survive. Despite this apparent absolute opposition, there are a number of things that both sides share. And they share these things with a kind of silent collusion. People who want to blame everything on hip hop, and the people who defend hip hop at all costs, they both allow an incredible level of misogyny against Black women. Neither side is particularly interested in Black women’s sexual autonomy, freedom, and equality. Neither side is interested in dismantling homophobia. I’m not accusing individuals here; I’m talking about the debates as a whole and the way [they] play out.
And hip hop wants to claim that it’s fully authentic, and has no relationship to anything that’s not Black because the fiction of full Blackness is what they trade on! That’s where the money is! So these mutual denials, they make it harder for us to break free from this absurdity, and to admit the process that is going on. So I really wanted to focus on that as a way of revealing that this is really a collusion, this debate really has us trapped in some very anti-progressive, non-progressive ways.
In the book, you discuss the issues around sexism in hip hop culture.There’s this whole idea about what a proper woman should be and act like. And I think that dovetails with the power dynamics around the use of the word “ho.” Can you elaborate a little more on that?
I think that this has been one of the ways that a Black, organic, feminist, hip hop–based position has been stymied. Specifically, that making a real critique of sexism feels like giving up one’s own sexuality, right? I think Gen-X Black women might feel that to be a feminist, they have to be nonsexual, they have to be repressed, they have to be prudish, they have to be unable to really voice their sexual identity. And that’s of course not true, but [the idea] has been perpetuated by the debates and the way they’ve been laid out.
Black men in hip hop, who have perpetuated lots of hypersexist images, get to speak for Black women, [as do] Black middle-class leaders, white conservatives, and even Black non-conservatives.But [what about] those who are really upset—adult Black women?
There’s a third way, the sense of a kind of self-empowered, non–male-fantasy version of a Black, feminist sexuality, [but this version] has almost no social space. And so one of things I really try to carefully distinguish is the difference between explicitness and exploitation.
Black women need to have the right and the freedom to be sexual beings, to be in charge of their sexuality, and to make powerful decisions about it. Some of those will be explicit. But when those decisions mimic 150 years of stereotypes about Black women’s sexual excess, and Black male stripper fantasies, then we’re not really talking about black women’s agency and freedom anymore.
But it should not be touted as the kind of freedom that [gives] young Black women agency. As I point out in the book, gangster thuggery is the main marketplace value for Black male rappers. Well, being a ho is one of the only ways Black women make it into being rappers. The only other option is to be either lesbian or asexual. You sort of have the Missy Elliott/Queen Latifah trajectory, right? Because they can’t be beauty queens. So they become sort of masculinized.
And then the feminine women become the sexual objects. Sexuality is the market for Black women. This is not freedom, this is containment masquerading as sexual freedom. So the problem is that the right, the conservative, and the more religious organizations, at least the non-progressive ones, they want to critique these images of women demanding respect, but the terms of that demand are actually not empowering women to self-driven agency.
You have to be a certain kind of woman, right? Like they’re looking to behave a certain way and follow these norms in order to get this respect. It’s conditional.
It’s not only conditional, but it’s conditional around your silence and subordination. So there’s often two kinds of silences here that are competing.
But in very few places are there really, you know, women’s self-definition. Now young women bristle at this because they feel so empowered by some of the images that they see, because they see women getting attention. And this is why it’s so destructive, because in those videos it looks like these are the chosen women, and [the viewers think they will] be chosen if they perform this.
But really what they’re performing is a certain…just a complete selfish regard for…what? For attention from a guy who has only chosen you that day, so that you can hopefully please him sexually? I’m not quite sure this is what people had in mind during the sexual revolution for women. So this is something that I think Black women are going to have to figure out to speak about cross-generationally, to really help. And it can’t be driven by these prudish principles, but it also can’t be driven by, “Exploitation is fine because, you know, at least I’m doing it!” We can’t sell ourselves out like this. We gotta have a better politic than this.
Exactly. And, in the book, you do try to put emphasis on rappers who have more of a message, who didn’t give into the corporate distillation of hypermasculinity. But the question then becomes, How do we define “progressive”? You name-check rappers like Immortal Technique and Jean Grae, people whom I enjoy listening to—but they also seem to have a lot of similar challenges surrounding homophobia. Both use the word “faggot” a lot, and Immortal Technique has a lot of issues with sexism and how he views women. So is there really that much of a distinction between what’s being put out on the underground and what’s being promoted commercially?
The first thing we have to do is reveal this to people. I mean, most fans who are not heavily invested in really serious critical reflection of hip hop, they’re not really drawing those distinctions.
The second thing is to hold artists to the kind of standards [to which] we hold the people around us. Now the problem is, some of us are not terribly progressive. You’ve got homophobic youth, you’ve got sexist youth. This is how America raises its youth, for the most part. So what we have to do is develop a political consciousness. I mean…then we hold Immortal Technique to that standard! And I’ve thought about this, you know, I’ve thought about sending the book to a group of progressive artists, many of the ones I’ve mentioned! And say, Look, there’s some places that you fall down, and instead of getting all excited about where you’re good, maybe you wanna think about [things] you need to fix!
Last question: What’s the key to reframing the hip hop wars into a productive and beneficial conversation?
The daunting task that I hopefully achieved with the book was to get people to even see that we’re trapped. ’Cause to be quite honest, a lot of people don’t even think we’re trapped. They think [hip hop] is just a fun entertaining thing, and there’s nothing at stake, and as long as you get paid, it’s cool. So the first thing is to really lay out the problem. The idea is to say, Look, I’m not going to tell you what you should believe and which artists to like, because these things can shift. Somebody can put out a record tomorrow that breaks with their entire tradition and history. This is not about people. This is about progressive ideas and community sustaining culture, and [about] music that tries to enable, not disable. That is the general goal.
Within that goal, a lot of incredible genius, creativity, funk, sexuality, and even violence can be articulated. So the struggle is to keep those fundamental ideas alive.
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