Black Feminist in Public is a new series of conversations between creative black women and Janell Hobson, a Ms. scholar whose work focuses on the intersections of history, popular culture and representations of women of African descent.
Tricia Rose is a legendary black feminist scholar who blazed a trail for many hip-hop feminists and scholars—and in 2019, the Chancellor’s Professor of Africana Studies and the Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University had a banner year.
Rose’s classic study, Black Noise: Rap Music and and Black Culture in Contemporary America, turned 25 this year—and was also named one of the top books of the 20th century by Black Issues in Higher Education. To mark the occasion, the American Studies Association featured a panel celebrating Rose and Black Noise featuring hip-hop and black cultural scholars Mark Anthony Neal, Gwendolyn Pough, Aisha Durham, Robin D.G. Kelley, Tanisha Ford—and me, Janell Hobson.
Rose also sat down for an interview with Ms. to talk about hip-hop, feminism and the state of popular culture.
Let’s talk about your role as a pioneer in the fields of hip-hop studies and black feminism, or of hip-hop feminism specifically.
I don’t really see myself as a pioneer, exactly. I do see myself that way in hip-hop. But in terms of black feminist analysis, I see myself trying to honor the legacies of Audre Lorde and Lorraine Hansberry and Angela Davis and Hazel Carby—some of who were moderate contemporaries. Actually, in black feminism, I feel much less like a pioneer, because I feel like people were doing and have continued to do this work. In terms of hip-hop studies, it feels a little bit complicated. I feel like there’s a lot of different relationships to mass culture that are very different generationally, and I’m not sure we talk about it enough, and there’s just so much celebration going on. I would really welcome a harder definitive debate, a, genuine dialogue, where we interrogate more explicitly what the different categories are that we’re operating with. So I guess, as a pioneer, I wish that was going on more at this point.
What are your thoughts on the state of women in hip-hop today? We’ve got women like Cardi B and Lizzo who seem to dominating the genre in popular culture, and we even have someone like Rapsody who has put out a more traditional and decidedly feminist album this year with Eve.
Do you think things have improved or not improved? Has it stayed the same?
I think the first 20 years, black women were actually in a much better place in hip-hop than they are today. I think there were actually more women involved as performers. Even when Lil’ Kim started entering into the popular imagination, there were many, many more signed women artists. Whereas now, there are very few signed MCs who are women. So there are sheer numbers in terms of, are they viable? Are they narratively contributing to the stories that people hear all day long? In addition to just sheer numbers, there are those who are permitted to exist.
I realize this is a generationally different point of view, and I have nothing against Cardi B, and I talk a lot about the importance of women defining sexual space. But for the most part, I’m not sure how she’s not just performing both the Latinx stereotype and Carmen Miranda with her bananas, combined with a stripper icon. I’m not hating, I’m just like, there’s really nothing particularly revolutionary about that to me.
Would you say the same about Lizzo?
I would say that she’s pushing the boundaries of what a desirable woman looks like, right, because of her precise positivity. But the notion that black women are perpetually in a state of talking about their sexuality in explicit ways is a normative stereotype. So then what I want to hear more of is, what is specifically happening that makes it not capitulating to a set of narratives and images, or what Patricia Hill Collins would have called hypersexual controlling images? How did it happen that we don’t have a critique? Pretty much anybody who’s successful, whatever they’re doing, that success is somehow seen as feminist.
Why do you think that is? Is it just a generational divide or different ways of identifying what is feminist?
We know there are different kinds of feminism. Like liberal feminism or Marxist feminism, so on and so forth. But we don’t usually think of black feminism that way. But I think there are different categories of black feminism, and I think a liberal black feminism is interested in participation, value and belonging in a system. There’s success in the liberal model, success in a corrupt system. But a radical left model may not be happy to have black women being successful in a corrupt system that actually hurts black people.
We also set up a false binary. Either you’re performing the stereotype and that’s where your agency is, or you’re respectfully not having any sexuality, or using the repression of your sexuality as a political form of resistance. Those are not the only two options. But we act as if they are. Because of that and because we under-theorize the marketplace, we’re not even thinking about how seductive it is to see black women in the market being successful and powerful. All the black female celebrities who are young and exciting and seemingly in control of everything are no more in control than Whitney was or any other artist before them. The industry is a monster. It’s a voracious animal. And we don’t talk about it enough. I don’t understand how we lost that critique.
You said it before: that there are fewer women in hip-hop and we’ve been seduced by these images, these narratives of power and agency.
Hip-hop became more and more of a commodity, not just a cultural expression.
If you had to update Black Noise, what do you think is the most important thing to include?
Black Noise is a very time specific project. Thank goodness I got it done before the West coast took off. I would’ve been in a world of trouble, because you just have to add a whole other framework.Especially given how I was approaching the research. If I could revise Black Noise right now, if I could go back in time, I would have done something on freestyle. I would have included more discussion of freestyle and improvisation. Not only in DJs’ practices, but also in MCs’ practices.
When I was rereading your book, I realized that touched on Me Too moments within the music industry. What are your thoughts about where that movement is now and how hip-hop can be a space for feminists who connect with that?
My oral history on black women’s sexuality, Longing to Tell, really is a black women’s #MeToo. I was a few years too early for the #MeToo movement. But hip-hop has been pretty impervious to the #MeToo movement. You’d think somebody would have come for these men, not just Russell Simmons.
What do you think about the state of hip-hop studies?
Well I think there’s a lot of great work in hip hop studies for sure. And so I’m not against there being new books in hip hop studies, but I think people should not imagine themselves breaking some rules and sassing the Academy is, like, 1,000 books or more. So they’re not sassing me, but there’s a vibe like it’s 1988, or that somehow this is still resistant work.
I just think that our job is not about the genre. Our job is about people.