Rap, Rape, and R&B: Battle of the Sexes, Round 2

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Drake (left) and Rihanna perform during the 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards in Los Angeles on February 13, 2011. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty)
Brandon Soderberg WRITTEN BY
Brandon Soderberg

My conversation with Latoya Peterson of Racialicious continues. In Round One, some of my guycentric critical oversights were addressed, and then we tackled the Weeknd (a.k.a., Abel Tesfaye), who I found to be symptomatic of a "Date Rape & B" trend, and who Latoya found to be nothing more than a creep.

We did, however, agree on the way that "murky" issues of consent have snuck into R&B and that something is indeed changing in hip-hop right now. Round One ended with Latoya responding to my rather sunny interpretation of hip-hop's subtle shifts, as she observed that just because "Kanye gets to have a few reflective moments... doesn't mean society has suddenly started caring more about what women want."

BRANDON SODERBERG: While it's certainly true that Kanye being a little more sensitive doesn't mean society's changed for women, I still think there are signs of progress in hip-hop that really are worth noting. Kanye West comes off as something of a loathsome person at times, but he seems to be aware of this. And I feel like he's attempting to wrestle with all of his horrible feelings. Part of me finds Drake to be really sweet, and another side of me thinks he's some sort of lech who just read The Rules and knows the appropriate thing to tell a girl.

LATOYA PETERSON: While I have a lot of issues with Kanye, I feel like his refusal to be anything but himself in an environment where men are only allowed vent rage or express dominant sexual prowess is actually a net gain. Men, especially black men, are generally denied the right to feel. To be genuinely messed-up over a breakup or a death in the family. Kanye may be a mess, but he's a mess in progress.

BS: We can probably agree that Kanye's a big reason why things are starting to shift.

LP: A large part of the shift is also a change in how men are supposed to perform masculinity. What do women consider sexy and what do men consider acceptable? In Sut Jhally's documentary, Dreamworlds 3, he explores how hip-hop and R&B are part of the wider culture, and how they embrace the culture's ideals around sex and power, in order to be popular.

BS: There's a lot of fascinating stuff in that documentary. First, it's refreshing that he uses footage from rock and metal videos. In a way, if my column were written in the late-'90s, it probably could've been a discussion of how rock and metal have grabbed all this tough-guy posturing from rap to remain relevant. That rap-metal era, which I see as really ending when Kanye West appeared, was boldly uninterested in what women considered sexy. It's was just really awful, negative stuff. It's still around, for sure, but that to me was a real nadir.

LP: Hip-hop is a convenient scapegoat for society's ills, but everything you see in hip-hop is reflected in the wider culture. Rock and metal didn't have to take anything from rap -- they had it to begin with. Misogyny knows no borders, no race, ethnicity, religion, gender identification, culture, or country.I mean, you can even look at the sexism inherent in emo.

BS: The argument that what happens in hip-hop begins in the wider culture kinda breaks down at a certain point in Jhally's doc. The part where I start to find myself disinterested is when he makes a jump from these hip-hop videos full of girls being aggressively objectified to a sexual assault that happened at the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York. Just as rock and metal didn't really need rap to be misogynistic, it seems reasonable to say that those guys at the Puerto Rican Day Parade didn't learn to molest women and pour water all over them just from watching rap videos. And it touches back on my overarching point: The focus on extremes of male behavior -- often tied to rap -- obscures this subtler, more nefarious stuff.

LP: That made you disinterested? Must be nice to be a guy. Way too many of the women I know, myself included, have seen the effects of normalizing that type of treatment of women in pop-cultural images, and how people then use those images as scripts to follow when engaging with women in public. Jhally lays out a whole case about the dehumanization of women and the how masculinity is defined and constructed solely through power and dominance.

BS: The stuff in rap videos didn't start in rap videos, though, and that's where Jhally's construct breaks down for me. He intellectualizes these visceral images that are real. It's a clever film-school montage and all, but that parade footage isn't a music video to be deconstructed, and by doing just that, he turns those girls and their attackers into symbols. His argument isn't "music videos make people do this" (because that's absurd), but if his argument is that "this is sometimes the result of music videos and other horrible behavior," that's both a really grand statement and rather low stakes.

LP: But Jhally isn't the only one who has brought up this dynamic. There's Byron Hurt's Beyond Beats and Rhymes documentary, or Essence's Take Back the Music Campaign, or anything ever written by a hip-hop feminist -- Joan Morgan, Tricia Rose, Elizabeth Mendez Berry, Gwendolyn Pough, start anywhere. But damn, seriously. Music and videos are part of the way people normalize behavior -- particularly behavior between heterosexual men and women -- so pretending that what we accept as normal in pop culture doesn't translate into regular culture is a bit disingenuous.

BS: Yeah, I see what you're saying, but I guess my argument is just focused on different stuff, and to me, the murky consent issues in R&B right now are worse than the extreme behavior in rap that kind of overwhelmed the late-'90s and early 2000s, but is less prevalent now. Couple that with dance music being the prevailing pop trend and everything's turning into "the club," and the club is where bad stuff happens! I'm not bummed out that house music is back, even in some weirdly perverted form (only Gaga and sometimes Rihanna stay true to house's conceits), but it does seem like pop music is back to being aggro, loud-quiet-loud, just like Limp Bizkit, only Taio Cruz or whomever's singing over top of it.

LP: No one said these shifts are innocent. But they are inevitable and turn on other changes in society. How does the prevalence of Internet porn impact our personal relationships? How does digital interaction impact how we relate to each other in physical spaces? And how do these trends, and many others, impact the work that artists want to create, and the type of music people can relate to? The broader idea I'm stressing here is that popular music -- R&B,included -- reflects the mindset of our era. At this moment, there are a mix of themes happening. Things sound aggressive now, but next year may bring a completely different sound. The problem is that, as a society, we've carried forward the idea that sexual domination of women is a way to prove masculinity. We're having a slightly better conversation than we used to, but it's still the same stuff, different day.

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