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Hip-hop and feminism. Image: Jo Duck
Hip-hop and feminism. Image: Jo Duck

Different shades of
hip-hop feminism

Listening to music as a feminist means you also have to engage with its race politics

Triana Hernandez

See Joan Morgan speak at All About Women on Sunday 10 March. Get tickets here.

In 1999, American cultural critic Joan Morgan coined the term “hip-hop feminism”. Through an analysis of female hip-hop artists in America, her book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks it Down challenged respectability politics and gave a language for women of colour to understand themselves through a feminist lens for the first time.

Recognising raps and rhymes as political discourse allowed those historically missing from the conversation to finally be part of the feminist movement. Removed from the academy and its middle class limitations, hip-hop feminism recognised the struggles and triumphs of women from more complex backgrounds. The proud hustle of a single mother paying rent as a sex worker or a rapper bragging about the size of her pussy became valid forms of female empowerment.

This was a colossal turning point for feminism as it made the narratives of female liberation intersectional, meaning more pluralistic and available to a wider range of lived experiences. It also meant that the narratives of female liberation were able to enter the mainstream media, as it’s much easier to amplify a movement when its teachings can be put into a catchy hit and blasted over the radio for the masses to listen.

2009: Cardi B vs. Hilltop Hoods

Fast forward almost two decades and hip-hop is pretty much the new pop worldwide. Artists like Beyoncé, Cardi B and Nicki Minaj dominate the world’s airwaves with each single dropped. Pop stars like Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Ariana Grande borrow the aesthetics of hip-hop to stay relevant and trendy. Thick bodies, long nails and former strippers turned pop divas are high currency in music.

Hip-hop feminism is at full force in the US, punching through conservative ideologies of what women in power should look like with a strong and well-manicured fist. One powerful example is Beyoncé and Cardi B being unapologetically pregnant, in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Posing naked for photoshoots, performing and twerking at Coachella with babies in their bellies, women of colour are regularly seen smashing the status quo.

But as much as hip-hop feminism continues to rise in America, the reality of Australia is much different. As one of the youngest British colonies with a dark history of actively racist policies, hip-hop has never been the cup of tea of the mass media.

For the past years, whilst artists like Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Post Malone are the most streamed artists in Australia, local rankings show only rock and pop. Hip hop is meekly supported, with acts like Hilltop Hoods—a white trio from the ‘90s knowns for their summer-seasoned upbeat tracks—are still largely recognised as the strongest local hip-hop group.

The industry is slowly starting to promote the genre, with acts like A.B. Original, Baker Boy and Sampa The Great have become festival headline staples in recent years. However, compared to America—where last year Kendrick Lamar won a Nobel Prize for Literature and Kanye West will potentially run for President in 2020—it’s disappointing that Australian hip-hop artists are still underrepresented in the media, still fighting for exposure.

ABC News - Behind the headlines of Melbourne's 'African gang' crime

The reality is that in Australia, we are used to seeing more articles in the media about the so called “African youth gangs” than African-Australian artists in festival line-ups, charts and music videos. People of colour do take over the media, but only when it serves as fuel for bigotry.

Last year Indigenous woman Tarneen Onus-Williams told a crowd of thousands during an 'Invasion Day' protest, “Fuck Australia. Hope it burns to the ground.” Throughout the following months, she was severely targeted by sections of the media, her face was all over the news and she was labeled as unpatriotic and a terrorist. Her work as a political leader was erased, her head served as an enemy of the state.

“Pop stars like Ariana Grande borrow the aesthetics of hip-hop to stay relevant and trendy. Thick bodies, long nails and former strippers turned pop divas are high currency in music.”

Australia’s feminism is different shades of white

The lack of media support for local hip-hop artists paired up with Australia’s systematic erasure of people of colour has resulted in a strange phenomenon where white women in Australia fervently consume the aesthetics of hip-hop feminism through the lens of Beyoncé (“YASSS QUEEN!”), but quickly bypass the critical thinking attached to her political message.

They take twerking and voguing lessons like it’s the new bikram yoga but they don’t question why there’s no women of colour around them. They go crazy when ‘Formation’ is dropped on the dancefloor and are aware of the Black Lives Matters movement, but they remain ignorant about the extremely high rates of incarceration and killings of Indigenous people in their own country.

In 2019, all statistics point out that Indigenous women are severely more at risk of death, suicide, incarceration, unemployment, domestic violence, sexual assault and rape than their non-Indigenous counterpart. Yet, to date, there hasn’t been a single Indigenous woman (or black/brown woman) that has gained mass reach as a feminist within Australia.

At home, the feminist canon has remained focused on white, middle class issues. If Australia’s feminism is intersectional only to the extent where white women idolise Beyoncé, we have a problem. We’re basically still stuck in 1902 when the country allowed all women to vote—except Indigenous women who were given the right 60 years later.

“If Australia’s feminism is intersectional only to the extent where white women idolise Beyoncé, we have a problem.”

Back in 1999, when Morgan coined the term hip-hop feminism, her work was largely informed by scholar and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw, who introduced the world to concepts of intersectionality and black feminism. It’s important to learn how hip-hop and literature worked together in order to recognise rappers like Lil Kim and Queen Latifah as political figures and in turn create more intersectional pop culture that empowered thousands of women regardless of their backgrounds.

If this formula is to be applied in Australia then we need to engage more with the work of local writers like Nayuka Gorrie and Celeste Liddle whilst prioritising the support of outspoken and political hip-hop artists like Sampa The Great, Jesswar, Miss Blanks and P-Unique.

It’s hard to support and celebrate what doesn’t reflect you, but perhaps the problem is that at the moment Australia’s feminism only reflects one type of woman in feminism, music, literature and most alarmingly, politics. An overall increase in demand in local hip-hop is a good start, but if we only see men rise and the idea of outspoken women of colour continues to be exported, then thousands of local black and brown women will continue to feel as if their empowerment was a distant dream, only seen in American movies, far away from home.

Triana Hernandez is as Peruvian-Australian writer and film director from Melbourne. She's directed videos for Rebel Yell, Alice Skye and Nat Conway, and written for Collarts, Archer Magazine and Swampland. Currently, she's writing a book about the intersections between Australia's political climate and music. Follow her work.

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