Jazz is unpopular. Swinging rhythm and scat improvisations no longer bounce from the ceilings of dance halls. Young people no longer knee-slap to racing saxophones or sway to sympathetic pianists. Perhaps there was an Indian summer in Amy Winehouse — but the tenacious voices of jazz are most often discovered as history lessons.
Billie Holiday and Ma Rainey are feminist icons, remembered not only for their fight against racism, but as pioneers of the social campaigns that would later become the feminist and gay movements. Their music may not be commercially fashionable anymore — but the stoic spirit of their powerful female voices have found an unlikely reincarnation. Male hip-hop artists of today such as Kevin Abstract and Frank Ocean, are pressing on with the work of their female music relatives by fighting their own societal battle: toxic masculinity.
1990s hip-hop is legendary — but toxic. Hyper-masculinity runs at its heart and through its veins. The tracks of infamously scandalous videos are centred around unfiltered sexism, violent confrontation and guns. The only characteristic expected of up-and-coming rappers was complete animosity towards other men and often towards homosexuality. Their idols, Tupac and 50 Cent, were cult icons for a reason: they had wealth, women and were survivors of shootings: the epitome of strong, invincible masculinity. In 2006, Byron Hurt in ‘Hip-Hop (Beyond Beats & Rhymes)’ asked Busta Rhymes whether a gay rapper could ever be accepted in hip-hop culture. Immediately, the rapper lost eye contact with Hurt and responded defensively, ‘that homo sh**? I can’t even talk to you about that’. Today’s success of openly gay or androgynous men in hip-hop is something revolutionary.
Frank Ocean and Kevin Abstract are the two men at the forefront of the radical shake-up of masculinity in the genre. Kevin Abstract of hip-hop group Brockhampton, is openly gay and told Annie Mac in 2018, ‘I have to exist in a homophobic space to make things change’. He believes in ‘making things easier for young, queer kids’ and openly raps about his homosexuality. In his solo song ‘Miserable America’, he confides sensitively in the listener, ‘my boyfriend saved me’.
Ocean’s activism is more nuanced, having chosen not to outright label his sexuality, but he is undeniably committed to the LGBTQ+ cause. His homoerotic lyrics on ‘Bad Religion’, in which he uses a taxi driver as his priest, ‘I could never make him love me’, was described by Rolling Stone as ‘the most impassioned, devastating plea from one man to another ever recorded’. In his mesmerising music video for ‘Nikes’, he appears covered in glitter and wearing heavy eyeliner. He also reminds us that old school hip-hop is long from dead with the classic tropes of dollar bills and nightclubs, not forgetting a homage to Biggie. But really, the video is an outright rejection of his hip-hop predecessors.
The two rappers’ refusals to accept their genre’s perception of masculinity is reminiscent of their jazz predecessor’s refusal to accept their society’s perception of femininity. The ‘feminist impulse’ of Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith became catalysts for the liberating cultural movements of the twentieth century. Spectacularly, despite achieving popularity in the early 1900s, the ‘Mother of Blues’, Ma Rainey, has been attributed by academic Angela Davis as the ‘cultural precursor’ to the 1970s lesbian movement. In her 1928 song, ‘Prove It On Me’, she carelessly sings, ‘ain’t nobody caught me … went out last night … they must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men’.
Artists such as Kevin Abstract and Frank Ocean are just two of the musicians in hip-hop that are revolutionising what it means to be male. Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Tyler, the Creator, even Drake and Jay-Z, are lyrically crafting songs that preach inclusivity within the male identity. It’s a radical change of the times. In 2017, Jay-Z on his album ‘4:44’ makes a public apology regarding his infidelity towards Beyoncé. Rather than bragging of his sexual conquests like so many hip-hop giants, he admits: ‘if my children knew … I would probably die with shame’.
Drake’s ‘God’s Plan’ was the second biggest single of 2018. Its lyrics are far from feminist-friendly, but the accompanying video shows Drake distributing the nearly million-dollar budget for the video back to the communities of Miami. It’s a far cry from the dollar bills and nudity seen in Nelly’s infamous ‘Tip Drill’ video, in which the rapper is seen swiping a credit card through a woman’s buttocks.
The work of these artists is particularly important today because their message is reaching unprecedented numbers. According to Spotify’s analysis of nearly 20 billion tracks worldwide, hip-hop is the most listened to genre in the world for the first time. One poll recorded that 54 per cent of 20-24-year-olds in the United States regard hip-hop as their favourite genre of music. Impressionable young men today are growing up without the toxic, misogynistic, hostile attributes of masculinity — but rather learning that the male identity can be accepted and celebrated in any form. It is not defined by the validation of women, nor wealth or violence.
Jazz and hip-hop have always been synonymous with one another. Both the jazz founded in New Orleans and the hip-hop of the Bronx were born as a cultural response to the African-American experience. Rap itself is an evolved version of the ‘talking blues’. Freestyle rap is the product of jazz improvisation. Of course, hip-hop does have some progress to make. Chris Brown has long been the subject of rape allegations and last year, twenty-year-old rapper XXXTenacion was shot in a robbery.
Masculinity-driven gang violence and sexism is far from eradicated. But as popular artists echo the feminist voices of Billie Holiday and Ma Rainey, the culture is changing. A long overdue shake-up of the male identity is imminent.