Defiance & Non-Compliance: Gender Norms in Hip-Hop

A look at non-conforming gender expressions in hip-hop.
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Marcus D. Powell
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A look at non-conforming gender expressions in hip-hop.
Image Source: GQ Magazine

Image Source: GQ Magazine

Hip-hop has long been an ego-driven, braggadocious industry in which MCs often prove and reaffirm their manhood through their lyrics and image. Even outside of hip-hop, the issue of hyper-masculinity is largely prevalent in the black community as well; males are expected to display an overt toughness and sexual aptitude, lack emotion or vulnerability, and basically any traits considered anything remotely close to femininity. 

Nonetheless, there have been many hip-hop figures attempting to break this mold. Most recently, Young Thug's eccentric sense of fashion has raised eyebrows; from skin tight jeans to fluffy dresses and tutus, the rapper has gone out of his way to not comply with traditional gender norms. In his ad for the #mycalvins campaign, Thugger proclaims "You can be a gangsta with a dress or you can be a gangsta with baggy pants. I feel like it's no such thing as gender." Although his lyrics may still contain the long-established hyper-masculinity to which we have grown accustomed, his progressive fashion sense matched with musical output is still a noteworthy execution.

Young Thug's nonconformity to these ideas of gender expression did not come without negative response, of course. Even Rae Sremmurd felt this wrath following the debut of their June/July 2016 Fader cover. 

Photo Credit: Alexandra Gavillet

Photo Credit: Alexandra Gavillet

Showcasing Slim Jimmy resting his head on Swae Lee's shoulder caused quite the reception which mirrored many criticisms of modern-day rappers - "gay," "soft," and "feminine" to name a few. Many defenders were quick to point out that the photo was not suggestive considering that the two are simply brothers showing their affection. However, what if they weren't? 

This overarching theme of masculine gender expression in hip-hop is deeply rooted in the idea that recent rap is not "real" or "old school" hip-hop as the original MCs displayed hard or tough-guy aesthetics. Yet, these "real" hip-hop heads are either showing selective memory or their ignorance to the origins of the genre, or perhaps a combination of both. The founding fathers of hip-hop were not wearing baggy jeans and bragging about their sexual exploits or even displaying a traditional masculine fashion sense.

Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five

Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five

As hip-hop was emerging during the disco era, most rappers were dressing like the Village People in colorful, funky garb and platform shoes rather than DMX in black "wife-beaters" and Timberland boots. It may not even be appropriate to associate this dress as "non-masculine" considering this fashion was very common during the time period.

Run-DMC (left to right): Jam Master Jay, DMC, Run

Run-DMC (left to right): Jam Master Jay, DMC, Run

Following the decline of disco music in the early 1980s, rappers began displaying a more uniform street-style. Rappers Run-DMC and LL Cool J laid the foundation for this as presentations of Adidas tracksuits, Kangol hats, and large gold chains became an iconic look for MCs. More expressions of masculinity followed this, such as the emergence of baggy clothing in 1990s and early 2000s. The standard fashion sense for rappers had been established.

Andre 3000 performing "Hey Ya!" at the 2004 Grammy Awards.

Andre 3000 performing "Hey Ya!" at the 2004 Grammy Awards.

Rappers such as Andre 3000 and Kanye West eventually laid the groundwork for present-day rappers including Young Thug and Jaden Smith among others with their unconventional sense of fashion and defiance of traditional masculine expression of gender.

This is not a condemning of "orthodox" masculine rappers but rather a critique of the hyper-masculine ideals which have stifled individuality in hip-hop. Rappers should be able to express themselves in whichever manner best suits them free of backlash, whether that mirrors a "gangsta" image or one that embodies a "carefree black boy" image.