Monday, June 14, 2010

Why The Hip Hop Industry Doesn't Support Female Artists

Why The Hip Hop Industry Doesn't Support Female Artists

I met spoken-word hip hop artist Shanelle Walker when I went to give a speech at Kentucky State University. Shanelle sent me a video of a rhyme she recited in honor of President Barack Obama. I was instantly floored by the performance, since I found her to be an incredibly powerful artist.

But Shanelle's performance led me to consider broader concerns, such as why there are so few women in the hip-hop industry. I remain confused that women are not given a chance to shine in a field dominated by men. While hip-hop has historically been the channel designed to give a voice to urban America, women have been effectively left out. While I've certainly spoken my piece on how hip hop needs to change, here are some reasons I believe women are missing:

1) The hypermasculinity of hip-hop: By becoming so masculine and sexualized, the music doesn't give women opportunities that don't involve a G-string. I look forward to the day when the culture is not driven by who gets shot the most and who does the best job of proving that he's a goon. That might actually lead to better music, since right now, many hip-hop artists come off like World Wrestling Entertainment characters. It's O.K. for an artist to also be a human-being.

2) Corporations don't like to take risks: Before NWA introduced the world to gangsta rap, no one wanted to fund it. It took massive record sales and alarming profit margins for corporate America to get on the boat. Kanye West was told that no one would buy a record about Jesus (before he released 'Jesus Walks,' which was a huge hit). S. Tia Brown, a lifestyle and pop culture expert with a great deal of experience in entertainment media, has a lot to say about the dearth of female artists:

"Ever since rap turned pop, we've seen a decrease in the variation of images released from record companies," says Brown. "This has been especially devastating to the female rap community, which is subjected to misogynistic stereotypes about what a woman should be like and think like. In addition, if you read the credits of some of the most scandalous rap lyrics performed by women, like Lil Kim and Trina, they're often written by men."

3) Women aren't demanding a change: When the women at Spelman College stood up and told the rapper Nelly that he couldn't come to campus, his event was canceled. Nelly learned right then that there are quite a few women who don't appreciate having credit cards swiped through their butts. If women were to demand that female artists be given opportunities, then it would happen. Females are the most dominant consumers in nearly every industry. They are far more loyal and spend more money than men. The reason that every other Snoop Dogg or 50 Cent song is a love ballad is because they know they need to inspire women with their music. If this demographic were to somehow demand the presence of progressive female artists, then the industry would change its stripes. But if women are only asking for Nikki Minaj, Trina and Lil Kim, that's all we are going to get.

4) Men don't care: Black men have done a very good job of using hip-hop to be heard. For some reason, we expect the loyalty of black women without always returning it (this point was made in recent remarks by the artist Slim Thug). The biggest artists in the game, Lil Wayne, TI and others, should take a stand to have female artists recognized and not just the cute ones with the least amount of clothing. An artist in the tradition of Yo-Yo, Da Brat or Queen Latifah deserves to be given just as much spotlight as the men.

5) Major media isn't stepping up to the plate: I would love to see BET, MTV or VH1 sponsor an awards show for female artists. While I love the show, I must disagree that everything about hip hop needs to be honored, since there are a few dishonorable issues about the genre. A show for female artists would be a great way to promote the fact that women can rap, too. Additionally, extra work on the part of networks to provide exposure to talented female rappers would be an excellent way to open doors and help build brands. Even Nikki Minaj says that most of her fans are women, which is an indication that the market is there if companies can become creative enough to use it.

At the end of the day, what we see as hip-hop is effectively the commercialized output of what I call "the corporate monster." Companies package and promote things that sell, and they also have some ability to decide what will be popular and what won't be. Ultimately, until women and people of color have a greater ownership stake in what's sold to our communities, we are going to always find ourselves frustrated. The power brokers don't go on the stage; they are usually the ones who own the stage itself. 

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the author of the new book 'Black American Money.' To have Dr. Boyce's commentary delivered to your e-mail, please click here.

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