Hyper-Masculine and Misogynist Violence in Chicano Rap
Issue #61, September 2002
Growing up in northern New Mexico my models of Chicano/Mexican American masculinity and femininity were varied. My grandfather and his brothers were gentle men who gained satisfaction from positive, mutually edifying human interaction with men and women. They taught me about compassion and love. My friends presented a tough, hyper-masculine fade they learned from their eastside barrio and from the violence they saw around them in the boxing gym, the streets and, importantly, in our mass media. They taught me how to fight.
My models of Chicana/Mexicana womanhood, the women in my family, did not take shit from anyone — including their husbands. They were strong and caring. Their endless stories emanating from the kitchen and the poker table taught me about the pitfalls of being a male chauvinist pig, while at the same time they warned my sister to be chaste and not get a "reputation."
I began learning to be a "man" by dare-deviltry and drinking in the early 1980s, the same time that rap and hip hop culture began to break out of its original home in New York City and go nationwide. Rap images of black masculinity combined with those of Mexican American masculinity to inform my search for manhood. By the late 1980s I was firmly ensconced in academia and rap had burst onto the pop culture stage. In 1990 Kid Frost became the first Chicano to make it in the rap game. His Hispanic Causing Panic LP and hit single "La Raza" were godsends for me and other Chicano rappers and break-dancers. Unfortunately, its hyper-masculine bravado mirrored the attitudes that led me and many of my friends to fight, drink, consume drugs and otherwise harm ourselves and others.
Later, in the midst of writing my dissertation I used rap music as a way of confronting the academy's most racist and classist elements, and to re-affirm my identity as a brown man steeped in the traditions of working-class Hispano New Mexico. Rap's aggressive beats, cacophonous production styles and often-angry lyrics spoke to me as a Chicano in the Ivory Tower. They responded to the institutions that oppressed them, the police, the schools, etc., in ways that at times I wished I could have responded to the oppression I experienced at the university. I co-authored my first article on rap, "Quiet as It's Kept: Rap as a Model for Resisting the Academy," in 1998. Since then I have written several pieces focused on Chicano rap.
In the last four years the violence of Chicano rap has made a profound impression on me. Chicano rappers rap about hitting each other, hitting cops, and hitting and abusing women. My first question was why do these young men spend so much time thinking about, writing about, and listening to stories of violence? For me, rap and hip hop culture, had been about escaping violence and oppression. It was about getting together and expressing ourselves with our bodies and voices. Of course, break-dancing battles often turned violent and people fought at parties that showcased hip hop culture. Nonetheless, hip hop was mostly a safe space. So, why all the violence in Chicano rap today?
First, understanding Chicano rap requires examination of Mexican male expressive culture, black male expressive culture and the dominant culture. Second, our society is in the midst of a crisis of masculinity attracting men to consume and produce violent popular culture. Third, the extreme misogyny in Chicano rap results from our notions of masculinity that equate manhood with demeaning the Other, especially women.
The first and most direct model of masculinity informing the narratives of Chicano rappers comes in the form of Mexican male oral culture and traditions. In my community the question about boxing was not whether to box or not, but when you would get into your first fight. We revered the Chicano lumpenproletariat, the cholo and pachuco who dished out more pain than he received. We drew pictures of the cholo, dressed like him, spoke like him, and behaved like him. Many of us became him. Why not? The cholo challenged his oppression with gun in hand. Girls liked him. He was strong, handsome and brown. We heard the corridos and other Mexican (American) music that celebrated the social bandit who protected himself and his people "with his pistol in his hand." We heard the stories of our distant relatives who rode with Pancho Villa fighting for land and liberty in the Mexican Revolution, and others who fought, died and killed for their country in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The brave, honorable Mexican man fought. Violence and hyper-masculinity became somewhat of a norm for young Chicanos.
As a result of the commodification of blackness in the larger US culture through rap and the gangxploitation film genre, we had a new model of hyper-masculinity: the Bad Nigga. In black male oral culture the Bad Nigga has a long history similar to the male Mexican hero figure. From Stagga Lee to Shaft to Ice-T, the Bad Nigga served as a symbol of defiant black manhood. Since both black and Mexican male cultures lauded the strong, often violent man, we were familiar with the new postmodern social bandit, the black gangsta. Gangsta-style rap was a natural direction in which to take Chicano male expressive culture. It was aggressive, hyper-masculine and "real."
During the 1980s we also witnessed the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster movie that more often than not featured a violent male hero. He didn't allow anyone to get over on him; he, too, seemed to be loved by the women. We also became victims of the flood of guns and drugs into our communities, and the economic violence of the Reagan years that led many to turn to illicit entrepreneurship as their means of survival. Economic restructuring led to extreme poverty in some communities, which according to the get-tough-on-crime logic could only be contained with more cops and more prisons. Gang task forces were created to keep young brown men in their neighborhoods and an all-out War on Youth of Color followed. Police have become militarized and now turn on us the high-tech weaponry and communication systems used to defeat foreign enemies.
The media helped disseminate the hateful War on Youth of Color by presenting us as the face of violence. News stories featuring brown and black men warned middle-class America about the gang menace. Sensationalized stories of innocent victims, usually white, being killed by drive-by shootings filled the airwaves. While the CIA and the US military quietly destroyed much of Central America, the media loudly declared the existence of an epidemic of minority youth violence. As a result few outside the barrios and ghettos questioned commando raids in the inner-city that destroyed homes and families, and criminalized and imprisoned a large part of an entire generation.
Hyper-masculinity and Dead Homies
So violence exploded in the barrios. It seeped into our homes through our TV screens and into our hoods through police and gang violence. With this legacy of violence in our expressive culture and our streets, one shouldn't be surprised at the hyper-violence narrated by Chicano rappers. Nonetheless, I can't stop asking why. Violence isn't the only occurrence in the barrio. We hate, but we also love. We go to church, dance, laugh, and care for our gardens. We hug our children, party with friends, and respect life. Yet none of this makes it onto rap CDs. Rappers leave out most of what occurs in our barrios and small towns, along with the social privilege that destroys us. Why?
Boys are taught hyper-masculinity from Day One. "Don't cry!," "Don't be a sissy!," "You throw like a girl!" shout our fathers and mothers, teachers and coaches. To be a man is to not be a woman. And a woman is weak, frail, and passive. To be a man is to shun the feminine like a virus. Signs of weakness are a "no-no." In our either-or dichotomous system of logic, weakness is the opposite of strength. A young man demonstrates his strength through daily performances of violent masculinity because, as Michael Kimmel points out, as soon as you have proven your manhood through acts of daring you must prove it again or risk the labels "pussy" or "fag." Moreover, the corporate media's violent, masculine superheroes — the Stallones, Willises and Schwarzneggers — dominate the pop culture landscape. These are our models of manhood.
So we run from the feminine. We dehumanize women with our jokes and locker-room lies. All the while violence against women increases sanctioned by our popular culture. The slasher genre of Hollywood film and a large sector of commercial rap legitimize the victimization of women. In the end objectified female images dehumanize women and further entrench male privilege.
Still young men wouldn't focus their aesthetics almost entirely on violence if violence didn't sell. Young Chicanos trying to make it out of the barrio rap about violence because they have astutely analyzed the rap music marketplace and see that three central themes have cornered the rap industry. Sex, violence and money sell better than love, kindness and generosity. After the late 1980s when rap became a multi-billion dollar industry, themes related to politics, social criticism and alternative lifestyles fell by the wayside. Greed and violence fill the airwaves and young Chicanos listen to the radio. As bell hooks argues, perhaps the question should not be why Chicano rappers focus on violence, but rather why we consume it. Our video games, films, televisions, and music normalize and naturalize violence. Instead of seeing violence as a social ill, it excites and entertains us. Violence sells and we consume it.
However, this doesn't mean that Chicano rappers are simply duped by a violent system into creating an aesthetic of violence. Violence isn't simply a picture on a screen or an image in a song. It is real and disproportionately affects poor, inner-city youth of color. While a great deal of violence is gratuitous and packaged as a commodity to be consumed as entertainment, Chicano rappers also attempt to analyze the very real violence around them. When Sir Dyno asks "What Have I Become?" as a result of a violent lifestyle or when the Latin Bomb Squad question the eye-for-an-eye mentality that kills homies and devastates families, they aren't simply glorifying violence or parroting our violent society.
This seemingly nihilistic obsession with violence is, as De Genova argues, a means by which young Chicanos cope with the violence around them and examine questions about humanity. Discussing violence helps Chicanos better understand life and death and the struggle for humanity. In an environment saturated with economic and physical violence, Chicano rappers make meaning of our world through the contemplation of death.
Where are Mexican men like my grandfather? Many still live in their communities. Why aren't their models of masculinity more prominent in popular culture? Why aren't their voices heard? Has globalized, homogenized mass culture replaced interpersonal relationships that we once relied on to structure our manhood and womanhood?
We must remember these men. But, perhaps more importantly, we should embrace positive aspects of femininity to counter the epidemic of hyper-masculinity. The violent, destructive rage of rappers should be challenged by a constructive rage informed by positive notions of womanhood, manhood and Mexican-ness. Chicano rap's violence should not be censored or shunned. Instead, we should engage these young men in an intra-cultural and intergenerational dialogue that takes into account the multiple perspectives and heterogeneous lives of women and the myriad ways of being Mexican men.
In an interview for the Voices of Freedom film project Bernice Reagon Johnson informs us that she constantly begs older black people to teach all that they know of black culture and traditions. She tells them "don't go to the grave with your knowledge."
Similarly, I challenge Mexican-origin elders to intervene in the hip hop community. Do not write off our children as hopeless. To combat the crippling violence and misogyny in our communities and youth we must educate ourselves and our children in the egalitarian, democratic, and communal aspects of our culture. We should study and discuss the work of writers like Ana Castillo and Cherrie Moraga, artists like Yolanda Lopez, and filmmakers like Esperanza Squez. Engaging rappers in a mutually respectful dialogue that uses the cultural production of Chicana feminists as a counterweight to cultural violence can open new ideas of masculinity and humanity, so sorely needed in this era.
Pancho McFarland is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.