Navigating contradictions of progress in hip hop and pop culture.

“We would know far more about life’s complexities if we applied ourselves to the close study of its contradictions instead of wasting so much time on similarities and connections, which should, anyway, be self-explanatory”
-The Cave by José Saramago 

Last week, a wonderful string of news was catalyzed by 24 year old hip hop artist Frank Ocean’s open letter which revealed, in beautifully written words, a past romance he had with another man. His mother responded to the news saying he’s the “most incredible human she knows” and powerful hip hop mogul Russell Simmons even wrote a letter of support. A big day for hip hop.

Ocean is attached to hip hop collective Odd Future. I was interested in the buzz around Odd Future about a year ago but I promptly stopped seeking them out once I discovered that the collective is led by Tyler, The Creator a lyricist who is known for excessive use of the word ‘faggot’ and the graphic description of rape scenarios. One of the lone voices of public criticism was Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara who rightfully called out the industry’s refusal to condemn such lyrics.  Tyler responded with the following tweet, “If Tegan and Sara Need Some Hard Dick, Hit Me Up!” Can’t speak for T&S but nothing displays thoughtfulness to me more than use of the phrases “hard dick” and “hit me up.” It would be more funny if he didn’t have over one million followers. Despite this hateful rhetoric, Tyler, perhaps surprisingly, came out in strong support of Ocean in the wake of this announcement.

While this support may seem incompatible on a personal level, it does serve to provide an illuminating window into the current confusing and contradicting climate of hip hop, a fact not lost on long time writer and hip hop insider dream hampton. In her thank you letter to Ocean she writes:

You fulfill hip-hop’s early promise to not give a fuck about what others think of you. The 200 times Tyler says “faggot” and the wonderful way he held you up and down on Twitter today, Syd the Kid’s sexy stud profile and her confusing, misogynistic videos speak to the many contradictions and posturing your generation inherited from the hip-hop generation before you.

Syd tha Kid is the only female member of Odd Future and if you’re wondering what misogynistic videos dream hampton is talking about this would be one of them. It starts out cute and queer and ends with Syd pulling her coked out date out of her car and leaving her passed out the gravel road while Syd drives away. Again, the critique around this video seems to be fairly quiet save for this piece at Afterellen.com (granted this is old news by internet standards). I was pissed when I saw this video. The last thing we need is one of the lone queer women in popular hip hop normalizing the degradation of women. This, though, was obviously not Syd tha Kid’s intent as she stated, “I decided to do [the video] because I wish I had someone like that [an openly gay female artist] while I was coming up. People write on my Tumblr just thanking me for making the video, saying that I really inspire them, and they want to be like me.” I thought about it and realized if my 18 year old (then closeted) self saw this video I would have found it exciting to see two queer girls flirting and kissing on screen. I was so used to misogynist music at that age that the last scene probably wouldn’t have even phased me then. In fact, though it absolutely pains me to admit, my younger self thought The Prodigy’s video for Smack My Bitch Up was edgy and provocative. I’m not even going to link to it because it so fully disgusts me now at age 27.

When I start to get into this rabbit’s hole of discerning meaningful progress from warped misogyny in hip hop and pop culture at large I often come back to dream hampton again. Last fall I saw her speak on a panel about “feminism and hip hop.” I have to admit from the get go I was highly skeptical of her. After all, she co-wrote Jay-Z’s biography and was close friends with Notorious B.I.G. for a number of years. I danced to their songs all throughout junior high but I would never say that either of them are feminist champions or close to it. On the panel dream hampton was the last to introduce herself after each of the other panelists had, right off the bat, confirmed that “I’m not actually a feminist” (if my recorder wasn’t stuck on the table I would have walked out at that point). I figured that hampton, surrounded by the major players (mostly straight, rich men) in hip hop for many years would also try and dance around the title of feminist or calling out misogyny in the industry. Fortunately I was entirely wrong. This is a 3 minute clip of dream hampton talking during that panel about how she keeps herself and her politics in check:

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Is it all about balance? Can you really ingest misogynist music one day and then lead an anti-violence against women’s march the next day without being a hypocrite? I think more than the balance issue is the importance of fighting the urge to be dogmatic. That is, adhering strictly to a set of cultural beliefs. More and more studies show that people from all ends of the political spectrum seek out self serving information to further entrench their beliefs and in many situations will ignore or justify away facts that counter their beliefs. In the NPR interview I linked one researcher was asked if this was more of a problem with religious fundamentalists and he answered, ” I don’t think so. There are people who have made that case in the psychological and political science literatures, but I think the jury is still out. And, you know, the conclusion that my co-author and I came to is that this is really a human problem.”  This is what I enjoy about people like dream hampton―she has no willful ignorance. As a hip hop insider and a cultural critic she’s not afraid to call bullshit on what she loves. This idea reminds me of a discussion in Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Lacuna where two characters disagree on the role of the artist (including writers like hampton).

- Well, but suppose the artist’s job is just to keep everyone amused? Maybe get their minds off the stink, by calling it a meadow. Where’s the harm?
- Nobody will climb out of the pile. There’s the harm. They’ll keep where they are, deep to the knees in dung, trying to outdo each other remarking on the buttercups.

So maybe the problem isn’t feminists and progressives ingesting pop culture in the first place but our likelihood to defend our favourite pet TV show to the death or to dismiss an entire genre of music  as being anti-women. While I still don’t agree with everything dream hampton represents I felt myself move over the week from being horrified at Syd The Kid’s video and therefore this young artist herself to thinking about how confusing and contradicting her environment must be. I still think the video’s message is terrible but you can see her working her way through some important youth outsider issues in her lyrics ”She shaved off all of her hair…cause she don’t give a fuck…some people seem to think she needs changing but they don’t know the struggles that she was raised with so shut the fuck up…Stop thinking that you know everything.”

She’s not worth writing off and neither is the movement of this music either. It just takes one look at d’bi young and Invincible to realize that we have lots of positive growth worth spreading.

Follow Ellie Gordon-Moershel: @EllieGordonMoe

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