Nine years ago, fresh-faced and donning her soon-to-be signature neon wig, Nicki Minaj won the hip hop video award at the MTV Video Music Awards for Super Bass
. Since this first accolade, she has gone on to become the most decorated female rapper of all time with 162 awards to her name.
Returning to this video I felt angry… and then anger turned to guilt. Watching Nicki Minaj lust over semi-naked men whilst semi-naked herself just felt degrading to me. How frustrating to see a modern woman exploit the very stereotype she could be breaking – that she is more than an object of sexual desire for the male rappers who dominate the industry. But then I felt ashamed. How very 'unfeminist' of me, to judge another woman's decision to present herself how she pleases, be it scantily clad with a full face of make-up or in a trouser suit with a buttoned-up blouse.
The rap genre has always been overshadowed by lyrics enforcing sexist tropes. From 'crazy ex-girlfriend' to 'gold digger', it seems derogatory is the new form of flattery – in the context of the 'male gaze' at least, where us women are sexual conquests. Not people.
Rap isn't the only guilty party. It's all around us – from 'Bond girls' to 'ring girls', there is the constant reinforcement that a) women are the hot side piece to the main event, and b) that while boys are men, women are girls. That harmful use of language is degrading. It creates a culture where men are superior in both strength and intellectual capacity due to their inherent 'manliness'.
Of course, the blatant misogyny bragged about in my dad's old-school rap collection fell on blissfully ignorant ears as nine-year-old me chanted along in the car and downloaded it onto my iPod shuffle. Even now, age 17, I'm sure there's a Kanye song or two in my study playlist, but as I've grown up, my relationship to rap has developed into a rockier one.
In July of this year, rapper, actor and activist, Janelle Monáe put out a statement on Twitter condemning the sexist attitudes across the entertainment industry. Monáe pointed out the hypocrisy in the derogatory slang hurled at women by men across all music genres: 'Misogyny has never been okay, yet it has been normalised'. Thinking back to that nine-year-old rapping along in the passenger seat, I realise how prevalent this normalisation is for young women. It is easy to become desensitised to the effects of language, especially when these words spill out of headphones and into playground 'banter'.
Rap music's target demographic is my age group – young, mostly male, impressionable teens – so it's no wonder that the chauvinist lyrics of Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar and Post Malone (to name a few) creep through the school corridors. That it pollutes the way boys view girls is no surprise, but perhaps more insidious is the impact it has on us as young women. It's not just male rappers that utilise the lucrative sexualisation of women to sell music. As Nicki shows us, sometimes the most blatant sexualisation of all comes from female hip hop stars themselves.
Cardi B and Meghan Thee Stallion were the first female rap duo in history to debut a collaboration at number 1 in the charts and they did so this year with the controversial WAP
. The song, for its sexually explicit lyrics and hyper-provocative music video, sparked outrage across the world, from suited-up Republican senators to a nipple-bearing Russell Brand. In an article for Love
magazine, Ella Bardsley comments that 'perhaps the thought of women proudly displaying their own sexuality is too empowering for some to bear'.
For years I have listened to rap lyrics degrade, belittle and objectify women. Music videos routinely feature smoky-eyed, bikini-clad models parading like trophies and so to see female rappers do this of their own accord seemed less 'empowering' and more like a quick cash grab playing to the teen boy audience.
It's not hard to see the double standards between males and females in the industry but what is hard to watch is how women 'proudly displaying their sexuality' has quickly turned from female liberation to pushing unattainable body standards onto vulnerable teens. Cardi B's hourglass figure, carefully crafted with breast augmentations, liposuction and filler, may be this season's ideal beauty standard but it's not the most inspiring message to send to teenagers – a large percentage of whom are already victims of body image anxiety. I am painfully aware that, in some ways, such harsh scrutiny reflects my own subconscious sexism. I don't judge successful men for buying luxury cars or rappers for how many drugs they take, and yet here I am, aggrieved by an incredibly successful woman's choice to do whatever she wants with her own money.
So, here's my question – at what point are stars such as Cardi B or Nicki Minaj promoting female empowerment over pedalling the same old objectification and sexualisation that men have rapped and laid over a beat for the past two decades? Maybe I'm being unfair. After all 'sex sells'. Would it be wrong to encourage men to profit off women's bodies but deny such to women ourselves?
However complicated this subject may be, I am looking forward to the day when rap albums lift women up instead of stripping them bare. If we are going to continue to give airtime to the rap genre – like we know we want to – we should at least be listening to female artists whose bodies have been victim to objectification for far too long. That's why, as I walk through the school gates tomorrow, I'll be skipping that Kanye song – it's time for Super Bass
for the winning paper by Amy Campbell
for the joint runner-up paper by Grace Houston