Female rappers on the sexual dynamics of street culture
Written by Dorothy Carlos
“Instinct leads me to another flow
Every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho
Trying to make a sister feel low
You know all of that gots to go”
In Queen Latifah’s Grammy award-winning song “U.N.I.T.Y.” off her 1993 album Black Reign, she speaks out against street harassment which is pervasive in cities. In the song, she responds to being groped by a man passing her on the street by punching him in the eye. Catcalling, as well as other acts of sexual harassment, are often criticized by female rappers from the late 1980s to now. In fact, the gendered experience of the city – a field of sexuation one has to navigate – has been one of the major themes of female rap since its beginning.
Everyone from Monie Love to Roxanne Shante has explored the mistreatment of women in the streets through their music. Salt N Peppa discusses the issue on the track “Tramp” from Hot, Cool, and Vicious, warning fellow women that if they respond to a catcalling they might become a “victim of circumstance” and be subject to harassment.
The cross-street proposition of the catcall communicates little else but a crude libidinal drive. What could possibly prompt someone to pursue a romantic/sexual interest via catcalls? One couldn’t possibly expect a positive reaction from yelling at a stranger on the street.
Female rappers articulate the fundamental antagonisms of social life, both gendered and class-based. They serve as a counter to what is going on in male hip-hop culture: a hypersexualization of women in order to gain social capital. Because of the way young men from impoverished neighborhoods, especially young black men, are forced to navigate a power structure which will be largely against them, they grasp at power by means of the social domination of others via catcalls and additional forms of sexual harassment.
Personally, I don’t know any rap songs about a love that isn’t broken or perverted. Slum Village’s “Fall in Love” from 2000 is exemplary of the way love is navigated in hip-hop music and in poor neighborhoods:
“Don’t sell yourself to fall in love”. Although one could argue that love in our society, in general, has been replaced with sexuality, the vulnerability of love is not easily found in rap music, which is often an expression of the hardness and resilience of an individual who comes from a broken environment.
While there are factors that are unique to our historical epoch, such as the building and subsequent neglect of segregated housing by the US govt, this is a broader issue of capitalist modernity. In the Metropolis and Mental Life, Georg Simmel discusses the blase attitude of individuals living in cities at the beginning of the twentieth century. The manifestation of this is the reduction of social interactions to capitalistic exchanges between city dwellers. For example, in smaller communities you might have a personal relationship with someone who produces a product for you such as a baker; in a metropolis, a personal relationship is unlikely to develop because of the fact that consumers are unknown to the producers. Interactions become matter-of-fact and people of the metropolis develop a hardness towards others.
Simmel did not live long enough to see the crushing effects Robert Moses had on the socio-economic landscape of cities all across the United States, but perhaps his essay was a prophecy of what is to come for modern cities. In the 1930s the imperious approach of Moses prompted a radical reorganization of cities; concentrating poverty in housing projects as a means to abolish it from the city as a whole. Areas with housing projects, such as the South Bronx in New York City, which was directly impoverished by Moses’ construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, are extremely underserved by the state and harassed by police.
In the aftermath of the famous Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, Northern states, where the biggest cities were located, believed the ruling did not apply to them and made no attempt to desegregate. Even though de facto segregation was just as prevalent in the North as it was in the South, there were no laws enforcing it. There were schools for black neighborhoods and schools for white neighborhoods and this was a just product of the city structure, making it easy to perpetuate the lack of support for poor neighborhoods.
In an environment where individuals with little social and economic power are constantly in survival mode trying to make ends meet, love is compromised, and sex gladly takes its place. This is obvious if one pays attention to the explicitly sexual lyrics that make up a lot of contemporary hip-hop.
Many of the more contemporary female rappers sexualize themselves as part of their rap persona—reinforcing this idea of sex as a means to gain social capital; consider rappers such as Trina, Nicki Minaj, and Cardi B, to name a few.
When asked about how to gain self-confidence, Cardi B told Hypebae: “If you feel you’re ugly just walk around the projects or something and see how many niggas holla at you.” Cardi B herself is from the Bronx and her community most likely began to experience the effects of the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway decades ago. Although parts of the female rap community have accepted the culture of sexual harassment, I believe this to be almost inevitable if you come from an impoverished, urban environment.
Within the sexual maze of the metropolis, women are caught somewhere in the middle as men try to navigate their sexuality. Because women are not as bound to heteronormative standards, they aren’t controlled by the system in the same way as men, largely due to the fact that women as a whole are often oppressed for being sexual regardless of whether or not they operate within heterosexuality. Although artists like Trina, Nicki Minaj, and Cardi B have succeeded in gaining power via their sexuality, they compromise their own identity by hyper-sexualizing themselves in order to do so. Ultimately the women caught in situations of urban poverty are oppressed by the state in the same way men are. However, when women try to grasp at power via sexual domination they are likely to face oppression from their own communities, as well.