Hip-Hop, WAP & Feminism
Written by Lauren Nicol
Illustration by Zoe Shields
2020: the year we are still getting angry about sex. Or, at the very least, the notion that women could ever enjoy sex.
WAP came out a few weeks ago now. Take a bunch of sexually explicit lyrics, add in a CGI-decorated mansion, a bunch of dancing female artists in colourful costumes, and apparently you have a nuclear bomb in the pop culture sense. Everyone from Ben Shapiro to Russell Brand has emerged from the darkness to talk about this newly released single, which has even shocked and confused the artists themselves. The underlying thread linking all the angry Tweets, heated debates, and confusing commentary surrounding WAP is that it all looks to attack female sexuality and sexual liberation. Why have they made this song so sexually explicit? Is it appropriate to listen to? Is this a step back for women – for feminism?
Yet, the only question on my mind in all this is: why the fuss?
As shameful as it is to admit, men like Russell Brand are not the first ones to open this can of worms. Women themselves have also participated in this debate of whether our own sexual expression is helpful or not towards the ‘movement’. It’s true: the image of female gender and sexuality has been dominated by the male gaze, something which feminism seeks to avoid. Consequently, sexuality has always been a sore point in the feminist debate. By being sexually liberated and explicit with our own sexuality, are we adhering to our patriarchal label as sex objects or are we taking control of our own narrative?
P!nk, an otherwise feminist hero, was one example of this. In 2006, she released a single called Stupid Girl which criticised women who cared more about make-up, sex, and fashion than politics and learning. Stupid Girl is perfect for quickly summing up this way of thinking within feminism (or, should I say, forms of white feminism): you can either be smart or pretty – sexually active or modest – but you cannot be both.
Recently, this latest trend has thankfully died down. It is becoming a more accepted fact that women can be both educated and interested in their make-up and appearance without being judged for either. With a rise of women making Only Fans accounts, cosplaying and experimenting online with lingerie, and generally being freer with the ways in which they talk and express their own sexuality, it is also becoming clear that the tide is turning on how female sexuality is received. Before, women would have been publicly shamed for using their sexuality and sexual appeal so openly – and especially for profit – but now, while they are still shamed, they are also given words of support and encouragement by others. Most importantly, by other women.
An unspoken hero in this new feminist wave of thinking is one that WAP is a part of – even if they don’t really know it. A term coined by the writer Joan Morgan, Hip Hop Feminism was created as a counter movement to other types of feminism, which were considered too blind to the intersection of gender and race. She describes how the most common forms of feminism she had encountered was white feminism, which either positioned itself as anti-male or envious of male power. Hip Hop Feminism played an important role in taking men out of the equation and instead celebrating female sexuality as it is.
Unfortunately, since it was led by black female artists, the movement would virtually go ignored, which is a shame. It is a feminism that is constantly evolving with the interest of promoting the struggles and empowerment of black women, presenting women in a much more complicated light far earlier than white feminism ever did.
“The keys that unlock the riches of contemporary black female identity lie not in choosing Latifah over Lil’ Kim, or even Foxy Brown over Salt-N-Pepa. They lie at the magical intersection where those contrary voices meet – the juncture where ‘truth’ is no longer black and white but subtle, intriguing shades of gray…” – Reyhan Şahin
In 2015, Ava DuVernay tweeted that: “To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser.” The true hip-hop controversy (though you wouldn’t believe it given the outrage surrounding WAP) is the aggressive sexism, sexual violence and misogyny usually perpetrated by male artists. Ummni Khan, professor at Carleton University, has described this as a “kink lens”. A feminist reading of rap sees their lyrics as “rapey” and “allegedly perpetuat[ing] sexual violence, misogyny, and rape myths”. When you consider that there is a large list of male artists who have even been convicted for sexual assault and sexual violence, this should undoubtedly be more concerning than a song about women enjoying sex.
The scrutiny that women receive is unending and comes from all angles. To be a “good woman”, to be a “good feminist”, however, these concepts do not exist. WAP has generated the age-old argument on how women should be conducting themselves… when men have been conducting themselves without the same scrutiny for as long as we can remember.
What’s maybe more inspiring than this latest level-up in sexual liberation is the artists response to their latest single, best summed up by Cardi B’s comment here:
“They keep talking and the numbers keep going up. At the end of the day, whatever they’re saying, the numbers speak for themselves.”
At the end of the day, in the world of music, whether the critics like it or not, that’s all that matters anyway. Taking criticism and using it as fuel for your own success? I would say that is pretty feminist.