Pop Culture

How Rap Music Portrays Black Men and Women

Public health scholar Denise Herd reviewed research on gender relationships and sexuality in rap music in a 2015 Sexuality and Culture article. According to Herd, most studies look at the effects of the media content rather than the content itself. Herd reviews the literature on sexuality and gender with a focus on feminism, masculinity, folklore, media studies, sociological studies, and public health.

Feminist Perspectives on Sexuality in Rap Music

Feminist theory centers on controlling images that normalize racism, sexism, poverty and other forms of social inequality. These controlling images are derogatory stereotypes that deny Black women’s equality as they represent Black women as unfeminine, hypersexual or asexual, lacking in healthy sexuality.

Black feminist thought seeks to challenge these controlling images. For example, Dionne P. Stephens and Layli D. Phillips argued in their 2003 Sexuality and Culture article that modern depictions of Black women in rap music videos emerged from historical controlling images. Controlling images in rap music videos reinforce patriarchal assumptions about gender relations.

Rana A. Emerson found that music videos displayed both the hypersexual “Jezebel” and Black women as agentic in pursuit of sexual fulfillment. Further, they go on to construct Black men’s bodies as an object of Black women’s sexual pleasure, inverting the male gaze and its focus on Black women’s bodies as sex objects. Matthew Oware found that women rappers more frequently sought to empower women though they undermine this message with sexual lyrics turned toward the male gaze.

Some scholars feel that Black women rappers talk back to institutional and hegemonic masculinity through assertive sexuality. Black women take on oppositional voices in rap music to defend and demand respect for women, women’s empowerment, and the defense of Black men in relation to dominant society. These song lyrics range from dissin’ Black men to ride or die songs that show undying loyalty:

In sum, feminist analyses of black women’s roles and portrayals in rap music and rap music videos are polarized with respect to critiques of hegemonic controlling images identified in the Hill-Collins framework, in contrast to the frames of resistance and empowerment emphasized by hip hop scholars and feminist writers such as Rose (1994) in her earlier work.1

Other Black feminist scholars note that Black women rappers use their lyrics to promote sexual agency, promote women’s economic independence, and challenge sexual violence. Black women rappers also articulate how structural forces of sexism and racism oppress Black people. In this music, for example, they subvert the notion of ideal womanhood.

Images of Masculinity in Rap Music

Contemporary rap perpetuates derogatory stereotypes of Black men in addition to reducing Black women to sex objects. These depictions then get popularized in television shows and other media. Still, rap music has the role of disseminating Black culture and folklore through over the top storytelling.

Scholars agree that masculinity in rap music propagates negative images of Black men, perhaps due to the valorization of hypermasculinity and resistance to women’s empowerment in societies shaped by capitalism, patriarchy, racism, elitism, and sexism. Some scholars argue that the depiction of Black men in music actually arose during the 1970s via Black exploitation characters and Black male superstar athletes who embodied the “badman.”:

 These authors argue that the ‘‘badman’’ is partly created by racism and classism, and is feared by whites and middle class black society for not conforming to established rules, norms, or laws of society. Perry (2004) states that the badman ‘‘is a rebel to society, living on the margins of a black community that at once regards him as a hero and a threat’’, p. 128) In his view, drug dealers, hustlers, pimps, and players exercise badman behavior by emphasizing sexual and physical prowess, and embracing misogyny and homophobia as part of their character.2

Scholars pinpoint that dominant society consumes rap without concern for how it treats Black women and children, though they take issue with how young white consumers appropriate it to challenge bourgeois values.  Nevertheless, scholars still perceive gangsta rap as an embodiment of mainstream norms in that it perpetuates the values of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy.

Corporate Influences

Some scholars believe that the proliferation of hypersexual and hyperviolent Black men continues because it increases profits. For example, independent labels tend to focus on one’s local environment and a resistance to corporate cooptation.

Corporate songs, on the other hand, most often focus on one’s street credibility and hustler’s reputation. They go on to use rappers to market alcohol and athletic apparel. As the alcohol industry sought rappers to boost their brands, the reference to alcohol in lyrics and in music videos increased.

Around this same time period, the interconnection among rap music and pornography meant that Black women got increasingly treated as sex objects meant to satisfy hardcore sex fantasies.

Not all scholars place the blame on corporate entities because Black men engage in a self-commodification process to create a unique brand and social following. Even when hip-hop incorporates pornographic imagery, it does so in a manner that resists bourgeois values and the politics of respectability in pursuit of entrepreneurial opportunities.

Sociological Research

Sociologists argue that the black masculinity in rap music emerges from the actual norms and behavioral patterns of Black social life.  Rape culture and violence in rap music is not a result of corporate influence. The misogyny of rap music reflects real issues of gender relations within the Black community.

Instead, it is merely a statement and reflection of the rapper’s lived experiences. Rap music thus perpetuates these patriarchal values to wider society. This includes the rise of prison culture in rap music as incarceration leads to the valorization of thug life, thus increasing misogyny and homophobia among Black youth.

Health/Behavioral Research

Few health scholars focus on the content of rap lyrics. Instead, they examine how the music shapes the sexual behavior, norms, and attitudes of adolescents. They also focus on the amount of exposure to rap music rather than the type. For example, the more sexualized rap songs a young person consumes, the more likely that person intends to have sex than compared to other youth. The frequency of exposure to rap music videos correlates with the number of sexual partners, STDS, and other social problems a person had.

Some researchers have found a correlation between rap music and an acceptance of interpersonal violence and tolerance for sexual harassment. Others find that youth who listen to sexually charged rap music have higher levels of sexual activity, engage in binge drinking, test positive for marijuana and have a negative perception of their bodies.

These outcomes were not bound by race. White youth with the most media exposure are twice as likely as those with the least exposure to have had sex. Similar effects were found among unmarried Asian young adults. Ultimately, the use of this media reflects a self-socialization due to individual preferences and personalities. Still, priming theory and the social cognitive theory holds that these songs stimulate certain behavior patterns (sexual scripts)  that conform to stereotypical belief systems.

  1. Herd 2015: 580 ↩︎
  2. Herd 2016:582 ↩︎