Hip-hop and feminism: are they mutually exclusive?

A conference at the University of Chicago next week hopes to bridge the apparent gap between two gender-driven cultures.

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By ROBERT FELTON

The Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture (CSRPC) at the University of Chicago (5801 S. Ellis) will host the first national conference on the topic of "Feminism and Hip-Hop," April 7-9.

The conference is intended to provide a forum where scholars, students, artists, activists, community members and media can gather to discuss and analyze the relevance of feminist agendas to the hip-hop generation and highlight the work of scholars, activists and artists across the country who are fighting for progressive representations of women in hip-hop culture as they reshape feminist discourse and politics.

"The motivation to hold the conference was largely due to the discussions many students were having on-campus about hip-hop and its portrayal of women," said Cathy Cohen, professor in Political Science at the university. "Some students were voicing their concern about what they felt was rampant misogyny within the content of many hip-hop lyrics. However, others felt that people were overlooking the complexity of the lyrics and music, and it portrays a movement equally as vital as feminism. This conference was a way to bridge the gap between these two separate ideas and create dialogue amongst those within hip-hop and feminism."

Among the nearly two dozen confirmed speakers are: Moya Bailey, who recently received a student leader award at the Choice USA awards for her work regarding reproductive rights in communities of color and her work to support women in prison; Kim Osorio, editor-in-chief of The Source magazine; Melyssa Ford, model and hip-hop dancer; journalist Joan Morgan, whose work has graced such publications as Village Voice, Vibe and Spin magazines; and Gwendolyn Pough, Syracuse University associate professor of writing, rhetoric and women's studies, and author of the book: Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture and the Public Sphere.

"Today's environment is becoming increasingly mediated and hip-hop remains the most pronounced cultural identifier for young Americans regardless of gender, class or ethnicity," said William Harms, spokesman for the University of Chicago. "Alongside its various aesthetic contributions, the culture operates as a springboard for discourse surrounding the politics, desires, and activities of today's youth and young adults."

Despite their seeming lack of commonalities, both hip-hop and feminism are similar in that they are both political movements that intend to inspire a greater sense of empowerment within two groups that have faced societal oppression. Whether this is manifested in rap artists such as Public Enemy vowing that "It takes a nation of millions to hold them back," or tennis great Billie Jean King's triumphant 3-set victory over Bobby Riggs in 1973, both are important cultural movements that seek to break down the barriers caused by stereotypes, negative media and preconceived notions.

Granted, there is a substantial amount of writing and research involving the impact of hip-hop culture on young African Americans, stemming from its focus on and promotion of sex, drugs, crime, misogyny, consumerism and nihilism. However, the conference wants to provide an opportunity to discuss hip-hop's impact on issues of gender and sexuality within the entire culture.

The Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago is an interdisciplinary program dedicated to promoting engaged scholarship and debate around the concepts of race and ethnicity. The faculty affiliated with the center seek to expand the study of race and ethnicity beyond the black and white paradigm. Central to their work is the acknowledgment that race and ethnicity intersect with other primary identities such as gender, class, sexuality and nationality, necessitating the exploration of social and identity cleavages within racialized communities.

The "Feminist and Hip Hop" conference is made possible in part by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Illinois General Assembly, the Center for Gender Studies and the Andrew and Gail Brown Fund for Undergraduate Initiatives.

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