Girls Are Especially Vulnerable to Hip-Hop's Hypersexual Message

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Editor: Tamara Thompson
Date: 2013
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Series: Current Controversies
Document Type: Viewpoint essay
Length: 2,448 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 940L

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Beatrice Koehler-Derrick, "Less Hustle, More Flow—The Role of Women in Hip Hop Culture," in Home Girls Make Some Noise, Gwendolyn Pough et al., eds. Parker Publishing, 2007, pp. 50-55. Copyright © 2007 by Parker Publishing. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.

Beatrice Koehler-Derrick is a writer based in New York City. This selection was originally published in Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminist Anthology, a collection of hip-hop feminist writings.

"You girls done in there?" I push the pink linoleum door open a crack, catching a whiff of stagnant number two, generic air freshener and not enough ventilation. La'Nyce, Bryanna and Catherine are too busy judging who can shake their butts the fastest to notice their Kinder Camp counselor peeking at them. I clear my throat. Bryanna turns and looks at me. She flashes a sugary smile mid-"pop"; her hands are on her knees, her butt sticks up against the wall. La'Nyce looks scared. She's afraid I'll tell her mommy. Catherine raises the corner of her upper lip and rolls her eyes, obviously disgusted that I interrupted their fun.

"What? Ms. Bea, we're just dancing!" says Bry-Bry.

"And what are you supposed to be doing?" I ask sternly, gesturing toward the stalls while trying to hold back laughter. After a calm afternoon of peeling pieces of macaroni and cheese off table tops and slowly spelling words needed to complete homework assignments, walking in on this competition was the wake-up I needed.

Up until this point, the role of rap music has always remained minimal in our classroom; something to power our games of musical chairs.

The girls are five and six years old. They wear their hair in ball-balls, and survive off a strict diet of cheddar Gold Fish and candy. With an unhampered boldness, they will tell you if you're getting fat, flirting too much or have a large zit on your face with the casualty of a considerate by-stander informing you that your shirt tag is out. In many ways my job has made me more confrontational, but these "Toddlers Gone Wild" definitely caught me off guard. Pairs of miniature Mary Janes kick at the air, suspended between tile floor and stall, as I scratch my head and try to compose the talk all of us know is coming.

Time for a Talk

Up until this point, the role of rap music has always remained minimal in our classroom; something to power our games of musical chairs, a station to play on a beat-up boom box during swimming time on Thursdays. However, Catherine, Bryanna and La'Nyce utilized rap music in a new way when they held this competition in private. Though there was no stereo in the girls' bathroom, I wonder what songs were playing in their heads. What lyrics were they mouthing the words to? I'd noticed the way La'Nyce was seductively glancing behind her bony shoulder, an invisible male counterpart seemingly encouraging her to shake a little faster. As a woman who loves and embraces hip-hop, but is disappointed by the industry's overwhelmingly misogynistic portrayal of females, how do I address these students of mine?

I sit the girls down on the edge of the wooden cubbies that line the hall. Taking a crouching position opposite them, I search for a way to get this conversation going.

"Would you do that in front of your mommies?" I ask.

The girls all shake their heads.

"Are you going to tell on us?" Catherine asks hesitantly.

"No, not this time. But you know there's a reason why your mommies wouldn't be very happy to hear about this. At five and six years old, you shouldn't be concerned about doing dances that older teenagers and grownups do at the club." I sigh. I'm obviously not sure enough of my own opinions to get into a long sermon.

I found myself growing increasingly disgusted with the message ... the film was sending and ... how well it was being received.

"Listen," I said, "I don't want that going on any more here, you understand? It's not cute. It's not appropriate. And it's not something for little girls like you to be doing." The accused release a breath of relief, and assure me it won't happen again, scurrying into the classroom, already chattering about who can jump double-dutch better. I feel like a failure. These girls love rap stars so it makes sense that they imitate the women who surround them in most videos. Even though their mothers have established that "poppin'" and "twurkin'" are moves that are too fresh for girls their age, dancing provocatively is fun, even thrilling, to my students. I had interrupted their session, chided and threatened them about continuing this behavior, but how had I helped them question their own motives?

What I wanted to teach them was that dancing like "video honeys" wasn't the only way to get attention from the men they admire. I should have discussed what made them look up to background dancers; encouraged them to truly examine the images they were presented with. What I lacked, besides cajones, was a broad selection of emerging female artists in hip-hop to recommend my girls: rappers whose flow covered a variety of emotions and topics; ladies whose dance was passionate and guiltless, not just [a] job to get bills paid. That night, I walked home past a liquor store displaying butts for Bacardi and breast for Budweiser: the models' hardened gaze followed me for blocks. Their eyes seemed frighteningly familiar.

Hustle and Flow

Back in the heart of the Midwest, I went to see Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow, a movie about a pimp who wants to become a rap star and uses both the moral and financial support of his hos to help him succeed. During the hour and a half spent in the dark, cool, theater, I found myself growing increasingly disgusted with the message I felt the film was sending and probably even more disturbed by how well it was being received. One of the pimp's hos works at a strip club where several of the girls make their butts "clap" for the camera. The male moviegoers cheer with enthusiasm. Nola, the pimp's number one doe-eyed prostitute, endures backseat sex sessions in hundred-degree heat when she is reassured that "things will get better soon." The audience sends supportive smiles up at the screen. Her pimp's progress toward becoming a rap star is slightly delayed when he ends up in jail, but Nola puts on a mini-skirted business suit, implying that she's ready to suck a couple of DJ d**** if it will get her man on the air. Nods of approval from the twelve year olds in the row in front of me.

Shug, a pregnant prostitute, is equally "down for the cause" when she's asked to sing the hook to a couple songs on her pimp's record. She belts out lyrics that express how hard it is for a pimp to pay rent, put gas in the car and keep his bitches satisfied. Even though these songs show the perspective of her rapper, and do nothing to express hers, Shug is shown teary-eyed and thankful, expressing her utmost appreciation for this singing opportunity. It was enough that he arranged the sale of her body in ways she could never do for herself, but now, a chance to serenade the world with songs boasting about how skillful he is at his job! What an opportunity!

Hustle & Flow reconfirmed the way people in that movie theater view women in hip-hop: useful only when they are singing or looking sexy to increase revenue. Would I have been as upset with the movie if there were more options presented for women in the hip-hop industry?

Dae-Dae liked the attention she got when she rapped rough, and I could relate.

Working with the kids at the Youth Center had demonstrated another option for women in the rap world. I'd been sitting in front of six-year-old Dae-Dae, a new girl to Kinder Camp, who was determined to beat me in our freestyle battle. Much like the girls I caught in the bathroom, Dae-Dae was a pro at mimicking what she saw and admired, but the women in hip-hop she chose to look up to were those who focused less on their physical attractiveness and more on their lyrics. These women used their hard-hitting lines to get people's attention, expecting necks to turn in shock after hearing "masculine" things come out of feminine lips.

Kid Rap

I had just finished rapping a little bit for our class, when Dae-Dae strutted over and challenged me, ready to show the rest of the kids her talent. I pounded out a beat on the table, the abandoned arts and crafts pieces bouncing wildly as their constructors gathered around us.

"You ain't nobody and you shoes are dirty/you couldn't spell if your mommy whispered to you/ you like to eat doggie do-do/ I'm the best/ what is this?"

She popped my collar, stood back with her arms folded, and mugged me, her bright green "I [heart] JESUS" barrettes swinging in front of her eyes. The rest of the crowd "oooed" and "ahhhhed." My co-workers were on the ground dying of laughter. Dae-Dae cracked a little bit of a smile, but she was obviously very serious. I remembered grinning and telling her there was no way I could think of a comeback. She rapped more for me later, after everyone had returned to work. Her little forehead scrunched up as she spit lines about stabbing things, throwing punches at people's faces and strangling a cat. While I could tell her anger was real, it was obvious she didn't really intend to do these things. She wasn't sure what made her mad, or couldn't find the words to express why. Dae-Dae liked the attention she got when she rapped rough, and I could relate.

I can't help but wish a new generation of women in hip-hop would emerge.

I used to come up with battle lyrics that echoed the same gory lines I heard my male friends spit. I'd rock a hoodie and hat to football games and, at halftime, hope to break everyone's expectations of what a girl was capable of rapping about. Hip-hop was cathartic. I'd channel all my "teenage angst" into stories of murder and poverty that were not mine. But as the crowd egged me on, my topics became a part of me: something essential to my flow. As I grew up, and puberty hit, my tomboy clothes were somewhat reluctantly replaced by more form fitting jeans and tops. Still into rap, I was shocked but pleased by the reaction I received from my newfound curves. Violent rhymes were replaced by me bragging about how much money I made and how good in bed I was, although I probably had all of ten dollars at home, and was about as sexually experienced as a box of hair. At sixteen, though, it felt right; it felt like me. From hustling bravado to hustling sex appeal, my style of rapping was evolving along with my body.

Mixed Emotions

When watching music videos, five-year-old Dae-Dae dreams of being invited by her favorite rapper to spit a few bars in his new video. She feels the hot studio lights beating down on her face. He sways with her to the beat, encouraging the audience to listen to what she was saying by mouthing "Ooooh" at how tight her flow is. Seventeen-year-old Dae-Dae might have different ambitions. Would she want the rapper to circle her toned body, wordlessly appreciating her thickness with his eyes, his teeth biting lower lip, drawing the viewers' attention to her physical assets instead of her lyrical ones? Which would I prefer? At the time that I worked with the kids in Harlem I hadn't, and still haven't, found the answer to that question.

It's tempting to badmouth the women in short shorts and stilettos who dance sexually for rapper-revenue. I've scoffed at these video girls before, but a part of me wants to be just like them: sexy and desirable and not concerned, at least for the moment, with coming across as "consciously-minded" or "deep." For all my efforts to be viewed as politically aware and correct, I don't want to be invisible to the opposite sex.

While searching for balance within myself, I can't help but wish a new generation of women in hip-hop would emerge (and get love from record companies) who could break the current unwritten rap code of conduct—hustle or be hustled. Women who know what kind of attention they want to receive from men as artists and members of the "fairer sex." Ladies who don't need a perfectly built body to get people to notice them. Lyricists who don't need to mimic men to get listeners to take heed of their words.

Hopes for Women Role Models

I want Catherine, La'Nyce and Bryanna to be more than eye-candy who "bend over and wiggle with it" to get props from the rapper: I want them to imitate dancers who choreograph, teach and truly pour their souls into the art of dance. I want to watch the reactions of an audience viewing a film on the financially successful woman MCs who write innovative or controversial material. I want Dae-Dae to grow up hearing a woman with less hustle, more flow: a chick who raps about everything from pantyhose and pumps to those days when you just want to chill in your sweat pants, from club hoppin' and enjoying looks from sexy men to knowing your worth as a woman and leaving a man if he becomes abusive.

I try to picture the girls I worked with in Harlem as they get older. I can almost see what would happen if we all reunited at the Youth Center years from now. The same little girls who used to hug me around the knees will proudly introduce me to their own toddlers. After a makeshift game of musical chairs and too much Kool-Aid, the women will bring their diaper bags and squirming children into the same girls' bathroom they used so many years ago. As the pink linoleum door is swinging closed, I'll overhear laughter as they debate who was the ass-shaking princess back in the day. While they attempt to set the record straight using new moves, someone will hit a beat on the changing table. The sound of their talent, their flow, will reach the ears of those who want to listen: too precious, even in its imperfections, to stay in the background.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ3010870211