The Commodification of Masculinity in Hip-Hop

In this cc, my goal is to impress upon you the use of hybrid masculinities in modern hip-hop as a commercial tool, attracting audiences but not representing them in a meaningful way. I claim that the use of masculinities as artistic motifs creates greater and more intersectional inequalities between the hip-hop elite and their non-normative audiences.

A quick note – this is not meant to be an instance of “cancel culture” or anything like that. I just think that an account of this phenomenon is quite interesting. On the other hand, this is a rather opinionated argument. If you don’t agree with me, that’s cool!

Sexuality as a Musical Riff

Today’s male hip-hop artists sing not only about their conquests and infatuations with women, but also those with men, both women and men, and sometimes neither women nor men. The most visible example lies with Frank Ocean, whose 2012 channel ORANGE is considered to be Frank’s first public expression of his bisexuality. The day he released the album, Frank posted a note on Tumblr, sharing that his first love was with a man.

The same day, Tyler the Creator tweeted out two replies to Ocean’s announcementsLooks like the tweets have been removed from Twitter, but records of them are still around. I’ve censored some parts I’m not interested in presenting on this blog.:

Fucking Finally Sus Boy @frank_ocean Hahahaha, You Still Aint Got No Bitches Hahaha … Dawg

My Big Brother Finally Fucking Did That. Proud Of [Ocean] Cause I Know That Shit Is Difficult Or Whatever. Anyway. Im A Toilet.

Remember that Tyler and Frank are in the same collective (Odd Future), and by all accounts good friends. But at least to Tyler, Frank’s account of his sexuality is as much of a joke as Tyler’s assertion that he is “a toilet”.

While these are just Tyler’s comments, I claim that the hip-hop artists in general are not interested in dialogue about sexual diversity outside of whatever they write in their songs. Even Frank Ocean now rejects “the label as a queer artist, or even as bisexual,” claiming, he is “in this business to be creative”. Theomatic states that the role of diverse masculinities in hip-hop is artistic and power-building for rappers, conceding that empowerment of sexually diverse masculinities in general would require much larger work outside the hip-hop scene.Source

Though expressions of diverse sexual experiences are novel in hip-hop, there is no indication they are meant to break down normative discrimination of sexuality diversity or empower LGBTQ+ communities. I mean, even Frank Ocean says that he’s really not singing about this for any purpose other than that of his art. And though there is nothing wrong with that sentiment, Ocean’s individual choice manifests itself much more widely in the artistic realm as a prescription for the use of marginalized masculinities as an aesthetic to attract marginalized communities. This tactic grows an artist’s audience, enriches their personal wealth, and empowers their actions, while not really giving anything back to their audience other than a shallow sense of solidarity. It’s like a very subtle, almost imperceptible kind of queerbaiting.

Similar behavior was studied by Tristan Bridges, who saw straight men construct hybrid masculinities in an effort to appeal to marginalized groups but ultimately produced further inequalities between dominant and divergent masculinities. And even though Frank Ocean and others in the hip-hop scene may not be straight, the intention and consequences of their actions are no different.

Sometime you can have your cake and eat it too

Aside expressions of sexual diversity, some displays seeming to empower diverse masculinities in hip-hop are structured in a way as to be contradictory and even reinforce the dominance of hegemonic masculine norms. We’ll get to what this looks like in a second; first, some history.

I claim that the nature of this juxtaposition dates back to early hip-hop, when artists developed a simultaneous mandate to display an “authentic individual” and to display hypermasculinity reflecting Black Power movements. This was studied by Megan Morris, who argues the former attribute bound hip-hop culture to the ideals of black communities, while the latter attribute sought to rebuff white hegemony over black populations and enrich the influence of black masculinities in popular culture.

Modern rappers have inherited the mold of this mandate; in Yonkers, Tyler questions whether his father would have cared for him and speaks about working with his therapist, but not without also admonishing “Jesus” for opening up about his problems and threatening B.o.B. while calling him a “faggot”. In Finesse, Drake speaks to his insecurity of not always being by the side of the person he loves and his inexperience with romantic commitment, but also mentions flying to New York to attend Fashion Week on a whim.

In their 2019 thesis, Jamilah Dei-Sharpe coined expressions of vulnerability as instances of a “Intimate Masculinity” prevalent in modern hip-hop. And while both Tyler and Drake display intimate masculinities, they predicate their depictions on aggressive assertions of normative masculinity like violence, homophobia, and wealth. This severely diminishes the value of intimate masculinities on their own, and only reinforces the dominance of heteronormative masculinities in the hip-hop arena. Tyler’s words on the second verse of Yonkers are the most striking – he implies that displays of male vulnerability are either accompanied by admonishing the vulnerabilities of other men or else are hidden from the surface of masculinity entirely. Neither of these representations differ from the “hardened and strong” masculinity in their representation of male vulnerability.

All this is culminates in the perception that intimate masculinities are untenable and invaluable without accompaniment by traits of normative masculinities. Of course, this serves only to marginalize highly intersectional masculinities who are far from the hegemony and being increasingly swindled by faux-authentic songs.

In the end, Tyler and Drake have had their cake, and eaten it too.

Will you leave me behind?

The final point I want to make is that the growth of power by hip-hop artists often collects on that which has been hidden behind barriers constructed by white, heteronormative populations. But rather than reclaiming this power and redistributing it to larger communities, these artists stay near the hegemonic status-quo.

This too has been seen before. The most relevant instance dates back early days of hip-hop, when black and Chicano rappers rejected traits of white hegemony only insofar as destruction of these traits awarded them power in communities and refuted their individual subjugation under white hegemony; that is, these rappers continued to observe other traits of white-normative masculinities so as to hold power over their communities.

Today, the construction of power by hip-hop elite has generated an increasingly-complex landscape of inequalities between masculinities; the hybrid masculinities presented by dominant artists differs vastly from the marginalized, intersectional masculinities they claim to represent, and it remains unconditional that these hybrid masculinities are invaluable unless represented at the top of hip-hop cultural hierarchy.