I think it is fair to say that hip hop has been a powerful space of resistance. It often allows artists to exercise their agency by creating discourse around issues of race and class difference. From the pioneers like Tupac to more modern artists like Lupe Fiasco, storytelling through rap exposes stories that may be relatable and comforting to those in similar situations while drawing attention and informing others who are not. Either way, the critiquing of larger social constructs and their lasting effects through this art is a gateway to discussion that reaches a wide range of people.
That being said, it is no secret that this genre also has a pretty bad track record for reinforcing violent, misogynistic, homophobic and capitalistic values. On a whole, it seems that we as a society have gotten better at recognizing problematic lyrics and calling them out publicly. May I present exhibit A. But let’s not congratulate ourselves just yet. I’ve noticed a common theme in rap that tends to be silently accepted and it is time for that to stop. I first heard it from Craig David in the lyric “what’s your flava?” Drake played off the same metaphor with the line “I get girls all different flavours”. The self-proclaimed “Mr. World-Wide” Pit Bull makes light of some controversial cultural stereotypes in the song International Love. Example: In Lebanon, yeah the women are bomb. Down in D.R. they’re looking for visas, I ain’t talking credit cards if you know what I mean. And most recently and certainly most explicitly, Jason Derulo’s extremely popular “club anthem” Talk Dirty to Me is really more like the anthem of sex tourism.
So why doesn’t the fetishization of racialized bodies cause a stir?
It’s the values instilled in our culture. We automatically assume “Isn’t being the object of desire a good thing? You are novel. You are different. You are exotic.” It’s hard to hear that word and not get the mental image of dancing around on a tropical beach like Prianka Chopra. Thus, coloured women in media are inclined to use their sexualization to their advantage – as Prianka Chopra did in her ironically titled single, Exotic.
By failing to address the issue and simply taking it as a “compliment”, we aren’t challenging what is wrong with the system – we are reinforcing it. White colonial patriarchy was based on the notion that female coloured bodies are wild, animalistic, sex objects to be tamed. Nothing is said of talent or ability or intelligence in fetishization but if we look to Orientalism and how the two concepts intersect we see that the attention won by skin colour comes at the price of being categorized with the assumption that each group of coloured people “belong” to some less civilized, far-off land. Each coloured body remains bound to numerous false beliefs about a homogenized culture, language, religion and appearance. All this is deduced unconsciously and without consideration of birth place, nationality and personal identification preferences; elements that make identity more complex since the rise in globalization and migration. Contrastingly, white bodies have the privilege of defining their own identity without others questioning or coercing them into categories. See what I mean? This insistence to define coloured people as the “other” creates an unnecessary divide and encourages racial prejudices and discrimination to persist.
Jason Derulo’s song is just one example in an ongoing pattern in the way foreign-looking bodies are portrayed. As a black man himself, one might think this artist would be more conscious or sensitive to isolating race as a defining feature but it seems that the sexual appeal society has “awarded” race makes it seem okay. In saying that “Your booty don’t need explaining, all I really need to understand is when you talk dirty to me” there is an undeniable lack of respect for (and possible lack of verbal consent from) the voice of the women he is singing about. It is dehumanizing in the fullest because what makes us human is our ability to communicate our thoughts and feelings. Disregard for a person’s humanity in extreme cases may cause inhumane treatment to seem tolerable. Sex tourism as I mentioned earlier is the practice of travelling with the purpose of having sex with local prostitutes where legal restriction is not as heavy. Sex tourists may not be well informed when engaging in these practices so they could be putting themselves and sex workers in danger of financing human trafficking. I’m sure this is not what Jason Derulo was thinking when he recorded this song but it’s important to challenge the artists of popular culture to recognize the implications of what they produce.
Currently, products exploiting Orientalism and racial stereotypes can be found in popular culture everywhere. (Allow me to point your attention here.) A heightened consciousness and deconstruction of Orientalism could free us of harmful and unattainable expectations. It would mean to have greater control over the way we present ourself to others. It would mean being allowed and expected to look, think and act differently from what society assumes of our ancestors.
Now I ask that we bear this in mind; it’s not feminism until you’re fighting for the equal treatment of everyone. In this case, that means acknowledging the intersections of gender and race. If we can listen to controversial songs (like Blurred Lines) and argue that girls aren’t just objects to be claimed, shouldn’t we be able to recognize that coloured girls aren’t just stamps to be collected?
“TTFN Ta Ta For Now!”
― A.A. Milne