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hip hop and gender construction

on wednesday last week, i attend a film showing and discussion sponsored by the office of cultural diversity at berklee. the event is an interesting one, featuring byran hurt showing his documentary, "beyond beats and rhymes," asking where hip hop has been going: has hip hop lost its soul? mr hurt, who is a hip hop fan and an erstwhile college athlete, often feels bad for criticizing hip hop. he recognizes it as his music, and a music that was responding not just to gang violence as sensationalized in many media accounts of hip hop and certainly its later spinning out through BET and MTV to white, suburban audiences. rather, as he documents, hip hop emerged in the context of systemic violence against urban communities. freeway projects, for example, literally tore apart the bronx. hip hop responded to this violence. mcs were also called to document gang violence. but somewhere along the line, hurt shows, hip hop connected to a virulent strain of american masculinity. not exclusively a black masculinity--just take a look at all of the hard, gun toting, fast drawing, mass murdering men of american popular culture--the "hard" man would be amplified during the crack epidemic and in hip hop as it entered into the mainstream. not surprisingly, given white america's fascination with guns and fear of black masculinity, hip hop sales increased in direct proportion with moral alarmism surrounding the music. hurt does not want to criticize hip hop as much as call for self-reflection among its listeners and producers hurt's interests are not strictly about violence in hip hop but the relationship between hip hop masculinity and misogyny. much of his investigation of these relationships is telling--and a bit hard to watch. there are scenes in the documentary that confront the racism of white hip hop fans, the tendency of listeners and producers of hip hop to claim "it's only entertainment" while feeling uncomfortable with the content of lyrics, and the posturing of would be star rappers. chuck d, who appears in an interview, appears as a real organic intellectual. hurt's concern with the soul of hip hop shows most clearly in these interactions with chuck d about where the music seems to be going hurt's film directs me to several questions. first, i think it captures the kind of ambivalence that i feel as a hip hop fan--and not just of "positive" hip hop--as well as someone for whom country music is a guilty pleasure. how are we to place the pleasure we feel in music, including its stories and verbal play, against recognition that the lyrics either promote or embody a politics or persona with which we can never feel comfortable? i mean, we do not want to feel comfortable with this persona but it gives us pleasure. irony is not the simple answer here secondly, my observation of hip hop on taiwan has often avoided looking at gender. partially, this lacuna in my research is that much of taiwanese hip hop appears unremarkable from this perspective. certainly there is a great deal of b boy posturing, but it's just that. we know that the guys trying to look like thugs are just trying; i should say, i know. i know because their pale skin and ability to be part of the scene mark them as upper middle class. there is a whiff of national taiwan university or some other elite institution that follows them around. hip hop on taiwan is no less "real" for all that. it's just that the real appears as dissatisfactions with, and perhaps the limits and broken promises of, middle class taiwanese life (mc hotdog: "cram cram cram, the more you cram the worse your prospects are..."). in retrospect, however, i have moved too quickly from the posturing. "party" hip hop on taiwan--and of the most notable of asian american hip hop groups, the mountain brothers--unsurprisingly serves up masculine bravado, much of it not so much in imitation of american masculinity but a taiwanese translation of it. and in this regard, the misogyny and homophobia of hip hop in its place of origin has travelled well. quite apart from the different social context of hip hop on taiwan, references to women as "bitches" and "hos," a hardened masculinist position, and depiction of women as little more than appliances for male pleasure crosses the pacific perhaps more easily than it should. so maybe it's time that we join hurt in asking, "has hip hop lost its soul?"
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