- Awards Season
- Big Stories
- Pop Culture
- Video Games
130 Years of Carhartt: How Hip Hop, Unions, and the American Dream Made Carhartt Clothing a Staple
In 2015, a sitting U.S. president appeared on the cover of one of the most popular magazines in the world. This alone is not earth-shattering, but the photograph says more than a thousand words, namely because of the Carhartt jacket worn by then-President Barack Obama.
Carhartt clothing has been an American staple for over 130 years. As a brand and as a company, Carhartt has been able to forge a connection with its customers for many generations. Like Nike, king of the shoe game , Carhartt clothing and workwear can be found in dressers and closets no matter a person’s age, gender, or race.
Like most success stories, Carhartt’s consistent and ubiquitous presence was not an accident. There are a few reasons why Carhartt work boots, for instance, are worn by construction workers and runway models alike. For Carhartt, it’s been a century and a half of innovation paired with tradition. For example, the first Carhartt jackets appeared in ads that date back to 1917, and that same chore coat is still made today.
The family-owned business has been a part of American history through thick and thin. It hasn’t been all Paris runways and presidential endorsements for the company, so we’re breaking down Carhartt’s success, starting from the beginning.
The First Carhartt Jackets: Detroit Beginnings and Family Values
Carhartt was founded in the year 1889 by Hamilton Carhartt in Detroit, Michigan. That’s only 90 years after the death of George Washington. And just twenty-three years after the first Juneteenth — the day enslaved people in Texas finally learned they were to be freed — Carhartt Clothing & Workwear was formed in an America on the verge of exponential change.
Industry, as a whole, was revolutionizing, and factory work was one of the most common occupations of that time. Whether the American Dream is a myth or a blueprint, Carhartt’s journey as a brand follows that narrative. Cars were just becoming a thing at the time. Cities and railroads were being built. Farmworkers, firefighters, and other blue-collar professionals needed something to wear while they built the country’s foundations and infrastructure. Enter two sewing machines in Detroit, Michigan, Carhartt’s hometown.
Hamilton started the Carhartt brand with just five employees. Early ads were stamped with a heart that said “union made,” as featured in the photo at the top of the page. That ad is from a 1904 edition of the Tacoma Times. In 1904, we didn’t even have a set “weekend” yet in terms of days off, so the support is pretty groundbreaking for Dickensian times. Could Carhartt’s early support of unions be a part of its enduring success?
In 1898, a pair of Carhartt overalls went for $3 . This might not seem like much by today’s standards, but an inflation calculator suggests that this would come out to about $90 or $100 today. This isn’t far off from what a pair of Carhartt overalls will cost you now. Consistency has been key in Carhartt’s longevity as a company and has helped make it a reliable brand. Obama’s Carhartt winter jacket that goes for $119, for example.
Then and now, a pair of Carhartt boots or any of their workwear remains worth the investment. When the first Carhartt jackets were sewn, clothes weren’t made like the “fast fashion” of today. What you wore was an investment and needed to count, especially for those with working-class careers. Fast fashion isn’t good for the planet, so maybe we can see a return to this mindset from newer companies that want to be around 130 years from now.
Carhartt the Riveter: A Century of Workwear
As Carhartt expanded to the point of having factories all over the United States, World Wars and the Great Depression hit. The Depression was a hard time for the company, but that did not stop it from serving a country whose entrepreneurial spirit, in turn, allowed it to grow.
Carhartt opened the doors to its factories to outfit troops during both World Wars. Not only that, but they also outfitted the women who worked the factory and farm jobs that the servicemen were leaving behind. Perhaps if Rosie the Riveter was around today, she would be wearing a Carhartt jacket. Sales of Carhartt would continue long after the war, but it’s safe to say that a lot of the brand’s visibility came through its military services.
When Hamilton Carhartt passed away in 1937, his son Wylie took over the company, and Carhartt remains a family business to this day. Wylie expanded the brand’s line to include more outdoor wear, like the Carhartt winter jacket that you’ll see anywhere and everywhere there’s a winter season.
In the 1950s, Carhartt started entering department stores like Sears and JCPenney. Who would have thought at the time that Carhartt would continue to grow as stores like that downsized and disappeared altogether? Keeping it in the family, ensuring a sustainable product model, and investing in their workers are all pillars that not only make Carhartt stand out, but also maintain its gold standard of workwear status.
Jump Up, Jump Down, Jump Around in Your Carhartts
The 1980s and ’90s saw a new, more inclusive layer to the brand. People who grew up wearing Carhartt because of their parents were now entering pop culture limelights. In 1989, House of Pain wore Carhartt in their music video for “Jump Around.” Rap and hip hop, newer to the popular space, had blue-collar roots.
The roots of Carhartt workwear in hip hop spaces has a backstory that you might not expect. According to Steven J. Rapiel, the New York City salesman for Carhartt, many early hip-hop artists saw men in their communities wearing Carhartt winter jackets, favoring function over fashion. Of course, it became about fashion too: people saw these men as community figureheads and emulated their style, bringing them onstage, to red carpets and music videos.
Record label, Tommy Boy Music, saw the value of having the Carhartt name be a part of their brand. The company bought a couple hundred Carhartt jackets and gave them to the makers and shakers in their industry. Because the brand was already standing the test of time, this became less of a fad and more of a staple in fashion. Now moguls like Kanye West are seen wearing Carhartt winter coats while out and about.
In a time where people weren’t really talking about diversity, Carhartt found a way to make their brand welcoming and useful for people of different backgrounds. Carhartt workwear was, in a way, like sports jerseys. But the clothing didn’t start appearing on MTV, in Barney’s stores and on runways because of its looks. The function of Carhartt clothing and the tradition embroidered into the brand were a part of the mystique.
From Hip Hop to Hipsters: Are Carhartt Hoodies For Everyone?
In the 21st century, Carhartt clothing has grown even more ubiquitous since it started WIP (Work in Progress), Carhartt’s streetwear label. WIP does collaborations with other brands , and “collabing” shows that the brand is more current than what you might expect from a company that’s older than telephones. But, even if Carhatt’s clothing hadn’t innovated itself with WIP, Carhartt’s cultural roots would still be up there as a top American brand.
The brand has come under fire for opening factories outside of the states. While there are still Carhartt production facilities across the U.S., most Carhartt clothing today is made in Mexico. There are also Carhartt production facilities in Jordan and Cambodia. Garment workers at some of Carhartt’s manufacturing facilities have gone on strike, and Carhartt has expressed commitment to do better in the future.
As Carhartt approaches a semi-centennial, it spent much of 2020 doing what former President Trump could not: making PPE for frontline workers. This is reminiscent of Carhartt’s assistance to America’s troops throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
Perhaps this return to form may implore Carhartt to change the game when it comes to supporting their workers and enacting more environmentally sustainable production practices. While a lot of brands across many industries have taken serious hits, Carhartt may have a foundation that’s strong enough to carry on post-pandemic.
Some debates have been had as to whether or not wearing Carhartt while off the job or with no intention of doing blue-collar work is a form of cultural appropriation. Yet, Carhartt clothing and workwear have persisted throughout two centuries for the apparel’s function. Someone might purchase some Carhartt gear specifically for the irony of it all, but that person still benefits from its well-crafted workwear.
Carhartt jeans, jackets and work boots hang in both closets and thrift store racks, and it’s clear that people will continue to wear the gear for years and years to come. Carhartt’s quality is just that good.
MORE FROM ASK.COM
- USF Research
- USF Libraries
Digital Commons @ USF > College of Arts and Sciences > Department of Communication > Faculty Publications > 644
Communication Faculty Publications
The Stage Hip-Hop Feminism Built: A New Directions Essay
Aisha Durham , University of South Florida Follow Brittney C. Cooper , Rutgers University Susana M. Morris , Auburn University
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
This new directions essay traces the most recent trajectory in the field of hip-hop feminism. To that end, we map the current terrain of hip-hop feminist studies, first by identifying challenges and tensions, then by reviewing current literature and its engagement with these issues, and finally by identifying new and emergent areas for further development of the field. We argue that hip-hop feminism has effectively made space for itself in the broader fields of black and women-of-color feminisms and remains deeply invested in the intersectional approaches developed by earlier black feminists. We also insist that women and girls of color remain central to our analyses, particularly in light of the proliferation of critical masculinity studies within the broader field of hip-hop studies. Furthermore, our discussion of hip-hop feminism contends that within hip-hop feminist studies, hip-hop and feminism act as discrete but constitutive categories that share a dialogic relationship. Rather than treating feminism as though it lends a certain intellectual gravity to hip-hop, we consider how creative, intellectual hip-hop feminist work invites new questions about representation, provides additional insight about embodied experience, and offers alternative models for critical engagement.
Was this content written or created while at USF?
Citation / publisher attribution.
Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society , v. 38, issue 3, p. 721-737
Scholar Commons Citation
Durham, Aisha; Cooper, Brittney C.; and Morris, Susana M., "The Stage Hip-Hop Feminism Built: A New Directions Essay" (2013). Communication Faculty Publications . 644. https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/spe_facpub/644
Since October 28, 2013
- Email Notifications and RSS
- All Collections
- USF Faculty Publications
- Open Access Journals
- Conferences and Events
- Theses and Dissertations
- Textbooks Collection
- Department of Communication
- Rights Information
- Submit Research
Home | About | Help | My Account | Accessibility Statement | Language and Diversity Statements
- Israel-Gaza War
- 2023 Elections
- Coercive Control
- “Banned!” Series
More Than A Magazine, A Movement
- Arts & Entertainment
The Hip-Hop Feminist Syllabus
Updated Aug. 11, at 12:50 p.m. PT.
For hip-hop’s 50th anniversary this year, “ Turning 50: Looking Back at the Women in Hip-Hop ” recognizes the women who shaped the genre . The series includes articles in print and online, a public syllabus highlighting women and hip-hop, and digital conversations with “hip-hop feminists” in music, journalism and academics .
The Hip-Hop Feminist Syllabus is a comprehensive resource list of sources relating to hip-hop’s impact on gender, race and feminism on the occasion of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary in 2023.
Resources are divided into four sections:
- interviews with hip-hop feminists , spotlighting artists, journalists, writers and scholars, which will be featured throughout the summer of 2023. ( Find them all here ; this page will auto-update when new installments publish.)
- a Spotify playlist of hip-hop feminist anthems spanning all five decades . The selected songs in the featured playlist highlight important feminist messages and conversations that serve as landmarks for women’s legacy in hip-hop.
- a world map locating hip-hop in the international scene . Through a literal map (below), we explore the intersection of hip-hop and feminism globally and how hip-hop has provided a platform for women to challenge societal norms and promote gender equality.
- books, articles and films —evidence of the impact of women and queer people in hip-hop culture, as well as the declared (and undeclared) feminists who continue to monitor its legacy by contributing to arguments of accurate Black representation, Black womanhood, and the erasure of important hip-hop figures.
Hip-Hop Feminist Anthems: Spotify Playlist
As a musical map through the decades, the Spotify playlist includes songs considered to be feminist anthems.
Though the roles of women and sexual minorities are often marginalized in mainstream hip-hop culture, they have contributed significantly to shaping its sound and popularity—especially voices like Queen Latifah, who has been vocal about women’s empowerment and community, and the importance of women like Sylvia Robinson in hip-hop’s inception.
Some songs speak on the status of women at the time, whether that be disrespect in the media, the double standards of embodied sexuality, or the treatment of women within the music industry itself. Other songs focus on empowering their female listeners to love their bodies and sexualities.
Listen to the full playlist is below, or head here for song-by-song commentary from Janell Hobson.
Assembled by Sydney Lemire, Lynn Rios Rivera, and Chanthanome (Toui) Vilaphonh .
Hip-Hop in the International Scene
Hip-hop feminism has become a prominent movement in the international hip-hop scene.
This world map highlights the impact of hip-hop in different regions of the world, including Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa, and examines the emerging trends and artists who have made hip-hop a powerful force in these regions.
We also explore the intersection of hip-hop and feminism, and how hip-hop has provided a platform for women to challenge societal norms and promote gender equality.
Through this world map, we aim to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural, social and political impact of hip-hop on a global scale, particularly in regards to issues of gender and feminism.
Explore the map on Google Maps or below:
Assembled by Aminata Kargbo, Jamie McCoy, and Emilia Romero Hicks .
Hip-Hop Feminist Readings and Resources
To facilitate an understanding of the historical development of hip-hop culture, the materials assembled here, including books, articles and films, examine various aspects of hip-hop culture, such as the early history of hip-hop in the Bronx, hip-hop’s role in the construction of race and identity, the global impact of hip-hop, hip-hop fashion and style, the intersection of hip-hop and politics, and the multifaceted nature of hip-hop culture.
Armstead, Ronni. “Las Krudas, Spatial Practice, and the Performance of Diaspora.” Meridians 8, no. 1 (2008): 130-143.
Chepp, Valerie. “Black Feminism and Third-Wave Women’s Rap: A Content Analysis, 1996-2003.” Popular Music and Society 38, no. 5 (2015): 545–564.
Clay, Andreana. “’Like an Old Soul Record’: Black Feminism, Queer Sexuality, and the Hip-Hop Generation.” Meridians 8, no. 1 (2008): 53-73.
Durham, Aisha. “’Check on it’: Beyoncé, Southern Booty, and Black Femininities in Music Video.” Feminist Media Studies 12, no. 1 (2012): 35-49.
Durham, Aisha, Brittney C. Cooper, and Susana M. Morris. “The Stage Hip-Hop Feminism Built: A New Directions Essay.” Signs 38, no. 3 (2013): 721-737.
Fitts, Mako. “‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’: Culture Industry Laborers and Their Perspectives on Rap Music Video Production.” Meridians 8, no. 1 (2008): 211-235.
Forman, Murray. “’Movin’ Closer to an Independent Funk”: Black Feminist Theory, Standpoint, and Women in Rap.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 23, no. 1 (1994): 35-55.
Hobson, Janell, and R. Dianne Bartlow. Introduction to “Representin’: Women, Hip-Hop, and Popular Music.” Meridians 8, no. 1 (2008): 1-14.
Jennings, Kyesha. “City Girls, Hot Girls and the Re-imagining of Black Women in Hip Hop and Digital Spaces.” Global Hip Hop Studies 1, no. 1 (2020): 47-70.
Johnson, Adeerya. “Dirty South Feminism: The Girlies Got Somethin’ to Say too! Southern Hip-Hop women, Fighting Respectability, Talking Mess, and Twerking Up the Dirty South.” Religions 12, no. 11 (2021): 1030.
LaBennett, Oneka. “Histories and ‘Her Stories’ from the Bronx: Excavating Hidden Hip Hop Narratives.” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 33, no. 2 (2009): 109.
Lane, Nikki. “Black Women Queering the Mic: Missy Elliott Disturbing the Boundaries of Racialized Sexuality and Gender.” Journal of Homosexuality 58, no. 6-7 (2011): 775-792.
Lindsey, Treva B. “Let Me Blow Your Mind: Hip Hop Feminist Futures in Theory and Praxis.” Urban Education 50, no. 1 (2015): 52-77.
McMurray, Ayana. “Hotep and Hip-Hop: Can Black Muslim Women Be Down with Hip-Hop?” Meridians 8, no. 1 (2008): 74-92.
Miller-Young, Mireille. “Hip-Hop Honeys and Da Hustlaz: Black Sexualities in the New Hip-Hop Pornography.” Meridians 8, no. 1 (2008): 261-292.
Mosley, Angela M. “Women Hip-Hop Artists and Womanist Theology.” Religions 12, no. 12 (2021): 1063.
Morgan, Joan. “Fly-Girls, Bitches, and Hoes: Notes of a Hip-Hop Feminist.” Social Text 45 (1995): 151-157.
Orr, Niela. “ The Future of Rap Is Female .” New York Times (2023).
Pough, Gwendolyn D. “What It Do, Shorty?: Women, Hip-Hop, and a Feminist Agenda.” Black Women, Gender & Families 1, no. 2 (2007): 78-99.
Peoples, Whitney A. “’Under Construction’: Identifying Foundations of Hip-Hop Feminism and Exploring Bridges between Black Second-Wave and Hip-Hop Feminisms.” Meridians 8, no. 1 (2008): 19-52.
Reid-Brinkley, Shanara R. “The Essence of Res(ex)pectability: Black Women’s Negotiation of Black Femininity in Rap Music and Music Video.” Meridians 8, no. 1 (2008): 236-260.
Roberts, Robin. “Music Videos, Performance and Resistance: Feminist Rappers.” Journal of Popular Culture 25, no. 2 (1991): 141.
Smith, Marquita R. “Beyoncé: Hip Hop Feminism and the Embodiment of Black Femininity.” In The Routledge Research Companion to Popular Music and Gender , pp. 229-241. Routledge, 2017.
Tillet, Salamisha. “Strange Sampling: Nina Simone and Her Hip-Hop Children.” American Quarterly 66, no. 1 (2014): 119-137.
Williams, Faith G. “Afrocentrism, Hip-Hop, and the ‘Black Queen’: Utilizing Hip-Hop Feminist Methods to Challenge Controlling Images of Black Women.” McNair Scholars Research Journal 10 (2017).
Anderson, Adrienne. Word: Rap, Politics and Feminism. N.Y.: Writers Club Press, 2003.
Bradley, Regina. Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip-Hop South. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2021.
Brown, Ruth Nicole. Black Girlhood Celebration: Toward a Hip-Hop Feminist Pedagogy . Vol. 5. N.Y.: Peter Lang, 2009.
Brown, Ruth Nicole, ed. Wish to Live: The Hip-Hop Feminism Pedagogy Reader. N.Y.: Peter Lang, 2012.
Brown, Sesali. Bad Fat Black Girl: Notes from a Trap Feminist. N.Y.: Amistad Press, 2021.
Collins, Patricia Hill. From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.
Cooper, Brittney C., Susana M. Morris, and Robin M. Boylorn, eds. The Crunk Feminist Collection . N.Y.: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2016.
Durham, Aisha. Home with Hip Hop Feminism: Performances in Communication and Culture. N.Y.: Peter Lang, 2014.
Farrugia, Rebekah, and Kellie D. Hay, eds. Women Rapping Revolution: Hip Hop and Community Building in Detroit. Berkeley: UC Press, 2020.
Gaunt, Kyra. The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop. N.Y.: NYU Press, 2006.
Hall, Marcella Runell, ed. Conscious Women Rock the Page: Using Hip-Hop Fiction to Incite Social Change. N.Y.: Sister Outsider, 2008.
Hope, Clover. The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop. NY: ABRAMS, 2021.
Iandoli, Kathy. God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop. N.Y.: HarperCollins, 2019.
Love, Bettina L. Hip Hop’s Li’l Sistas Speak: Negotiating Hip Hop Identities and Politics in the New South . N.Y.: Peter Lang, 2012.
Merriday, Jodi. Hip Hop Herstory: Women in Hip Hop Cultural Production and Music from Margins to Equity . Philadelphia: Temple University, 2006.
Morgan, Joan. When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks it Down . N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Morgan, Joan. She Begat This: 20 Years of the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill . Simon & Schuster, 2018.
Pabon-Colon, Jessica Nydia. Graffiti Grrlz: Performing Feminism in the Hip Hop Diaspora. N.Y.: NYU Press, 2018.
Perry, Imani. Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.
Pough, Gwendolyn D. Check it While I Wreck it: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public sphere . Northeastern University Press, 2004.
Pough, Gwendolyn D, ed. Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology. N.Y.: Parker Publishing, 2007.
Rabaka, Reiland. Hip Hop’s Inheritance: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Hip Hop Feminist Movement . Lexington Books, 2011.
Richardson, Elaine. HipHop Literacies. N.Y. and London: Routledge, 2006.
Rose, Tricia. Black noise: Rap music and Black Culture in Contemporary America . New Haven: Wesleyan University Press, 1993.
Rose, Tricia. The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk about When We Talk about Hip Hop – and why it matters. N.Y.: Perseus Books, 2008.
Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip-Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women. N.Y.: NYU Press, 2007.
Sister Souljah. No Disrespect. N.Y.: Doubleday, 1996.
Sister Souljah. The Coldest Winter Ever. N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Sister Souljah. Life After Death: A Novel. N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 2022.
Utley, Ebony A. Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2012.
Williams, Angela S. Hip Hop Harem: Women, Rap, and Representation in the Middle East. N.Y.: Peter Lang, 2020.
My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women and Hip Hop (2010) Director: Ava DuVernay
Sisters in the Name of Rap (2020) Director: Paul C. Brunson
Nobody Knows My Name (1999) Director: Rachel Raimist
Say My Name (2010) Director: Nirit Peled
Ladies First , limited series (2023) Director: Dream Hampton
Roxanne, Roxanne (2007) Director: Michael Larnell
Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992) Director: Leslie Harris
Poetic Justice (1993) Director: John Singleton
Love Beats Rhymes (2017) Director: RZA
The 40-Year-Old Version (2020) Director: Radha Blank
Beyonce: Lemonade (2016) Directors: Beyonce, Kahlil Joseph, Dikayl Rimmasch, Todd Tourso, Jonas Akerlund, Melina Matsoukas, Mark Romanek
Editor’s note : The research team for this public syllabus includes students in Dr. Janell Hobson’s graduate research seminar in women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York: Sarah Amplo, Arezoo Hajighorbani, Janelle Hogges, Lily Hughes, Aminata Kargbo, Sade Lubin, Sydney Lemire, Jamie McCoy, Yoanna Moawad, Bria Nickerson, Alexander Perry, Lynn Rios Rivera, Emilia Romero Hicks, Madison Snyder and Chanthanome (Toui) Vilaphonh. The reading/resource list was assembled by Arezoo Hajighorbani, Sade Lubin, and Yoanna Moawad.
Join Ms . for a special plenary, “ Surviving Hip-Hop: A 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Women Who Shaped the Culture” (featuring Joan Morgan , Dee Barnes , Drew Dixon , Toni Blackman and Monie Love ), set for Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, at the annual National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Baltimore, Md.
U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms . has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms . today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you . For as little as $5 each month , you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms . Studios events and podcasts . We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity .
About Janell Hobson
You May Also Like:
Allowing Domestic Violence Perpetrators to Carry Guns Will Worsen the U.S. Maternal Health Crisis
The Wonderful Karma of Black Women Saving American Democracy
photography, writing, and various thoughts
Hip Hop Feminism from the Perspective of Missy Elliott
October 28, 2018 by Leah Rosenberger
Missy Elliott’s “Work It” serves as an anthem in lyricism and imagery for Morgan’s perception of ‘hip hop feminism.’ The song galvanizes women to take charge of and vocalize their desires, just as male rappers have capitalized upon in the past.
Feminism has remained a complex phenomenon throughout the development of hip hop culture. While not as prominent as their male counterparts in the popular interpretation of hip hop’s birth, black female artists paved their own path in the genre through a different perspective on life. Missy Elliott has adopted a street smart approach to her rap persona, portraying herself as a strong woman with confidence in her sexuality.
African American music is rooted in the patriarchal structure deemed upon black communities following the horrors of slavery — as humanity was deprived of slaves in order to serve their masters, gender was also blurred until the abolition of slavery, which caused black men to follow the lead of the white men they’d served for years and began treating black women as inferior. These misogynistic ideals enforced the stereotypes of black women that remain heavily used today: the “Sapphire” to fulfill the ‘angry black woman’ trope, characterized by masculinity, over-assertion, and aggression, and the “Jezebel” to represent the desired and promiscuous black woman with an unquenchable sexual thirst, thereby aligning this trope with a masculine view as well.
In her essay “Hip Hop Feminist,” Joan Morgan responds to the impressions of her black female community on the white-based ‘feminism’ of the 1990s. This ‘traditional’ sense of feminism dictates the image of women as a political force through “ivory tower elitism [that] excludes the masses.” Therefore, generations of black women from the Bronx and Harlem have felt historically discounted and excluded from the feminist movements since they don’t fit the white feminist’s vision. Morgan urges that black women should utilize their “feminist privilege” in efforts to escape the overbearing oppression of traditional gender roles and stereotypes. In this, Morgan focuses on the nature of pleasure, which has been historically connected with power struggle for black women, depriving them of deciding their own sexual satisfaction not based on victimization but as women of equal quality to men.
Missy Elliott’s “Work It” serves as an anthem in lyricism and imagery for Morgan’s perception of ‘hip hop feminism.’ The song galvanizes women to take charge of and vocalize their desires, just as male rappers have capitalized upon in the past. Elliott calls for black women to “flip it and reverse it” on their male counterparts, revealing a double entendre regarding women taking control in the bedroom as well as switching up the traditional impressions of male hip hop artists as the womanizing players, leaving women to act as the inhuman objects of desire. In this sense, Elliott aims to connect with her audience’s interpretation of the “Jezebel’ figure of African American tropes, as her lyricism presents her to conservative listeners as ‘sex-crazed,’ although black men have continuously based their raps off of the ‘conquests’ of women in a similar manner.
Elliott structures her verses to address several aspects of black female sexuality as misinterpreted in past hip hop works. First, Elliott dives into a sexual encounter from a female perspective, painting herself as the dominant in the situation as she commands her partner to “go downtown and eat it like a vulture.” On a deeper level, oral sex is a highly referenced act in hip hop, but quite uncommon to hear from a female artist, who are generally perceived to be performing rather than receiving. However, Elliott is in control of her sexuality, and she plays into the hypermasculinity of hip hop to reflect her normal expectations for pleasure as a two-way street.
In her second verse, Elliott contextualizes the beauty standards of women as they present themselves in sexual circumstances. She familiarizes a female audience with the date-night expectations for women — far more than the male grooming expectations — by reminding her “fly gal[s to] get your nails done, get a pedicure, get your hair did.” Elliott also speaks of the effects of alcohol in seduction, as she entices drunk men by looking like “a Halle Berry poster.” Alcohol is a common theme in ‘strip club rap’ and similar hip hop works based on sexual conquests, and Elliott lays out these common depictions in a new format by revealing a woman’s tricks in seducing men.
Elliott unifies the song’s themes in her final verse, calling for the empowerment of her fellow black women in the face of oppression and expectations by men. Elliott preaches an environment of no judgement when rapping, “Girls, girls, get that cash / If it’s 9 to 5 or shaking your ass / Ain’t no shame, ladies do your thing / Just make sure you ahead of the game.” Black women are often overlooked in their endeavors for success, as they have been historically intended to rely on their husbands to provide for them as they stay home and care for the family. Elliott, however, refuses to serve anyone, as she accuses these male visions of subservient black women of maintaining a ‘slave mentality’ and “pictur[ing] blacks saying ‘Oh yes’a massa’ (No!).”
The accompanying music video to “Work It” is an even more striking illustration of Elliott’s ideals concerning the underrepresented power of women in hip hop culture. The video opens with Elliott covered in bees as she announces “This is a Missy Elliott one-time exclusive,” portraying herself as the ‘Queen Bee,’ a familiar trope in hip hop as it portrays a female as the all-mighty leader of the male ‘bees’ that live to serve her wishes. Power over men is a underlying trait of the music video, as Elliott displays herself as the focal point in a group of male dancers, deeming herself just as talented in both the pillars of break-dance and emceeing as the prominent male figures of hip hop culture.
As Elliott raps the second verse in a beauty salon, the music video uncovers yet another layer of iconography responding to the male’s gaze upon women. Elliott speaks of women’s beauty standards while displaying three stereotypical forms of black women: the strong activist woman baring her ‘realness’ in a fro; the traditional ‘jezebel’ figure getting her “hair did” to please the desires of her man; and Elliott herself, representing a configuration of the ‘jezebel’ and ‘sapphire’ stereotypes along with the hypermasculine tropes of male rappers. Elliott decidedly presents herself decked out in ‘street wear’ as she break-dances and gestures suggestively to the sexual nature of her lyrics, all in all satirically commenting on the state of black male-female sexual relations within the stereotypical constraints of hip hop music.
In the lyricism and imagery of “Work It,” Missy Elliott calls for a more representative discourse of hip hop’s hypersexuality of both men and women based on stereotypes rather than natural desires, aligning herself with the visions of ‘hip hop feminism’ presented by Joan Morgan as a source for black female empowerment in a male-driven genre.
Elliott, Missy. “Work It.” Under Construction, The Goldmind Inc. and Elektra Records, 2002.
Morgan, Joan. “Hip Hop Feminist.” That’s the Joint: The Hip Hop Studies Reader, Second Edition, Routledge, 2012.
Sites I Contribute To
Professional links, personal links.