Photo By Jamel Shabazz | Words By John Morrison
Since the earliest stages of Hip Hop’s development as a global subculture inextricably tied to Rap music’s emergence as a multi-million dollar industry, questions of gender, sex and identity have arisen. Often times those questions have gone unresolved. The ways in which gender and sexual identities are expressed within the culture have been shaped by a myriad of internal and external forces, leaving us with a history of fundamentally rigid masculinity.
I want to use this piece as a space in which some of these questions can be revisited while exploring the contradictions and challenges that they pose. Of particular interest are the ways in which masculinity is expressed in Hip Hop culture. Hip Hop is often mischaracterized as a “Man’s game” by practitioners within the culture and blanketly labeled as “Hypermasculine” by outsiders. Neither of these characterizations are sufficient. The former erases the past, present and future contributions of Women and Gender non-conforming Hip Hoppers while the latter is loaded with a history of racist tropes used to stereotype and marginalize Black & Latinx Males. What are the ways in which Hip Hop’s concept of masculinity have developed historically? Has masculinity as it is commonly expressed in Hip Hop culture evolved at all? What does a less toxic, more whole expression of masculinity in Hip Hop look like? Is it even possible? In addition to my own thoughts on these questions, as well as an analysis of the ways in which masculinity has been expressed in Hip Hop’s past and present, I interviewed a handful of Men: Rappers, DJ’s, B-Boys, Fathers, Queer and Hetero identifying, each of them intimately involved in Hip Hop culture and asked them to speak to the ways in which the culture has shaped and informed their sense of manhood and masculinity and how Hip Hop’s future expressions of masculinity can blossom beyond the narrow and rigid hetero-patriarchal forms we see today.
Back In The Days: A Short Overview of Hip Hop’s Early Development
I think that it is safe to assume that most of the people reading this have at least a cursory understanding of Hip Hop’s cultural origins, so I won’t elaborate on that too deeply. But, perhaps a brief outline of Hip Hop’s early development would be helpful in leading us to an understanding of how the culture itself and the expression of gender associated with it came to be. In the early 1970’s, DJs in the Bronx, New York began experimenting with building massive mobile sound systems and playing music in neighborhood parks and recreation centers. (*Note: There were DJs in each of New York’s largely Black and Latinx boroughs that were conducting similar experiments building sound systems and playing music at outdoor gatherings. But, it is widely accepted that Hip Hop as we know it, with it’s 4 foundational elements, was incubated in the Bronx with DJs like Kool Herc.) To compliment the music played at these neighborhood gatherings, MC’s (Master of Ceremony) began to develop slick, catchy rhyming routines designed to hype up the crowd and exalt the skills of the DJ. Simultaneously, graffiti writing began to evolve from its crude origins, increasing in style and complexity while a new form of dancing was developing at park jams and on the streets. While each of Hip Hop’s 4 elements, Break Dancing (often referred to as B-Boying despite the fact that many women are active participants in this artform),Rapping/MCing, DJing and Graffiti art all have deep historical roots that pre-date their crystallization as the culture’s foundational core.
It is important to note that during this time in which early Hip Hoppers were synthesizing these 4 elements into a distinct subculture, New York City (like many major inner cities in the 70’s) was inundated with dozens of youth street gangs. In May 1972, the New York Times characterized the Bronx as “the capital of teenaged gang power”. Although many of these gangs did have Female members many of Hip Hop’s early practitioners were Male youth gang members who often engaged in violent conflicts over territory and respect. To put it simply, the Hip Hop subculture was born out of a broader inner city gang/street culture and those origins have shaped the ways in which Hip Hoppers view and express masculinity. Despite the culture’s origins in the streets, Hip Hop’s founding fathers were intentional in their desire to utilize this blossoming culture (centered around parties) as a peaceful alternative to gang violence. In fact, Hip Hop’s first cultural institution, The Universal Zulu Nation (henceforth abbreviated as UZN) was created by Bronx based DJ and former gang leader Afrika Bambaataa as a means to peacefully organize the gangs. Thinking of Hip Hop’s early development within the context of New York City youth gang culture in the 70’s it is easy to imagine how each of Hip Hop’s 4 foundational elements would in practice, take on a more aggressive character, mirroring the kind of competitive play that (stereotypically) appeals to boys and young men. I believe that being so closely linked to a very aggressive male dominated street/gang culture from its earliest stages of development has shaped the ways in which femininity and masculinity are viewed and expressed within our culture today.
To get a feel for the ways in which Hip Hop has informed the concept and expression of masculinity, I asked a group of men (each of whom grew up in Hip Hop culture and practice at least one of it’s artforms/elements) to talk about what manhood means to them and what (if anything) Hip Hop has taught them about manhood and how masculinity is expressed in their own lives.
John: What does being a man mean to you?
Fame Vasquez: Man I'm still trying to find that out... The funny thing is ... It always leads me back to myself and how I operate .. Or my father operates . I'm still getting the hang everyday but I think it starts with a look into your morals and where they stand.
Shawn Taylor: I think being a man is to live by a code. I know it seems old fashioned, but living by a code provides you with a tool with which to orient yourself. What level of injustice are you willing to settle for? How can you use your strength and influence to help others? What kind of example are you setting for other men?
John: What, if anything has Hip Hop in particular taught you about what it means to be a man? Have these lessons been negative or positive?
Shawn Taylor: Damn. That is such a loaded question. I learned about brotherhood from PE (Public Enemy), Native Tongues, and Run DMC—but then you see how those relationships turned out. But I also internalized misogyny and homophobia from my favorite hip-hop songs and artists. At my age, I cannot even listen to, say, Brand Nubian without having to acknowledge that they said some awful shit. Slick Rick, too. One of my all time favorite emcees has a song called, “Treat Her Like A Prostitute.” I mean, damn.
DJ Ambush: I've gotten mostly negative lessons about manhood from hip hop. Not in a purposeful way though. I grew up listening to young men still trying to figure it out and in some cases older men maybe a little to bitter in their experiences to pass down the right messages. And even when the messages are the right ones they're contradicted by something the artist may say on the very next track. "Is it black girl lost, or shorty owe you for ice"- Jay Z. We've run with the excuse that it's just entertainment for so long while sitting front row to the effects that our music has had on us. Right now being a man in hip hop means smashing every "bitch" you want. Doesn't matter who she "belongs to". And then putting your baby's moms or significant other in her place, whilst making sure you have a "side jawn" holding you down and teaching your daughter not to grow up like a hoe.
D.J. Motley: I feel most hip hip has attempted to display masculinity in a very sexist way. Often degrading woman as a symbol of power or respect. But like most hip hip topics are often presented in a grandiose and braggadocios way, and it is to be expected. I would have to say it had a negative effect on me. I was not brought up to disrespect women. I grew up in a very matriarchal environment. Strong black beautiful woman instilled, and often beat respect into me. I also was the only male in the family growing up besides the man I call my father. We were outnumbered really so there was no room for disrespect towards women.
*This is part 1 in a 3 part series exploring gender and sexual identity in Hip Hop. Part 2 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.