One can argue that phrases such as “take it like a man” or “be a man” are deeply rooted in mainstream views concerning masculinity. The repeated use of these sayings in American society, as evidenced by songs such as Michelle Wright’s “Take it like a Man” and Donny Osmond’s “I’ll make a Man out of you” (in which “Be a Man” is chanted throughout the chorus), furthermore indicates an obsession amongst many regarding toughness, machismo, or manliness. From James Bond to Shaft, there is a general consensus that being a “man” means to exude masculinity, and being masculine involves following a certain set of characteristics and attitudes.
Filmmaker Byron Hurt goes on further to assert America is a very hyper-masculine, hyper-aggressive nation. This point is confirmed by author Kevin Powell, who in the documentary “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes” states “We live in a society where manhood is all about conquering and violence.” Needless to say, mainstream media and pop-culture generally feeds into, and in many cases fosters, these beliefs about masculinity. An area of the media where this is greatly prevalent is mainstream hip-hop culture.
Hip-hop music, most specifically, has constantly been criticized for its displays of hyper-masculine performances, as well as promoting misogyny, sexism, and homophobia. Generally speaking, rappers/mcs/hip hop artists, most of whom are predominantly black, exploit certain stereotypes in both their music and way of living. One of those stereotypes is that of a thug, which has been known to portray black men as too aggressive, violent, and angry. Furthermore, it has been argued that the evolution of masculinity in popular hip-hop music can have an effect on how young, black males act in real life. This is a plausible statement, especially since the development of one’s identity (we are speaking on males here) is related to constructions of masculinity. Lamelle (2009) makes this connection by asserting “masculinity refers to the socially constructed characteristics that society expects for the male sex” (Lamelle, 2009, p. 3). This brings about an important question: What exactly compels black male hip-hop artists to take on this hyper-masculine persona, with all its associated qualities?
The answer to the aforementioned question is, of course, complex. However, some theories present a strong explanation. Belle (2014), for example, states that an unemotional persona lies at the heart of black masculine performances. Hip-hop music is often an act, which portrays black males as both dominant and deviant. These performances, Belle (2014) asserts, are a response to a world that has tried to deny the very existence of black men. In short, black males have used hip-hop as an avenue to construct their own identity in a country where they may see their lives as less valued. Another theory revolves around the concept of “coolness”. In an article written by Kirkland and Jackson (2009) entitled “We Real Cool”: Toward a Theory of Black Masculine Literacies, coolness is defined as being “a unique performative act, an attitude, compartment, or way of being characterized through verbal presentation and style” (Kirkland & Jackson, 280, 2009). When speaking on coolness, scholars such as Connor (1995) define it as a way to “help black males cope with (or conceal) stress caused by social oppression, rejection, and racism” (Kirkland & Jackson, 2009, p. 280). Hip-hop culture falls within this realm. At first, glance, Kirkland and Jackson (2009) seem to view black masculinity in hip-hop through the same lens as Belle (2014). However, in this same article they highlight authors Majors and Bilson (1993) who see coolness as a way for black males to evoke distance from, contrast to, and gain superiority over outsiders. So as can be seen from theories provided by both Belle (2014) and Kirkland and Jackson (2009), hip-hop’s promotion of a hyper-masculine persona can come from a place of trying to fit in or stand out. However, one thing is for certain; there is an underlying theme of black males coping with discrimination and oppression.
Given the argument that hip-hop’s portrayal of black masculinity may be used as a defense mechanism, many are left wondering whether to view it as positive or negative. In other words, is it better to perceive black hip-hop artists as deviant or misunderstood? Ultimately, black masculinity portrayed within hip-hop has allowed individuals to achieve a level of coolness, which, in turn, provides a sense of strength and control. However, many scholars have argued that this same tool used for combating outside pressures has compromised black males. Kirkland and Jackson (2009) purport that coolness shields black males (young black males in particular) from intimacy, commitment, and loving relationships. Moreover, “coolness corresponds with a set of negative behaviors that impair [black males’] ability to succeed academically” (Kirkland & Jackson, 2009, p. 280).
In her Washington Post article Has Obama made hip-hop rethink masculinity?, Rahiel Tesfamariam tackles the issue of whether or not black males who follow and are involved in hip-hop culture are doomed to failure and destruction. Tesfamariam states that there may be a correlation between President Barack Obama’s show of black masculinity and changes in the views of black hip-hop artists regarding traditionally non-masculine topics such as homosexuality. She quotes Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African American studies at Duke University, who once said “President Obama’s performance of black masculinity – thoughtful, adaptable, and even progressive (if we consider the stance on same-sex marriage) has given many male rap artists the cover to explore the nuances of their manhood.” In this same article, however, Tesfamariam also mentions Bakari Kitwna, author of The Hip-Hop Generation and executive director of “Rap Sessions”, who considers the change in hip-hop artists’ perspectives regarding touchy issues a reflection of their “growing comfort level with speaking about the diversity of opinion in hip-hop.” Nevertheless, it is important to note that these same black artists who feel comfortable talking about “non-masculine” issues may be well established and have very little to lose.
Oddly enough, while hip-hop has given black men a certain identity regarding their own masculine persona, some have argued that this art-form is also deeply rooted in capitalism and the reinforcement of racial hierarchies. Miles White asserts in his book From Jim Crow to Jay Z: Race, Rap, and the Performance of Masculinity that hip-hop, once a way of challenging the status quo, has now become another marketing tool having racist undertones. Many of the authors we’ve discussed in this post agree that black male bodies represented by hip-hop culture have been used to promote patriarchy, sexism, and racism. White has gone on to say that the black body has become a commodity traded in the public marketplace. He furthermore asserts that the black male body can “be seen as a performance vehicle to gain success, respect, and power.” Whether or not you agree with a capitalist system, one thing is for certain; there is a tendency for record labels to promote black masculinity as thuggish, homophobic, and misogynistic. In regards to this, Belle (2014) asks why is it that mainstream media is more accepting of lyrics showcasing the black man as the “bad man” as opposed to the image of the black man as an intellectual or activist? The answer to question requires a whole other blog post of its own…
**This post was definitely jam-packed with info! What do you all think about the portrayal of black masculinity within hip-hop music? Feel free to comment and ask questions. We’re game for anything! Thanks!!
Belle, C. (2014). From jay-z to dead prez: Examining representations of black masculinity in mainstream versus underground hip-hop music. Journal of Black Sudies, 1-14. doi: 10.1177/0021934714528953.
Kirkland, D. & Jackson, A. (2009). “We real cool”: Toward a theory of black masculine literacies. Reading Research Quarterly, 44(3), 278-297.
Lemelle, A., Jr. (2009). Black masculinity and sexual politics. New York, NY: Routledge.