If you came into 2020 thinking the world had massively changed in the last ten years you’d be right in a sense. There’s a volatile tangerine in charge of the US forces, we have self-driving cars and the teenage stars of Tik Tok wield more influence in 15 seconds than you’ll hold in your entire adult life. But in terms of gender equality there has been a distinct lack of progress in relative terms.
There’s a heightened awareness of this systematic problem but little progress has been made in alleviating it. It’s no more frighteningly obvious than in music and especially hip hop.
Given its status as a genre giving a voice to the disenfranchised and the combative nature of its lyrical content it’s frustrating to see the attitude towards women that still prevails.
This problem exists at different levels and is not indigenous only to hip hop’s place of origin. Ireland also has work to do when it comes to creating an environment conducive to female engagement. However, we’re in a unique position where its scene is in a primitive stage, good practices can still be developed and there’s scope for collective pressure to behave appropriately because everyone knows each other.
First examining the state of hip hop culture in America, the issues that plague the scene become very clear. The subsequent steps to ensure Ireland capitalises on its unique position derive from taking incremental and practical steps as punters, artists and people within the industry. Applying these measures becomes a case of taking active steps and learning from the mistakes that our foreign predecessors made.
Since its inception rap has been dominated by males and records have had largely misogynistic tones throughout. A lot of the same barriers to entry prevail now that did 30 years ago and only recently have we started to see more inclusive festival line-ups, all female collaborative albums and other attempts at levelling the playing fields. Talent isn’t in question but there is a still a clear lack of support for females and representation in the genre.
Having begun in America, hip hop has little to show in 40 odd years in terms of significant developments in being more inclusive. The genre is lagging years behind in its attitude towards the LGBTQ community, women and many other minorities.
With this in mind if we look through the lens of American popular culture and hip hop, success for females has been few and far between. Lauryn Hill released ‘Doo Wop’ in 1998 and it debuted as the first number one single from a female rap artist. It took another 19 years for Cardi B to become the second female rapper to reach the coveted number one spot with a solo release.
This lack of success largely derives from a systemic problem within the culture. It’s not accommodating to non-males. How are women or people of any other gender for that matter supposed to feel confident or comfortable when inappropriate behaviour regularly goes unchecked and they are consistently pestered with backward narratives?
Rick Ross basically got a free pass from the culture after an embarrassing attempt at an apology for glorifying date rape, A$AP Bari too after being found guilty of sexual assault and designer Ian Connor’s continued presence within the hip hop community despite 21 allegations of sexual assault is more than frustrating.
What makes it worse is the persistent push on social media, by other artists and publications of the narrative that successful female artists can’t co-exist, that there can only be one. A fact exemplified by the the constant comparisons between Nicki Minaj and Cardi B.
The scope of the discussion about gender in hip hop isn’t limited to the stars of America and many of the same problems exist elsewhere. Irish singer, songwriter and producer Uwmami echoes this sentiment.
“Another thing that can stop women putting themselves out there is the general conversation we hear around female artists – they tend to be more heavily scrutinised than their male counterparts, or judged by their looks rather than their music. All of that makes it an intimidating prospect to release music or perform”.
“Summer walker springs to mind. That’s a narrative I would love to see disappear over time”, she said.
I hate when people do this shit , I get compared to every female artist everyday upcoming or establish I get drag for my looks , I get drag cause of my race , I get drag for going to the mall without make up , I get drag cause I’m ghetto, I get drag by every single fan base yet pic.twitter.com/VjCYaXDUtG
— iamcardib (@iamcardib) January 6, 2020
Music outlets have their part to play in the abrasive echo chamber of hip hop. Frequently publications will place female artists in their own lane, separate to other male artists and this has a negative effect.
“I’m not too encouraged by ‘top ten Irish female songs of the year’ etc because it just creates a divide and different set of standards that don’t need to be there at all”, Uwmami told me.
“I think all that any female artist would want is to not be passed over in the conversation purely because of their gender, and to be given that same space to be a three-dimensional artist as male artists more so seem to get”, she said
With Uwmami’s words in mind, Ireland has the capability to develop good practices in a way that wouldn’t be possible in London let alone the UK. The majority of the fledgling artists here know each other and so it’s easier to create a sense of pressure to conform to de facto codes of conduct within the industry. We can learn from the mistakes made by our American and UK counterparts without making them ourselves.
Uwmami continued to say, “this scene is exciting to me because everything’s new and growing, so there aren’t really any gatekeepers.”
“People like Beta Da Silva, John Barker and Craic Boi Mental, who make a conscious effort to include female artists on their platforms in a subtle, not heavy-handed way make a huge difference and have really encouraged me personally.”
“It’s just about not being an asshole to people who are trying to pursue their passion, and also not to have a blind spot on who you choose to support”, she said.
Hip hop in Ireland is at a critical stage in its development. Interest is at an all-time high and we have a genuine chance to establish the core values that will define the nature of the genre’s success in the future.
Thinking critically about the issue and not dismissing concerns is important and that starts with chatting with your mates.
Unfortunately a sad reality is that women’s words often fall on deaf ears and frequently men have to raise the issue with each other for it to be heard.
Having a healthy dynamic and approach to inclusivity within your circles helps perpetuate those values wherever you go. The importance of being aware of potential blind spots is an important point raised by Uwmami.
The uptake of these ideas coupled with the fact that artists and those in the industry often know each other personally can create a healthy pressure to be inclusive.
If promoters at a local level take the same approach on board and create more diverse line-ups that bolsters things too. Combined with punters in attendance that are on board with the idea of a more inclusive culture it forms the backbone of a healthier space that has room to evolve and grow.
Looking again at the mistakes made by our American counterparts it’s important to collectively hold people accountable. This by no means encouragement of cancel culture. However, it is vital to procure critical attitudes towards negative behaviour. There needs to be sufficient dialogue surrounding it to ensure it’s not dismissed in the way that it has been in the examples with Rick Ross and A$AP Bari.
Young Ireland has forced the issue in recent years with the Repeal referendum and the Marriage Equality referendum in 2015. Let’s keep this energy going in the new decade and continue to shed the shackles of our past and push forward as an inclusive, modern Ireland.