Hip-hop and rap have often been criticized for depicting stereotypical depictions of women, particularly Black women, even while striving to offer a cultural counter-narrative of powerful black masculinity that is positive. Kanye Wests song Gold Digger famously criticizes women for being only interested in a mans money, and the video crassly shows women in skimpy clothing gyrating in front of West, even being used as credit card dispensers. Although raps narrative may question a white world where the police are trustworthy and criminality is viewed as evil, versus a natural response to the environment, it often embraces a very negative view of women at its worst and at its best has depicted women more as sexualized objects than as fully dimensional human beings. On the other hand, as noted by Patricia Hill Collins in her essay Get Your Freak On: Sex, Babies, and Images of Black Femininity, many female artists such as Missy Elliot have appropriated the idea of the highly sexualized Black women of rap videos with pride.
But this is changing. Today, even male artists such as Drake in songs like Nice for What are offering alternative views of women while still using the discourse of hip-hop. Songs like Nice for What address in images and words, show women demonstrating class, respect, and genuinely working hard for what they earn, versus solely showing women as money-hungry and the objects of male desire. Drake shows the ability of women seek an education, mother a child, run a company, and even dress in an elegant rather than sexually provocative manner as attractive rather than antithetical to Black male empowerment. The legacy of artists like Missy Elliot show that hip-hop as a method of cultural subversion for Black women as well as Black men can be the new reality. Old scripts can be reconfigured and rewritten.
Getting Your Freak On: Elliots Challenge
One of the most notable concepts in hip-hop, dating back to the 1970s is that of freakiness. In Elliots songs and videos, this idea is addressed directly, and Elliot seeks to appropriate the idea of working it and freakiness a method of empowerment for women rather than oppression, as it has traditionally been constructed. Of course, the hip-hop narrative of progress is never linear, and many artists continue to use misogyny and freakiness to question Black female autonomy in their works. But the works of Elliot and more modern artists such as Drake highlight that hip-hops method of expression can be feminist and empowering in both the work of women and men.
When Elliot created her seminal Work It, and Get Your Freak On, Collins argues that Elliot was drawing upon a tradition that had and men with so-called freakiness or unnaturalness versus the ordinary neutrality of whiteness. Even when African-American artists had embraced the freakiness term, it was usually to suggest the extremity of Black female sexuality in particular. Rick James Super Freak is perhaps the best example of thisa song sung about a Black woman who is the kind, James counsels, is not the type of woman you could bring home to your mother. Freakiness implies a sexual appetite out of the ordinary. This panders to many of the pre-existing stereotypes of Black femininity, even though its catchy beat and can easily make a listener forget its real meaning.
Collins notes that the slang word freak is very pliable in its meaning, however, and it can refer to being strange, sexual, or even simply to dance. Sometimes it can mean all three, and while some artists like James accepted the dominant cultural discourses view of what Black female freakiness might mean, others such as Elliot have blurred the lines. To be labeled a freak, to be freak, and to freak, can be different things, suggests Collins, and much like other slurs like bitch and faggot, the term is often used to simultaneously replicate oppression to resist it (Collins 121). Elliots Get Your Freak On shows women and men getting their groove on and enjoying dancing rather than sexually pandering to specific images of Black sexuality. Rewriting what freakiness means as something positive can also be seen as rewriting the dominant cultural script of what it means to be Black as wellas Blackness was often viewed as deviant and freaky in the sense of strange, Elliot suggests that freakiness as a mode of individuality is positive and empowering for both men and women, as she delightfully urges listeners to get their freak on, no matter what that might be.
Collins further notes that the image of Black hyper-masculinity as oppressing women (in other words, taking advantage of womens freakiness) has often been used to in general and Black men in general. The act of Black women reclaiming their right to be sexual in a positive wayto be freakythus likewise becomes a rehabilitation of African-American culture as a whole, since simply because people are getting their freak on does not necessarily mean that they are showing disrespect for one another. Far from it, they can be celebrating one another, as Elliot shows in her video.
Elliots video for her song Get Your Freak On begins with martial artists dancing to rap music in a nonsexual fashion. It then features the singer dressed in black and denim, not objectifying herself but celebrating herself as a positive and beautiful image of black womanhood. Elliot, during the video, is seen in different frames clothed in white and gold (an image of wealth and power) and in camouflage in other segments (an image of strength). Although the term freak often suggests rampant sexuality, Elliot offers alternative personas for the female viewer (and perhaps even the male viewer) that are fierce and sexy but not objectified.
Elliot also shows people dancing and having fun in the video, including women who are not obviously dancing for men or to incite male desire. Another striking aspect of Elliots video is her sense of fun. No one is mocked or demeaned in the video, and getting your freak on clearly means expressing your personal style in an inventive way that does not demean other people. This is contrary to another stereotype discussed by Collins, that of the Black bitch, or the emasculating woman who is the opposite of but just as stereotypically bad as the freak (Collins 122). There is nothing bitchy or mean about Elliots characterization, and no men are shown to be denigrated by a woman joyfully getting her own freak on in a manner that does not pander to male sexual needs.
Elliots equally famous video Work It shows an unconventional-looking young girl working it through dance as a form of self, without any self-consciousness or attempt to look beautiful and provocative for the male gaze. Elliots idea of working it is also notably free of any criminal resonances, which, according to the cultural critic Russell-Brown, has often been used as a common theme in male rap, as criminality has frequently been seen as the only way for many poorer Black males to get by in a racist society. Elliots videos show strangeness and transgression as a way of questioning the norms of dominant society but in an arguably more feminine way that uses fashion and dance rather than violence.
Rewriting the Misogynist Script: Drake Today
The fact that Elliots more positive depiction of Black femininity has had a lasting cultural impact can be seen in the response of Drake in his Nice For What video, which also shows images of positive Black female sexuality. The lyrics to his song go: Ive been peepin what you bringin to the table. / Workin hard, girl, everything paid for; /First, last phone bill, car note, cable. The image of the hardworking woman is the complete opposite image of the gold-digging female, demanding money in exchange for sexuality. The women celebrated by Drake has earned each and every single penny she has made, and when she spends it, she has every right to do so. Drake looks on with approval. While, according to an essay by Rebollo-Gil and Moras, Rap records are filled with seemingly heart-felt and passionate tales of the way in which rap somehow saved and rescued black male rappers from difficult situations, Drake shows women saving themselves through education, raising children, and empowerment (Rebollo and Moras 124).
What is beautiful about the multiracial images of the women in Drakes video is that they are working hard for what they are earning in jobs that have nothing to do with their bodies, whether they are executives, mothers, or students. The women in the video are elegantly dressed in evening gowns and work attire, rather than scantily clothed, and they are dressed for themselves, rather than the male gaze, which is notably absent in the video. Drake himself makes few appearances, and when he does, he sings at the camera, rather than at the women or gazes at the women. While, as Collins states, the theme of the materialistic, sexualized Black woman has been an icon of hip-hop culture, Drake refuses to play to this stereotype in an obvious fashion (Collins 126).
Of course, it could be argued, that even though the women in Drakes video are not embodying the Baby Got Back stereotype of the typical, , the video still deals with materialism. There are images of women smoking cigars and wearing fancy jewelry even though they are also shown enjoying time with their children or wearing ripped jeans and a backpack at school. The image is of a desire of women using their intelligence and grit to work their way up, or enjoying what they have earned, but success is still envisioned in very materialistic term. In contrast, Elliots videos like Get Your Freak On are much more surreal with fluid images that are much more challenging to traditional stereotypes of Black femininity, such as an extended sequence where she is shown riding in a cab with her home girls, all of them in bandanas, hanging out the windows and showing a sense of female solidarity and pride.
As noted by Storys essay on feminine representation in Black rap videos, it can be very difficult for a woman, particularly a black woman, to entirely erase this collective memory of what a black body means and how a black woman should be. Story notes that the dualism of mind versus body has traditionally resulted in women, but particularly women of color, being categorized as solely of the body rather than the mind. Showing that body in a sexual but positive way does not always fully undo the dangerous stereotypes which seek to undermine Black womens intelligence and ability to succeed. It can be very difficult for any artist, whether a woman like Elliot or a male artist like Drake, to entirely erase this divide.
Still, images in Drakes video of Black women doing their thing, whether that is a Black woman going to college in ripped jeans, natural hair, and a backpack, or a woman in an evening gown, is a powerful one. It indicates that male as well as female artists are reclaiming idea that Black women do not need to choose between mind and body, between sexuality and intelligence. All of the women in Drakes recent video seem to be enjoying their lives rather than exist for the pleasure of men. The fact that an artist of Drakes stature is willing to use fairly non-traditional female images in his video is itself a statement, and hopefully one which will be reaffirmed by artists of both genders.
Collins, Patricia. Get your Freak On: Sex, babies, and Images of Black Femininity. In Black sexual politics: African Americans, gender and the new racism. New York: Routledge, pp.119-148.
Rebollo-Gil, G. and Moras, A. Black Women and Black Men in Hip-Hop Music: Misogyny, Violence, and the Negotiation of (White-Owned) Space. The Journal of Popular Culture, 45.1 (2012) 118-131.
Russell-Brown, K. Underground Codes: Race, Crime and Related Fires. New York: New York UP, 2004.
Story, Kaila. Racing Sex Sexing Race: The Invention of the Black Feminine Body. In Imagining the Black Female Body: Reconciling Image in Print and Visual Culture. New York: Palgrave, 2010, pp.23-42.