B-Boys and Men: Towards a More Holistic Expression of Masculinity in Hip Hop

Photo By Jamel Shabazz | Words By John Morrison

How About Some Hardcore? Gender Performance and Hardness Meet Culture and Industry

By mid 1980’s, acts like Run DMC, LL Cool J, Kool Moe Dee and others emerged presenting a style of Rap that was characterized by heavier, more direct lyrics and aggressive, and sometimes hard rock influenced beats with loud 808 drums that reflected the energy of the streets more accurately than the more sing-songy, Disco influenced Rap of older groups like The Sugar Hill Gang. The new groups emphasized  the “hardness” of their rhymes and personal personas.  In Performing Gender: The Construction of Black Males in the Hip-Hop Industry Nayo Sasaki-Picou identifies “hardness” as an essential component of performance amongst Black Male Rappers.

African Americans in the hip-hop industry, artists have come to understand masculinity as a natural aspect of their performance. Artists regard their performance of gender as having an essence of “hardness” that is inherent to all male rappers. However,the construction of black masculinity in hip-hop has been culturally, psychologically, and historically informed.”

This new direction amounted to a “rebellion” of sorts, an intentional subversion of Rap music’s earlier, Disco influenced sound. Unsurprisingly, this rebellion was not limited to the realm of musical aesthetic. Along with the rejection of Rap’s earlier musical trends, the 80’s found most (if not all) Rap acts completely rejecting the more flamboyant fashion styles favored by earlier groups like The Sugar Hill Gang and Bambaataa’s Soul Sonic Force. The fashion styles of Rap music’s most popular groups began to more closely reflect tastes and aesthetic of it’s mostly Black & Latinx, male, poor and working class audience. Despite the fact that during this time, Hip Hop culture in general and Rap music specifically was blossoming and diversifying creatively while also expanding to regions outside of New York, in regards to gender expression and the ways in which masculinity was performed within the culture, Hip Hop was becoming more and more conservative.

As the 80’s rolled into the 90’s, Rap music and Hip Hop culture would expand greatly, with major corporations entering into the fold, creating a multi-million dollar Rap music industry which profited by selling stereotypical images of violent, misogynistic Black masculinity to large, suburban, White audiences. The more Rappers would emphasize the “hardness” of their music and personas the more closely the culture would align itself with the kind of rigid and toxic vision of masculinity that systemic patriarchy demands. It is worthwhile to note that by the mid 90’s many Female Rappers (ex: Boss, Lady of Rage, MC Lyte and more) found themselves adopting the stereotypically aggressive masculine tropes of their Male counterparts. Perhaps this was done in an effort to seize space within Hip Hop’s male dominated landscape?

As traditional Hardcore Rap waned in popularity, only to be replaced by the druggy decadence in the post-Millennial era, it would seem as though Hip Hop is now opening up to voices who are challenging the culture’s sex politics and rigid gender lines. For the first time in the culture’s history, there has emerged a cadre of young Queer identifying Hip Hoppers (especially young Gay Black Males) who often times present radical sexual and gender politics that run counter to those held by the culture’s previous generations. Despite the fact that many of these artists have amassed fan bases around the world, the progressive attitudes and the rich and diverse gender expression of Rap’s Queer underground have not yet made a notable impact on mainstream Hip Hop’s sex and gender politics. Despite this reality, 24 Year Old Atlanta based Rapper Young Thug seems to be the only Cis-gendered Male with a major record deal, willing to intentionally subvert Hip Hop’s gender lines by wearing women’s dresses and referring to male counterparts with affectionate terms such as “hubby” and “Bae”. While Thug enjoys moderate commercial success and adoration from his mostly young fan base, he is met with almost universal disdain and homophobic insults from older, male Hip Hop heads. These older fans and artists often point to Thug and other young, more flamboyant Rappers as evidence of some sort of inexplicable conspiracy to effeminize Rap music. Whether or not most mainstream Rap fans are willing to admit it, the ideas and stereotypes around masculinity are being challenged The contradictions raised by these questions of sex, gender and masculinity have in many ways dovetailed with recent allegations that Hip Hop pioneer and Universal Zulu Nation founder Afrika Bambaataa has been sexually molesting young boys for decades. These revelations coupled with changing notions of gender and sexuality has caused a bit of a crisis in the minds of some within the culture. Rap fans and Media have even taken to erroneously linking Bambaataa's molestation of young boys to homosexuality. I asked our group to share their thoughts on Bambaataa as well as the ways in which masculinity is currently expressed amongst Hip Hop’s younger generation.

John: Do you remember how you felt when you first heard the accounts of Afrika Bambaataa molesting young boys?

Andrew: I was absolutely blown away. I didn't want to believe it. I was on my way to work watching an interview of one of the victims, Ronald Savage, and I just thought to myself "Yo, this shit CAN'T be true." The pain in that man's face was real. This is one of the most influential, iconic figures of the culture, one of its pioneers... Like, WHAT? I hear so many stories of men coming forward about sexual abuse and being ignored or ridiculed, and if it weren't for Bambaataa's celebrity status, this issue would be swiftly swept under the rug. I'm glad to know this is a thing we can talk about, but I'm angry, confused, and saddened by how this came about. Only a judge can give a verdict, but I just hope Bambaataa makes peace with himself and anyone he's harmed, and atone for any crimes he's committed.

D.J. : I was very let down at first, now I'm just very concern about the narrative Its creating in the hip hop community. It’s a sensitive subject, but it needs to be handled in a direct way. I wish we could take person, and personality out of it in order to handle the larger issue.

John: Do you think that young kids growing up in Hip Hop today view and express masculinity and gender in a different way than the older generation? If so, is this a good thing?

Ambush: Unfortunately not, I don't see much of a difference especially in the way that male privilege and misogyny has always played a very prevalent part in our music and culture. I feel like there is so much more to offer hip hop fans especially with the culture wrapping around the world, communicated in so many different languages representing so many different struggles. Creating dialogue about so many of our community specific issues as well as those issues shared by all of humanity. We have so much more to offer and I'd really like to see the future generations pushing the envelope and changing what's been expected of hip hop culture. Change and elevation in any culture is necessary for that cultures survival. I would like hip hop to be more effective delivering messages about gender... I'd like them to do a better job communicating any message for starters. Some of these emcees lack the proper breath control to deliver their damn verses coherently. I digress.

Shawn: Waaaaayyyyy differently. In my day, there was no room for an A$AP Rocky, Future, Jaden Smith, or any of the other brothers out there who are challenging gender conventions in fashion. Hell, Big Daddy Kane was pushing it with some of his outfits. In my day it was Run, LL, Big Daddy Kane, Chuck D—manly ass men. I think it is cool, to a degree. I don’t know how to explain myself without sounding like a homophobe at best, but here goes. I worry about this the same way I worry about hip-hop when people characterize hip-hop as a youth culture. It is folk culture. It is evergreen. I worry that some of this young rappers are being engineered to appear more “gender ambiguous/fluid” so that they are more palatable, less threatening, to white audiences. It’s like putting Flip Wilson in a dress. Funny? Yeah. But are we laughing with or at him?

Andrew: I feel like this question is just begging me to mention Young Thug, lol. But he's a perfect conversation piece here, so why not? Young Thug's verses are misogynistic, materialistic, and violent; characteristics usually associated with maleness. And his style of dress is... well, he's pretty fond of blouses apparently. I'm confused by his whole aesthetic, because on one end, "good for you for pushing gender fluidity and rejecting the standards of the gender binary". On the other end, his explanation for his style of dress is "being a rock star", so I take that with a grain of salt. And he's not the only rapper to challenge what is traditionally considered "manly", so I see that being a movement soon.  

*This is part 2 in a 3 part series exploring gender and sexual identity in Hip Hop. Part 1 can be found here.

Andrew Wallace (aka Sir PHresh): A Rapper/Producer currently living in Philadelphia.
Shawn Taylor: Father, Educator and Author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race & Masculinity.
Fame Vasquez: Father and B-Boy. 
D.J. Motley: Rapper and Former Member of Pioneering Queer Rap duo Sgt. Sass. 
DJ Ambush: Father, DJ and co-host of the 215Live Radio podcast.

John Morrison is a Philadelphia based Writer, DJ and Producer. As a solo artist, Morrison has recently released his debut Instrumental Hip Hop album, SWP: Southwest Psychedelphia, a cosmic, psychedelic trip through a day in the life in his Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood available now on Deadverse Recordings.

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