How Hip-Hop Is Confronting Toxic Masculinity

When I was young, hip-hop was the apotheosis of hyper-masculinity. The hyper-masculinity was often so extreme that it verged on parodic. The video for Ruff Ryder’s Anthem, for example, came complete with topless men lifting weights, Pitbulls gnarling at the camera and tricked out motorbikes speeding down the street. The lyrics offered an abundance of braggadocio, a rejection of femininity and an absence of vulnerability. The Ruff Ryder’s Anthem was overtly masculine, but it was hardly unusual in the context of late nineties hip-hop.

Popular rappers in the past embraced masculinity by either stoically rejecting vulnerability or overcoming vulnerability through supposed greatness. Emotive hip-hop was redemptive. Vulnerability existed only as a surmounted obstacle, an ephemeral hardship of the past defeated by sheer masculine strength. The hyper-masculinity was self-perpetuating: the more machismo on display, the more popular the artist. To gain notoriety, therefore, aspiring rappers were forced to exaggerate their masculinity and reject vulnerability and the cycle thus continued. Only the masculine, it seemed, survived.

The stars of contemporary hip-hop, however, are rejecting the hyper-masculine. Plenty of popular artists originally adopted typical masculinity – in the pursuit of notoriety, perhaps – but banished aspects of the construct as they developed. Contemporary rappers increasingly reject the notion, for example, that financial achievement serves as a source of empowerment – as seen, for example, in J Cole’s ‘Love Yourz’ – and approach status with nuance, as opposed to self-praise – as seen throughout Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. And, most importantly, contemporary rappers are increasingly expressing vulnerability without redemption.

Kid Cudi arguably paved the way for this phenomenon in 2009 with Man on the Moon. The second song on the album, ‘The Soundtrack to My Life‘, explores depression and suicidal tendencies: ‘My heart’s an open sore that I hope heals soon/ I live in a cocoon opposite of Cancun/ Where it is never sunny, the dark side of the moon’. There is no triumph in this song, no redemption, no light at the end of the tunnel. Cudi opts for reclusiveness and rejects the outside world. There exists a profound vulnerability throughout Man on the Moon and Cudi ostensibly feels no obligation to hide this vulnerability due to some vague allegiance to masculinity.

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Hip-hop…

Other rappers have followed suit. J Cole is one of the more frequently introspective and openly vulnerable rappers of the new school, as seen as early as 2011 in ‘Lost Ones‘ from his album Cole World: ‘I ain’t too proud to tell you/ That I cry sometimes, I cry sometimes about it.’ As with Cudi before him, there is little redemption for the emotive Cole. He struggles with fame and finds the perpetual pursuit of money problematic; he discards overblown materialism and finds no worth in the self-praising narrative that once engulfed hip-hop. Cole’s vulnerability is a reaction to toxic masculinity; a negation of what he calls ‘tough guy’ culture.

Kendrick Lamar, currently the most popular rapper on the planet, offers an eclectic blend of vulnerability. Lamar is complicated, inconsistent and conflicted. His critically acclaimed album, To Pimp a Butterfly, deals directly with suicidal thoughts, survivor’s guilt and plenty of other issues mainstream rappers once sought to avoid. Lamar talks about his fall into depression with dexterity, employing different narrators to highlight the experience. He does so pessimistically in ‘u’ – ‘The world will know money can’t stop a suicidal weakness’ – and optimistically in ‘i’ – ‘Blow steam in the face of the beast/ Sky could fall down, wind could cry now/ Look at me motherfucker I smile.’ Lamar stretches his vulnerabilities throughout the album, occasionally reverting to bravado, but never finding redemption.

While these accomplished rappers, and there are plenty of others worth mentioning, have opened up, emerging rappers continue this trend. Reclusiveness among these artists takes centre stage. In ‘44 Bars’, for example, Logic raps: ‘I just don’t go outside/ ‘Cause honestly I don’t fuck with this world, I’d rather hide’. Chance the Rapper examines similar trends in songs such as ‘Paranoia’: ‘I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared, too/ I know you scared, me too.’ And Earl Sweatshirt mimics the sentiment throughout I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside – particularly in the songs ‘Grief’ and ‘Inside’.

The ability to talk openly about vulnerability challenges an essential trope of the masculine construct, but unfortunately other masculine ideals remain largely unchallenged. While flagrant and unabashed misogyny is less abundant in hip-hop – the days of ‘Pussy Poppin’ and ‘Tip Drill’ permeating the mainstream are thankfully behind us – sexism continues at the highest level. Each of the aforementioned vulnerable rappers, for example, have used the terms bitch and hoe devoid of context. Similarly, homophobia, another trope of masculinity, is again less prominent, but by no means non-existent. Hip-hop is certainly making strides in challenging the damaging aspects of masculinity, but, as with most other forms of popular culture, there is still a long way to go.

It is nonetheless important that a culture once so entrenched in the hyper-masculine is rejecting one of the most damaging aspects of masculinity. Traditional masculinity dictates that men either reject vulnerability or hide vulnerability with bravado. The mainstream of contemporary hip-hop does neither. Hip-hop wholeheartedly embraces vulnerability. This sends an important message to the audience.

Contemporary hip-hop is telling men that it is okay to feel vulnerable. It is telling men that it is okay to talk about feeling vulnerable. It is telling men that it is okay to be human. Hip-hop’s challenge of masculinity is profoundly liberating, particularly for those feeling constricted or poisoned by toxic masculinity.

Running with Murakami

Three months ago, I made the mistake of picking up a towel. As I reached down, I felt a sharp pang in my leg and, lo and behold, my patella once again partially dislocated. I’m usually engaged in some form of physical activity when my knee feels like taking a trip from home. This time, however, there was no tackle or tumble. There was no fight or fall. The culprit was a towel.

The doctor gave me the bog-standard pills and said I had to attend physio. I asked if I could skip physio and go straight under the knife. No, she said. Am I going to have to run? Yes, she said.

I was an utterly uninspired jogger. I used to put on shoddy tracksuit bottoms, perform a couple of pointless stretches, give up and watch six episodes of Scrubs. Not today, I told myself. The next day, once again dressed in dishevelled running gear, I watched six more episodes of Scrubs. Not today.

I had to get inspired. I had to want to run. I asked successful runners for advice and a couple of friends told me to read a book. It seemed like strange advice, but it was worth a try. The next day I bought Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

I was still unable to run because my knee felt unstable, so I was preparing under the tutelage of Murakami: ‘I went to a sports store and purchased running gear and shoes that suited my purpose. I bought a stopwatch, too, and read a beginners’ guide on running. This is how you become a runner.’ The first thing I did, therefore, was buy the proper gear.

According to Murakami, I was now a runner. This is easy, I thought. The book was captivating – especially for a budding writer – and, ostensibly, all I had to do was buy running gear. I found myself waiting for parcels to arrive, excitedly trying on different outfits. My brother said I looked like an out-of-shape hobo, but I thought I looked good. Looking the part, according to Murakami, is important.

Murakami suggests running with music. I therefore devised a playlist. I copied a couple of Murakami’s suggestions – the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Beck, Gorillaz – and added a few tracks from Murakami’s novels – The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel. I supplemented the playlist with a couple of my favourites – mainly the Wu-Tang Clan.

My running gear was ready, my playlist was appropriately Murakami-esque with a hint of the Wu and my patella was safely in its reluctant home. I was ready to run. I wanted to run.

My first ran started to the sound of Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown). My legs started to hurt after five hundred metres. After a kilometre, I was in agony. I tried to remember my training. Murakami said I was feeling pain, but not suffering. It certainly felt like I was suffering.

My first run was a personal worst: 2km. I took off my running gear, settled on the sofa and watched Scrubs, disheartened.

The next day, I missed a run, but intent on continuing, I re-read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Murakami never missed a run two days in a row. The following day, therefore, I had to run. I threw together my gear, put on C.R.E.A.M – the perfect running song – and hit the streets. 3km. There was less pain and more enthusiasm. No suffering.

A good run, according to Murakami, is contagious. Two days later, I ran 3km again. No suffering. With each run I was advancing. I started to follow some of Murakami’s more enigmatic advice. I practiced speeches while running. I listened to the rhythm of my feet. I even pretended I was surrounded by a crowd, urging me forward. Two weeks later, I was running 4km.

A month has passed since I first read Murakami. I’m running frequently now and the prospect of the run has become less daunting. There are annotations all over my copy of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and little post-it notes on inspirational pages. I turn to the book in times of need – when the ‘running blues’ strikes and Scrubs beckons.

The next step, as per my mentor’s advice, is signing up for a race. I have my eyes set on the Vitality London 10k. It’s hardly Murakami’s 62-mile ultramarathon, but it’s a start. I need to continue this momentum.

Everyone needs a reason to run. Some find it easily – hastened by the pursuit of health or the reduction of stress – while others have to read and reread running tracts by their favourite authors. Murakami gives me a reason. It might seem romantic, but it’s true. I had to run – to help strengthen the muscles around my patella – but I didn’t enjoy running. I do enjoy, however, running with Murakami.

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Why We Need to Fight to Save Britain’s Libraries

I am a voluntary recluse. People don’t mind spending time with me – so I’m told – but I dislike spending time with people. I reluctantly socialise on occasion – society demands such a sacrifice – but I prefer solitude. I need an escape. I need time away from the formality of small talk and the commotion of conversation. I need to be alone with my thoughts or, preferably, the thoughts of my favourite writers.

We recluses seek solitude in strange places. The park is nice on rare sunny afternoons, but there is a shocking lack of public toilets and the perpetuity of bush-pissing makes for a daunting experience. Coffee shops are tolerable if one can withstand the din of needless gossip and the horror of overhearing an awkward first date. Pubs also provide solitude, but the risk of the drunkards approach is a constant fear for the inept recluse.

The public library, however, is the recluse’s ideal habitat. The library is a strange and mysterious place. It is full of buzz yet silent. One is surrounded by crowds yet feels perfectly alone. It serves the community yet paradoxically allows one to avoid the community.

The recluses’ utopia.

Unlike the outside world, there is no judgment in the library. There is no dress code: the hobo and the aristocrat are equals. There is no pomp or pageantry. All are welcome. It doesn’t matter if you’re an eight-year-old reading Ulysses or an eighty-year-old reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It is each person alone with their thoughts in solidarity with others alone with their thoughts. There exists a code, a comradery, a fellowship among us library-dwelling folk. The library is, in many ways, a recluse’s utopia.

And that utopia is under attack. Budget cuts over the last few years have led to library closures across the UK. Plenty more libraries face a similar fate. According to the Voices for the Library campaign, over 10% of Britain’s libraries are currently under threat. 500 out of a total public library provision of just over 4500 face closure. That means thousands of self-loathing recluses such as myself abandoned, forced to accept our existence in parks and pubs. We are losing our natural habitat.

Fighting back is an almost insurmountable feat for the recluse. It means conversing, arguing, maybe even going out in public and voicing our opinion. To save our natural habitat, therefore, we recluses have to enter enemy ground: the outside world.

Plenty of folks are already fighting on our behalf. Ian Rankin, for example, campaigned to prevent the closure of 16 libraries in Fife. He said the library provided ‘refuge and a place of constant wonder’ when he was growing up. I know the feeling. When Sydenham Library faced closure in 2011, writer Baroness Mary Warnock said the shutting of her local library amounts to ‘barbarism’.

Zadie Smith, fighting to save Kensal Rise Library, said ‘I can see that if you went to Eton or Harrow, like so many of the present government, it is hard to see how important it is to have a local library.’ Smith wasn’t alone in the campaign to save Kendal Rise – a library opened by Mark Twain. She was joined by Nick Cave, Alan Bennett, the Pet Shop Boys, an entire community and, of course, a few of my fellow recluses.

The fight to save our libraries is particularly important for younger generations – those kids seeking an escape to read Huckleberry Finn in peace. Surely, these kids have the same right that I was once afforded. They too deserve an escape. They too deserve the sort of peace that kept my sanity in check. Like Rankin, they too deserve a place of refuge and constant wonder.

Last Saturday, the UK celebrated National Library Day. National Library Day was an opportunity to raise awareness and help to protect the natural habitat of strange, reclusive creatures such as myself and to ensure that every kid has the same opportunities that I once had: to hide away from the outside world. It received little attention. Perhaps that’s because there was little to celebrate, as closures are hardly worth celebration.

Every Briton needs an escape. Some find it on nightclub floors. Others find it amongst the foliage and greenery of public parks. For recluses, the library is our escape. It’s our home. It’s where we feel comfortable. It is as close to a utopia as we have ever found and we will always, albeit reluctantly, fight for that utopia.