By Asha Layne
The state of rap music has changed since its creation in the 1970s. Starting in Bronx, New York rap was always seen as an underground subculture that deviated from the social norms and patterns of the dominant culture. It was here that the expressions of young Black and Hispanic men were freely expressed and not criticized. Rap music is a cultural art form that consists of four elements: deejaying, break dancing, rapping, and graffiti. Having its historical roots in ancient African culture traditions, rap music can also be traced to countries that were part of the African diaspora. For example, Lliane Loots indicated that two elements of hip-hop culture have their roots in Brazil and Jamaica (2003, p.67). The art of rhyming culturally stems from West African tradition of the griots or story tellers that were part of the oral tradition of African culture. The Jamaican influence on hip-hop can be located in deejaying practices referred to as dub-mixing, utilized first by Jamaican immigrant Deejay Kool Herc.
Since its inception, rap music has evolved from an underground subcultural movement to a mainstream subcultural expression that profits from the ideology of dominant culture and vice versa. Rap music during the 1970s remained national commodity until the 1980s. During this time participants in this subculture were involved directly in one of the four elements (Hunter, 2011, p.16) in which young men and women of color were rapping at parties, tagging or creating graffiti on subway cars, or breaking (Nelson, 1998). The 1980s ushered in the idea that rap music could not only be popular in the United States but also in other countries. The market for rap music increased as capitalism expanded along with the industry. With the increased popularity of the genre, media sources became the main locus for rap music to not only become more mainstream, but to also increase their purchasing power under capitalism. In order to examine the purchasing power of rap music under capitalism it is important to talk briefly of the underpinnings of capitalism.
Rap and Capitalism
Capitalism can be defined as an economic system based on private ownership with the goal of making capital or profit for the owner. Under capitalism there exists a divergent economic relation between the laboring class (proletariat) and the ruling class (capitalist). Unlike the capitalist, the laborer becomes a commodity as their labor is sold to the purchaser. According to Rousseau, the relationship between the owners of production and the workers is inherently oppressive, as the goal of the capitalist to accrue wealth from the laboring working class (2009, p.20). As the laboring class becomes increasingly objectified in the market, the state represents the instrument of class rule. The state can be seen as an instrument of power because of its production of ideological hegemony of the ruling class, which not only legitimizes exploitation but maintains the ruling class ideals as described by Antonio Gramsci. The state produces ideas that control our behavior through various forms (i.e. the media).
Manning Marable argues that the logic of the ideological apparatuses of the racist/capitalist state leads inextricably to Black accommodation and accommodation into the status quo, a process of cultural genocide which assists the function of ever-expanding capital accumulation (1983, p.9). As capitalism moved from the industrial sector to financial, and from financial/corporate to global, capitalists are continuously seeking cheap labor power and methods of exploitation; and the rap industry is not immune. This buttresses Antonio Gramsci’s argument that the capitalists can assert their power and control through the subordination of the working class by means of ideological hegemony. The ideological hegemony of the ruling class, therefore, prolongs the subordination of the working class and also legitimizes the power and control of the capitalist or owner.
As hip hop grew in popularity, capitalists found new ways to assert their control and power over the industry, which became more lucrative with neoliberal policies. According to Derek Ide, rap was born from the ashes of a community devastated by a capitalistic economic system and racist government officials (2013). Ide continues to express that it was not long before corporate capitalism impinged upon the culture’s sovereignty and began the historically familiar process of exploitation (2013). As hip-hop transitioned from its unadulterated underground image to mainstream adulteration, the industry began to support the capitalist ideologies which spread rapidly as profits increased with the deregulation of the market.
As the rap industry expanded, many have argued that the image and state of rap worsened as rap became a keen marketing tool for corporations. Corporate giant, Viacom, which owns Black Entertainment Television (BET), VH1, and Music Television (MTV), has been influential in disseminating controversial messages and images to its audience and critics. Felicia Lee asserts that “protestors want media companies like Viacom to develop ‘universal creative standards’ for video and music including prohibitions on some language and images” (2007). Achieving this level of prohibition has not happened in recent years as images of scantily clad female rappers, misogynistic lyrics, and the negative portrayals of African culture continue to be exploited. The relationship between rap artists and corporations can be paralleled to that of slavery.
Solomon Comissong explained that the 1990s saw a corporate takeover and commodification of rap, which has made the music less diversified in various media forms (2009). This change has led to changes in lyrical content, style, and fashion as artists display themselves in the best way to expand their marketing power, which is directly influenced by capitalism. The hegemonic ideologies of the ruling class have been transferred into the beats, rhymes and imagery in the rap industry as artists continue to exploit themselves and culture for economic gain.
In 2007, Forbes magazine released its first annual “Hip Hop’s Wealthiest Artists” list which measured the annual earnings of rappers. As stated by Greenburg, unlike traditional music genres like pop, rock, and country, whose artists generally make their money through touring and album sales, rappers like Jay Z, 50 Cent, Kanye West, and Sean “Diddy” Combs have become entrepreneurs who have parlayed their fame into lucrative entertainment empires (Goldman and Pain, 2007). More recently, Nicki Minaj became the first documented female rapper on Forbes “Hip-Hop’s Cash Kings” list since its creation in 2007. Earning an estimated $29 million in 2012, Minaj has successfully beaten many boys at their own game. But at what cost?
This paper explores how the commodification and consumption of the black female body has given rise to the “bad bitch” phenomenon in rap culture. It is argued that the effects of being a bad bitch not only changes the state of rap but also the attitudes and behaviors of young black girls, and their interactions with the opposite sex. Also, the topic of whether or not the bad bitch phenomenon is a form of deviant behavior within African-American culture will be addressed.
The word “bitch” has morphed from a term of disrespect to a term of endearment that often takes on the meaning of empowerment. Once viewed as debilitating, the term has appropriated a new perspective within a subcultural context that is perceived as a term of empowerment. In examining this change, Aoron Celious explains that the term “is located in a society where sex and power are interrelated – men afford status and privilege over women because they are men, and women are relegated to a diminished status and restricted access to resources because they are women” (2002, p.91). The change in the meaning of the word thus subverts the tools of oppression used to dominate women to now empower them. This has been seen in the frequent usage of the word by many female rappers as rap music became commercially lucrative.
Although the word historically has been a long-noted negative stereotype against women, it has only added to many stereotypical orientations for women of color. Misogynistic orientations of Black women were not separate from the historical changes in the United States – “the imagery projected in rap has its roots in the development of the capitalistic patriarchal system based on the principles of White supremacy, elitism, racism, and sexism” (Adams and Fuller, 2006, p.942). During slavery – a form of capitalism – Black women were not only exploited for their labor power but also their reproductive power. The location of Black women under capitalism therefore is dually exploitative and profitable. The patriarchal attitudes seen against Black women today can be traced back to oppressive and exploitative control methods of the state and the economy.
The images of Black women historically have served the interests of the ruling class. Adams and Fuller further assert that the images of the “Saphire” are analogous to the “Mammy” image in that they both serve the entertainment needs of Whites (2006, p.944). In rap music, the word “bitch” can be linked to the stereotypical image of the Saphire, as a woman who de-emasculates her man by running the household and being financially independent, or as a woman who simply does not know her place. This sentiment has been shared by radical feminist Jo Freeman. In Freeman’s The Bitch Manifesto, the word is used to describe a woman who “rudely violates conceptions of proper sex role behavior” (Buchanan, p.12). Among Generation Y, this word has been enhanced to compliment women who are sexy, smart and independent, thus justifying and perpetuating the commodification of the Black female body.
According to Stephane Dunn, in “Baad Bitches” and Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films,” the term “Baad Bitches” began with the sexploitation of Black female actors in the 1970s, as well as being products of contemporary dominant culture (2008). Scallen highlights Dunn’s (2010) work by referencing the following:
The “Bad Bitch” suggests a black woman from working-class roots who goes beyond the boundaries of gender in a patriarchal domain and plays the game successfully as the boys by being in charge of her own sexual representation and manipulating it for celebrity and material gain” (2010, p. 27).
The role of black women in film is strikingly similar to the rap industry in that they both lucratively exploit black sexuality in different media outlets. The image of Foxy Brown, Coffy, and Cleopatra Jonesby Pam Grier embodies her super-womanhood and sexuality. Gwendolyn Pough (2004) states:
By exploiting Black women’s bodies, the blaxploitation movies fall short of offering fulfilling and complete images of empowerment for Black women. However, the films do offer some interesting subversions and complications. If we really begin to critique and explore the genre, we can see the ways Black women such as Pam Grier have participated in the cultural processes of gender construction for Black women and turned some of those processes completely around. We will also be able to explore and critique contemporary reclamation of Grier’s characters such as the ones offered by Foxy Brown and Lil Kim. They are bringing the big bad Black supermamas into the new millennium and using them to construct contemporary Black women’s gender and sexuality (p. 67-68).
The portrayals of Black women in film, along with the music industry, have either classified Black women as Saphires, Mammys or Jezebels, also known as “hos”. These various forms of imagery have continuously been accepted by White America and thus perpetuated into the social interactions and perceptions of Black women and men in the Black community. The depictions mentioned here are increasingly common as more and more consumers are not only buying, but are also emulating these negative stereotyped roles.
Black Feminist Thought
The inclusion of black feminist theory is essential in examining the exploitation of the Black female body in rap. Collins’ Black Feminist Thought explains that race, gender, and class are oppressive factors that are bound together. In investigating the placement of the commodified Black female rappers in the industry, the role and location of Black women in the United States has to be examined. Since, central to this analysis, one may ask: Is the emergence of the bad bitch phenomenon foreign to the lives of Black women in this country? Collins highlights how the role of Black women always contradicted the traditional role of women in mainstream society. Collins poses the question, “if women are allegedly passive and fragile, then why are Black women treated as ‘mules’ and assigned heavy cleaning chores” (2000, p.11)? The placement of Black women as ‘objects’ and ‘tools’ for production has been and will always be embedded into American culture.
Black feminist thought places the standpoint of Black women at the forefront, which deviates from the general practices used under conventional feminist theories. According to Collins (2000), Black women in the United States can stimulate a distinctive consciousness concerning our own experiences and society overall (p.23-24). Collins understands this knowledge can be thoroughly attained from both women in academia and outside academia. The lyrics of some female rappers have taken a vocal stance displaying the issues and struggles faced particularly by Black women. These rappers have voiced their opinions on women’s oppression in the industry as well as within their communities from the hypermasculinity of their male counterparts. For example, in Queen Latifah’s U.N.I.T.Y., she writes:
But I don’t want to see my kids getting beat down
By daddy smacking mommy all around
You say I’m nothing without ya, but I’m nothing with ya
This is my notice to the door, I’m not taking it no more
I’m not your personal whore, that’s not what I’m here for
And nothing good gonna come to ya til you do right by me
Brother you wait and see, who you calling a bitch (1994)!!
Rap music has been used as a stage for both men and women from disadvantaged neighborhoods to express their experiences with oppression and also serve as a means for coping with that oppression. One main characteristic of oppression is the repressive nature it places on the individual that results in objectification of material wealth. Historically, the Black body has taken the form of material wealth in that it was aggressively commodified during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, especially for women. The commodification of the Black female body has changed to meet the needs of the political economy in a particular society. The “bitch phenomenon” in rap culture is no different because it has been integrated into forms of the dominant culture to serve the needs of the dominant and ruling class.
Collins argues that the domination always attempts to objectify the subordinate group in which the ideas and one’s own reality is not defined by members of the subordinate group (2000, p.71). This was clearly visible in the distinction between the figures of the “Mammy” and the matriarch. The Mammy symbolized something good by the dominant group whereas the matriarchal figure was deemed badaccording to the same “standards”. Collins references the Patrick Moynihan’s report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, in locating the thesis for Black matriarchy. She writes:
…the Black matriarchy thesis argued that African-American women failed to fulfill their traditional “womanly” duties at home contributed to the social problems in Black civil society (Moynihan 1965). Spending too much time away from home, these working mothers ostensibly could not properly supervise their children failure at school. As overly aggressive, unfeminine women, Black matriarchs allegedly emasculated their lovers and husbands (2000, p.75).
Black feminist theory reminds us to never forget how race, class, and gender are central in understanding the development of the Mammy, matriarch, and the vast appearance of the “bad bitch” phenomenon.
Data and Methods
The “bad bitch” and Black feminist thought theses could be utilized to explain the manifestation of the “bad bitch” phenomenon. The bad bitch thesis explained by Dunn and Pough is a black woman who can be successful under a patriarchal system of control by defining success for herself and how she will go about achieving it. The limitations of the bad bitch thesis are considered by Collins through the use of Black feminist theory. This expansive theory examines how the intersection of race, class, and gender serves as a form of oppression for Black women under a patriarchal system.
To answer the question of how the bad bitch phenomenon continues to increase the commodification and consumption of the black female body, a content analysis of Nicki Minaj’s songs will be reviewed. Nicki Minaj’s work was selected because of her being the first female rap artist to make the Forbes list since its creation in 2007. It is argued that the effect of being a “bad bitch” not only affects the state of rap but also the attitudes and behaviors of Blacks. Also, it will be important to examine whether or not the bad bitch phenomenon is a form of deviant behavior within African American culture.
The mentioning of women in rap music by men has been a largely demoralizing phenomenon, at which women are referred to as “gold-diggers,” trifling, bitches, and hos. While it is easy to criticize male rap artists for demoralizing Black women, female rappers have not only participated in the gender politics but have also capitalized from these stereotypes in the rap industry. Born Onika Maraj, Minaj’s popularity skyrocketed in 2010, with the releases of several mixtapes: Playtime is Over, Sucka Free, and Beam Me up Scotty, before her first major album Pink Friday in 2010. According to Caulfield, Minaj scored her second number one album on the Billboard 200 Chart in 2012 following the release of Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded with the hit single “Starships” (2012). Upon her growing album sales, Minaj’s popularity further increased with various collaborations that widened her notoriety to other areas of music, beyond rap. In analyzing the content of Nicki Minaj’s songs, the following themes appeared: reclamation of the words “bitch” and “ho”; female independence; and female masculinity.
Reclamation of the Words Bitch and Ho
One significant difference seen between male and female rappers is the usage of the words “bitch” and “ho”. Despite the negative, literal meaning of the words, Minaj has used them to demand attention from her competitors. In her controversial song Stupid Ho, Minaj allegedly addresses fellow female rappers in the same misogynistic form of disrespect typically reserved for male rappers. In the song, she writes:
Bitch talking she the queen, when she looking like a lab rat
I’m Angelina, you Jennifer
Come on bitch, you see where Brad at
Ice my wrists and I piss on bitches
You can suck my diznik if you take this jizzes
You don’t like them disses, give my ass some kisses
Yeah they know what this is, giving this the business
Cause I pull up and I’m stuntin’ but I ain’t a stuntman
Yes I’m rockin’ Jordans but I ain’t a jumpman
Bitches play the back cause they know I’m the front man
Put me on the dollar cause I’m who they trust in
Ayo SB, what’s the fucks good?
We ship platinum, them bitches are shipping wood
Them nappy headed hoes but my kitchen good
I wish, I wish, I wish, I wish, I wish, I wish
A bitch would (2012).
In this example, the word “bitch” is used as: a form of address, form of disrespect; and distinction. Above, the word “bitch” is metaphorically used to address her competitors in a disrespectful manner traditionally used by male rappers to address women. It becomes self-evident that she is not on the same level as her competitors and refers to them in an unattractive manner as, “nappy headed hoes.” The labeling of her female competitors as “nappy headed hoes” is even more destructive than the words bitch and ho, in that it brings about a new area of concern, which is beauty.
The establishment of female independence in rap has taken many forms. Black female identity by male rap artists has helped generate negative stereotypes of the Black female body or a male objectifying the female body. Female independence could also be seen as a woman objectifying her own body and image to gain financial independence. In her song Blow Ya Mind, Minaj writes:
She said her name is Nicki
She came to play and her body was sicken
She gets what she wants, so sexy when she talks
Oh, you know she gon’ blow your mind
Did these bitches fall and bump their little heads
I got ’em like, oh, which one of them I’ma dead
‘Cause when they get sick, they start to cough bread
Body looks right, plus we crop heads
The Rolls Royce Phantom, yeah, the drop head
And that just goes to show I’m that bitch
I 26’inched the rims with black lips
Now this is the anthem, this is the anthem (x2)
In-ear, in-ear, all in your in-ear
Boy, I put this pussy on your chinny, chin, chin hair (2011).
In the above lyrics, Minaj demonstrates that her body allows her to get what she wants, which (according to her) makes her unique. Self-sexual exploitation can be seen here as a method in gaining financial freedom from the traditional methods.
The use of masculine rhetoric has been used by rap artists since the days of “battling”, or battle rap, to gain popularity and to command respect from their fellow artists. The machismo attitude in rap music has been denoted by images of male rappers “acting hard”, and having multiple women and material possessions, which have been expressed through misogynistic imagery and lyrics. However, female rappers have utilized this macho image as a tool of female empowerment despite its negative imagery. Nicki Minaj has continuously utilized masculine rhetoric in her lyrics as an act of empowerment which implies that, just like men, women could also be violent-so don’t mess with me or else. In the song, I am your Leader Minaj writes:
Look sucker, this my gun butter
Street fighter bitches, this Is the up cutter
Nunchucka,’ no time to ducka’
Sign of the cross, cause this is her last suppa’
Play with me, check who came with me
I brought a couple 9’s, plus the k’s with me
I breeze through Queens to check some bad bitches
I stunt so hard, assess the damage
Cause this that aw, this is that aw
And yes I body bitches go get the bandages
I hate a phony bitch that front that chunk chummy
I’m the top shotta’ drop the top toppa
Big fat pussy with a icy watch (2012).
The aforementioned lyrics demonstrate how female rappers have perpetuated the repressive and oppressive nature of women in hip hop. It is important to note that the usage of negatively degrading words against women by women carries more weight and meaning. Within the subcultural context of rap, women disrespecting other women in the same manner as men solidify their “street” credibility therefore perpetuating the cultural acceptance of misogynistic lyrics, regardless of the gender of the artist.
Justifying the Commodification of a Bad Bitch
The role of female rappers in the rap industry has been manipulated to justify ongoing exploitation and repression of Black women. Examining the lyrical content alone does not clearly illustrate the role the media plays in justifying the commodification of a “bad bitch”. Following the lyrical trend and imagery of female rappers in the industry, it is strikingly evident that the sexploitation of women has become more lucrative, thus legitimizing the bad bitch phenomenon. In making this connection, it is imperative to recognize how forms of media serve as tools of oppression by reproducing ideological hegemony. Gramsci saw that the ruling class maintained their power not by coercive actions, but through hegemony at which the ruled would accept the norms, belief systems, and culture of the ruling class without challenge.
The media, like the family, serve as an agent of socialization. Mass media is seen as a powerful agent of socialization in that it has been, and continues to be, used to manipulate the consciousness of others. For example, consumer research has shown that there is a correlation between mass media and the attitudes of consumers. In terms of music, Viacom Inc. owns the controlling interests of MTV, VH1, and BET. As a result, the interests of Viacom are not reflective of the ‘ruled’ class, but instead of the ruling class; which uses its platform to maintain its hegemonic control. The raunchy lyrics and depiction of female rapper Nick Minaj is largely supported by these capital investors who are benefiting off of an alternate form of labor: self-sexploitation.
The media is a tool of oppression that justifies and perpetuates the negative stereotypes of Black women. Therefore, support and acceptance of these negative stereotypes is measured lucratively by media giants. The three factors discussed: reclamation of the words “bitch” and “ho”; female independence; and female masculinity have been repackaged and sold to consumers in today’s market. The popularity of mainstream rapper Nicki Minaj not only demonstrates cultural acceptance of thethesis of a bad bitch but approves of the notion that self exploitation and objectification is justified because women are defining it for themselves within a male-dominated framework.
The placement of Black women in the history of the United States has always deviated from the norms and standards of dominant culture. Black women’s bodies have been both criticized and exploited by Whites for economic gains. These stereotypes have created images of Saphires, Jezebels, and the Mammy, which further pushed Black women’s intelligence onto the periphery while mass media has largely capitalized on body and cultural images. The mainstream representation of these stereotypes, especially the Saphire or bad bitch, revisits how Black women have always been exploited and oppressed.
Attributes of the bad bitch phenomenon are not exclusive to Generation Y but can be traced back to sassy images and roles Black women coveted. The rap industry has served as a new locus for this type of Black female to dominate in. Adopting the bad bitch persona not only gives Black women the opportunity to survive economically and socially in a Eurocentric male-dominated society, but also provides them the freedom to assert their power under their own rules without apology. This essay indicates that the adoption and commercialization of the bad bitch phenomenon are not foreign to the history of the Black female body. One important difference is the rise in self-exploitation by Black women in the industry to attain money, power, and respect that is indicative of the transferring of a Eurocentric-based ideological hegemony onto an oppressed subcultural group.
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