New Black Masculinity in Hip-Hop: Feminist Thugs, Queer Gangsters, & Black Hippies

 

Scholar Toby S. Jenkin’s aptly points out in an article “when we talk [about] hip-hop in the larger society, there is often no mention of an artist being smart, intelligent or brilliant.” (1234). In popular media, Jenkin’s contends that black masculinity is presented as “limited and stereotypical,” and that another facet that feeds into this is the denial of black male intelligence, especially in rappers. (1239). Hip-hop is a powerful lens for examining black masculinity; as a form of popular media, it both creates and reflects how society constructs different forms of masculinity, displaying a refracted view of how men in general are expected to be and to act.

While hip-hop in the 90s did produce a normative, hyper-masculine narrative that was damaging for men, personas in hip-hop have been evolving and gaining depth. Lil B, Young Thug, and iLoveMakonnen are three rappers who begin to break down the limiting aspects of hyper-masculinity by including feminism, queer identity, and full-portrait personas to performances of masculinity in the rap game. Traditional masculinity pointed to money, power, ownership, and a harem of women as markers of a “man” and of success. (Jenkins, 1240). This was, through the 90s and even early 2000s, pushed to the extreme in the rap world, with “gangsta” rappers occupying the public conception of “rapper.” However, masculinity in modern hip-hop is evolving past these conventions, fueled by the ability of artists to self-publish, self-publicize, cultivate full-bodied personas and find niche audiences in digital spaces.

Scholar Michael Eric Dyson points to the gun as a central part of the iconography of hip-hop and of the ghetto, but also as a symbol for black masculinity. It symbolizes power, aggression, and manhood; it points to ownership and power and can attract the women that Jenkins refers to as pieces of masculinity. But Dyson contends “the gun is at once the merchandise of manhood and the means of its destruction.” (359). In a tragic scene that played out in this theatre of guns as extensions of hyper-masculinity, the 90s saw the deaths of two of the decades most successful rappers, Tupac Shakar and Notorious B.I.G., both in shootings that were allegedly gang related. Preceding their violent deaths by only a few years was the media circus that erupted when Snoop Dogg was faced a murder charge.

Andreana Clay also refers to the two archetypes of rappers: the “hardcore” gangster, who is “able to withstand the toughest of times,” and the pimp, who can get whatever he wants, whether it is “sex, money, or women.” (352). The ramifications of these archetypes of hyper-masculinity in the hip-hop world can have serious ramifications beyond redundant music: attitudes toward women, limitation of identity, homophobia, and aggression that can result in even death are all entangled in these performances of hyper-masculinity.


The Feminist Thug

Lil B speaking at MIT. Photo by @puretapwater
Lil B speaking at MIT. Photo by @puretapwater

When speaking about black intelligence intersecting the rap game, Lil B has to be shouted out: in 2011, even the LA Times published a headline that read “Why Lil B the Based God is Genius,” in a very non-sarcastic way. Over the course of his career, Lil B has released 48 mixtapes and 5 albums, which started in the early 2000s but exploded around 2010. Responding to his massive quantity of output, LA Times reflects that he is “an artist that never could have existed in a world without limitless virtual shelf space.”

He is a rapper who does not fulfill any of the hyper-masculine narratives: he is not a gangster thug and he is not a pimp. In fact, it is hard to describe exactly what type of persona he fulfills, this Based God whose missionaries spread him all over MySpace, then Facebook, Twitter, Tubmlr, and especially YouTube. He rose to fame not through record labels and not with the extension of a gun (or a hyper-masculine attitude). He rose to fame talking about love, acceptance, and living life with positivity, which are all aspects of living a based lifestyle. He has been referred to as a “weird-o” rapper, but he is not a passing fad.

Based God has created a lifestyle of love that has spread from the fringes of hip-hop to infiltrate mainstream culture, aided his social media presence. It is mainly apparent when looking at the shout outs he gets from some of the most mainstream, popular artists in the world: when Katy Perry attended a Miley Cyrus concert wearing a dress with Lil B’s face on it last year, when Drake got on stage at a Rihanna concert and did the iconic Based God cooking dance[1], when Justin Bieber also did the cooking dance on camera on two occasions (in a music video for “All I Want for Christmas” and then in a WorldStar freestyle video), and when superstar Diddy did the cooking dance with Lil B on stage at SXSW in 2011. Wiz Khalifa and Amber Rose tweeted their support for Lil B in early 2012. (Noisey). Lil B’s brand of positivity and love – two thing that were sorely missing from the masculine persona of rappers in the 90s – are not only celebrated by his niche fans, but reach across boundaries, up into the highest echelons of pop music. This is not dismissible; it signals a fundamental shift in how rappers can choose to portray themselves and still find success.

Lil B’s influence can reach even further than pop music, though; the based lifestyle has reached even academic institutions. In 2012, he was invited to speak at not only New York University, but also Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At his NYU talk, right out of the gate he told students that he “specialize[s] in love. I love to spread love. That’s what I’m here to do.” He continued to speak on violence, saying it there is no respect in violence; that he wants to breaking down boundaries (one way he mentions doing this was in adopting a tabby cat – “I’m the first rapper to adopt a cat,” and he did it to “show everybody it’s okay to be yourself”). He spoke on the importance of caring for others and empathy for others. He acknowledged he was a role model and that through hip-hop, he hoped to reach youth and reach fans and infuse their lives with love and positivity. (Fader). He is so positive it is almost unreal: in a media landscape that paints hip-hop artists as either the thuggish “gangster” or the “pimp” and in either scenario as unintelligent, Lil B shows up to NYU and shatters all of those conventions with one talk.

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At his second academic talk, Lil B drove home just how much hip-hop has changed since the early 90s, wherein the landscape was characterized by extreme violence and sexualization of women. An audience member asks, “do you identify as a feminist?” This is a question that has caused many other mega stars to balk, and even for female stars (including Meghan Trainor, Shailene Woodley, Katy Perry, and Lana Del Ray) to quickly eschew the label. Lil B, however, immediately responds with a “Hell yeah. I push for women so hard…I definitely am a feminist to the maximum.” (Fader).

That a successful rapper can and does publicly identify as a feminist is monumental, especially because there have been elements of black masculinity explored by theorists that points out hyper-masculinity often involves demeaning women as well as hyper-sexualizing women, treating them as objects to be obtained as part of the hyper-masculine display of power and ownership. In Mark Anthony Neal’s New Black Man, he points to the need for black male feminists in order to deconstruct the hyper-masculine archetype of the “Strong Black Man,” not only so that black women may find a foothold in stronger equality, but so that black men too can break out of normative narratives in order to “rethink their own masculinities and sexualities in order to create more productive relationships within the black community.” (65).

Neal differentiates between the threat modern hip-hop poses to the sanctity of the “Strong Black Man” and the more “real” threat that black feminists poses. (41). However, in Lil B, we can find both: a hip-hop artist and a self-identified black male feminist, leveraging the attention of not only his core fans but also of mainstream media and academic institutes to powerfully spread his messages of love and positivity. When asked by a MIT student what it means to be a man, Lil B responds:

 “What does it mean to be a man? It means being a woman…I think what it means to be a man is whatever you make it. And don’t live by the standards of [others] or [conform] to that – because to be a man is to be a woman, to be a woman is to be a man. To be yourself is the main thing.” (Fader)

In examining Neal’s goal of rethinking masculinity and creating more productive, positive relationships, Lil B’s musing seem to align: Based God is anything but normative, as he continuously encourages people to break out of stifling gender roles to find true self-expression. It is a fantastic convergence of culture and social consciousness, and one that is accessible to wide array of people, which only adds to its power. While Lil B started as an alternative voice in a little corner of the internet on MySpace, the connectivity afforded by social media allowed him to not only find audiences but to grow his brand with a DIY attitude. He is a rapper that, when he started out, would have been likely laughed out of major record labels; but his popularity now shows that the landscape had a void that needed to be filled, that craved a Based God. We can now only say “thank you based god” that Lil B is alive in a time that allows for independent, alternative voices to be heard through the ripples and flow of the online rivers of sharable content.


The Queer Gangster

Young Thug In Concert - New York, NY

The camera focuses on Young Thug from across the room: he is wearing a shirt that scoops below his sternum and a septum (the kind of piercing that teen girls on Instagram wear to signal their counter-culture tendencies). Noisey’s crew, made up of mostly VICE filmmakers and journalists, tell Thugger they’ve been hearing about him everywhere they go in Atlanta; they tell him he’s going to be a star. Young Thug only nods and leans into the mic to deliver a signature, yipping/chirping/drawled adlibbed verse. He has been known to wear little girl’s dresses as shirts; he appeared on the Tonight Show wearing nail polish and tight pants, with his hair twisted into two neat buns on either side of his head (à la Miley Cyrus).

Jeffrey William’s stage name is somewhat of a smirk, a hipster prod, locked and loaded and pointed at that “gangster” archetype: Young Thug is something of a hybrid. In music videos like “Constantly Hating” he can be seen displaying that gangster lifestyle, showing off money, chains and posing with his crew. But in the same video he sports tight pant and septum piercings, markers of his distinctive effeminate style. Kollege Kidd put together a collection of YT’s Instagram and Twitter posts, wherein he often refers to one of his crew as his “lover” and “babe.” He referred to Rich Homie Quan in one Instagram post as his “hubbie.” Needless to say, questions about his sexuality and criticism of his fashion style have been flying since he bust out of the Atlanta scene.

But this seems to be part of his sly irony: he is not the thug, he is a young thug, and this generations’ thug wears women shoes, expresses deep love for his crew, and may even be truly queer, all while still finding fame.

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His effeminate styles is consciously breaking out of the standard thug style; while in Tupac and Biggie’s days, it mattered what color you were wearing (in responds to Bloods or Crips gang affiliations) or how ostentatious you could be, modern rappers have taken modes of styles even further, and use them to represent more than a “gangster” background. Hip-hop critics often point to rappers and only see sagging pants as a marker of ghetto, poor, uneducated lifestyles. (Washington Times). So what are Young Thug’s stylistic choices a marker of? In an industry that has been criticized as being relentlessly masculine and homophobic, Young Thug uses his style to embrace femininity and push back against the straight, womanizing rapper stereotype. His Instagram and Twitter accounts are indispensable tools that he uses to achieve this end; they allow for direct expression that is unfiltered by external authors or media sources. YT uses these accounts for developing his persona, which refashions elements of mainstream rapper archetypes while also successfully integrating an alternative viewpoint. Again, he was able to work from the fringes to the mainstream, rather than jumping abroad a mainstream label that would have likely diluted or stifled his identity as a queer-esque[2] rapper.


The Black Hippie

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Understanding baby-faced rapper iLoveMakonnen starts with understanding a little-reported event that is perhaps the genesis of his brand of lighthearted, deeply conscious masculinity. In 2008, Makonnen was in a car with one of his close friends who had a gun, but was also drunk. Makonnen tried to take the gun away and it accidentally fired, killing his friend. It is yet another example of a literal gun, fueled by the metaphorical narratives of hyper-masculinity and black masculinity, ending in tragedy. In response, Makonnen did not become hardened, or a thug. Gun violence, he says, he’s seen countless times in his neighborhood in Atlanta, but he is adamant about his resolution: “the only thing I can say about [that] is to just keep guns away from you…everybody feels like you gotta prove so much, but I’m like, dwag, no you don’t.”

Years before he really stepped up to the limelight, Makonnen’s experiences with and decided rejection of literal guns shaped the way he was poised to perform masculinity later, because the literal rejection spans to that metaphorical rejection of the symbol guns carry of hyper-masculinity.

Makonnen started a blog following the 2008 incident where he often posted his own music. Then, he just got into the studio at the right time, with the right people. In 2014, Mike Will introduced Makonnen to Metro (a hip-hop producer), who in turn connected Makonnen to Sonny Digital. These connections helped Makonnen blow up the Atlanta scene, but it wasn’t until Drake remixed his song, “Club Goin’ Up on a Tuesday,” in August 2014 that he swelled to a national scale. However, even for all his newfound fame, he hasn’t attempted to adopt the standard archetypes of the industry, the gangster with a gun or the pimp stringing along hordes of women. In a video interview published just three weeks ago with nerdy Canadian music journalist Nardwuar he is endearingly genuine, sweet-faced, smiling, and enthusiastic. He encourages his fans to drink more water. He refers to one of his early mixtapes, grinning as he recalls that his own mother collabed on it with him.

Perhaps also telling is Makonnen’s drug of choice: while he might rap about selling molly, he doesn’t mess with cocaine (the drug popular media would have us believe all rappers are either snorting, selling, or both), and barely cops to drinking lean or smoking gas. It’s all about the mushrooms. Noisey journalist Thomas Morton, who did a mini-documentary on Makonnen as part of Noisey’s ATL hip-hop series, refers to Makonnen’s world as driven by “peace, love, and mushrooms.” In one bizarre scene from the documentary, Makonnen is in the studio with a bunch of older producers and his friends from the trap; these are guys in chains and gold rings, all befitting to the stereotypical image. Makonnen leans across the table and asks one, “yo, you finna take one of these shrooms? You better, gotta open your goddamn mind!” The guys laugh and won’t take the shrooms. Makonnen shrugs and proceeds to trip on his own, hop in the booth, and sing off key for the rest of the night.

For Makonnen, taking mushrooms is about “unfolding and understanding,” two aspects that are missing from a narration of hyper-masculinity that downplays intelligence and questioning the status-quo: a man simply knows, or a man knows best.

While Makonnen isn’t as extreme as Lil B in his proliferations of love and acceptance, nor does he push the queer boundary as far as Young Thug, he too succeeds in diversifying masculinity in hip-hop by simply presenting a more full-bodied portrait of masculinity than the normative modes. Makonnen is not a thug, or a pimp, he’s not a pothead…labeling him becomes extremely difficult, because he does present his full self in his hip-hop persona instead of compromising for tired stereotypes. While Thomas Norton was at his house, Makonnen decried record labels for trying too hard to control artists and form their talent instead of allowing artists to truly express themselves. One his friends nodded, citing the power the internet affords artists for sharing their music, then laughs as he turns to Makonnen and proclaims, “You ain’t from Atlanta. You from the Internet, bruh.”


 

This line is perhaps the compounding factor in all three ascents to fame: accessibly the internet and production of online media enable these three artists to side-step mainstream media and present a narrative of masculinity outside of the norm. In the process, they achieved popularity and success, signaling that given the opportunity, many media consumers do search for non-normative experiences. Even Snoop Dogg, mentioned for his murder charge in 1993, has come a long way from the drive-by gangster with an incredible come-up story. Snoop traveled to Jamaica to be reborn as “Snoop Lion” and now hosts a successful YouTube video series where he fills the roll of “Uncle Snoop,” mentor to the young rappers of today. He has rounded out his image as a family man and more diverse performer, appearing on the TV show Empire as well as collaborating on tracks with artists like Miley Cyrus. His public image has evolved significantly since the 90s, expanding beyond the tired motif of a black man with a gun. Snoop Dogg felt the need to evolve, and found himself equipped to do so (leaning heavily on YouTube and the digital distribution of his VICE documentary on his transformation). Because of digital platforms that allow artists to create and share music without a label, artists in the music industry today are positively positioned to begin filling in the diverse spectrum between “gangster” and “pimp.”

 


 

[1] The cooking dance is one that Lil B created, which Chris Schonberger accurately describes as “simulating various kitchen maneuvers—whipping a pot, putting a tray into the oven, spooning food onto a plate—to the beat of the music.”

[2] “Queer-esque” is used here because YG has not technically “come out” as gay; however, many of his lyrics, clothing styles, and attitudes/interactions with other men in his crew allude to at the very least queer culture.


Works Cited

Abdul-Karim, Shahid. “For Some, Sagging Pants Carry Greater Meaning.” Washington Times. The Washington Times, 13 July 2014. Web. 01 May 2015. <http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jul/13/for-some-sagging-pants-carry-greater-meaning/?page=all>.

Collins, Kyle Kramer and Jermaine. “A #Based History of the Entire World Shouting Out Lil B.” Noisey. VICE, 12 Mar. 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Constantly Hating. Perf. Young Thug. YouTube. 300 Entertainment, 17 Apr. 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Cooper, Duncan. “Based Scripture: The Full Transcript of Lil B’s Lecture at NYU.” The FADER. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

D’Alessandro, Anthony. “The Long Tail Of Lil B: Why The Based God Is A Genius.” L.A. Weekly. N.p., 09 June 2011. Web. 01 May 2015. <http://www.laweekly.com/music/the-long-tail-of-lil-b-why-the-based-god-is-a-genius-2400915>.

“Did Young Thug Reveal He Was Gay In ‘I’m Fo Real’ Song?” Kollege Kidd. Collegiate Netvision, 19 Sept. 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Jenkins, Toby S. “A Beautiful Mind: Black Male Intellectual Identity and Hip-Hop Culture.” Journal of Black Studies 42.8 (2011): 1231-251. JSTOR. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Neal, Mark Anthony., and Murray Forman. That’s the Joint!: The Hip-hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Neal, Mark Anthony. New Black Man. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Noisey Atlanta – The Psychedelic and Bizarre World of ILoveMakonnen – Episode 7. Dir. Andy Capper. Perf. Thomas Morton. Noisey // VICE, 2015. YouTube.

Schonberger, Chris. “Everything You Need to Know About Doing the Cooking Dance.” First We Feast. Complex Media, 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Trammell, Matthew. “The Full Transcript Of Lil B’s Groundbreaking Lecture At MIT.” The FADER. N.p., 22 Nov. 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

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