- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
By Austin C. McCoy,
On June 3, 2012, Hot97 DJ Peter Rosenberg took to the stage at MetLife Stadium to address the crowd at the radio station’s annual hip hop concert, Summer Jam. While warming up the crowd, Rosenberg says, “I see the real hip hop heads sprinkled in here…I see them. I know there are some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later – I’m not talking to y’all right now…I’m here to talk about real hip hop.”
Minaj caught wind of Rosenberg’s comments and subsequently withdrew from the event. It is reported that her boss at Young Money Entertainment, rap star Lil Wayne, instructed her to remove herself. He also withdrew all Young Money-affiliated artists from the show. Lil Wayne explained his decision: “I don’t know what anyone else believes, but I believe females deserve the ultimate respect at all times no matter when or how…I feel like a woman’s supposed to be respected at all times, therefore I believe I made the right decision.” Rosenberg responded to Lil Wayne’s comments by asking whether or not stating his opinion about a song constituted a lack of respect for women. Rosenberg then sought to illustrate Wayne’s hypocrisy by playing some of his misogynistic lyrics, further punctuating his point by declaring, “Weezy F. – the ‘F’ doesn’t stand for feminist, alright.”
Nicki Minaj defended her and Wayne’s actions to Hot97’s DJ Funkmaster Flex the following day. She recognized the gendered nature of Rosenberg’s comments, especially in light of there being only one female on the bill. To paraphrase Minaj: “I’m holding it down for women. […] Every woman needs to know that it does not matter what people say about you. After a certain amount of time, when you put in a certain amount of work…you deserve respect.” Flex remained on the defensive and denied that Rosenberg’s comments were not an attack on women. He then protected Rosenberg’s right to express his opinion even though he thought that Rosenberg voiced it at the wrong time.
This is not the first time that popular hip hop artists have been dissed on the Summer Jam stage. Rosenberg’s actions were different. He was not an artist, but a DJ who worked for the station and scheduled Minaj as one of the headliners. More importantly, and despite what Rosenberg and other Hot97 deejays like Funkmaster Flex said, Rosenberg drew the line between “real” and “fake” hip hop in terms of not just aesthetics, but of its legitimacy along gendered lines. Indeed, the spat between Rosenberg and Nicki Minaj, Lil’ Wayne, and Young Money highlights the giant elephant in the room—hip hop’s gender inequity.
In his interview with Minaj, Funkmaster Flex correctly asserted that criticism has been a crucial component of hip hop. But Rosenberg’s dismissal of Minaj and her presumably female fans is tantamount to an attack on women for various reasons. Although women have always participated in hip hop, men have defined its values since the beginning; thus, many of us participants and critics base our evaluations and criticisms (of the “real” aspects) of hip hop music on a heterosexual masculine aesthetic. While there are more female rappers on the public radar than ever before, only few paths to relevancy and stardom remain for women.
Of course, Rosenberg acknowledges women in their traditional social roles: “Wayne is right about something—Women are mothers, are sisters, are daughters…” Yet his comments about Minaj’s music implicitly reflect a preference of a particular masculine aesthetic (why can`t female artists be “hard” as well?). The advocacy for this aesthetic and the denigration of more “popular” music like Minaj’s pigeonholes female artists. Like hip hop’s other elements, rapping is a method in style and presentation as well as in lyrical skill and content. Even when a prevailing form of masculine performance dominates hip hop’s and the broader public’s imagination, heterosexual male artists can inhabit and perform various identities and styles—the thug, gangsta, hustler, pimp, revolutionary, smoker, hipster, etc.—without “selling out” and while remaining culturally relevant and financially successful.
Women, on the other hand, do not always have as many available styles through which to enjoy commercial success. The industry continues to view women as one-dimensional. Hip hop fans know Lil’ Kim as the aggressive, sultry, and sexy “Queen Bee.” Many think of Queen Latifah as the strong, Afrocentric black feminist before she graced television screens as an actress and as a Covergirl spokeswoman. Minaj has emerged as hip hop’s “Barbie” in recent years. So, when Peter Rosenberg publicly criticizes the “softness” of Minaj’s music (or “bullshit,” as it has also been reported), he is closing a lane for female hip hop performance on a larger scale. He is also telling fans what music is acceptable to enjoy. Additionally, Rosenberg’s comments literally excluds women from the fundamental conversation around defining “real” hip hop (“I’m not talking to y’all right now…”).
This controversy begs the question: Should we not ask why particular female (and male) artists “go pop” instead of criticizing them for “selling out”? I could sum up the answer in one word: relevancy. Then I could also give you two more: financial security. Top notch female rap performers have had a very short shelf life compared to male artists. Male rap veterans like LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Nas, Jay-Z, and Diddy have been able to transform themselves and remain relevant for decades. Female artists have not been able to brag about such longevity. Queen Latifah has been one of hip hop’s most commercially successful women in American pop culture, but she experienced her zenith as a rap artist during the 1990s (I would argue between 1989-1993.). Lil’ Kim has boasted the strongest career in terms of longevity and commercial music success, her career bookended by the releases of her classic Hard Core in 1996 and the critically-acclaimed The Naked Truth in 2005. She also strengthened her viability by engaging in various collaborations with pop artists and in undertaking non-hip hop ventures in the 2000s. Kim has often criticized Minaj for not paying homage to her. But Minaj has paid attention to Latifah’s and Kim’s business model—and now has to swim against the conservative currents within hip hop if she does not want to go the way of the many female artists that came before her. Male artists can develop and cultivate a “traditional” (heterosexual) male fanbase to keep themselves them relevant. Female artists do not always have this luxury, thus crossover success represents a potential path toward long-term relevancy and financial security—two goals that all rap artists seek in some sort of fashion. So, if one is in Nicki’s position, why not keep one foot in the hip hop world and one in the pop world? We appreciate Jay-Z’s and Diddy’s business acumen, but why not Nicki’s?
Rosenberg did not think of the ramifications of his statements. He, and Funkmaster Flex, thought such comments were an exercise in hip hop criticism. Yet, this is often how power, privilege, and inequity works—we (in this case we male critics, including myself) engage in everyday practices that reinforce values serving to maintain a hierarchy and one’s relative dominance within a particular cultural space. And our actions usually take the logic of notions of “common sense”—or, in hip hop’s case, the case for “realness”—for granted. This all contributes to narrowing the artistic paths for artists who are not male, masculine, and heterosexual. Calling out misogynistic and sexist lyrics has always been a worthwhile tactic in addressing gender inequity, but that is not enough. Questioning the fundamental internal divides and taboos within hip hop will push the culture to fulfill its promise, which is to represent a space for one to exercise their artistry and to push the boundaries of American pop culture and society freely.
I cannot brag about being a fan of Nicki Minaj’s music. I do, however, recognize her lyrical abilities. And I do not need to own a Nicki Minaj album to recognize her right to exist and prosper. Acknowledging how her artistry can represent a positive development is not necessarily mutually exclusive with liking her music. Yes, we have a right to criticize anyone’s music, but most importantly, every artist—male, female, transgender, self-identified as straight, and queer—has a right to fair treatment, especially if we are to speak of ourselves as a collective. Internal criticism has always functioned as a means of self-correction within the game and it has made it stronger. But let us not forget how diversity and pushing boundaries has also contributed to the legitimacy, the vibrancy, and the rebelliousness of hip hop.
Fortunately, we could be looking at a cultural opening despite the Hot97 and Young Money squabble. Female artists such as Jean Grae and Invincible have paved their own lanes for themselves. More upstarts like Azealia Banks are positioning themselves for mainstream success as well. But that does not mean that the problem of gender inequity will be solved by merely increasing the number of female artists, executives, and moguls, either. Nor does it mean that we should not have a conversation about how to address this inequity. We have to develop means of determining “what’s real” in a fair and equitable fashion. This can only be accomplished if we honestly reexamine our values, own up to the problems found within hip hop, and live out whatever solutions we can generate. In doing so, we will hopefully embrace and emphasize our diversity, every artist’s rights to exist, and institute values that ensure every performer enjoy success.
 “Nicki Minaj Skips Festival After a DJ’s Remarks,” New York Times, June 4, 2012, accessed June 9, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/05/arts/music/nicki-minaj-backs-out-of-summer-jam.html?_r=4&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1338829536-7lRrYz3PYzHx4SxWQDMXLg&pagewanted=all.
 Demetria L. Lucas, “Real Talk: Really, Lil Wayne? You Respect Women?,” Essence , June 20, 2012, accessed July 3, 2012, http://www.essence.com/2012/06/20/real-talk-really-lil-wayne-you-respect-women/.
 “Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg Responds to Lil Wayne About Respecting Women,” HIPHOPDX, June 20, 2012, accessed, July 3, 2012, http://www.hiphopdx.com/index/news/id.20158/title.hot-97s-peter-rosenberg-responds-to-lil-wayne-about-respecting-women.
 Minaj made a serious point here. Rosenberg probably could have made similar comments about what’s real and what’s not regarding some of the men scheduled to perform, but he did not. Nicki Minaj Interview with Funkmaster Flex, Hot97, June 5, 2012, accessed July 3, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wF8ksIC0–0.
 Jay-Z declared war on Mobb Deep and Nas in 2001 when he performed verses from “Takeover” and flashed a picture of a young Prodigy in his dancing outfit on the big screen.
 Only a few female artists have been able to rise to the type of stardom that Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliot, and Nicki Minaj have at one time. In the hip hop world defined by masculine competition—who’s the “king” and who’s the “queen”—there’s only room for one or a few women in rap crews, on year-end top ten lists, and on performance bills.
 See Ice Cube in the early-1990s and 50 Cent in the early-2000s as two prominent examples of how “the gangsta” reflected the dominant paradigm for black masculinity in hip hop.
 In fact, Queen Latifah had to go outside of hip hop before she could demonstrate the various facets of her personality. True, plenty of male artists like LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Mos Def, and 50 Cent have also ventured into other realms of entertainment, but they have also demonstrated the ability to release albums to hungry fan bases willing to support them.
 But she has been struggling to regain any momentum ever since her jail stint in 2006.
 Listen to her verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” on his latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Her verse is crazy.