American women have historically had to overcome many challenges to their advancement. The Constitution once discriminated against women on the basis of their gender and denied them the right to vote. This type of discrimination, of course, has an enduring impact on women as they attempt to combat the challenges associated with gender discrimination. Many individuals have posited that the way in which women are depicted in hip-hop is troubling, thus having some impact on the perceived value of women in America. Rap music, hip-hop’s most publicly recognized art form, has never been devoid of controversy. Many people appreciate various rap artists’ willingness to offer powerful critiques of important postmodern social, economic, political and cultural problems. As with all art, hip-hop has its problems, especially when it comes to the treatment and depiction of women.
2 Chainz has become one of hip-hop’s most popular rap artists. One of his songs, “Birthday Song,” has garnered fierce criticism about its treatment of women. The song features Kanye West, who has not been a stranger to controversy when it comes to his treatment of women. Many rap music critics have charged artists with being misogynistic. They have found that numerous rap artists commodify and objectify women. One of the most zealous groups criticizing “Birthday Song” is a group of women members of FAAN (Fostering Activism and Alternatives Now) Mail, which is a Philadelphia-based media literacy and activism project formed by women of color. On FAAN Mail’s site, an open letter was published protesting the song and demanding that Universal Music Group’s–the world’s largest music corporation and the entity that owns the song–Chief Executive Officer Lucien Grainge take action. The group challenges Mr. Grainge to become a part of the solution to the problem of women being exploited, commodified and reified by many rap artists.
Similar lyrics to those of “Birthday Song” have been condemned by one of the most vociferous and prominent hip-hop intellectuals and zealous supporters of rap music and various rap artists, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson. In The Michael Eric Dyson Reader (2004) Dyson attacks those rap artists who employ “ruinous sexism” and “virulent misogyny” (p. 416). He does, however, elucidate that rap music should not be defined as sexist and misogynistic: “Misogyny, violence, materialism, and sexual transgression are not its exclusive domain. At its best, this music draws attention to complex dimensions of ghetto life ignored by many Americans” (p. 416). Dr. Dyson advocates for rap artists to stop portraying women in debasing ways in their lyrics and music videos.
In All about the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can’t Save Black America (2008), Dr. John McWhorter criticizes Dr. Dyson for having such high praise for rap artists who are guilty of misogyny and sexual exploitation. McWhorter contends that too many rap artists demean women through lyrics similar to those of “Birthday Song.” He asserts that hip-hop, especially rap music, cannot be viewed as a viable vehicle for instigating authentic and meaningful social and political change, which is a view diametrically opposed to Dyson’s. McWhorter questions how true social and political change can emerge from hip-hop, an art form he finds to be rife with elements and expressions that devalue women, especially black women, instead of uplifting and venerating them.
“Birthday Song” is one song in a list of many that have manufactured serious discourses about rap music being a genre potentially objectifying women. The arguments offered by FAAN Mail, Dyson, McWhorter and many others evince that there’s a strong longing for rap artists to have greater respect for women reflected in their art, and for the corporations that produce and own rap songs to play a central role in fighting against music, especially rap music, that does violence to women in toxic ostensible and subtle ways. “Birthday Song,” therefore, has value in facilitating a larger conversation about hip hop music, namely rap, and its connection (or disconnection) with the objectification of women.
–Antonio Maurice Daniels
Antonio Maurice Daniels is a Research Associate and Ph.D. student in Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He blogs regularly for his cultural commentary blog, Revolutionary Paideia. His works have been featured widely in academic and popular online publications, including Mused Magazine, Up 4 Discussion, From Ashy to Classy, The Black Man Can, Healthy Black Men Magazine and etc. Follow him on Twitter at @paideiarebel.