Keeping Those Heads Up Or Getting Dragged Down? –
Ruptures between Female Life and Street Life in Three Rap Videos of 1993
by Jakob Weber
The impulse for this post was given by the task to comment on the music video for Keep Ya Head Up by the late rapper 2pac through a video collage. The resulting footage (embedded above) contrasts images of women and rappers’ hoods from three rap videos on air in 1993 – namely Keep Ya Head Up, Hip Hop Hooray (Naughty By Nature) and Nuthin But A ‘G’ Thang (Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg). Among others, the video points to the fact that ruptures between a male-dominated street life and female life spheres are present in the three rap videos. This text shows that in Nuthin But A ‘G’ Thang these ruptures are underlined and even enforced. For Hip Hop Hooray it arrives at the conclusion that while the lyrics point to a similar direction as those of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, the images partially contradict this message. It is found that some ironic depictions within the video partially resolve these contradictions. Finally, it is shown that in Keep Ya Head Up lyrics and images put both areas – the male-dominated urban spheres and female life domains – next to each other, problematise their contradictive nature and show chances as well as problems of struggling for an improvement of the status quo. In the following, representations of male power in (rap) music videos are discussed from a more theoretical point of view. After that each of the videos is regarded in light of these findings before the final chapter concludes.
2. Factors of Male Dominance in Hip Hop Street Culture
Rap music is one of the art forms associated with the Bronx’s Hip Hop culture in the 1970s. It mirrors the “pleasures and problems of black urban life” (Rose 1994: 3) and emphasizes the subject of street life for political reasons, as the young African-Americans were (amongst other adversities) confronted with “ethnic dislocations spurred by the construction of the South Bronx highway, and a rapid decline in municipal services induced by severe cuts in federal funding at the end of the Great Society era” (Phillips et al. 2005). In spite of the catastrophic urban planning in the Bronx, rappers established a sense of “identity and location” (Rose 1994: 6) and managed to raise the hope that “’the street’ is a site where the sensibilities of black lower class people prevail” (Phillips et al. 2005: 259). However, inside and outside the Bronx, street life also gained significance as a subject of rap music due to other factors. One might be the fact that energetic block parties made the early Hip Hop-culture bloom (Czerwenka-Wenkstetten 2009). Another important point is that youth culture seeks spaces of liberation from domestic constraints. Naturally, street life is such a “retreat[s] from parental surveillance and domestic constrictions” (Lewis 1990). As such, it represents a perfect possibility for young people to experiment with roles in their peer group and society as a whole. Therefore it is frequently associated with “aggressive leisure practices and [...] pursuit of sexual experiences” (ibd.). In the outgoing 1980s, some rap acts found a new and provocative approach to these frowned upon practices, infamously summarized by rapper and producer Dr. Dre as a rap style intended “to make people go: ‘Oh shit, I can’t believe he’s saying that shit.’” (Dr. Dre in Parker 2014: 10).” Scholars of Hip Hop raised the concern that rap music was turned into a “modern minstrel” (Henderson 1996: 332), no matter if confronted with the still partially politicised textbook of 2pac or the turning down of uplifting African-American street life-images by N.W.A. in favour of “black badassness”-stereotypes (Reeves 2008: 94). Other scholars, such as Rose, criticized sexist elements of rap in which “elaborate and creative stories about the abuse and domination of young black women” (Rose 1994: 16) were narrated. In this hindsight, transferring findings on the 1990s white US-music culture to rap music productions may broaden the beholder’s perspective considerably: Lewis claims that in the then music videos the street signifies boys’ “privileged access to public space and patriarchal prerogatives” (Lewis 1990) while equal access-rights are denied to girls. Entering the street, they “become objects of the male gaze” and live in “fear of harassment and rape” (ibd.). Lewis claims make clear that apart from the racial aspect also sexual stereotypes should be of concern when regarding music videos of a youth/music culture so strongly entangled with street life as Hip Hop is. Such a gender perspective is cast on the rap lyrics and videos at hand from three perspectives: Firstly it is regarded whether street life is marked as a masculine territory through representations of male aggression, crime (Neumann et al. 2006: 5), threatening poses, gambling or footage of men establishing their domination of the road as they cruise in luxurious limousines, jumpcars or the like (Richard 2003: 82). Secondly it is regarded whether women’s bodies appear objectified within the video in images or lyrics. A phenomenon frequently discussed under the label of the male gaze – the catering to a lusty, voyeuristic male audience (Neumann et al. 2006: 10). Birgit Richard claims that women frequently even appear as male property with a value equal to that of fancy cars or other luxury items (Richard 2003: 83). Finally it shall be of concern whether predominant sexual scripts of the US-American Hip Hop culture are solidified or rejected. The insights of Stephens and Phillips (2003) will be taken into account. They claim that sexuality is scripted because it is “learned and acted out within a social context, and different social contexts have different social scripts” (ibd. 5). Observing developments from the advent of European colonization until today, they can show that the sexual scripts available to “African American adolescent women […] rely on negative stereotypes that have changed little over the past century” (ibd.). Summarizing how these scripts appear in (rap) music videos according to the authors is not intended here. However, where instances in the regarded music videos show parallels to their findings, the reader will be confronted with them in the following chapters.
3. Male Dominance and Female Life Spheres: Ruptures in Three Rap videos of 1993
3.1 G vs. She - Nuthin But A ‘G’ Thang
Embed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucoK6KN1dzU here
Even though Dr. Dre was in his late and Snoop Dogg in his early 20s during the shooting of the above footage, it is fair to say that in the Nuthin But A ‘G’ Thang-video, street life is presented as a male-dominated juvenile experimentation space away from domestic parental control. The liberation from limitations at home comes just as archetypical as the preceding chapter suggests: As soon as the protagonists enter the party scene in Compton, they find a leisurely world abundant with symbols of male domination: Men cruise in limousines and jump cars, gaze at lightly dressed women and smoke marihuana - suggested by the hastily hidden long papers (02:34) and Dr. Dre’s line “take a toke but don’t choke” (02:27) - while a gun is held at the ready even during the preparation of a barbecue (01:54). Also the images of parental control are not withheld from the beholder as Snoop Dogg’s home is dominated by a matriarch figure gaining momentum through the sheer size of the family she has given birth to and her comparably active and productive posture. There is also a father figure urging Dr. Dre to find his friend Snoop Dogg a job (00:36). Interestingly, we later on see the younger generation at Compton's party scene passing on a very different vision of a good life to the children they meet: A youngster is shown how to dance (02:30) and has apparently already learnt how to direct the male gaze at women passing by (01:59). As the partying men in the video have established their confident masculine role, women are forced into a subordinate position: One party-goer is so confident that he even dares to expose the breasts of a woman by removing her bikini against her will (02:26). Throughout the song, the lyrics emphasise the image of men dominating Compton's street and party scene. Snoop Dogg, for instance, casually raps about putting on a condom and ‘digging out a bitch’ (01:30) and adds verses about extensive pimping activities, which lets the image arise that women easily fall prey to masculine sexual allures. The beat adds to this message since it features an exhalation sample of a sexually aroused female.
The later shots at a house party make clear that the masculine party-goers so firmly stick to the idea of females’ permanent sexual accessibility that any other female life concepts are unacceptable to them: An attractively (yet not over the top) dressed woman with long curly hair and light-dark skin enters the scene (03:16), by her disgust for a soiled handrail she shows a posh nature. Later on, she refuses to be touched by a male party-goer (03:30). Finally, she is sprayed with malt liquor by two men, seemingly because her attitude needs to be sanctioned. Sexual scripts go a long way to explain why this is so: The character of the posh woman coincides in both, attire and attitude with the Diva-script. The 'Diva' is described by Stephens (2003) as a medially enforced image of a woman longing for worship and adornment, cultivating the image of being of higher upbringing and selecting her boyfriends "based on how their achievements can enhance what she already has" (ibd. 17). Her "image of being attractive but unattainable" (ibd. 16) and her self-confident choosiness with men stand at odds with the masculine longing for sexual omnipotence presented as the backbone of Compton’s street life throughout the video. Hence, the situation escalates into the malt liquor incident.
3.2 Male Gaze but Ladies in the Place - Hip Hop Hooray
Embed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r99cmFaIK5U here
It was shown that the lyrics and images of Nuthin But A ‘G’ Thang harmoniously point to the message that street- and party life is a manly domain in which women may only appear if they stick to strict masculine rules. In this hindsight, the lyrics and images of Hip Hop Hooray seem to point into contradictory directions. At first glance, the street- and party-scenes (shot in East Orange) convey the impression that women may enter on equal terms as men: They join in the dancing (00:42), waving of the hands to the hook-line (01:54) or posing (02:58) (carried out by the featured rapper Queen Latifah). Furthermore, a scene of a water pistol shooting on the street may be understood as an ironic allusion to the rap video cliché of male dominated, violent street life (cf. Richard 2003: 82). However, Treach contradicts this impression by threatening to impose curfews with his “problem solver” (03:02). Moreover, it stands to reason that DJ Kay Gee does not hold a baseball bat in his hands while introducing his crew in a crowded club because he plans to practice his sport skills (00:03). Apart from the street violence aspect, some lyrics suggest that women are only granted access to masculine life spheres if they are of physical interest to men: Vinnie raps about “licking down” (00:33) another rapper’s girlfriend (illustrating this action with the appropriate gestures). Treach later on asks his girlfriend to be thankful as he did not leave her after he had “hit it” (01:37) and explains that his sleeping with another girl was in no way meant disrespectfully. These statements are frequently underlined with narrative video sequences in which sexual scripts are acted upon. Treach’s girlfriend, for instance, is shown ringing him up in simple but stylish black attire, accompanied by a necklace. She is sitting on a leather couch next to an expensive looking vase lamp on a glass table. It is doubtful whether these hints at a certain classy chic are sufficient to classify her as a sanctioned representation of the Diva script. Whatsoever, it is certain that (classy) women are depicted as potential victims of Treach who (ab)uses them to still his sexual appetite. The lyrics also call on Treach’s girlfriend to hold herself ready to “start a family today” (01:59) as she obviously is his property with his name written on her “kitten” (01:54). With this message at hand, one is driven to agree with Stephens who finds that rap videos frequently reinforce the idea that men have the right to have “brief sexual relationships with other women” (Stephens 2003: 33) while a pregnant woman has to act out the sexual script of taking “on the good and (more often) the bad of her man” (ibd.). In another narrative sequences we see a promiscuously smiling black woman clad in high heels, gold jewellery and a kinky red dress watching Naughty By Nature perform on TV. This arouses her so much that she has to help herself by flushing out her wet slip in a washbasin. From Stephen’s perspective such a depiction caters to the female sexual script of the insatiable freak, a woman available for “all comer and takers” (2003: 21). The freak scene again underlines a longing for unlimited male access to women and is a clear instance of the male gaze in a rap video. However, at least in the narrative sequences concerning Treach’s girlfriend, male power is again shown with a certain ironic touch as Treach wakes up next to a giant soft toy (01:29) undermining his masculine image. In conclusion, one can say that the viewer of the video has to come to terms with the outlined frictions between the lyrics and some of the images even though it is partially resolved through ironic undertones.
3.3 ‘A Holla to my Sisters’ - Keep Ya Head Up
Embed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfXwmDGJAB8 here
In the last video under regard, potential clashes of street life and female life spheres are presented in a very straight-forward manner: A woman is molested by men cruising by in a convertible (00:30), men roll the dice on the street (01:55) while a single-mother cannot even provide her child with enough food to eat (02:14) and the lyrics for the images at 00:57 suggest that a man leaving his pregnant girlfriend tells her that she “ain’t nuthin”. Throughout the video, 2pac embodies an African-American man trying to come to terms with these issues. He, for instance, tells his cruising homies to stop their teasing (00:33) and thoughtfully looks at a child watching him gambling (02:08). However, it also occurs to the viewer that street men hold friends in high esteem even though they are disrespectful towards women as the reckless father-to-be reappears in 2pac’s posse (00:57/04:20). Then again, the men around 2pac do not act like aggressive defenders of a male domain: Violent postures are abandoned in favour of uplifting gestures coming with the soulful hookline encouraging women to ‘keep their head up’ (01:28). In addition to that, children are integrated into the street scenes, e.g. a girl being carried by 2pac (01:34) or two youngsters dancing along to the song (02:55). The dancing with children – contrary to its implications in Nuthin But A ‘G’ Thang – is given the ambience of a respectful and responsible inclusions since 2pac addresses the stressful life of the “ladies havin’ babies on they own” (03:25), the grief of a child learning that his father “don’t love him no mo’” (03:45) and the responsibility of African-Americans for their “race of babies” (01:12). An inclusion of females into the posse, however, seems to be not so probable or just at its beginning as women rarely appear and are just shown for brief moments (04:20). It is suggested that male street life may be immoral as 2pac claims that he tries “to make a dollar out of fifteen cent” (02:18) – i.e. earning money from fifteen dollars worth of drugs (cf. onlineslangdictionary 2014) - while women try “to be legit” (02:21) and therefore struggle financially. However, the common reproach that rap videos present women either as saints or whores (cf. Neumann-Braun/Mikos 2006: 2) is not applicable here since the negative side of 2pac’s mother is shown as he claims that she has turned his brother into a “crack baby” (02:56).
Concerning the issues of the male gaze, one can say that the presentation of female bodies comes without hints at male sexual longing as obvious as in Nuthin But A ‘G’ Thang or some sequences of Hip Hop Hooray. Moreover, the video casts doubt on some commonplace sexual scripts in rap videos: Firstly, the before mentioned sequence of a fight between a pregnant lady and her boyfriend is presented with the lyrics "if he can't learn to love you, you should leave him" (00:40) contradicting the notion that a man should “always have sexual access to his Baby Mama” (Stephens/Phillips 2003: 33). The right to reject sexual contact with men is extended to all women as 2pac raps with regard to babies: "since a man can't make one, he has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one" (01:16). Implicit in his claim that young mothers left “to be a pappy” (00:53) make him unhappy and his call on all “real men” to “get up” (01:24) is the statement that it is unjust of men to leave a pregnant woman behind. Although Stephens and Phillips find that the respect of a male Hip Hopper for his mother is not always extended “to his own child’s mother” (Stephens/Phillips 2003: 34) it is fair to say that this is exactly what happens in the video at hand. The enumerated lyrics and images gain a special relationship to Tupac Shakur’s mother as she stars as a single-mother in the video (e.g. 02:19). The video also opposes the stereotype of the Welfare Mother that “lazily collects government checks (Stephens/Phillips 2003: 9) by giving “a holla to [...] sisters on welfare” (00:20) and associating them with the struggle to survive and raise children. Finally, it is also fair to say that the video puts women in a political context by identifying them both, as victims of the US-society – shown by the reference to Latasha Harlin’s murder and the ensuing lenient sentence (00:01) – and as political activists such as Tupac Shakur’s mother who “nearly gave her life” (02:09) to raise her son.
Summing up the findings on the video, one may say that African-American women are addressed in a favourable tone. It is underlined that they suffer from inappropriate behaviour of the males in their community. While they are encouraged to stand firm and act confidently in spite of all adversities, African-American men are called on to act responsibly, for instance, rejecting rape/molestations or caring for the children they father. While some symbols of male domination – such as aggressive postures or the cruising in a car - are willingly torn down in the video, some ruptures and differences between male street life and female life are presented and held up: Drug dealing appears as a male activity that might be necessary financially, 2pac shows cordial contact with men in his posse acting disrespectfully towards women and gambles on the street corner (yet, he realises the absurdity of this action when facing a poor child). In this way, the video points to an important problem in the African-American community, points out a way to approach it and yet underlines the difficulties of bringing about changes in every day-life.
In the opening lyrics to Keep Ya Head Up, 2pac states that he cares for African-American women “if don’t nobody else care” (00:24). Obviously, however, he was not the only one artistically digesting views on the place of women in Hip Hop-street culture or African-American street culture respectively. This post shows that there was a variety of approaches to the issue in 1993: Nuthin But A ‘G’ Thang deliberately emphasises male domination in lyrics and images and sends out the message that women do not have the right to serve as more than objects of sexual enjoyment outside of domestic life. Hip Hop Hooray shows urban images suggesting equal rights of men and women in street and party life and ridicules some symbols of male domination, however, the lyrics and narrative video sequences contradict this impression and leave it to the beholder to make sense of this contradiction. Keep Ya Head Up presents male domination in the before mentioned domains as the norm. However, it is problematised how this status quo encroaches on female freedoms. To confront this problem, women are called on to remain confident while men are asked to improve the situation of the African-American women and children through responsible action. Light hints at the integration of women into street life are present and children are part of the images throughout the video. However, ruptures between female life and male street life remain evident which underlines that there are obstacles on the way to a solution of the problem.
The author personally regards the approach of the 2pac-video as the most complex and forward-pointing contribution to the discussed issue. However, it is up to each beholder to decide if the videos at hand, the ideas presented above and his/her personal taste lead him/her to another conclusion.
Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Czerwenka-Wenkstetten, Marcus. Vorurteile und Sexismus im Hiphop. Diplomarbeit zur Erlangung des Magistergrades der Philosophie an der Fakultät für Sozialwissenschaften, Institut für Publizistik- und Kommunikationswissenschaft, Universit ät Wien. Wien: Universit ät Wien, 2009.
Henderson, Errol A. "Black nationalism and rap music." Journal of Black Studies. 26.3 (1996): 308-339.
Iwamoto, Derek. "Tupac Shakur: Understanding the identity formation of hyper-masculinity of a popular hip- hop artist." The Black Scholar.33.2 (2003): 44-49.
Lewis, Lisa A. "Female address on music television. Being discovered." Jump Cut. 35 (April 1990): 2-15. http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC35folder/GirlsMTV.html. Accessed 2014-09-12.
Miller-Young, Mireille. “Hip Hop Honeys and Da Hustlaz. Black Sexualities in the New Hip-Hop Pornography.” Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism. 8.1 (2007): 261-293.
Neumann-Braun, Klaus/ Mikos, Lothar."Geschlechterpräsentation [in Musikvideos]." Videoclips und Musikfernsehen. Eine problemorientierte Kommentierung der aktuellen Forschungsliteratur. Schriftenreihe Medienforschung der Landesanstalt für Medien Nordrhein-Westalen (LfM), Band 52. Eds.Klaus Neumann-Braun/ Lothar Mikos. Düsseldorf: Vistas Verlag, 2006. 42-52.
The Online Slang Dictionary. Definition of nickel. http://onlineslangdictionary.com/meaning-definition-of/nickel. Accessed 2014-11-11.
Parker, Scott. “Introduction.” Eminem and rap, poetry, race: essays. Ed. Scott F. Parker. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland&Company, 2014. 5-16.
Phillips, Layli/ Reddick-Morgan, Kerri/ Patricia Stephens, Dionne. "Oppositional Consciousness within an Oppositional Realm: The Case of Feminism and Womanism in Rap and Hip Hop, 1976-2004." The Journal of African American History. 90.3. (Summer, 2005): 253-277.
Quinn, Eithne. “Black British Cultural Studies and the Rap on Gangsta.” Black Music Research Journal. 20.2 (Autumn, 2000): 195-216.
Reeves, Marcus. Somebody Scream!: Rap Music's Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power. London: Faber&Faber, 2009.
Richard, Birgit. "Repräsentationsräume: Kleine Utopien und weibliche Fluchten. Grotesken im Hip Hop-Clip. Beiträge zur Popularmusikforschung." Clipped Differences. Ed. Dietrich Helms. Bielefeld: transcript- verlag, 2003. 81-97.
Rose, Tricia. Black noise. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.
Stephens, Dionne P./ Phillips, Layli D. "Freaks, Gold Diggers, Divas, and Dykes: The Sociohistorical Development of Adolescents African American Women's Sexual Scripts." Sexuality & Culture. (Winter 2003): 3-49.
Vernallis, Carol. "The functions of lyrics in music video." Journal of Popular Music Studies.14.1 (2002): 11-31.
 Notably, not using footage to comment videos seems to come with at least two disadvantages: Firstly the risk that beholders might learn more about secondary literature than about the video under scrutiny. Secondly it might be ignored that music videos are a tightly interwoven and interactive fabric of lyrics, music and images. The author hopes to avoid these traps by firstly making the videos his prime frame of reference and secondly by taking into account that lyrics and images can either be divided from each other through “gaps in meaning needing to be broached by the viewer” (Vernallis 2002: 15) or add meaning to each other.
 Interestingly, the endurance of contradictions seems to have been an outstanding feature of 2pac’s artistic life. He gained the reputation of being an embodiment of features as contradictory as nihilism, consciousness for concerns of Black nationalism, the representation of Afro-American every day concerns and the “status as a proverbial black success story” (Quinn 2000: 207).
 Since this post discusses a very simple version of the male gaze-theory, it is pointed out to the reader that there is an abundance of more complex approaches to this matter (cf. Neumann et al. 2006: 4-12). Furthermore, it shall be noted that the Aphex Twin-video Windowlicker – also discussed in this blog – is frequently seen as an outstanding ironic response to the phenomenon (cf. Richard 2003: 91).
 As the video was shot in the city of Compton (Los Angeles), party and street scenes have a particularly sunny and friendly flair. However, according to Richard, the presented neighbourhoods are “no less dangerous” (Richard 2003: 84, translation by J.W.) than other potential areas for rap videos on the West Coast.
 This may also be interpreted in light of a sexual script, namely that of the matriarch established through a US-government report in the 1960s. It put forward the conviction that African-American women have family structures “under [...] sexual control” (Stephens 2003: 10) and therefore produce passive and unproductive male family members. However, this cliché is not played out archetypically as the men at home at least seem capable of working out, finding jobs and (in the case of Snoop Dogg) ironing their own clothes.
 A baseball bat is also part of the group’s logo.
 Stephens puts this sexual script in the colonial context as she notes that it had its precursor in the ‘Jezebel’, a script suggesting that certain black women can only find “both sexual gratification and personal satisfaction” (Stephens 2003: 8) which, according to her, served as a justification of rape by slave-owners.
 This is not the case for many other video productions for 2pac-songs, especially not for the video for How Do You Want It? featuring porn-celebrities of the 1990s and being discussed as a contribution to the pornification of rap-videos (Miller-Young 2007).
 Iwamoto interprets this notion as a pro-abortion statement (Iwamoto 2003: 47).