‘Hegemonic Masculinity in Rap Music: The Root of All Evil?’ by Aidan Marsh

‘’Hegemonic Masculinity in Rap Music: The Root of All Evil?’’ is the winner of the Persuasive Non-Fiction category in the 2nd annual Student Writing Competition, hosted by the Conestoga School of Interdisciplinary Studies.

The expectation of adherence to traditional masculinity norms places a burden on the minds of young men. When I was an adolescent, rap music played an instrumental role in the critical years of my emotional development. This genre provided me with a degree of relatability that no other genre could rival, and, during the prime years of self-reflection and discovery, it allowed me an invaluable outlet of personal expression. Learning what becoming a man meant was an essential part of self-discovery. However, rap music failed to challenge stereotypical notions of masculinity and reinforced a subconscious need to play the cliche man: apathetic, aggressive, and resilient.

Hegemonic masculinity is defined by Oxford Reference (2021) as “The mythology of gender dominant within cultural representations of males, reflecting normative behavioural ideals for males in a culture in a particular period (regardless of the actual prevalence of such behaviour in that society).” Throughout this paper, I will refer to hegemonic masculinity and analyze it concerning some popularly criticized themes found in rap music. I will refer to Fischer and Levant’s (1998) seven archetypal ideologies of hegemonic masculinity: “Avoidance of Femininity; Fear and Hatred of Homosexuals; Self-Reliance; Aggression; Achievement/Status; Non Relational Attitudes Toward Sex; and Restrictive Emotionality.” (para. 7). Explaining how traditional masculinity norms have evolved and presented themselves in a culturally relevant context clarifies that controversial rap music themes are rooted in much more complex issues than widely understood.

Rap is an overwhelmingly male genre. Although times are changing, male artists still dominate the landscape. During the week of February 27th, of the 41 rap artists listed on Billboard’s (2021) Top 100 songs, 36 were men. As one could expect, with an overtly-male genre, there are criticisms unique to rap music that may be gender-specific. Since its inception, rap has been infamous for its prevalent themes of materialism, violence, and misogyny (Richardson & Scott 2002). However, the unfamiliar and misunderstood are often easily made the targets of blame. Like video-games and violent movies, rap music takes a share of the responsibility for the negative impact it perceivably has on youth, especially young men. Many articles have analyzed rap music’s content and the prevalence of problematic themes (Adams & Fuller, 2006; Baksh-Mohammed & Callison, 2014; Fatsis, 2019). However, few pieces attempt to answer why these themes are so prevalent in the male-dominated genre. Although rap music undoubtedly plays a part in promoting these themes, rap artists are also victims exposed to the same beliefs they eventually encourage. Instead of blaming rap artists as perpetrators who purposely preach these messages, it is necessary to realize that music is a subjective expression; the prevalence and popularity of such themes are signifiers of a broader issue affecting men. Aggressive and problematic rap music themes are a direct consequence of hegemonic masculinity.

It is common knowledge that rap music is often associated with violence. In England, a subgenre of rap music called “UK Drill” has recently been accused of promoting an increase in violence and knife-crime in London (Fatsis, 2019). Additionally, one of the most popular rap songs in the US of 2019, “Murder On My Mind” by YNW Melly, reached number one on the US Apple Music Charts. The song has a haunting chorus in which he sings, “Wake up in the morning, I got murder on my mind,” vividly detailing a homicide in the lyrics (Demons, 2018). Although articles explain the connection between violence and the impoverished areas responsible for the gestation of many rap artists (Hsieh & Pugh, 1993), few analyze the reason for these violent portrayals’ braggadocious nature. According to Fischer and Levant (1998), achievement/status, aggression, and restrictive emotionality are archetypal ideologies within traditional masculinity. Restrictive emotionality and a lack of empathy paired with aggressive behaviour and hierarchical dominance can lead to overt expressions of violence to solidify one’s social standing. Although a lust for power doesn’t always directly lead to violence, it can appear an effective tool to achieve a perception of manliness in a socio-economic or cultural environment where violence is more prevalent. Therefore, men in rap music may use violent rhetoric as a way to assert their dominance and social status amongst peers.

Hyper-materialism is another popular area of focus for rap music critics (Baksh-Mohammed & Callison, 2014). Rap has been a boastful genre for decades. The average rapper’s caricatures have long been one with copious amounts of obnoxiously-extravagant accessories and clothing. Rap music videos have become well known for displays of money, expensive cars and various forms of material wealth, as evident in Lil Pump’s (2017) popular music video “Lil Pump – ‘Gucci Gang’ (Official Music Video).” In 2010, researchers analyzed the most popular songs’ content and found 82.98% of rap music contained product placement (Baksh-Mohammed & Callison, 2014). Fischer and Levant (1998) discuss the need to feel successful and achieved as a dominant ideology in hegemonic masculinity; men use relative success to measure their manliness and importance. Hyper-materialism in rap music is an easy way to prove financial status directly. By showcasing how successful one is, they can separate themselves from other men they are competing with socially. Therefore, the prevalence of hyper-materialism in rap music is partly due to the need to solidify financial positions, reinforcing their sense of masculinity.

Out of all criticisms of rap music as a genre, possibly the most widely discussed and common complaint is the misogynistic language and content. While speaking specifically about ‘gangsta rap,’ Adams and Fuller (2006) claim that “In this genre of rap music, women are reduced to mere objects—objects that are only good for sex and abuse.” (p. 940). How women are portrayed in rap music varies, but it is undeniable that misogyny is overly prevalent (Armstrong, 2001). One of the most well-known rap songs in modern history, “99 Problems,” is by rap artist Jay-Z, in which he uses derogatory language to describe women. Jay-Z raps, “If you having girl problems I feel bad for you son, I got ninety nine problems but a bitch ain’t one” (Carter, 2003). In 1992 Dr. Dre released his hit song “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” in which he claims that women are only “hoes and tricks” (Young, 1992). While most critics point to rap music for promoting misogyny and sexist ideals in men, Fischer and Levant (1998) describe avoidance of femininity and non-relational attitudes towards sex as significant ideologies resulting from hegemonic masculinity. The belief that being perceived as masculine is so overwhelmingly essential leads to the idea that displaying stereotypically feminine behaviours will dilute one’s masculinity. In turn, the need to reject femininity to be seen as masculine ultimately results in misogynistic lyrics and derogatory language to separate from femininity in the most extreme and public form.

In conclusion, to unearth the root cause of many highly criticized aspects of rap music, we can look at how archetypal hegemonic masculinity standards have influenced the men that create the problematic content. Rap music expresses symptomatic ideologies that artists use to assert their masculinity to the world. By placing individualistic blame on rap music and rap artists, we avoid addressing these problematic themes’ root causality. Rap music is not just a provocateur in a singular cause and effect relationship. Instead, it is an instigator and a victim in a cyclical pattern of male vulnerability; to pass on these beliefs to the vulnerable, one needs to have been vulnerable to them in the first place. To create change, we need to deconstruct toxic measures of masculinity and create an environment where men are encouraged to embrace emotion, vulnerability, and introspection. We must understand the factors that allow for iterations of these beliefs to be passed on and stop the harmful cycle. Actual change will occur in a culture that is absent of stereotypical expectations of the male gender.