Rapsody isn’t to blame for the way people weaponize her. But she operates with the male gaze in mind and is touted as a symbol of what real rap should look like.
In The Haunting of Hip-Hop, author Bertice Berry tells the story of rap producer Harry “Freedom” Hudson and his lawyer Ava Vercher. Freedom is supposed to represent hip-hop in the novel and Ava represents “the consciousness that echoes in hip-hop’s ear and tries to keep it on a righteous path,” according to academic and author Gwendolyn Pough. Freedom’s internal struggle is creating music that is both commercial and not knowing what to do with the music he creates with revolutionary messages.
Rapsody, a Grammy-nominated MC from North Carolina, takes on the task of trying to fuse this Gordian Knot in her latest release, Eve. Countlessly named a rapper’s rapper, Rapsody followed up her Grammy-nominated, personal album Laila’s Wisdom, with what she called a “love letter to Black women.” Each track in Eve is named after a famous Black woman — from Nina Simone to Oprah Winfrey to Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.
Through their lives and existence, Rapsody’s heroes offer different versions of Black femininity. But in hip hop’s imagination, Rapsody is the second-coming of Lauryn Hill, only evoked to disparage the “stripper” rappers, as Jermaine Dupri unsolicitedly put it two months ago. The rapper references people’s perceptions of her on “Maya,” where she raps, “If you confuse my boxin’ with me being boxed in (Never).” On “Cleo,” Rapsody raps, “Dressed too tomboy, rap too lyrical (You said it) / I can say more, the pain would bring a few tears to you.”
With this album, it’s undeniable that Rapsody outpaces all of her peers. She’s witty and there’s almost a playfulness in her usage of metaphor and wordplay. She sounds like she honed and perfected her pen. And yet, her messaging stays stagnant.
Rapsody honors these women’s legacies and brags about her own skill with the same tenacity. But juxtaposed to the multi-faceted women she decided to honor, Eve falls flat.
Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting wrote in Pimps Up, Ho’s Down about how as hip-hop took over the mainstream, strip clubs also became mainstream. Sharpley-Whiting writes about how Khia’s hit “My Neck, My Back” essentially “broke” in the strip clubs by dancers, as well as Jermaine Dupri himself. She goes on to talk about how Dupri’s video, “Gotta Getcha,” featuring Janet Jackson and Nelly, was an “ode to the male voyeurism at strip clubs.” Sharpley-Whiting also cites an interview from October 2004’s issue of Vibe where Dupri says “I test all my records in the strip club…If the girls really like to dance off one of your records, nine times out of 10, it’s gon’ be a hit record.”
To Sharpley-Whiting, strip clubs were what polling is to politics, “an indicator of what moves the crowd.” And in a sense, it turns male voyeurism on its head. The success of a record wasn’t about how much money the male patrons gave to strippers, but about how much the strippers liked a record. The way men objectify women in hip-hop and the reason women choose to objectify themselves tows a line between exploitation and reclamation — demarcated by who the audience is and who has control of creating and profiting off these images. Sharpley-Whiting continues, “power moves and bottom lines have become decisively wedded to a booty clap.” To see Dupri — and more recently Snoop Dogg — deride women for using his own successful tactic isn’t a surprise, but it does produce yet another confusing goalpost for women in rap to navigate.
Misogyny comes in many forms. As scholar Joan Smith writes: it’s “chief characteristic in its pervasiveness.” Rapsody’s message of choosing to dress modestly and tomboyish and refusing to be objectified creates the opposite effect because objectification also comes in many forms. She still operates with the male gaze in mind and is touted as a symbol of what real rap should look like from women by men, and women who seem to only bring her up as a way to diminish women in rap that are overtly sexual. “I am who I am, I don’t rock a disguise,” she says on “Aaliyah;” on album-opener “Nina” she declares, “I drew a line without showing my body, that’s a skill.” This could be seen as empowering to the women like her. But she consistently positions against women who aren’t like her, and are succeeding for the wrong reasons according to her.
Her Best Rap Album Grammy nomination, coming after 17 years of no woman being nominated, is treated as evidence of the reward that comes with practicing modesty. (Even though Cardi B would win a Best Rap Album Grammy the next year.) Instead of being admired for her work, she’s a moral compass — a wagging finger. Rapsody is made into an example of what women in rap could be like if they didn’t show their bodies or rap about sex. She’s idolized and turned into a scapegoat in the same breath. She fits into the perfect box of everything Black women in rap should be: respectable, modest, old-school and lyrical: “real” rap.
Snoop speaking to y’all women this morning pic.twitter.com/kycPlbVgJW
— She Wit It… (@KRZYCliff_) August 21, 2019
Though a political education and literacy on Black American cultural history can be attained through listening to rap, this notion that hip-hop once was a tool for empowerment and raising consciousness is couched in an anti-black myth that requires anything Black people consume, even leisurely, needs to be a vessel to cure the social ills of the world. (see: The Popeyes sandwich).
The onus to undo the sexist, patriarchal ways of thinking in rap is placed on the women, without placing any accountability on the men in hip-hop who’ve upheld these sexist sentiments or society as a whole. That is unfair. Rapsody isn’t to blame for the way people weaponize her, but it is important to look at how she plays into these outdated tropes of respectability as well. Black women in rap are constructing their identities and sound within a culture of anti-black misogyny and socialization that all of us need to learn to escape from. We need to be able to look at ourselves with new eyes, see ourselves represented with all of our complexity without putting it in opposition to caricatures and figures created by a white supremacist gaze of us. Challenging ourselves to represent our full diversity of expression without the insidious misogyny that wears many masks and guises is essential.
Najma Sharif is a writer living in NY.