Voices

To change norms, female rappers must use the language of empowerment

2017-09-11 23:29

Ever since I can remember, I have always found joy in music. From singing as a little girl, when my bedroom mirror was my only audience, to the times I would go out with my big brother and I would end up singing in the shops after the owners would plead with him to allow me to do so – music has always been at the centre of my world.

Growing up as the youngest in a family of academics, I was always surrounded by enlightened thinkers. To give you an idea, my father is a highly respected oncologist and my mother is an entrepreneur. My four older siblings chose to pursue careers in fields such as global politics and public policy, public health, corporate law and World Bank advisory ... and then, there was me: the starry eyed girl with the dream of being a rap artist.

I was first told that I had a “voice for rap” when I was 17. This struck me and I immediately thought that it was too late to start because most rappers begin at age 10 or 12. Despite my self-doubt, my love of singing and rapping became stronger and I too started to believe that maybe my future was in the music industry.

When I told my parents that this is what they wanted to do, they were highly sceptical given the established career paths that my siblings had taken and the negative association within the hip-hop and rap industry for young female artists.

Despite this, I dug my heels into the ground and during my gap year after Grade 12, I started to work harder than ever.

As a first generation South African, of Congolese heritage, I started to think about how I could be more than just a rapper – I wanted to be a creative disruptor and a changemaker. From my humble beginnings in 2015, I was able to build a strong youth following, both in South Africa and the rest of the continent.

As I began to build my name, I became more aware about how prevalent misogyny was in rap and hip-hop music.

But what does misogyny mean? It basically refers to the aspects of hip-hop and rap music that glorify the objectification, exploitation, and victimisation of women.

It can be as subtle as an innuendo or the stereotypical and sexist characterisation of women.

Some argue that sexism and misogyny are tools for rap artists to assert their masculinity and strengthen their authenticity as performers, while others believe that artists have used sexism and misogyny to benefit commercially.

Whatever the reasons, since hip-hop was founded in the late 1970s, it has been a genre that is typically associated with masculinity.

Female artists in the early 1990s faced significant barriers to entry along with being marginalised as performers – a reality that is still true for many of us today.

Despite these obstacles, female rappers have worked tirelessly to advocate against the objectification and exploitation of women in hip-hop culture.

Our reality as female hip-hop artists is that we are faced with a society that has become accustomed to accepting the exploitation of women through lyrics and videos that transmit, promote and immortalise negative images of women.

I am often asked what the answer is, and the truth is simple – it is not for us to censor our genre, as that would kill the self-expression that we are known for.

Instead, artists should be working to change the culture and ideology of the hip-hop genre.

When I think of my goals as an artist and an influencer for social change, the reality of gender inequality springs to my mind.

The stories of girls stripped of their dreams because they have to follow traditional gender roles, women who are paid unfairly purely on the basis of their gender and women who suffer in silence because the glass ceiling is something that they simply cannot break.

As female artists, we face similar challenges in the hip-hop scene. We are often not considered serious artists or artists who are capable of creating a lasting impact.

My goal is to use my music and my presence in the industry to help shift the way people view and perceive female artists. To change the norm, we must speak the language of empowerment, strength and determination. We must be the she-roes that bring courage to the aspiring artists of today. We need to stand behind and strengthen the impact of our fellow female artists in the industry today and going forward.

I want my fans to look at me, not just as Rouge, but as the “Rap Raven” – I want to be a musical superhero who works to overcome the challenges and empower women in hip-hop who face them. To do this though, I need the help of everyone who has had a mother, a sister, a wife or a female friend. Only once we change the way women are perceived in the industry, will we make meaningful change.

Rouge is part rapper; part changemaker. Follow her on Twitter.

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September 17 2017