Created and cultivated by man, hip-hop’s foundation has been thoroughly drenched in machismo. Any deviance from that manly energy (that solidifies hip-hop’s hard-hitting beats and even harder-hitting lyrics) causes a stir – well, at least, it used to. Times and hip-hop have changed and the music’s macho image has been challenged by Lil’ Wayne’s super tight skinnies, Drake’s emotional lyrics and Kanye’s unpredictable women’s fashion choices.
When DJ Kool Herc came to New York City from his native Jamaica, he had no idea that he would be the creator of an entire genre of music, much less a culture. He just knew he liked to experiment with his records and lay down catchy lyrics that weren’t sung, but spoken–almost like poetry, but in rhythm. After inspiring all of the Bronx in the late 70’s with his movement, hip-hop was born and spread like wildfire. It started off as more of a positive expression of the frustration minority cultures faced when they simply left their front doors and looked around. There was violence, poverty and despair in the community and hip-hop was an escape from it all.
By the late 80’s and early 90’s, hip-hop had spread across the U.S. and artists like N.W.A., SchoollyD and Beastie Boys had changed its face and sound–glorifying violence, racism, sex, misogyny, gang activity, drugs, materialism among other negative subject matters. I mean, the N.W.A. carried firearms like they were some type of swat team. It was clear that violence saturated Gangsta rap, but that didn’t stop it from being a successful subgenre of hip-hop, thus changing the entire fun-filled escapism vibe to hard core. It seemed hip-hop now had something to prove–that there was power in their hyper-masculinity.
West coast gangsta rap influenced the East coast and bred Public Enemy, Rakim, Kool G Rap, EPMD, LL Cool J, Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane, amongst others. By now, hip-hop was a full-on cultural phenomenon. Artists like LL Cool were criticized for showing their softer side–from his “ladies love” moniker to his sing-song flow about needing love. LL was confident enough in himself to further evolve the music into a more emotional genre, instead of an angry, gun-toting boombastic sound.
Fast forward to our generation and you’ll hear various interpretations, from rock to straight-up cuddly (::cough:: Drake). When Jay-Z released Kingdom Come in 2006 after his supposed retirement masterpiece, The Black Album purists protested, calling Jay’s album weak, emotional and not at all the street sagas we were used to hearing from the Brooklyn-born and bred superstar.
But by 2009, when Kanye West released his emotional manifesto, sans rap, 808’s and Heartbreak, it seemed we were all a little more receptive to rappers that tap into their feelings and pour it all over a track. The album was a success and proved that hip-hop doesn’t have to stay in one box. Which is probably why Kanye felt comfortable donning a skirt and taking the stage for Watch the Throne. ::’Ye shrug::
Drake is now singing his way through hip-hop’s manly rebellion. One thing we noticed about him upon his debut was that the man could write an emotional song. Drake wasn’t afraid to rap/sing all the things that men think, but wouldn’t dare let us know. Thanks Drake. But let’s get one thing straight: being open to sharing your emotions on a track does not challenge your own masculinity, but it does challenge the machismo of hip-hop as a culture.
Hip-hop’s number one challenger at this point is Lil’ B. If you have never heard of this freshman class rapper, you’re missing out on a man that calls himself “rap’s Lady Gaga” because he’s fearless. And he is. Lil’ B has no qualms about wearing dangling earring-and-necklace sets and you’ve got to admire his moxie. He’s proven his ability to not only step outside the box, but stand atop it and proclaim that just because he’s hip-hop doesn’t mean he has to rap about degrading women, drugs, guns, etc.
Lil’ B’s subject matter ranges from Ellen DeGeneres and Miley Cyrus to abusive relationships, being yourself and the advancement of our people. He’s more than the jewelry he wears or his controversial album titles (I’m Gay). Lil’ B is a solid fixture of hip-hop’s metamorphosis. He’s doing something only a few rappers have tried through the years – breaking our mental chains of believing that hip-hop has to be hard and masculine. You can still make palpable moves in by being yourself and I believe that that’s more effective than perpetuating negative stereotypes.
The image of what hip-hop has become is a beautiful thing. The culture of hip hop is open to more than just objectifying women, glorifying gangster lifestyles and the like. So this is my very own thank you to all that rappers fearless enough to defy their own machismo.