Dr. Gwendolyn Pough: A Hip-Hop Feminist
By Emily Stoll
“It’s not Nicki vs. Kim.” At least, that’s what Dr. Gwendolyn Pough claimed in her speech Wednesday night in the Wick Social Room.
“Who is This You Left Me With? Reflections on Race, Gender, and Representation” isn’t the typical speech that most have come to expect from a school function. Pough packed her speech with references to and quotes from popular songs—such as those by Lil Kim—along with some less contemporary artists, like Millie Jackson or Salt N Pepa.
“I try not to make it too academic,” Pough said. “Students would get bored.” Pough’s speech certainly kept students on the edge of their seats. They began flocking to the hour-long speech starting at 7:30, some simply to earn extra-credit for a class, others chattering excitedly about the event.
Pough—an Associate Professor of Women's and Gender Studies, Writing, and Rhetoric at Syracuse University—says she started looking into the field when “a lot of hip-hop scholarships started being published in the early 90s.” She was in grad school and felt that many of the scholarships “just didn’t really, to me, capture it. It didn’t seem authentic to me, so that’s when I started saying that I need to write the research that I want to read.” Her speech was centered on the topic of hip-hop feminism and raised three big questions.
“What does it mean to be a hip-hop feminist today in a young money era?”
“What kind of media images do we need to be concerned with?”
“How can we foster proactive engagement with certain forms of hip-hop media?”
Acccording to Pough, there has been much improvement since the creation of the hip-hop movement in the Bronx during the early 70s, since the first scholarly book on rap was published, and even since the coining of the term “hip-hop feminism” and beginning of the movement.
Unfortunately, the old cliché applies: the more things change, the more they remain the same. “In a lot of ways, things haven’t changed much at all. The culture is still testosterone-laced,” Pough said. The shortage of female emcees, or “femcees,” as Pough calls them, is proof of this.
Femcees “have to be extra to even get heard,” Pough said. She holds that “it’s not Nicki vs. Kim; it’s all Barbie.” The way these women dress themselves up is simply another part of the culture, though Pough believes it is important to explain to children that celebrities can get away with dressing in such a way because they have bodyguards to protect them when they attract unwanted attention. There is one type of attention these bodyguards cannot fend off, however -- the law.
Prison is apparently “a new rite of passage for the femcee,” according to Pough. There's even a documentary titled “Where Have All the Femcees Gone,” to which she replies, “Jail.” This begs the question as to why the femcees are being jailed now when they have not been so frequently in the past.
Despite this, the culture still survives. Pough said “the music is constantly growing and changing and improving,” and that those who wish to be hip-hop feminists must move along with it. Though it is not a sure thing that all changes will be good, Pough has hope for the future and wants music to keep changing. “We have to remain open and take the new music on its own merits, even if we think it’s just a remix of our hip-hop.”
The songs and culture provide a “mirror” into our society, making us examine ourselves “and all our beautiful ugliness and either ignore what we see or do something about it.” Many of the songs are “pushing the limits of sexuality,” going where past artists have not been bold enough to openly go.
However, the hints of this have always been there, even back to blues music. According to Pough, blues music is coded, not explicitly stating the ideas common in today’s music, yet still hinting at them. Of Rihanna’s “S and M,” Pough comments jokingly, “She isn’t singing in code.”
Things have changed a lot since R&B, which had a key focus on romance, hardship, and sex, though it censored it a bit. Just a few decades ago, it was very risqué to record Millie Jackson’s request to “keep the home fires burning” or Salt N Pepa asking to “gimme a kiss and make it quick.” Today, music is typically so explicit that nobody would think twice about it. Salt N Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” was even flipped into an AIDS Awareness Campaign, according to Pough.
Pough said that “each generation steadily pushes farther than the last,” gradually pushing wider and wider the doors to discuss sexuality. But what should we do with these increasingly open attitudes? Pough thinks that it should not be classified good or bad. Some would say it is bad because of the vulgarity, but Pough poses the argument, “Who gets to say what’s vulgar and what’s not?”
Pough also discussed the different views on femcees when their appearance and lyrics are looked at together. Take Nicki Minaj and Missy Elliot, for example; their lyrics are the same, Pough said, but their images differ, as do the criticisms of them. Missy’s desire for a “one minute man,” does not cause the same harsh criticism as Nicki’s songs. Both talk about sex, but while Nicki makes her appearance that of a “sexual being,” Missy’s is less so, Pough said. Apparently, discussing sex while appearing as a “sexual being” is “deviant in the most dangerous ways.”
The more time passes, the more publicly open femcees are about their sexuality. They have already gone much further than some wanted to let them and are constantly pushing the limits. From Salt N Pepa to Nicki Minaj, each new artist is more out-there than the last. They are making many “leaps that are almost small steps,” says Pough.
She also took some time to discuss the “oversaturation” of reality shows in our culture today. These reality shows seem to be more important to people than the fact that thousands of women of color went missing or were murdered.
What bothers Pough just as much is the fact that some male celebrities do terrible things to women and are forgiven too easily. “I can’t stop thinking about it,” she said. “How can they hit us and still be our heroes?”
Despite all of this, Pough still believes the future looks bright. Femcees and hip-hop feminists are constantly making new advances, and the past few decades have been times of rapid advancement. Hip-hop feminism is continuing to grow, despite the challenges.