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:
- 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.
- 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?)
- 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?