Does Christian Hip Hop Make Anyone Else (Kind of) Uncomfortable?

I was listening to one of my favorite albums – 13 Letters by 116 Clique– and I got this feeling like, “Dag, something about this album is just off.” And then I realized that there was a very noticeable gender imbalance in the representation of people in the songs. All of the leads in every song on this album are men. Women feature on the album twice. The first time is for 10 seconds in the beginning of the 6th song on the album (Justified). The second time is in the chorus of the 10th song on the album (Keep the Faith). That’s it. I’m sure you’re wondering why this matters, I mean, so what that all of the leads on these songs are men? Or rather, isn’t one of the goals of Christian Hip Hop to reach young men (young people?) by appealing to those who would normally be drawn to similar beats in mainstream hip hop? Or maybe there just aren’t that many women in Christian Hip Hop…

So here’s my response that will hopefully get at all of the major questions that come up:

  1. The gendered politics of faith are important to discuss because every person’s life experience directly informs the way they read the bible as a faith-based text. This means that in a hip hop album about what it means to be a Christian today (not what it means to be a man today nor what it means to be black today) a mostly male vocal cast will not be representative of the diverse ways to experience the Bible as a life-informing text. Secondly, that women’s roles in these musical texts are mostly secondary almost suggests that women in Christian spaces are regarded as secondary or peripheral to their male counterparts in those same spaces.
  2. If this type of music is meant to stand as an alternative to mainstream hip hop, then to me this feels a lot like fighting fire with fire. In some of the songs (not just on this album, but across the contemporary Christian Hip Hop genre) women are implicated as being the cause of men’s sin. In some of these lyrical texts women are men’s morally weaker counterparts — think Eve, Jezebel, Delilah, or Mary Magdalene — that men should stay away from if they want to be good and holy. Or it paints us as vulnerable, incapable people who men have a responsibility to rescue from our immorality. Writing honestly, I think that by excluding women from the dialogue about the important roles they’ve played in Christianity across the centuries, Christian Hip Hop creates a negatively skewed view of women in Christian spaces that’s as bad as the denigration of women in many forms of contemporary mainstream hip hop. Shouldn’t Christian Hip Hop strive to be better than the status quo? Especially considering that Jesus himself was an active proponent of equality amongst people, including those who were most often marginalized in his society. To end this point, if the textual analogy between Christian Hip Hop and Mainstream Hip Hop (a disproportionately male-dominated space) holds, then in order for a woman to be regarded with similar rapport as a male counterpart in Christian Hip Hop then in some ways she’ll probably have to take on masculine characteristics that are recognizable as signals of being “hard” in the mainstream hip hop world. (Who’ll be the Nikki Minaj of Christian Hip Hop?)
  3. But Gaga, what about the Fruit Cocktail album by B3AR FRUIT? That’s a great question. Fruit Cocktail is an awesome album with songs where men and women have prominent featuring roles. True. But even then the women only make up 1/3 of the pieces on the album. And this isn’t a numbers game, but quantitative analysis of women’s representation is often one of the quick and easy ways to demonstrate inequality. If there are only 4 women on an album with 12 songs, then assuming they are all singing from their experiences as women, what we learn about a woman’s experience as a Christian is limited, no? To take this a couple of steps further, how often have the names of the women from the B3AR Fruit album reappeared in any other Christian hip-hop/r&b media since it’s release? I, personally, rarely see names like Se’lah, Monielle, Leah Smith, or Melissa T featured on Lecrae, Trip Lee, Sho Baraka, Andy Mineo, or Tedashii’s solo albums. (In a cursory search on iTunes: Se’Lah apparently doesn’t have any solo releases, but her piece on Bear Fruit was more spoken word than song…but Floetry…but anyway; Monielle is featured on 4 songs but doesn’t have any solo releases of her own; Melissa T has one single; and Leah Smith has a 6 song LP called “Beautifully Made”.)

I know this reads like an entry from the diary of a gender-obsessed humanities concentrator. But there is almost nothing written on this subject. Anywhere. As a Christian, I often have the most trouble reconciling the reality of my embodied experience as a woman with what the Bible says about my role in the world. It would be awesome to be able to hear something about that in the music I listen to, but if the women aren’t getting equal air time to the men in the field that means that only a very skewed perspective on what it means to be a contemporary Christian is being propagated. One that I can’t relate to and one whose message I’ll probably tune out in favor of just listening to a hype beat. And why couldn’t I just get that from mainstream Hip Hop?

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Fighting for Malala

Source: Harvard Political Review

And they are those who are afraid of little girls?
They seem, fittingly to dislike education and enlightenment.
They claim to be following the commands of God,
Who commands us to seek learning!
That is one command they blithely ignore.

Kishwar Naheed, Pakistani Poet

The shooting of Malala Yousufzai, a young student activist and blogger has been widely condemned as a cowardly, dastardly, and belligerent act of the Taliban. It increasingly speaks to the lengths to which one militant organization can go to further its agenda. Not only was Malala, a 14-year-old schoolgirl, something of an ultimate soft target, but she was also apprehended in a school bus, filled with students who were just as defenseless. At least 2 other girls were wounded in the shooting. Now she is in critical condition and the extent of damage to her brain is unknown.

The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that claimed responsibility for the attack is unrepentant, stating that “She was young, but she was promoting Western culture in Pashtun areas.” TTP labels anyone, man, woman or child, weak or strong, rich or poor as wajib ul qataldeserving of death—if he or she compromises the teachings of the Quran or insults the Prophet. In Malala’s case, she was guilty of spreading secular thought through her blog and her defiance of the ban on attending school in Swat, before the military operation and when extremists groups had taken over. In the TTP’s interpretation, each and every one of us is wajib ul qatal.

The nature of the target makes this crime all the more barbaric and heinous, but it speaks to the new and increasingly desperate agenda of TTP, an organization that is beleaguered by condemnation from all sides. Responses to Malala’s shooting are very telling of a greater consciousness of Pakistanis. No one in their right mind would praise such an act, but in the past, Pakistanis have been divided over similar actions like the killing of Salman Taseer. We have had enough. And “we” does not just mean the liberal English-speaking lot. Over 50 ulema or members of the Sunni Ittehad Council have issued a fatwa or edict against the attack. Interestingly enough, even Jamat ud D’awah, classified by the United States as a terrorist organization, took to Twitter in condemning the attack.

Unanimous condemnation is necessary at this time, as extremist and sectarian groups ramp up attacks on weaker parties and minority groups. Earlier this year, a 14-year-old Christian girl was jailed after accusations that she desecrated the Quran. She was released on bail when the case against her fell apart and it was discovered that a local cleric in her village planted evidence against her. Prominent clerics came out stating that they were ashamed of such an incident, especially when it was discovered that the girl had Down Syndrome.

In most parts of the world, such cases are unthinkable. The TTP, among other extremist organizations in Pashtun-speaking regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, have resorted to the worst means possible to further their agendas. But to some relief, these means have begun to awaken Pakistanis to the reality of the threat. Liberal- or conservative-minded, our fundamental freedoms and lives are at stake if we do not roundly condemn brutalities like the one committed against Malala Yusufzai. Pakistan’s biggest barrier to ending this threat is the specter of anti-American absolutism: a common excuse for trampling on others. Shoot the girl because she admires Obama, stop giving children polio drops, because the United States will not stop the drones. It’s taken until now for many Pakistanis to recognize the perversity of this logic.

Never before in Pakistan’s history has a young girl been such a unifying force in the face of a threat. Malala is fighting for her life. The rest of us can only express our outrage through condemnation, whether it is through tweeting, or changing our Facebook profile pictures or even just by writing. Her image and her example act as a reminder that we fight for Malala and the girls who risk their lives everyday for something as basic as the right to go to school.

 – HCWC Intern, Nur Nasreen Ibrahim ’13

Choreographing Gender in Hip Hop Dance

An illustration of gendered movement from Shira’s gendered focused Expressions piece

When I decided to take on choreographing my third piece for Expressions Dance Company this semester, I wasn’t too worried. I had choreographed two pieces before, and they had both been a lot of fun. However, in beginning to choreograph this semester, I started questioning choices that I had formerly seen as normal—I began to realize how complicated it is to inhabit the duel identity of “Feminist” and “Hip Hop Dancer.”

Okay, let me back up for a second.

Dancer: I have been taking dance since infancy, and Hip Hop dance since middle school. However, it was only after I arrived at Harvard that I decided to focus on dance as my main extra-curricular. Two years later, I have 8 pieces with Expressions Dance Company under my belt, not to mention 3 that I have choreographed, and a year working with a dance company in Boston. Dance is a huge part of my life, so I am no stranger to the gendering that happens in Hip Hop dance, which constantly conforms to conventional gender roles through its divisions of dancers along gender lines, and gendering movement based on who is doing it.

Feminist: I have always considered myself a feminist. When people would say, “What, a feminist? Those crazies?” I would say, “Well, actually, being a feminist just means you believe in equal rights for women, which of course I do! Don’t you?” However, it was when I began working for the Women’s Center that I realized there are more questions I wanted to ask myself about what being a feminist means to me.

Some of these questions revolved around my role as a Hip Hop dancer, and especially as a choreographer. I got to thinking: What does it mean to be a feminist if I listen to, and choreograph to music that strongly objectifies women, music that reduces their identities to a sexual function? What does it mean to believe in the fluidity of gender and the gender spectrum if I divide people up into “girls” and “guys” for different sections of my pieces? What does it mean to support the queer community if all of my partnering sections pair men and women in heterosexual couples?

My first semester in EXP, the traveling sub-group of Expressions Dance Company, I choreographed a very feminine, “sexy” piece to a Rihanna song. Given the style of the piece, I delegated it as an “all girls” piece, a common choice for a Hip Hop piece with such feminine movement, and we performed it as such. However, a lot of the guys in the company expressed a desire to be in the section, picked up parts of it, and would perform some of the sexiest moves off to the side at rehearsals and backstage at shows.  And let’s be real: they were awesome at it, feminine choreography and all. But still, it didn’t cross my mind to open up the piece to allow them to join in. Second semester, I choreographed my first all company piece, which was based on the movie, Mean Girls. It was also an “all girls” piece. When approached about letting guys into the piece, my opinion was that the piece was based on mean GIRLS, so what was the problem with that?

One year later, my dance life, and view on gender, were drastically different.  I had joined Static Noyze Dance Company, where I had been told repeatedly that something I needed to work on was making my dancing more “feminine.” “You know, just watch Sarah. Or Peter. Watch how feminine their moves are.” Through statements such at this, I began to divorce the concepts of “girl” and “guy” from the terms “feminine” and “masculine.” Paired with this was the introduction of a lot of gender-studies into my academic and extra-curricular life, looking at the fluidity and complexity of gender in my History and Literature tutorial, and through my involvement in the group The Seneca, where I began to more deeply explore the idea that sex (male vs. female), gender (man vs. woman), gender-performance (femininity and masculinity), and sexuality are “grey areas” (and please excuse me as I explain these very complex concepts in a painfully simplistic way).

In my dance sophomore year, I decided to share my new realizations through my choreography. I choreographed a piece called “Check Other,” referencing the boxes you mark on forms that read “male” and “female.” This dance, which I co-choreographed with my brother, Yonatan Kogan, was our attempt to break down the gender binary through dance. Dressing female-bodied dancers in pink and male-bodied dancers in blue, the dance started with an extremely gendered segment in which the male-bodied dancers did push ups and the female-bodied dancers ran while making sex-faces. The dance then progressed through a couples’ piece that had an equal amount of homosexual and heterosexual couples, a super feminine dance done by the male-bodied dancers, and a more masculine piece done by the female-bodied dancers. The climax of the dance was a more contemporary style piece to a love song in which a male-bodied dancer danced to a female-bodied version of themself, and a female-bodied dancer danced to a male-bodied version of themself (at least, that is what I had in mind in the choreography—the dance was potentially open to different interpretations!). The dance ended on a less serious note with a dance to “Man, I feel like a Woman,” in which everyone, including the male-bodied dancers, were dressed in skirts and, if they could pull off the choreography, heels. This ending section was our attempt to create a physical manifestation of the complexity of gender through a recognizable figure, the drag queen.

In this piece, gender was the center and the focus. The gender binary was in fact highlighted, in an attempt to break it down. The dancers were constantly being divided, organized, and even presented in a specific way, based on if they were male-bodied or female-bodied. Every choice we made was hyper-aware of gender, making sure that couples were specifically not only male-female, that women were shown doing “masculine” choreography, and that men were shown doing “feminine” choreography.  In retrospect there may have been problems with this approach, as in our attempts to break down the “girl/guy” dichotomy of hip-hop dance, we did highlight it even more. My brother brought up a point at the Gender 101 workshop we planned for the members of our piece through the Women’s Center, that perhaps another choreographer, Wes’s piece had in fact been less enforcing of the gender binary. Wes’ piece completely ignored the distinction of gender, and placed people randomly, not focusing on gender symmetry in formations, or anything of the sort. Is a more effective way of breaking down this binary simply to not focus on it?

This is one of the questions I have been asking myself this year, especially as the duel dancer/feminist identity has become more and more of a part of who I am. Currently, I am choreographing a dance that has nothing to do with gender: it includes male-bodied and female-bodied dancers, who all do the same choreography and are not divided up in any particular way. I do not want gender to be the focus of my dance. However, sometimes I feel that this approach may lead to me unintentionally conform to standards I don’t agree with, by simply following the norms of Hip Hop that already exist. This has led to a big question for me: how can one not conform to gender roles or enforce the gender binary, but at the same time, not make this non-conformity the focus? Is this even possible when the movement style itself inherently does conform to such standards?

Taking a step back, I think the bigger question is this: is an effective way to treat people equally (regardless of their gender) to not focus on gender at all, seeing people through a gender-less lens? Or must we make a conscious effort in our choreography, and the movements of our every day life, to focus on gender in order to move towards a place where we will one day not have to? I am not sure of the answer.

These are all questions I have been asking myself, that I struggle with every day, both in my choreography and in my life. Thank you for reading my confused ramblings, and I hope that maybe, just maybe, you will question how you choreograph difference into your life.

Addressing the Problem: A Look at Misogynistic Harvard-Yale Shirts

Blast from the Past! Check out this blog post that HCWC Intern Suzanna B:

Well, it appears that we are right on schedule with autumn. Beautiful leaves in Harvard Yard? Check. Final decisions on Halloween costumes? Check. Confirmation of Thanksgiving travel plans? You bet. Problematic Harvard-Yale t-shirts? Sadly, yes.

Harvard-Yale t-shirts—fundraising and entrepreneurial opportunities for College students—have become a pivotal tradition to the annual Harvard- Yale Football game. In the days leading up to the festivities, student organizations as well as entrepreneurial individuals wave various shades of Crimson shirts in your face as you walk in and out of Annenberg. To be sure, these shirts are irreverent, obnoxious, and, at times, ridiculous. (One of my favorites from last year referenced the then-infamous Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift standoff proclaiming, “Imma let you finish Yale, but Harvard is the best college of all time.”) Nevertheless, these shirts are a way for students to creatively participate in one of the longest-running football rivalries and also to build school pride (albeit tongue-in-cheek).

Last year, as I passed along the Science Center, I couldn’t help but liken the Cantabrigian commotion to those Mexican markets that I had frequented with my family. With yelling, waving, and convincing, it provided a bit of a nostalgic moment. Yet one day, I was quite disturbed by a shirt that some students were selling. Crimson like all the rest, it featured a bulldog (Yale’s mascot) facing downward as bodiless hands appeared to be spaying it with a pair of surgical scissors. Towards the top, large, capital, and bold letters spelled out, “VERITAS BITCH.” The person selling it was yelling at the top of his lungs, “Come get the only Drew Faust and Natalie Portman endorsed Harvard-Yale t-shirt! You know you want it!” Obviously fabricating this support, the student continued to yell and he even attempted to sell one to a family of tourists as they crossed into Harvard Yard. At first glance, the shirt made me feel extremely uncomfortable, unsafe, and unwelcome by the students who sold it. These emotions only increased as I saw more students (mostly male) wearing the shirt around dining halls, classrooms, and dorms. Seeing “BITCH” and those scissors over and over again did not make me feel proud to be a Harvardian; rather, I felt embarrassed, disturbed, and threatened by my peers. Today, almost a year later, I must admit that I still judge those students who wear the shirts around campus. I know that some may think that it is “just a shirt,” but I see it as a violent and harmful assertion of male superiority. Unfortunately, when I view students wearing this specific design, I automatically view them as complicit in systemic gender oppression.

The first Harvard-Yale shirts have been released and frustratingly, they mock an attempted sexual assault. The first batch of the bunch illustrates Internet sensation and rape preventer Antonie Dodson saying, “Hide your kids, hide your wife.” On the back, the shirt tells Yale, “We goin’ find you.” A bit of back-story: this past summer, Antonie Dodson woke up to his sister screaming in her bedroom. Rushing in, he found an intruder in her bed and forced him to leave their house. He was then interviewed by a local news station where he infamously told Huntsville residents to “hide your kids, hide your wife” from the still-at-large rapist. Once the interview was released on Youtube, it became a viral hit. To be sure, its success was rooted in problematic racial and class mockery. After looking at these shirts, I am left with three questions: Is Harvard the rapist? Is Yale the rapist? And finally, how is the trivialization of sexual assault relevant to an annual football game?

My conclusion: the shirt is a result of immature and inconsiderate attempts to gain attention. Lamentably, rather than fostering a respectful and friendly rivalry, some Harvard students have taken it upon themselves to embarrass the University and their peers. Moreover, considering the recent events of a Yale fraternity yelling “No means yes and yes means anal” outside of first-year female dorms, this behavior is even more distressing.

As Harvard-Yale shirts remain outside of University control, it is our responsibility as students to confront these disturbing images and ask these necessary and difficult questions. Still not yet comfortable with confrontation, I know that asking people about the messages behind their shirts will be intimidating and awkward. I am unhappily predicting more of these misogynistic shirts to come out of the boxes in the upcoming weeks. However, I hope that this year I will find the courage to resist these images and words in a calm and articulate manner. If Harvard-Yale shirts ever bother you, you are more than welcomed to come down to the Women’s Center in the basement of Canaday B basement and talk it out with me. If you want, we can practice asking questions and demanding answers. Still, as the Harvard College Women’s Center is an inclusive space and open to all opinions, I also welcome those who may disagree with me. After all, provoking statements should always be paired with provoking and respectful conversations.

Where Mental and Physical Health Collide: Notes from a Fitness Novice

Harvard’s campus is abuzz with questions about mental health. Many groups across campus from The Happiness Project to the Student Mental Health Liaisons provide a general student support network for undergraduates. There are five peer counseling groups that directly engage with personal questions pertaining to mental health on campus. Cultural, racialgender & sexuality organizations have also been lauded as safe or welcoming spaces where students can connect with others who have had similar experiences to them. In addition, a multitude of other identity-centered, profession-centered, and arts-centered organizations provide spaces where students with intersecting interests can convene and engage in activities that are directly relevant to their lives. The Office of BGLTQ Student Life, the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, and the Harvard College Women’s Center form a triad of Harvard offices with undergraduate interns that centralize resources for and create programming centered around the communities that they nominally serve, with an ongoing focus on collaboration on intersectional issues. I even recently began participating in Mindfulness and Stress Management sessions through the Wellness Center, which combines components of meditation and yoga to reduce stress induced by various aspects college life. All of these resources, along with the growing interest in discussions about mental health in all parts of the campus, are excellent. It’s moving to see students rallying around each other as a support system that stretches across many reaches of campus life.

It’s still surprising, however, that so few groups engage directly with the importance of physical health and its direct correlation to mental health. As a quick caveat, I have not been to all of the meetings for all of the groups that discuss mental health on campus, so maybe there are some awesome ones out there that do promote physical wellness as a route to improving mental health amongst Harvard students on campus. A group that immediately comes to mind is ECHO, “a peer counseling group that addresses concerns surrounding eating, body image, and self esteem” (ECHO Website, Home Page).

There is plenty of research and inquiry into how physical health and mental health are correlated. Let’s take, for example, the notion of posture. Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and professor at the Harvard Business School, gave a recent TED Talk called “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” in which she delineates how a person’s physical posture in a social setting is directly correlated to the amount of power they and others perceive that they have in that setting. Put (very) simply, if “posture” is the amount of physical space that one takes up and the manner in which one takes up that space (e.g. arms crossed vs. arms spread above the head in a victory “V”), then Cuddy’s study suggests that you can directly influence how powerful you feel by changing the way you hold your body. How is that related to physical health? According to WebMD.com, increased flexibility and strength—such as that which you can get doing yoga—can lead to better posture. If the workouts you’re doing are improving your posture in the “corporeal alignment” sense, and the physical strength of various components of your body impacts the way you hold your body, and the way you hold your body impacts how powerful you feel, then it logically follows that working out to improve your posture can indirectly impact your personal sense of power.

[If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself! Check yourself throughout the day and note whether your shoulders are hunched forward or squared back, whether your back is straight or slumped, and, if you stand, whether your feet are together or apart. What are your hands doing when you sit in a section and you haven’t done the reading? How do you hold your body in situations when you feel a sense of authority? When you feel less powerful? Try consciously doing the opposite thing for prolonged periods of time and note how that makes you feel, if there’s any difference.]

Okay, so posture is not the only physical expression directly related to mental health. It really takes a sense of awareness and self-evaluation to be able to accurately determine what works for you and what doesn’t. But then you have to apply that self-understanding in proactive practice. If you hate running, then why run?

Part of this practice includes adopting a policy of keen mindfulness about how your physical being is aligned with your mental being and operate on that level all the time. To provide an example from my own experience – I learned the hard way that I couldn’t absorb the essence of the gym just by walking past it…I actually had to go inside and use machines. Then I learned that I wasn’t getting a full-body work-out on the elliptical…so I started swimming. But then I noticed that swimming alone wouldn’t make me physically stronger …I had to learn how to use strength-training machines. But I knew there was a way to do strength-training wrong and end up messing up my body…so I got a personal trainer. So I get so many important tips on form and technique when I work out that I wouldn’t have if I were trying to learn on my own. All of which will ultimately impact important things like my posture(!) because strength training—like dancing and sports—is a way of conditioning your body to certain motions.

But then there’s so much more to being tuned to my own physical health, which includes: paying attention to what I eat; regulating my breathing patterns when I’m anxious; noting my energy levels throughout the day—my body and my mind seem to be in constant conversation that I can’t parse apart, which means that how I treat one invariably affects how the other feels. It seems that I still have so much more to learn. I find I learn the best around other people. When I swim, I usually go with a buddy; I train with a certified fitness professional that also turns out to be a cool person to talk to. (Harvard also offers free resources for learning about strength training and other gym things. This doesn’t have to be an expensive undertaking, especially given that Harvard undergrads have access to top-notch gyms for free. What may prove expensive is down the line when you have to correct physical problems that you didn’t take the time to pay attention to now. Just sayin’.). These days, I associate going to the gym with happy feelings and that makes it a more positive experience, which makes me want to go more. Not only that, but simply engaging in the practice of working out (semi-)regularly helps to reduce mental stress and physical tension that adversely affect every aspect of my day-to-day life.

All that to say, incorporate embodied consciousness into the way you think about your daily life.  Bring it up in your student group meetings when they start to talk about how to improve mental health. Squeeze a trip to the gym into your calendar and bring a friend along. Go when you hit a block in a paper. Pay attention to what and how much you eat in the dhall. Drink water (But, actually.) Take a walk to wake yourself up in the morning. Keep a journal and take notes about how your body feels and how your mind feels, make adjustments where things aren’t quite aligning (i.e. join a yoga class to improve flexibility and strength), then track over time how those adjustments impact your whole self. Do all of this with a friend, with your blocking group – keep each other motivated and help each other associate a positive sense of physical self with a positive mental state so this brand of mindfulness can stretch into your long-term, post-undergrad lifestyle.