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How UNC students are fighting for women in hip-hop

emerging hip hop Nicho Stevens Chris Coogan Jemal Abdulhadi
Seniors Nicho Stevens (left), Chris Coogan (middle), and Jemal Abdulhadi (right) of the UNC Student Hip Hop Organization (UNC SHHO) pose for a portrait on Friday, Jan. 18, 2018 in the alley next to Carolina Coffee Shop located on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Abdulhadi (right) discussed his experiences as a hip hop artist in lieu of the #MeToo movement which began in October of 2017.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Jemal Abdulhadi. The story has been updated with the correct spelling of Abdulhadi's name. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error. 

For the past 50 years, the genre of hip-hop has alluded to social justice issues and political critiques. However, modern hip-hop artists are faced with moral and ethical dilemmas, especially regarding women. This leads some to ask: Where is feminism in hip-hop today?

Hip-hop and feminism are two increasingly relevant topics, from the popularity of hip-hop artists all over Billboard charts to the impact of the #MeToo movement and the annual Women’s March in Washington, D.C.

At UNC, young hip-hop artists are discussing the new opportunities and limitations involved in making music in a society that is more aware of feminist movements and issues. Lines are beginning to be drawn and crossed when discussing hip-hop and feminism.

In 1999, author Joan Morgan coined the term “hip-hop feminism” in her book, "When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost." Author Reiland Rabaka wrote that hip-hop feminism is an offshoot of Black feminist ideals where the “personal is the political." Hip-hop has roots in social justice, but hip-hop feminism directs the attention to issues surrounding Black and Brown women. 

The Student Hip-Hop Organization (SHHO) is a UNC club that facilitates discussion surrounding hip-hop at UNC. The club gives hip-hop appreciators and creators a space to share their music and experiences with hip-hop culture. SHHO organizes local concerts, hosts panels and seeks to spread hip-hop as an agent of social change. However, the group has yet to host a panel on feminism in hip-hop, though members of the group said it is in the works.

Former SHHO co-president Jemal Abdulhadi said it’s possible the nature of the industry has made feminist issues harder to talk about.

“I think hip-hop naturally just attracts mostly males,” Abdulhadi said. “So our organization was largely male in the beginning.”

Abdulhadi said misogyny is an ever-present aspect of hip-hop music, and that the first step is addressing the issue and getting men involved.

“With any social issue, or with anything that needs to be changed in society, it needs to be not the marginalized group of people speaking up for themselves, but people that have power,” Abdulhadi said. “In this context, it's males. Males need to be stepping up and saying and voicing why there needs to be more females, and why men need to be more intentional about the way they're speaking about women and their lyrics.”

Former SHHO co-president Nicho Stevens said it is easy to find examples of anti-feminist rhetoric in the music today.

“There’s a lot of negative language toward women," Stevens said. "I’m thinking like ‘Mo Bamba’, one of the most popular songs because it has: ‘I got hoes calling,’ but everyone's going to sing that in the club so to Sheck Wes, he's not thinking; he's just seeing the people getting lit.”

Stevens said even if artists are just having fun, they still have a responsibility to explain themselves.

"But other artists need to take that responsibility and say 'This is not cool,'" Stevens said. "All this has come to light. We're in a different age. Regardless of what happened in the past, we need to move forward in a more of a positive experience with hip-hop. And I think it’s especially important as it grows in popularity worldwide that's something that artists recognize."

Seniors Abdulhadi and Stevens started SHHO in 2016. SHHO treasurer Jazmyn Tate, a sophomore, joined SHHO her first year at UNC. She said she agrees the negative portrayal of women needs to change.

"It's putting an image on females that's kind of negative, has a negative connotation," Tate said. "Misogyny is normalized in rap music today. So people kind of just brush over it and the say like, ‘Oh, that's not a big deal’ because they've heard it so much."

However, Tate said even with these negative portrayals, there are also hip-hop artists who have been and continue to make strides in feminism.

“Well, the rap industry really is dominated by misogyny and sex and violence and all of that, because those are quick sellers,” Tate said. “But there’s also a place for females where we can put our input and have our voice be heard, such as Missy Elliott, Beyoncé and Cardi B.”

There are more female hip-hop artists that are making it in the industry, but some members of the community believe there is still a ways to go.

In discussions, SHHO members consider artists like XXXTENTACION, Chris Brown and R. Kelly. All three have made large contributions to hip-hop and R&B, yet sexual assault and violent crimes against women surround them. 

The Lifetime series "Surviving R. Kelly," aired from Jan. 3 to 5, opened up the conversation even more. Music streaming sites like Spotify are vowing to drop R. Kelly from their playlists and even some radio stations are refusing to play R. Kelly on air.

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"Someone always has something going against them," Tate said. "I guess the music industry or the streaming websites have to find a way to find that line."