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Sunday, November 6, 2011

The New Challenge to Hegemonic Hip-hop (unit III)

by Nick Jones

Kalyn Heffernan, or MC T-minus Kalyn. is perhaps not who would expect to be taking the stage at Cervantes Ballroom for a typical Friday night hip-hop show. Even amongst the fellow underground acts that filled out the bill, Heffernan's local band Wheelchair Sports Camp stood out as unique. The only female-fronted group of the evening, they opened it up with blisteringly fast flows and infectious retro beats. The short set not only succeeded in getting the crowd dancing enthusiastically, but also challenged the gender expectations of modern hip-hop. While Wheelchair Sports Camp may sound like a tasteless joke, it is worth noting that Heffernan herself is confined to a wheelchair due to a rare birth defect, Osteogenesis Imperfecta. In a genre sorely lacking feminism, this 3' 6” lesbian is using her passion and talent to challenge stereotypes that have long been ingrained in hip-hop.

It shouldn't come as any surprise that hip-hop has perpetuated hegemonic masculinity, and often put female performers into strict molds. While underground artists make a point to be subversive of the status quo, mainstream chart-toppers demonstrate that heteronormative behavior is what sells best. This week, for example, places male performers in the top 4 spots of Billboard's Top Hip-hop/R&B Songs charti. Even Beyonce's song “Party”, number 5 on the charts, demonstrates cartoon-like gender relations. Belting out lines like, “I’ll give it all away/Just don’t tell nobody tomorrow/So tonight/I’ll do it every way,”ii she sings a total of 201 words in her most feminine voice, while her male guest stars rap 258 lyrics in lazy, masculine vocal timbres. Yet this single is the only of the top 10 attributed to a female performer. Of the other 9 tracks, women are rarely mentioned outside of connection to sex or their physical appearance.

Female vocalists and rappers aiming for the top spots are placed at the mercy of the gender conventions installed by their male peers. As Helen Kolawole observes, “A female rapper must be seen as conventionally attractive, and maintain an accepted degree of sex appeal, in order to avoid being branded a man-hater or lesbian.”iii Even when female lyricists address sexism, it is commercial disadvantageous to, “Cross the threshold into full-blown feminism, as their sexuality always remains their major selling point.”iv. Obviously, this cycle has created a stagnate view of gender relations, that hasn't changed much since the early 1990's.

Luckily, the diverse and progressive world of underground hip-hop has responded to this with heart-felt performers who sharply contrast the sexualized commercialism seen elsewhere. Wheelchair Sports Camp is a prime example, as Kalyn Heffernan has embraced her own individuality and received national recognition for her unique music. They have been noted by The Boston Pheonix as one of 25 hip-hop acts not to be missed at the 2011 SXSW music festivalv, and featured as a rising artist by Spin Magazinevi. Heffernan and her accomplices' talents and originality have routinely impressed those who come across their music. Her lyrics range in topics from social issues to poking fun of people's reactions to her wheelchair. As Westword Magazine has noted, “She is, at the core, a rapper first and foremost. She uses her rhymes and affliction together in a way that challenges the status quo”vii. Writing rhymes ever since she was 12, Heffernan has defined a musical style and social identity unlike anyone else, lending a unique perspective to her music. “I've been like addicted to hip-hop,”viii she told Westword, despite the prejudices she has confronted along the way:

Not just being a woman, but being a handicapped woman, being a lesbian woman, there's always obstacles, but I think I get treated equally very well. I think I have to go out of my way to do it. I'm assertive and up front.”ix

“When rap first appeared on the music scene, it was hailed... as a vehicle or social comment,” states Helen Kolawolex, and thus underground rappers like Kalyn Heffernan have risen to critique views of gender and sexuality. Dubbed queer-hop or homo-hop, a growing number of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered hip-hop artists have become increasingly popular in cities across the country. The magazine Colorlines described this trend as, “Crop of openly queer rappers who have been making music for years. They’re talented, proud, but when it comes to mainstream media, they’re often ignored.”xi However, now these artists are finally getting the recognition they deserve and bringing an alternative attitude into hip-hop that doesn't rely on hegemonic masculinity as its central pillar. These performers are opening, or sometimes re-opening, avenues for musical artists of different sexualities, genders, and body-types. Much of what makes Wheelchair Sports Camp so refreshing, along with many other acts in this sub-genre, is that they offer the possibility of hip-hop coexisting with feminism. Perhaps some day soon, this grass-roots movement will influence mainstream media to adjust its heteronormativity and finally catch up with the times.

i "Top Hip Hop and R&B Songs." Billboard.com. Billboard, n.d. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. .

ii West, Kanye, Bhasker, Jeff , Knowles, Beyoncé, Benjamin, André Lauren , Mills, Dexter, Davis, Douglas, and Walters, Ricky. “Party.”Lyrics. 4. Columbia, 2010.

iii Kolawole, Helen. "Sisters Take the Rap... But Talk Back.." Girls! Girls! Girls!: essays on women and music. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 8. Print.

iv Ibid

v Heffernan, Kalyn . "SXSW Travelogue: Wheelchair Sports Camp ." The Denver Westword Blogs. Denver Westword, 19 Mar. 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.

vi Dodero, Camille. "Wheelchair-Assisted MC: 3 Feet High & Rising." SPIN.com. SPIN Media, 18 July 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. .

vii Johnson, Ru. "Kalyn Heffernan of Wheelchair Sports Camp on rockin' the mike and making people think twice." The Denver Westword Blogs. Denver Westword, 30 Nov. 2010. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. .

viii Ibid

ix Ibid

x Kolawole, Helen. "Sisters Take the Rap... But Talk Back.." Girls! Girls! Girls!: essays on women and music. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 8. Print.

xi King, Jamilah. "Eight Openly Queer Rappers Worth Your Headphones." COLORLINES. ARC, 11 May 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. .


  1. When i was reading this article two female rap groups came to mind. The first is a not very well known lesbian duo named Yo Majesty who belt rapes as edgy and provocative as their male counterparts but aren't very well known. Is this because the hip-hop scene is just over powered by men or our women rappers just seen as inadequate and stupid when they attempt to rhythm and rap about the same subjects as men? This lesbian group raps about issues they have with women and love to use the words whore and bitch. Does it seem odd when females take on a male role? Especially in an industry that runs on the ideals of man in power and women as their bitches and hoes, where do the female rappers gain their respect? Another female rapper from Britian named Lady Sovergin, is a good example of defying the gender roles in the rap world. Here is her most popular song that came out. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0OMTB8YwILY

    She swears and talks shit just as much as her male equivalents but her career never took off. Is this because her rhythms weren't as good or was it because she is a women in a male dominant industry?

    I completely agree that most women who associate themselves in the rap industry sing about love and the loss of their man while the male rappers mostly sing about fucking whores and drinking. Does society affect what people sing about and relate to or is it our gendered nature for women to care more about love and men to care more about getting laid?

    Why is it that female rappers have to use their bodies to be heard and men can just try and rhythm nympho with nympho and have a hit song (i.e Candy Shop by 50 Cent)? I discussed this in my blog as well that many female artist today can only get ahead when they use their bodies. Their talent isn't what is important, it's how they move their body and shake their ass. Is this because as a society we live in a masculine based vision where men have talent and women's only talent is what she can do with her body? It is refreshing to see underground rappers and artists who are blurring the gender roles and lines and proving that talent isn't just a male dominated work in the rapping world.

  2. I loved this post! I think it is fantastic that Wheelchair Sports Camp is trying to overturn stereotypes and expectations of hip-hop performers. It is very sad that our society stubbornly remains one in which, for women, talent lies principally in her physical attractiveness while men who are not conventionally attractive are renowned for their talent and can nonetheless find great success in the entertainment industry. Obviously, this should not be the case, but it remains so because our society and culture is guided primarily by an extremely masculine vision in the form of hegemonic masculinity where men dominate and possess more privilege than women, while women are relegated to the sidelines. In addition, it is my opinion that queer rappers used to be ignored by mainstream media because they do not embody our society's twisted ideal of hegemonic masculinity, particularly for gay male rappers. After all, how can you be successful if you're not rapping about your heterosexual conquests? I think it's fantastic that queer (and female) hip-hop performers are making inroads in the industry, and that artists such as Kalyn are revealing that a woman does not have to possess conventional physical characteristics in order to achieve recognition and success in the hip-hop industry.

  3. I'm glad you two liked it. Women and men are definitely put to a double standard throughout the media, and in popular music especially. All of the questions you raise are definitely things that I find frustrating. In many ways, it seems like hip-hop and other pop music have really fallen behind social attitudes towards gender and sexuality, but hopefully also has the potential to be on the cutting edge of these problems. As you point out, Mollie, there are so many talented artists who defy hegemonic expectations, yet don't often get the attention they deserve. Hopefully, us listeners can start to seek out music that doesn't perpetuate heterosexism, and begin to see change in this cultural institution.

  4. Very, very interesting and creative topic. It seems that this grass-roots movement has many similarities with early hip-hop. For example, early hip-hop was also a vehicle for social commentary. Do you think that modern hip-hop has become too commercialized for it to accept this new grassroots movement, or do you think it truly does have the potential to change hip-hop? This may be my cynicism talking, but I think that modern hip-hop has become too commercialized for this new grassroots movement. I think that in order to have a chance of commercial acceptance, it will have to separate itself from commercialized hip-hop. Clearly there are group of listeners who do support this new movement by attending concerts and supporting these artists. I wonder if there would be enough consumers to make this profitable. However, maybe making this profitable might ruin the movement.

  5. This was such a great topic to write about! For most people, the prototype normally associated with rap/ hip hop is male due to the subjects that rap has a reputation for talking about. Building off of what Mollie was saying, I think that trying to rap like men in a male dominated music industry wouldn't be a good way to get a career off the ground because its been done before by all the men. The best way for a woman to get her name out in the rap scene would to try something thats never been done before, like in Kalyn's case, rapping about being in a wheelchair and stuff ike that. Trying to compete with the men by rapping about the same sort of things doesn't seem like it would work out because it would just seem like she's posing to try to make it.

  6. I think it's more that hip-hop and rap artists are following the societal norms of their predecessors rather than intentionally seeking to drive the women into being submissives. Let's be honest. Whether we like it or not, sex sells. Many of these artists were up-and-coming and probably made their big break with a song and associated music video exactly because it conforms to what the accepted visuals are in rap: half-naked women with close-ups on their body and lips. It's wonderful when we find hip-hop and rap artists that stay away from superficial lyrics and actually have something to say! Unfortunately, those artists aren't as popular; it's not because they aren't good enough, but because they don't include crude language and explicit themes. How do you think could be done to pull away from this derogatory ideal of objectified women in music videos? Would we have to substitute it for something else or just simply have restrictions set upon the media in order to mute it?

  7. Nathan, I definitely can see the parallels to certain era's of hip-hop that made social issues a focus. However, even then the music that challenged conventions rarely surfaced from the underground, and the hip-hop that did eventually take over the mainstream was a brand of gangster rap that shied away from social commentary. As you have all pointed out, it is no surprise that artists have continued fulfilling this norm because it is the type of hip-hop that has been most profitable. It is impossible to say whether more socially conscious music will be commercial enough to become the mainstream, but I think we can find out by dedicating ourselves as consumers to supporting music that doesn't perpetuate the negative gender dynamics