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When it comes to the music industry, who are the feminists and who decides?

July 12th, 2016     by NICOLA TAVELLA     Comments

Illustration by Shelby McLeod

Feminism’s role in the music industry cannot, or at least should not, be discussed without drawing on Beyoncé and her 2014 VMA performance in particular. She included author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s definition of feminism into her song “Flawless.” She had the word “feminist” lit up on stage for crying out loud. Additionally, we can’t look at Beyoncé’s feminism without analyzing the reaction she has inspired among the general public. Moments after her publicly identifying as a feminist, the vultures were swooping in to question the authenticity of this statement. The internet was flooded with websites like Women’s News asking, “Is Beyoncé a Feminist?” or The Huffington Post explaining, “Why Beyoncé’s Feminism is Problematic.”

The undercurrents of racism and sexism barely hid behind the faux-progressive writing. It’s no coincidence that it was a Black woman who bore the brunt of feminist criticism in this situation, and it is because of Beyoncé’s struggle that I am choosing to focus the voice of this article around people of colour, especially Black women. When discussing feminism and music, it seems intuitive to do so; Black women have been and continue to be pioneers in both areas. In light of the recent resurgence of whitewashed feminism during the current U.S. Presidential elections, I’m even more inclined to resist white feminism in a topic where intersectionality is so vitally important.

For clarity’s sake, I want to stress that white feminism is more complex than simply “white people who believe in feminism.” The term references feminism that ignores the intersectional relationship between different aspects of social inequality. White feminism can be equated with the “All Lives Matter” argument; so much energy is spent making sure we “look at every side of every issue” that we end up not addressing anything at all. There are numerous versions of white feminism, including arguing that “colorblindness” is the best way to address racism, supporting “all-female” spaces that deny access to transgender women, and so on. Basically, white feminism involves supporting the idea of equality for equality’s sake, without digging deep enough to understand the causes of inequality. White feminism is a great source of empowerment – provided you’re a white, cisgender, heterosexual woman. The main problem is that white feminism embraces the majority of the status quo, and so its monopoly on the music industry has made progressive intersectional music difficult to produce.

I discussed the topic with one of my friends at the University of Rochester, Charlisa Goodlet. The current president of the Douglas Leadership House (an academic living center and organization focused on celebrating and raising awareness of the many facets of the Black experience), Goodlet has, in her time on this campus, motivated hundreds of students – myself included – to get involved in social justice.

“When I think about the role of feminism in the music industry, I think about my love for hip-hop,” she says, referencing how she felt connected to it because of its roots in the Bronx “where people like me used [it] as an outlet for social justice.” Thinking about hip-hop in relation to feminism becomes interesting when we recognize the notorious misogyny in popular hip-hop, and Goodlet is all too aware of this. “Some of my sistas cannot fathom how, as a Black woman, I’m in love with a genre that has exploited women of our community on more levels than one.” How does one negotiate being an intersectional feminist while listening to music branded as misogynistic?

Goodlet references the history of hip-hop to explain her sustained love of the genre. “It’s the Negro Spirituals, gospels, jazz, soul and funk elements that inspired the genre to become what it is today,” she explains. Hip-hop therefore becomes inspirational, and, though some contemporary mainstream hip-hop (like all genres) is certainly problematic, it’s a memory of the rich history of Black music in North America. Despite its reputation, hip-hop has actively called out and fought against misogyny. Queen Latifah’s 1993 hit “U.N.I.T.Y.”, for example, won a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance, in which the New Jersey native repeatedly asks “Who you callin’ a bitch?” and mentions instances of sexual harassment on the street. This track clearly doesn’t conform to the stereotypical misogyny of hip-hop, instead embodying traces of Black feminism. Here, then, hip-hop becomes a source of empowerment. (Read “Between The Rhymes” by Tiara Samosir in the latest issue of the magazine.)

So how do we navigate these conflicting yet intersecting ideas? Certainly it’s important to recognize what the problems are. We can’t hope to address and engage with these issues until we understand what we are dealing with. Goodlet suggests we reflect on what we mean when we say “feminism in music,” arguing “Black exploitation has become the true problem of hip-hop.” While race is not something everyone considers when thinking about feminism, it’s vital when viewing feminism from a more dynamic and intersectional lens.

When Goodlet references Black exploitation, she draws upon the term “Blaxploitation,” coined by Junius Griffin, former head of the Los Angeles National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in the early 1970s. Blaxploitation refers to the use of Black stereotypes for capitalist purposes; quite literally exploiting what is understood to be “Blackness.” Originally the term was used to critique films, but it quickly spread to apply to other mediums of entertainment, hip-hop being one of the latest. Goodlet sums it up pretty well by saying “the essential elements of hip-hop culture” are disappearing, lost to the world of whitewashed corporatism.

I would expand on this by saying that hip-hop, and music in general, has largely shifted from focusing on musical expression toward ratings and profits. Goodlet makes this connection, saying “the gatekeepers of hip-hop’s message are the white executives. The image of the culture and what sells is in [their] hands.” With an increased focus on profit and popularity, music therefore follows trends set by those in power—usually white, usually male music executives. Institutional power here snubs out intersectional feminism and replaces it with sexism and exploitation.

Interestingly enough, we do see feminism supported (dare I say encouraged) by the music industry itself from time to time. Why? What does this feminism look like? Darius Colson is a queer student of colour who has explored the intersection of music and Blackness through his own experience as a classically trained violinist. He weighs in on the fine line between exploitation and empowerment by saying that “a lot of female artists own their sexuality, [which] can be empowering, as opposed to women being featured in the music videos of men as props and eye candy.” He clarifies, however, that “to say it’s shameful [referring to the latter] on the women’s part is not feminist at all. I just think there’s something more powerful when a female artist uses her own sexuality.” Rather than women being objectified by mainstream music, we should blame the system in charge of the music.

This leads back to what Goodlet was talking about earlier, how white executives are the gatekeepers of contemporary music culture. The same white executives decide what is or is not “acceptable” feminism. A ready example that comes to mind is Taylor Swift, the perfectly packaged corporate representation of feminist music—safe enough to preserve social and corporate interests without being too conservative. Take her video for “Bad Blood:” The music video’s production value is unbelievable, and the star-studded cast is a regular who’s who among female celebrities in America, featuring such big names as Selena Gomez, Hayley Williams, Zendaya, Jessica Alba and Cindy Crawford. The video has a distinct female-empowerment feel to it, and was quickly swept up as the latest feminist music video.

But, while I do think the video featured a lot of strong women in strong roles, “Bad Blood” is an example of the safety of Swift’s feminism because there aren’t any overt messages fighting inequality. Rather, what we see is a bunch of women battling each other in some neo-noir fantasy world. Maybe there’s a feminist message behind this, who knows. But when we compare this video to Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts,” for example, a clear difference emerges. Only one of these videos calls out a patriarchal beauty industry. Only one of them addresses the sexist undertones of eating disorder prevalence among women. And yet it was the other one, Swift’s video, that won MTV Video of the Year and garnered tons of support from mainstream white feminists.

Colson remembers the feud last year between Swift and rap sensation Nicki Minaj, during which the popstar revealed her ignorance in response to Minaj publicly recognizing the inequality she faces as a woman of color in the music industry. Concerning the MTV Video Music Awards, in which Swift’s “Bad Blood” was nominated for (and eventually won) Video of the Year, Minaj tweeted “If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year.” She later responded to Swift’s outrage by urging her to “speak on this,” and blamed “white media and their tactics” when they subsequently demonized her for the conflict. Colson sees this as proof of the double standard inherent in the industry’s brand of feminism. “If Taylor shakes her butt in a music video, it’s cute, but if Nicki does it you hear how it’s too suggestive.” One need only compare the media coverage of Swift’s “Shake It Off” to Minaj’s “Anaconda” to understand Colson’s point: the former was heralded by The New York Times as delightfully funny, while the latter faced an onslaught of critics saying it was completely inappropriate. “I think the acceptable feminism in the music industry is ultimately the white kind,” Colson concludes.

In the context of the “white executives” mentioned by Goodlet, a whitewashed feminism certainly fits the bill. Even just a broad survey of the music industry reveals stark contrasts between “acceptable music” you hear on the radio and wins all the awards, and “inappropriate music” that can be played only in certain areas for certain audiences. It’s hardly a coincidence that white musicians usually produce the former. Imagine if “Bubbly” by Colby Callait was replaced by “Flawless” in the overhead sound system at Macy’s. Or if Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” was substituted for Nicki Minaj’s “The Night is Still Young” in Starbucks while you’re waiting for your iced latte. This is an ever-present example that the white girl is the more marketable girl. The more well liked girl. The better girl. And further, as Minaj pointed out in her tweet, it’s a specific kind of white girl: a thin one. Even in the age where eating disorder statistics are well known and body consciousness is at an all-time high, thinness is the name of the game in the entertainment industry.

Rochester junior Phyllis Imade, senator of the Rochester chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, echoes this focus on the female body, referring again to Nicki Minaj to clarify her point. As far as critiquing Minaj’s owning of her sexuality, she says that “this fake feminism in the music industry attempts to empower young girls with the message that a woman is more than her body, but at the same time downgrading women who choose to express their sexuality.” For Imade, feminism is broader than the music industry would like to admit. “The girl you see stripping should be treated no different than the girl studying in the library. Her body, her life, her choice.”

When we attempt to pinpoint what “feminism” the music industry supports, it’s clearer that profit is motivating this support. “The type of feminism in the music industry is usually one that could sell…when in fact some of these artists do not even consider themselves feminists,” Imade says. She might be referring to recent Grammy-recipient Meghan Trainor, who told The Huffington Post back in 2014 “I don’t consider myself a feminist.” Trainor, after releasing her body-positive hit “All About that Bass,” was praised for her contribution to feminism in music. She followed this rise to fame by distancing herself from feminism in that interview (yet proud feminists like Janelle Monae are given a backseat). Granted, people are allowed to change their opinions; Taylor Swift and Beyoncé were both hesitant to adopt the feminist title at first. What’s important is that people embracing feminism should be praised for their politics more than those who shy away from even the word itself.

This reveals hypocrisy within institutionally supported “feminism,” making us wonder whether we should be asking those in the music industry if they are feminists. On the one hand, we shouldn’t demand that anyone identify as anything. On the other hand, those who actively say they are not feminists should be held accountable when they perpetuate harmful and problematic ideas. When Meghan Trainor said she “wasn’t strong enough to have an eating disorder” in an interview and showed dismissive and misguided perceptions of eating disorders, it was vital that people held her accountable and corrected her mistake. “Feminism should involve embracing all women,” Imade says. “There is no one way for a woman to act.” It’s safe to say, then, that we can ask people in the music industry to use their influence for the good of society.

But so what? Why should we hold these people accountable? What effect could this half-baked “feminism” possibly have? Unfortunately, a potentially very damaging one. Colson, in talking about his earlier discussion of Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj, condemns this corporate brand of “feminism,” saying that, “the effect of this is the unfair treatment and criticism of different artists. That then translates to people watching [anyone involved in mainstream music] and it tells them ‘If you look like this then you can do this, but if you look like that then don’t do this.’” The result ends up being a mixture of constructing restrictive social norms and enforcing the social policing of difference. “This kind of feminism is not for everyone, and I am not here for it.” Colson states.

I could not agree more.

Tags: art, music, politics, race