The Failure of Pro-Feminist Hip-Hop

Mychal Smith desperately wants to like pro-feminist hip-hop artist Drake, but something important and powerful is missing from the music.

I often have a very difficult time reconciling my love of hip-hop with all my hoity-toity ideals about gender, sex, and whatnot. However controversial it was, I’m one of those self-proclaimed feminist men who believes, as Gloria Steinem recently said, “It’s really important that kids grow up knowing that men can be as loving and nurturing as women can.” So when I’m listening to some of my favorite rappers exuberantly claim that they “don’t love hoes” or when rape imagery is used by otherwise talented individuals to affirm some sense of manhood and masculinity, I get extremely uncomfortable.

I’m enough of a hip-hop fan to know that this isn’t all the genre and culture have to offer, and I indulge the alternatives with pleasure. But even there, misogyny rears its ugly head at times, and the constraints of masculine identity limit discourse. I could use more parity.

Drake, the Canadian-born teen-TV-actor-turned rapper, is exactly the sort of emcee that a progressive, black, male hip-hop head like myself is supposed to love. He is the antithesis of every tired hip-hop trope revolving around proving your manhood through violence and sexism. He is the type of rapper of whom I should be singing the praises. I should be heralding him as the leader of the new direction hip-hop needs to take so it can grow and evolve its ideas about manhood and masculinity.

I want to love Drake and write essays about how his music opened up a whole new world for me and how it can do the same for others. But I can’t. He and his music do absolutely nothing for me.

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I’ve tried to listen to the mix tape that made him a household name, So Far Gone, at least six times. And I fell asleep each time. I even took a nap before one listen, so I would be well-rested enough to finish and, well, I only set myself up for a second, less-restful nap. But I didn’t want to give up on him.

I gave his debut album, Thank Me Later, a fighting chance, and although it didn’t quite put me to sleep—there are some genuine moments where I found myself nodding in enjoyment, mostly on songs with guest stars I actually like—it ultimately fell short of hitting me in the chest and making me feel something. Anything, really. There’s a huge disconnect between where he wants to take me and the place where I actually end up.

His latest single, “Marvin’s Room,” leaves me even more indifferent. Drake tells you about emotions, but I’m not sure he actually feels them. There’s a vacancy in his voice that renders otherwise complex feelings hollow. I don’t think he’s really drowning his sorrows in alcohol. I don’t think that huge break-up that has him so torn up he’s drunk-dialing his ex and rambling on and on about how much he loved her. I don’t believe he actually had a girlfriend. I don’t even believe he has a phone.

Drake fashions himself as a hip-hop version of John Mayer, a sensitive soul in touch with the trials of love and heartache one experiences in their 20’s, but lacks every ounce of emotional integrity that gives Mayer’s music its appeal.

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I can appreciate his attempts to disrupt the narrative of hyper-masculine posturing in hip-hop that often expresses itself in violent, sexist, and homophobic ways. But I make this concession on an intellectual level. I don’t actually feel like he has accomplished anything of any true value, regardless of his message. Drake’s music lacks the grit necessary to carry the themes he favors, the grit in the songs about all those things he was supposed to change. The stories don’t feel like his. His connection to them is too distant—and his talent too lacking—to breathe any life into the lyrics and give them full-throated existence.

I should be thrilled that the chest-thumping, nut sack-grabbing, false machismo that colors a lot of hip-hop music is largely absent from Drake’s catalog thus far. It should give me hope that it doesn’t sound like he hates the women he’s rapping about. His willingness to discuss feelings of vulnerability, rejection, lust, sadness, regret, and pain should be refreshing and welcome for someone who believes more men need to get in touch with these very emotions.

It should be, but it isn’t. It’s not always about the content; the messenger can sometimes be just as important as the message.

Photo Lunchbox LP/Flickr

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About Mychal Denzel Smith

Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental-health advocate. He is a featured columnist for MSNBC's theGrio, as well as a contributor to The Root. His writing has also appeared on The Huffington Post, as a part of award-winning author Rebecca Walker's "One Big Happy Family" blog series. Mychal's work covers a range of topics, including but not limited to: politics, social justice, pop culture, Hip-Hop, mental health, feminism, and black masculinity.

Comments

  1. Funny you mentioned Mayer, who happens to be a sexist, racist d-bag. Or did you not read his interview with Playboy?

    It’s unfortunately that rappers like KRS-One, Talib Kweli, or Ceelo don’t get center stage. I’d posit because the misogyny is hard to get rid of. Reality is, you like it. Women be damned.

  2. You do a great job of skewering Drake’s disaffectation and evident insincerity, but I’m very surprised to see you call him pro-feminist or progressive. He has endless lyrics explicitly on thr topic of dispassionately deceiving, ignoring, and taking advantage of girls. His feigned sensitivity comes off to me as sociopathic manipulation.

    I think Kanye is sexist, but pro-feminist. Other artists I see as more feminist than Drake include Jay-Z and even Lil Wayne. (that is to say, not terribly)

    KRS, Kweli and Cee-Lo are “conscious,” but do little in their work to address the subjective lives of women. They just don’t say bitch VERY MUCH.

    Himanshu from Das Racist identifies as feminist. That’s something!

  3. You started at the wrong point. So Far Gone made him a household name but he had already been influenced by Lil Wayne by then. Go back to Room For Improvement and Comeback Season and you might get closer to what you were looking for.

  4. I would recommend checking out K’Naan or the up and coming L.A. based, wonder-kid, Shane Eli. Lyrical geniuses ad beautiful men who adore women and honor their matrilineal heritage with fervor http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-ZrRdXQf-Y

  5. What does “Pro-Feminist” mean in this context? Respecting women just as much as men? If so, pro-feminist is certainly a misnomer because most people have equal respect for women as men and are not feminists. When I hear descriptions of something or someone being pro-feminist, the accompanying ideologies and policy positions usually end up showing that it really not only means pro-female but also anti-male.

    • You are playing make-believe.

      You feel your male privilege threatened; that’s not anti-male. That’s anti-oppression.

      Women are oppressed in western culture. To promote equality, one must promote the rights of the oppressed more vigorously than the oppressor.

      • “To promote equality, one must promote the rights of the oppressed more vigorously than the oppressor.”

        Black males are far more oppressed than white women. And feminists have worked long and hard to make it so. Their anti-male agenda is clear and without pang of conscience.

        • If black males are more oppressed than white women, partly due to feminism, then that’s not an anti-male agenda, it’s a self-serving pro-racist agenda.

  6. There is nothing in Hip-Hop that needs to be pro feminist anyway. Hip-hop is The sale and marketing of pornographic manhood in excess to father starved inner city global youth. You can’t drive men out of the family then ask them to sing (or rap) your praises.

  7. I fail to see how Drake is pro-feminist. Because he’s not a gangsta, he’s pro-feminist? How does the dude who raps on “Everygirl” and makes a video like “Best I Ever Had” pro-feminist? I like Drake a lot, but I don’t understand.

  8. How exactly is Drake’s music “pro feminist”?
    Some of his lyrics:
    “She came through, she brought food
    She got fucked, she knew whassup
    She think I’m the realest out
    And I say damn that makes two of us
    Aww that look like what’s her name
    Chances are it’s whats her name
    Chances are if she was acting up then I fucked her once and never fucked again
    She could have a Grammy
    I still treat her ass like a nominee
    Just need to know what that pussy like so one time is fine with me
    Young as an intern, but money like I built the shit”

  9. I had a hard time understanding what you mean by it “not doing anything for you” and why you don’t actually think Drake has done anything to suggest that what he expresses is genuine. I want to understand though. It kind of sounded like you just don’t like his music by the way you stated that you just fell asleep during his mixed tape. Could you maybe just expand on what exactly makes you think that he’s not actually feeling what he says he’s feeling? I feel like that is kind of an empty reason to just write his work off as a failure. I’m not saying you are wrong or right (not that it matters), I just am genuinely interested.

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