Masculinity in Hip-Hop: A conversation with Jesse

    2016, an era where the Internet allows for individuals to break boundaries, whether it's through art pieces, music, or fashion. The younger generation of creatives seem to be pushing past the norms within society that have been established by the older generation. 

    One thing that’s starting to take a new form, specifically in the music industry - is hyper masculinity within Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop and Rap have had a culture of showcasing this idea that in order to be a “man” in society, one needs to take part in violence, sex, drugs, money, and cars, all for this race to success because “Fuck bitches, get money” of course. These key characteristics portray to others how powerful a man is, boiling down to whose got the freshest trim to that iced-out Roley around their wrist. The competitive atmosphere of manliness doesn’t seem to deteriorate.

Hip-Hop and Rap came from a very dark period in the South Bronx, where thousands of poor families; mostly being Latinos and Black folks, were abandoned by the city. This lead to music, dance and rap becoming the therapeutic factor for dealing with distraught within the community. Although things started to shift away from the generic roots of Hip-Hop and Rap - MCing or Djing,  it slowly moved towards Gangsta Rap, basically your G-Units and your N.W.As. Gangsta Rap tended to resemble the harsher reality of guns, gangs, and violence that was taking place in these low income communities forced into a state of hustle.

    Unfortunately, masculinity amongst Black men seems to be the bigger issue due to White supremacist ideals that were transcended down from colonialism days - This idea that black men are “big, scary beasts that are here to steal your white women” Jesse states. Attitudes like this have a harsh impact on Black men who find it hard to understand what masculinity and intimacy means. 

With the new wave of rappers coming into the music world, specifically the underground scene. There are a few individuals challenging these hyper masculinity norms. Whilst I was researching information on the topic, only some rappers were seen to be breaking these hyper masculinity boundaries - artists like Drake, Young Thug, Jaden Smith and Kanye West. All of whom have the safe space to do so because of their commercial and mainstream backgrounds or success which strangely seems to give them some sort of leeway when it comes to this area.

    Now, you’re wondering how this conversation started? Well it began with a guy named Jesse Bernard. Jesse is a music Journalist whose work can be found on The Guardian, Noisey, and Complex (check the receipts). One of his articles caught my attention and inspired me to write a piece on masculinity within Hip-Hop. He wrote a personal piece on young Black men not experiencing the feeling of intimacy within their homes. A great example would be an image of the Rae Sremmurd brothers who’ve recently covered the FADER laying beside each other. This caused a lot of “hip-hop and rap” fans to question their sexuality, when the two are clearly blood related - but goes to show the quick criticism amongst the hip-hop community when dealing with men and intimacy. 

“Two Black men embracing each other in a very emotional way becomes a striking image for people to see. Regardless of the background the two have, people are so critical in a negative way — Heterosexual Black men don’t have platonic connections amongst each other. If people had a more critical view of what intimacy meant, intimacy amongst men wouldn’t have to stem from a sexual notion, it would just be two men bonding. It’s a shame to see Black men only bond over deep pain. It’s great to see images like the Sremmurd Brothers, but we must be critical, and have a conversation on intimacy and Black masculinity.” - Jesse. 

Hyper masculinity within Hip-Hop can’t only be broken aesthetically but lyrically needs to be seen. Artists like Young Thug and Jaden Smith pop-up in a lot of articles but when critically analysing their music, the aspects of misogyny and old notions of hyper masculinity still exist. The two may be fluid with the way they dress because they experiment with women’s dresses comfortably and campaign freely for women’s clothing lines. However, does the same fluidity exist in their music? Which is something that a lot of fans should start to critique on. At the same time, they get away with it because their in an open space - whether it’s being apart of mainstream culture or having famous parents that allow you to do so. In retrospect, you can argue that the aesthetic isn’t necessarily breaking boundaries.

“Young thug is an interesting example to use but I wouldn’t look at commercial cis - heterosexual men. I would focus on artists like Mykki Blanco and Leif, Shamir because of the fact that they are gay, queer, and that their Black and exist in a hyper-masculine environment. They’re still drawing in crowds, they may not have the same appeal when compared to Young Thug but they still have a fan base, that ins’t the norm and you don’t have to hear all these slurs from your own people." - Jesse.

“It’s much deeper than the asthetic because it comes down to how you carry yourself and express yourself. How you interact with other people and with the people of particular communities that are further marginalised than you are.  Male audiences that are rap and hip-hop fans need to be more critical of the images that they see. Fans need to be more critical of artists like Young Thug that are considered more pioneering.” - Jesse.

    Mykki Blanco, for those of you who don’t know is a queer, self-titled transgendered or multi-gendered rapper from Orange County, Califronia. She’s recently been an uprising underground rapper that’s taken the industry by storm and has started a very important conversation on hyper-masculinity. Her fearlessness in taking part of an industry that stems from such horrid hyper-masculine backgrounds is commendable and she has been challenging it since 2010. “What the fuck I gotta prove to a room full of dudes who ain’t listening to my words ’cause they staring at my shoes?” she raps on Wavvy, from 2012. Mykki Blanco isn’t going anywhere but further up in the rap scene and especially when she comes through breaking doors. Mykki Blanco herself has stated in regards to being queer within the Hip-Hop industry is it “literally defines me the least compared to everything else” demonstrating a normality in her approach to the Rap industry and how she fits into it. That kind of attitude normalises the idea of gender fluidity in an industry that is highly male dominated. She’s pretty forward thinking and inspirational in they way the she approaches the Hip-Hop arena because these ideals of women, cars and a “hard” persona are washed away in her very presence in the scene - “Who gives a fuck [about being mainstream]? I'm not trying to be in the 40/40 Club popping bottles while rappers throw hundred-dollar bills on strippers. I'm just out to make my audience happy, fulfill my creative vision, and be successful on my own terms, which is doable.”

    There may be rappers who again aesthetically break these boundaries but it’s down to the way they present themselves. Your favourite rappers may look like they’re cracking down on these social norms because they’re wearing your grandmas old dress but when looking a little bit closer they still display a lot of the old characteristics of Hip-Hop and Raps masculine norms. 
When Drake first came out there was this idea of him being soft but it’s because back then there weren’t really rapping ass singers, as Americans call them. He was on this mainstream level, which is then accepted. But he’s not the only one, others like André 3000 whove had tracks like Roses and Ms Jackson [..] but no one questioned his masculinity back then and even Phonte from Little Brother. Fans may think their favourite rapper is breaking hyper-masculinity boundaries but lyrically Drake is still a misogynist. His songs are passive aggressive and misogynistic [..] Hotline Bling one of his popular tracks is one of the biggest misogynistic tracks.”  It’s the truth, we have women in awe of a rapper like Drake because of the played out jokes of him being emotional and soft but when looking into lyrics like “I group DM my exes, I tell em they belong to me, that goes on for forever” or“Why you always touching road?, Used to always stay at home, be a good girl” reverts back to this mentality of female ownership and the pressure of men in Hip-Hop to see women as a commodity to measure their masculinity. 

       Now the real conversation starts, how will the future of masculinity within Hip-Hop look like. We have many musicians trying to challenge these norms but how can they do it without only focusing on how they dress and not having this mainstream safe space to do so. There are many examples like Frank Ocean, who can share this fluidity but he also has people who won’t listen to his music because they’re homophobic. At the same time, he gets fans because Jay Z and Beyoncé, everyones favourite power couple, co-signs him.
Frank Ocean gets a pass more than other musicians in hip-hop and he isn’t as noticeably queer as other rappers as well. At the end of the day, it all comes down to representation and how he showcases his masculinity and he doesn’t present himself has a femme. Labels themselves have to also be apart of the boundary breaking, because they have to invest in queer artists that already are within the magnitude and deconstructing what it is to be rapper in hip-hop.  If they can do it on their own and be independent like Mykki Blanco, then that’s the right direction we’re heading towards.” - Jesse.

So what does the future hold?

“In order for hip-hop to feel more comfortable, there needs to be a major shift within society and the expansion of pop-culture. Wider mainstream culture, which comes down to being white culture. Rappers and labels will have to move away from the bigger corporations (Sony’s, Warners, Universals) and move down to actually being Black owned by diverse groups of people. Whether it be managers, label owners, producers, and people who have their fingers on the buttons that can make things happen. At the end of the day, rappers and musicians in general don’t have control on how they want to be represented to the public.” - Jesse.

Jesse Bernard: @MarvinsCorridor on Twitter.