I grew up in New York City loving rap music. I was blessed to become a fan of the music at a time when women like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Monie Love, and others were central to hip hop culture. I could see myself at least partially represented in their music and personas.
Rap music is only a part of hip hop culture but it is the most visible and commercialized part. As such, it deserves special scrutiny in terms of its influence on our culture and on the young people who consume it. The case that I want to make here is that it is extremely challenging today to develop a healthy gender identity for young people who uncritically consume rap music and images. Some of the key features of contemporary rap include:
1. the overrepresentation of women as sex objects. Sex is usually shown as a commodity.
2. the overrepresentation of women as male adornments.
3. the overrepresentation of men as power brokers.
4. the growing relationship and association between the sex industry and hip hop [for example, the glamorization of so-called pimping by artists like Snoop Dog and 50 cent].
Consuming a steady diet of these representations surely distorts young people’s understanding of themselves as men and as women. We cannot ignore how this contributes to violence against girls and young women. Last year, I come across a TED talk by Tony Porter from A Call to Men addressing his own personal journey in struggling to define a healthy masculinity. As part of our ongoing series to share resources and tools that can be useful in our work with youth to address violence in their lives, I think that this video should be required viewing for young men and women in our violence prevention programs.
Finally, another useful resource to engage youth in conversations about how hip hop culture can influence their self-image is Brigitte Gray’s spoken word piece titled “My Letter to Hip Hop.” This piece can be a great starting point for encouraging young people to write their own letter to hip hop.