The pernicious phenomenon of hypermasculinity in black music may have an ostensible allure, but has massively worrying ramifications for society at large.
Look around. It only takes a nano second of exposure to modern mass media to discern a dazzlingly disturbing trend. From the glistening pecs and ridiculously chiselled abs of LL Cool J on a billboard to the cringingly pimpilicious demeanour of Snoop Dogg on MTV Base, or the tediously priapic and rabidly homophobic lyrics of Beenieman on Choice FM, we are constantly bombarded by stylised images of hypermasculine black men.
Name your cliché. Über-physical, über-feral or über-sexually potent: they all apply. It doesn’t take a genius to see what trite, hackneyed and ultimately depressing images of blackness these all are. What is more, they are unfortunately symptomatic of a much greater social and racial malaise, one which, like a rotten timber supporting the precariously balanced edifice of our society, threatens to bring it crashing down upon our heads very soon.
Heterosexual black masculinity, as a social construction in the twenty first century, is at best deeply problematic, and at worst hideously flawed. From Mike Tyson to Tupac, via Fifty Cent, Shaquille O’Neill and Shabba Ranks, black male icons (invariably from the arenas of sport or music) are right now indubitably doing more harm than good. But what’s wrong with Fifty, Beenie et al, I hear you cry? What’s so wrong with being big n’ buff or being able to handle your business in the bedroom and, in the memorable words of Sean Paul, able to do the wuk? The answer is devastatingly simple, yet is constantly ignored.
Judeo-Christian culture, tinged as it has been with more than a healthy dose of Neo-Platonism throughout the millennia, has left Western society massively imbued with a tendency to favour the old dichotomy of the cerebral over the physical, the intellectual over the carnal. Man as a sentient, intelligent, rational being is predicated over and above man as a physical animal. And rightly so. Brain is much more useful than brawn in understanding the human condition and articulating man’s place in the cosmos.
So black musicians who indulge in representations of hypermasculinity are simply conceding much-sought-after gains in racial equality. Icons such as 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, and Elephant Man persist in trading racial dignity for a quick buck, and are willingly conforming to the oldest, most pernicious (but perhaps the most lucrative) racial stereotype of all: the most execrable of old chestnuts: that black is wholly physical, and that by implication in the system of binary opposition, white is cerebral.
Why does so much contemporary black music persist in presenting to the world at large such a limiting and psychologically harmful (not to mention erroneous) caricature of black hypermasculinity? The histrionic (and oh-so-easy to be ridiculed by white people) hip hop hand gestures, the tedious and repetitious physical and verbal posturing, based on empty self-aggrandisement, the trope of mythical sexual prowess, all are images redolent of ignorance, and all are indicative of a deeply troubled psyche, a psyche visibly manifesting the scars and striations of centuries of slavery and oppression.
Where power, control and authority, (traditional definitions of masculinity) have been historically denied to black men since slavery, it is perhaps historically understandable that the knee-jerk reaction is to present oneself as all that one has lacked. Thus, the rapper or the ragga singer’s conscious embrace of a hypermaculine image as a means of resisting the emasculation of racism is understandable, but ultimately misguided. Unwittingly he plays into the arms of the oppressor yet again. At the risk of gaining the physical, he spectacularly concedes the cerebral.
The ubiquitous and seemingly omnipotent MTV-based culture which peddles ad nauseam this hyperbolised and grossly distorted image of black masculinity simply reinforces these negative stereotypes in the most harmful, demeaning and detrimental of ways. Thus a whole generation of both white and black kids has now been successfully indoctrinated to think that the only way for black masculinity to manifest itself is through physical posturing, sexual braggadocio, feral violence, and general anti-social behaviour. Very soon (if not already) a massive tranche of white people will only be able to relate to black men through the prism of hypermasculinity, not to mention the generation of young black men, some barely into their teens, for whom the pimp roll, the Yo, bitch! and the bedroom bully persona are sadly now the only ways of relating to themselves: the elegiac carapaces behind which they hide from an unforgiving, hostile universe.
The New York rapper Nas’ 2001 hit song Oochie Wally (despite its infectious hook and chorus) exemplifies the long list of anthemic songs built upon deeply troubling misogynistic and hypermasculine foundations. Let’s be honest: “I long dicked the bitch all night” might be a great line to share with your boys at the gym in a moment of locker room bravado or esprit de corps masculin when regaling them with tales of your bedroom exploits, but seriously people……are we making any progress here?
Similarly, Mad Cobra, another legendary luminary firmly ensconced in the pantheon of dancehall deities (famous for hits such as Flesh Dagger and Plant It) is one of the most sexually brutal lyricists in the ragga business. Yet he is hailed as an avatar of all that is good about dancehall music. Hypermasculinity (and its concomitants misogyny and homophobia) are all decidedly de rigueur in ragga culture, and, what is worse, continue to go unchallenged.
And where does this depiction of black hypermasculinity ultimately lead? Well, in the first instance, it leads to the likkle yewt (aka the wannabe bad bwoy) ostentatiously pimp rollin’ down Peckham High Street, bouncing along as if he has dislocated his pelvis, belligerently kissing his teeth in some old granny’s face because he thinks his respect has been compromised by her accidental nudge or stray glance. Result: intimidating or risible, depending on your point of view.
On another level, the endemic gun violence in the black community can be directly traced back to the wholly irresponsible image of black masculinity which is fed to us through music. I will happily wager that Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik or Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B minor are not the musical accompaniments of choice in the majority of drive-by shootings in South London (auto-tuning into Classic FM by accident not-with-standing). Ceaseless macho posturing and the absorption of violent imagery results in the playing out of violence in real life. Art mirrors life, but also life mirrors art. As a direct result of the hypermasculine lyrics in garage, grime, hip hop or ragga music, we are witnessing a culture of deeply-ingrained self-loathing which is imbuing in black youngsters the notion that to be black means to be physical, violent, homophobic, and uber macho (with at least three women). From Ludacris’ I’ve got hos in different area codes to Beenieman’s Nuff Gal, the hypermasculine predominates. Anything else is seen as quite frankly effeminate.
These nefarious lies of black masculinity, no doubt expediently propagated over the centuries by white opportunists (first anti-abolitionists, and now, in their most contemporary guise, the music executives who control the distribution and marketing of black music, knowing that these raw ingredients will ensure more record sales to the white teenagers who are their target audience) need to be swiftly exposed, dispelled and eradicated.
Is the hypermasculinity expounded in black music a mask for historical pain? It would be both churlish and naive to say that it isn’t. It clearly functions as a mask for the pain engendered by centuries of social ostracism, oppression and cultural alienation dating back to slavery and also as a mask for chronically low self-esteem. But (momentarily lapsing into the vernacular), wake up muthafuckaz! The days of slavery are over. And what may have been once a bona fide psychological crutch is now being lucratively peddled as an expedient sales gimmick. Is it any wonder that so much of the educated Black American middle class has a healthy disdain for hip-hop?
It is time to smell the coffee and to realise that, although the physical shackles of slavery are off, we still need liberating from the debilitating mental shackles, and that by falling into the trap of complying with and buying into these heinous stereotypes, black people are themselves setting back the notion of racial equality decades, if not centuries.
So what next? We need to redefine notions of black masculinity with alacrity and to directly incorporate more progressive ideas of what it means to be black and male into our music. There is, of course, no one monolithic notion of black masculinity. There are as many manifestations of black masculinity as there are shades of black. But of paramount importance is the need to present more viable and more visibly cerebral alternatives. We urgently need to create new paradigms of black masculinity which do not give voice to the old lie of black as physical and by implication, white as cerebral. The sooner we acknowledge that the black male hip-hop or ragga aesthetic is fundamentally limiting and ironically intellectually emasculating, as opposed to actually empowering, then, and only then, we will begin to progress as a people. Because, hard though it is to hear, whilst these antediluvian beliefs persist, we are still simply playing ourselves. As the conscious rapper Jeru The Damaja so eloquently said back in 1996:
“With all that big willy talk, ya playin’ yaself.
With all that big gun talk, ya playin’ yaself.”
At the dawn of the twenty first century, if we are to stand even a chance of levelling the playing field and making tangible progress, we need, (as was said of the teaching methods of Cornell West at Harvard) less of da boyz and more of DuBois. In short, we need much less Notorious B.I.G. and much more notorious PhD.
1st December 2006