The Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Viper Magazine explores the conflict of being a feminist and a rap fan with Zoë and her artwork, Every Curve.
The full article, “Aint No Fun” by Lauryn Tomlinson:
This one goes out to the ladies, because we know you’ll relate… Once I was in a club debating whether to stay on the dance floor or head to the bar, when the DJ played one of my favourite songs ever, Snoop Dogg’s ‘Ain’t No Fun’, a move that immediately rendered my questioning pointless; I was staying on the dance floor. But as I was dancing, there came a point during the first verse when I stepped outside of myself and wondered – why on earth am I joyfully singing a song that includes the line, ‘I had respect for you lady but now I take it all back’? Hidden behind one of the greatest feel-good beats of all time is the underlying message that once you’ve slept with a girl, she’s immediately classed as a ho and can be passed around your friends. This suggestion is indicative of how contradictory life can be as a female hip hop fan; simultaneously loving the genre and feeling depressed by what it glorifies. As University of Richmond professor Erik Nielson stated in an article for NPR, “For years, dominant male artists have made a fortune demeaning and degrading women, often portraying them in lyrics and videos as interchangeable objects of sexual pleasure, while increasingly limited radio and television rotations have made alternative representations of women harder to find.” Or to put it in more relevant terms, it’s hard out here for a bitch.
Being a female rap fan generally means at some point you will have to defend the genre to other women with alternative musical tastes, which is difficult to do without appearing as woman-hating as the average rapper. As Viper editor Lily Mercer admits, “When people ask how I feel about misogynistic lyrics I find myself sounding like the girl Chris Rock describes in his stand up that’s outraged by the question, saying, “he ain’t talking about me!”” Derogatory language about women is so commonplace that it’s easier to list songs with positive messages about females, as the negative ones far outweigh the positive. But we all have our own version of ‘Ain’t No Fun’.
For Lily, that song is ‘Bridgette’ by The D.O.C. “It’s got a pretty piano melody that I feel nostalgic for but the lyrics are really terrible,” she explains. “It’s about a promiscuous girl and The D.O.C plots his revenge on her, which climaxes in something that sounds a lot like gang rape.” Aisha Badmus, another bonafide rap fan, cites ‘Loyal’ by Chris Brown as a more recent example: “I feel like a hypocrite but goddamn the song is too good, which is no justification for overlooking the profoundly offensive lyrics and limited views of womanhood.” This is not only uncomfortable for female listeners, but as Aisha points out, “it’s also quite emasculating to men in an ironic way – the notion that men can only be a certain type of ‘man’ and can only come together when denouncing women.” One of the many rap artists to call attention to ways the negative terminology can affect people is Lupe Fiasco, who on the 2012 track ‘Bitch Bad’ tells the story of how the word bitch is interpreted either positively or negatively by a little boy and girl. As the song indicates, a lot of women have reclaimed the word bitch and particularly the term ‘bad bitch’ to mean fierce and strong but it can still be used against us, like a less explosive version of black people’s use of the N word. Fiasco explained to Rap Fix Live, “[The term] bad bitch… has some destructive elements to it, especially when you look at who it’s being marketed towards. That’s why we put children in the video.” This is something that comes up a lot in discussion about violent or sexist language in hip hop – it’s all kinda OK as long as you’re old enough to know that it isn’t an acceptable way for you personally to behave or be referred to. Or, as Lily puts it, “I don’t personally get offended by songs, but I am concerned hearing lyrics like ‘pass her to my homie’ because I hope young women listening to the music don’t think that’s normal in any way.”
Taking children out of the equation, I have to admit that although I wouldn’t be happy to hear certain words used to my face, it’s never interfered with my enjoyment of hip hop. I’m pretty desensitised to the word bitch at this point and I’ve always thought of terms like ‘ho’ and ‘trick’ as unisex – I’ve known plenty of male hoes in my time and I have no love for them either, thank you very much. Something harder to justify is a theme that comes up in ‘Bridgette’: the portrayal of domestic and sexual violence in rap songs, which can be trivialised to an upsetting degree. A recent example is ‘Drunk in Love’, the ode to marital sex from Jay Z and Beyonce. I’m by no means the first to point out that the line, “eat the cake Anna Mae,” here used as an innuendo, refers to one of the most upsetting scenes in the Tina Turner biopic, ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’, in which Ike Turner forces her to eat cake and physically attacks her in a breakfast diner. And this is the line a husband chooses to rap to his wife and the mother of his child – a woman who claims she is a feminist – on a song that was at Number 1 in the Billboard R&B/hip hop charts for weeks.
Unfortunately, the theme of sexual violence being trivialised to the point of titillation is so commonplace in rap music that most of us don’t really notice unless it’s in a super popular song (i.e the ‘Blurred Lines’ Effect) or is just spectacularly bad. A recent example of a mix of the two is the now infamous Rick Ross line, “Put molly in her champagne, she ain’t even know it / I took her home and enjoyed that she ain’t even know it.” Moving past the wildly false advertising on the effects of MDMA (quite possibly the worst drug to use for date rape unless you want to deal with a really hyperactive and talkative victim), it was pretty heartwarming to see him called out extensively for this line, plus lose several endorsement deals off the back of it.
Sometimes this sexist content is overlooked, suggesting that with the inclusion of such lyrics and references, women shouldn’t be listening to hip hop at all. However I know from personal experience that a girl into Drake will be met with a lot less surprise than a girl into OG Maco, for example, suggesting that somewhere along the line a definition of ‘girl rap’ was established, of which I had no knowledge. Obviously we here at Viper do not believe that any type of music is specifically for males or females, or you wouldn’t be reading a hip hop magazine with two female editors. And we are by no means unique, The Source has been run by editor-in-chief Kimberly Osorio since 2003 and XXL by Vanessa Satten since 2009. And the fact that there’s such a wide variety of female rappers out there also shows how stupid this notion is. How could we have such new and unique female rap artists – from Doja Cat to Chynna – if girls had to be confined to just one music genre?
Female MCs are far from being a new thing. In hip hop’s heyday there were an array of females on the mic, from Roxanne Shante to Foxy Brown. Plus the outlook for 2015 looks pretty good for humans with uteruses and rap skills. However, putting women down is not just a male past time, other females get in on the act too. In rap’s early days female rappers dressed like the boys and while some were hot, it wasn’t what they were known for as much as today. In the pop-rap scene, the line between video girl and rap star is growing thinner by the day. I’m personally more offended by Nicki Minaj’s hyper-sexualised videos and lyrics for children than I am by Snoop talking about hoes. A lot of the women I spoke to about sexism in rap pointed the finger at her for sending out the worst messages. It’s hard to assert that you’re empowering women while being as naked in your videos as the girls in those old Nelly joints you can find on Pornhub, not to mention pretty much telling skinny girls that nobody wants to fuck them. As Aisha points out, “it’s almost like sexism in hip hop has come full circle, from ‘Baby Got Back’ to ‘Anaconda’. The irony is that women are using the same language to ‘empower’ women.” Shaking purchased silicon assets while telling us we should be proud of our bodies is pretty offensive, especially when it’s coming from those who are purporting to be role models for young women.
It’s things like this that force me to wonder if hip hop is actually becoming a more misogynistic genre as time goes on. As Lily points out, “When hip hop first appeared it wasn’t seen as misogynist, it was more about how to impress girls, instead today’s style is bragging to other men about how foul you are to women.” But if you know where to look, there are lots of rappers who are trying to portray a positive message, from Mos Def to Mick Jenkins. Lily agrees; “There are many artists from the nineties and today that I would say are promoting a feminist perspective, my favourite feminist in rap is Andre3000, not Nicki Minaj. He definitely spoke more highly of women. I also think Lil Kim was more of a role model, since though she promoted sexuality, she spoke of female enjoyment while Nicki’s attitude is more about pleasing men.” Aisha also agrees that feminism in rap can exist: “Yes, hip hop by and large is a male dominated space in which a borderline caricature of masculinity exists, however women like Lauryn Hill and Lil Kim reflect different kinds of feminist hip hop. I don’t necessarily agree with Lil Kim’s ‘brand’ of hip hop as it uses the same raw language that the men use, but it unabashedly shouts equality on all platforms – I don’t necessarily agree with the packaging; she doesn’t need to always be near naked. Whereas, Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott focus on skill and content of their delivery. So, yes, feminism does exist in hip-hop – but it is marginalised by the commercial appeal of angry overhyped men.” Lily has a slightly more optimistic outlook for the future, “I feel that besides Nicki, music videos feature less misogyny now, as artists tend to be more creative instead of simply using label budget to hire video girls.
It’s quite possible that one of the reasons I don’t get too offended by sexist rap songs is that the word bitch is just background noise to me, plus I mainly listen to artists with a positive message. It could also be because I’m aware that almost all artists are promoting an image to some extent. I mean, as much as Odd Future may not be the kind of kids your parents want you to hang out with, they don’t actually go out raping and pillaging as their music sometimes suggests. Their brand is ‘The Kids Your Parents Hate’ and everything from their videos to their lyrics help to build this brand. One of my favourite songs from the early OF days is the equal parts amazing and disgusting ‘ePAR’, a song by our two cover stars, Earl and Vince Staples, which features the immortal line, “You know it ain’t rape if you like it bitch / So sit down like a pretty ho and don’t fight this shit.” I remember hearing that lyric for the first time and almost laughing out loud because it was so unbelievably extreme, there was no way it could be taken seriously, and also because I had been listening to Odd Future for the past hour so I’d kind of gotten their vibe. If anything approaching the extremity of those lines was uttered by someone like Kendrick Lamar, the world would be in uproar, but in an Odd Future song it just makes sense. Context is hugely important in my daily quest to decide what I should or shouldn’t get outraged by. However as Aisha points out, “There is no context that can justify viewing women as the enemy. But unfortunately, context don’t mean a thing when the beat makes you want to swing your ass all night.” When even Kanye West spits lines like, ‘Black girl sippin’ white wine / Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign’, the importance of context is pretty questionable.
Sadly, I feel like this is a conversation that could continue amongst many music fans. As Aisha observes, “I don’t get personally offended by any songs and on deeper analysis of some lyrics, I should be very offended. Yet I’ve become very accepting of this aspect of music full stop because there are equally offensive lyrics in other music genres.” Reggae, country music and even rock can also be pretty female-unfriendly sub- groups to belong to when you actually listen to the words; which kind of suggests that as far as the world is concerned, girls should only be listening to pop and a little RnB.
Yet as much as there are songs or even phrases used in rap songs that can make me despair about the male population, I also feel people can be too sensitive and confuse things like overt-sexuality or descriptions of ‘thug life’ with misogyny. An example of this is the notorious, ‘Dance with the Devil’ by Immortal Technique. The song follows the path of a young man trying to prove himself to a gang in his community, “They wanted to test him before business started / Suggested raping a bitch to prove he was cold-hearted” – and ends with a sucker- punch of a twist that leaves you feeling infinitely depressed. As horrible as the content of this song is, it’s not glorifying rape at all, quite the opposite in fact. This is what irritates me about branding all hip hop misogynist – talking about something in a song is not the same as endorsing it. In the same way that overtly sexual lyrics aren’t necessarily sexist and girls that whine aren’t necessarily promiscuous.
To conclude my point, hip hop can contain some horribly sexist undertones, but if I only enjoyed things that I morally agreed with, I would probably spend a lot of time staring at blank walls in silence. I also really enjoy football, despite the belief that about 60% of those on the pitch are either a borderline rapist or at the very least cheating on their wives. Liking music is instinctive and unfortunately we can’t always trust the people who make it to think as morally as us. Otherwise would anybody still listen to R. Kelly?
East London photographer and visual artist, Zoe Buckman, rules the roost in a darker field. But never loses her wit and sense of humour. Playfully bending the bouji margins of multimedia, Buckman’s current ‘Present Life’ show uses placenta as a telescope into the new neon energy of motherhood.
Always transcending – ‘Every Curve’ crossfades adolescent memories of hip hop’s female-facing ebullience with what else, but a handicraft collection of vintage lingerie. Here at Viper, we adore work that juxtaposes to re-dispose. She joins us to talk conflict, influence and growth…
You’re known as a photographer and artist. What was the first method of creating art you experimented with?
When I was 15 I studied textiles at school and then later photography. I chose to pursue photography initially as a form of artistic expression but in the last few years have expanded my practice again to include to both new and old mediums including embroidery, sculpture, glass and installation.
Your ongoing body of work is named ‘Present Life’. Is it important to you that there’s a realism to the artwork you produce?
Realism is important to me, but more specifically authenticity. Works of mine could be abstracted or realistic, but as long I lead from a place of truth I’m happy.
One of the earliest projects I saw of yours was the ‘Loo’s’ series with quotes from women in bathrooms.
Were there any quotes that were good but too crazy to include?
There were quotes that didn’t make it into the series but probably because I found them uninteresting… I don’t think there were any too outrageous to include.
Were you always drawn to creating as you were growing up?
I was always making some kind of artistic mess as a kid. I was also really drawn to literature and the theatre, and I feel a lot of my work has a theatrical/ performative element to it.
What were the first artworks you created and exhibited?
My very first exhibit was my solo show of photography called ‘Loos’ and that was over years ago, after I left ICP [International Center of Photography].
You often work outside of photography, what inspires you to produce more than images?
After I had a child I felt changed. I had entered a new phase in my personal life and I guess it makes sense that my artistic practice started to reflect this. I didn’t intend to, but I started to feel limited with photography and I wanted to break out into new mediums. So I started with neon, which is a natural progression from photography because both use light as their paintbrush.
You embroidered classic rap lyrics onto vintage underwear for ‘Every Curve’. How did you choose the lyrics you wanted to use?
I chose the text by gathering all the lyrics used by Biggie and Tupac that refer to women. I then selected a piece of text that most feels suited to a particular garment. For example if the lyric is about a woman’s anatomy or birth I might stitch it onto a garter belt, if it mentions breasts it might end up on a bra.
You’ve said that Every Curve explores the contradictory and complimentary influences of feminism and hip hop. How do you feel that the conflict between the two influences you?
I’ve always wanted to produce a body of work that explores the conflict between feminism and hip hop. It’s a complicated relationship and one I have grappled with for years as a feminist and rap fan.
What’s the biggest difference between a medium like photography and your textile and sculpture based work?
I feel that the act of embroidering is very personal. It’s close work and it’s time consuming, so it can feel like toil. But you have complete control over it as it’s just you and hands on the garment. I feel like I’m drawing on a whole lineage of historical women and women artists when I’m sewing, which can be quite empowering and sad simultaneously. With photography there is a layer of distance between the product and the practice. When you take the picture you’re connected but then it becomes about uploading, possibly retouching, archiving, printing and then framing. Your hands stop touching it and it becomes more of an object. Having said that, there’s nothing as “real” as a photograph. Essentially it is a documentation of truth.
You work with neon too, is it important to you to add new skills into your creative process?
I feel like I’m always learning new things and ways to express myself. I’m also learning how to work with people and allowing for that professional relationship and exchange to take place. For example, I don’t bend the neon tubing myself, I work with a neon technician to do that. Although I work with a range of mediums and disciplines and I will probably add more to that growing list, in my mind I’m using whichever medium I feel best serves the point I’m trying to make with that particular piece. Your first gallery solo show recently opened in New York. What’s been a personal favourite of your exhibitions so far?
My current solo show, ‘Present Life’, is the most important thing to me that I’ve put out there so far. The project took me three and a half years to complete and it’s highly personal. I look forward to what’s coming next, but getting the show together has definitely been the highest mountain I’ve had to climb thus far and it’s been an incredible and rewarding journey.
You have a successful career in the US. Do you prefer showing your work overseas or at home in London?
I feel like I’m only just starting to understand the art industry in New York. It’s taken a while, but I’m gradually building a great community for myself within the art world here and am humbled by the support of some incredible artists and art-industry professionals who are starting to know my work and what I’m trying to say. I feel very supported. That said, I would love to build a similar community in my home town and I hope that, if my career continues to grow in the US, it will make it easier for me to transition back home to London.
What have you got coming up in 2015?
I’ve got a couple of really exciting residencies planned for this year and next and am currently in talks about two public art projects. One will explore sexual violence against women in US and UK television and film. Aside from the residencies and public projects my goal is to complete ‘Every Curve’ and show it in its entirety.