Rap and feminism, journalism and political activism – when one complements the other
Lil Bonhomme / March 13th, 2020
Photo: Pauline Darley
Feminism and rap music have been evolving over the past decades but numerous are those who still think one can’t be associated with the other. That’s where they’re wrong. It’s as if we said being a journalist and an activist was impossible – it’s not true, and Éloïse Bouton is the living proof. Being an ex-member of the feminist group Femen and a freelance rap journalist, she explains how rap music has had an educational role in her life. Founder of her own website – Madame Rap, the first French media dealing with female rappers and which shares a fresh insight into the urban culture, the author of Confession d’une ex-Femen agreed to have a chat with Cadence about these misunderstood topics.
Cadence: First of all, could you explain how the idea of creating your website – Madame Rap – came about?
Éloïse: It was end of August 2015, I’d noticed a few things which were bothering me. The first one was that I was an independent, freelance journalist and every time I came up with an idea for an article about women and rap music, people often told me that it was of no interest to anyone, that it would only concern a very specific audience. But I disagreed and decided to create this space where those voices, those artists could be recognised and exist. Then, I simply wanted to show that there were women in the rap music industry, unlike the impression given by all the masculine, very misogynistic and virile clichés relating to rap music. Even though they’re not very famous and they’re not promoted by the media, record labels and music festivals, there are a lot of female rappers out there. Finally, my third motive was, because I was a feminist militant in the “traditional” associative milieu – with Caucasian women, quite wealthy and heterosexuals – I was often told being a feminist and listening to rap music wasn’t compatible. I had to pick a side and I wanted to show that it was wrong. It was a stigma like any other and we could, without the shadow of a doubt, be a feminist and listen to rap music. It’s not any more contradictory than anything else that’s for sure.
Cadence: Where do you think this wrongful perception regarding rap music and women comes from? Is it mainly because of the lyrics?
Éloïse: Of course, it’s not a case of saying there are no sexist lyrics in rap. I think the video clips played a big part in this too, especially those from the nineties. There were some which would objectify and sexualise women who’d then be seen as a foil to male rappers. I think that has had an impact. But I also think the majority of those who believe that don’t know anything about rap. They only picture one kind of rap – the type of rap that’s popularised and often dealt with in the media. But that’s really not representative of the variety of rap in general. What really gets me is that there’s absolutely no problem in talking about sexism where rap music is concerned. But if we do that, then we have to talk about sexism in pop, rock, metal, electronic and classical music too.
Cadence: Maybe it’s because of the way in which it’s done. Rap music has a more direct, less delicate way of saying things compared to other types of music.
Éloïse: Absolutely, it’s definitely the use of blunt and provocative language which shocks people. But considering rap music as a more sexist type of music is also a way of saying “your language isn’t as valuable”, or “your art isn’t comparable to other traditional artists’” – who have also written sexist horrors. Often, it’s the perception of the dominating culture which disregards the counterculture, and which also has race and class prejudices as well as preconceived ideas regarding those who make the music, who are – in most cases – from rough backgrounds. It’s a sort of counter-power and counterculture. They are the voices which are not the ones from the dominating culture, and that’s what is blocking people.
Cadence: Did rap music encourage you to become a feminist?
Éloïse: Oh yeah completely – and strangely I’d even say. That’s why I can’t understand when I hear people saying you can’t be a feminist and listen to rap music. When I was in my teens, I listened to a lot of female rappers. For me it was “easy” to discover them, I grew up without the Internet at the time, but there were some who used to be on the French TV. And then with the cabled-TV, MTV Base and so on, there were more and more. I was fascinated by their appearance, they weren’t Caucasian, slim, young, and they didn’t particularly correspond to the occidental beauty standards. Some of them weren’t heterosexual, there were all these different identities which really inspired me. Then, I started to take an interest in the English language to understand what they were saying, and I thought their lyrics were emancipating. They even played an educational role in my case, their lyrics spoke about things that no one, no parents, no society, no school had ever taught me.
Cadence: It’s a more realistic vision of the world around us, unlike other genres.
Éloïse: Yes exactly. Back when I started listening to female rappers, technically no one had told us what a clitoris was. My parents, my school never explained what it was. But when I discovered Lil’ Kim, I also discovered I had a clitoris [laughs]! It sounds stupid but I learnt that thanks to Lil’ Kim, just like I learnt about sexual harassment on the streets by listening to Queen Latifah, for example. She spoke about things that I – aged 12, a French Caucasian living in a provincial area – could experience too. I consider rap music as educational as it dealt with topics I couldn’t talk about with my entourage, and it also started new discussions with my friends like “Have you heard her new song? What do you think?”, “It’s not right”, and it would make us conscious of certain inequalities and problems. Although we didn’t live the same lives as those rappers, they spoke about topics which resonated in us.
Cadence: At what age would you say you started taking an interest in feminism?
Éloïse: With the full knowledge of what “feminism” meant, I’d say at sixth form college. I used to be interested in it before, but I think it was during my last year or the year-before-last at sixth form that I started saying I was a feminist. Then at university it became a part of me.
Cadence: What’s your opinion regarding the current movements such as #MeToo and even Femen? Do you think activists are right to protest in this way or should they find new ways of demonstrating?
Éloïse: Regarding #MeToo as well as what is going on with Les César, and even the freedom of speech in the sports domain – I’m delighted. At last! It’s about time things changed. I don’t know if it will actually allow sexual violence victims to be recognised as such, as quickly as we’d like, but there will definitely be a before and after. We won’t be able to act as though we don’t know what’s going on, or deny it or be those abusers’ silent accomplices anymore. And I think that’s a positive thing, it’s great that there’s this sudden collective enthusiasm. Regarding the movements’ actions, I can’t find any fault. There are certain actions which resonate with me more than others. If I left Femen it was because I couldn’t relate to it anymore. Their actions are still relevant, but the way in which they dealt with certain topics wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do. I think I’d reached my limit where associative activism was concerned, I’ve been an activist in numerous associations since I was teenager, so I think I’d done just about everything. I was tired of it [laughs]! What I like about social media and the Internet today – even though they are also a source of violence – it gives the opportunity for anyone to start a march, a movement, to speak up and to be more or less heard. I think it makes feminism a lot more accessible. Before, only academics and people who were in a dominant position in society could make themselves heard. Now, you can be a teenager living in the countryside in the middle of nowhere, with no theoretical knowledge of feminism, and still start a movement which might go viral. There are a lot more voices out there, it’s plural and that’s what’s interesting. Between all the different types of feminism out there, there’s bound to be one – if not more – which corresponds to our individual opinion.
Cadence: So you don’t regret leaving Femen?
Éloïse: No, not at all. But I’m also proud to have been part of Femen.
Cadence: Fair enough. Now, coming back to rap music, what do you think of the current rap music scene in France?
Éloïse: I think the French rap music scene in its entirety is flourishing. It has become a breeding ground for artists, and I get the impression that rap is the most creative genre, the one which innovates the most, which has borrowed from numerous musical and social trends, and also which is very permeable to our time – it changes all the time. I find it very rewarding. Before, there was only one kind of rap, which was rap conscient – or gangsta rap to caricature it. Earlier I was talking about diversity in feminism, and I think there are currently lots of different sub-genres. There’s rap which almost sounds like pop music, rap that resembles afrotrap, rap which goes back to slam, cloud rap, etc. There’s a whole palette of sub-genres and it’s very rich, as much in the songs as in the people who write them.
Cadence: Absolutely, but it’s still a shame that this music scene stays very masculine. French female rappers aren’t half as recognised as artists like Booba and PNL. It makes us wonder what needs to happen to trigger something in the people’s mentalities and society, because there are a lot of female rappers out there.
Éloïse: I agree. I think it’s a combination of different factors. Once again, the way the media deal with female artists plays a big part in this. The same goes for how they represent them, how music labels and festivals promote their work. We’re in 2020, and we’re still introducing female rappers as though oh-la-la how exotic! A woman who makes rap music! It’s a big problem. By doing that, it excludes certain people who think it’s sold as something for girls. But we’re not interested in that. Personally, being a rap lector and listener, if someone comes up to me and introduces me to an artist saying it’s for girls – I don’t want to know. And yet I’m a woman, but I don’t want someone to speak to me like that. I want them to tell me more about the artist, what she does, what she sings about, what she thinks, etc. I don’t want someone to present a female artist as a girls’ product, made for girls. I think this is still the case today and that’s why it doesn’t work as much. There are some young girls, teenagers who will still listen to them, because they’ll be like role models for them – and that’s great. But from a wider audience’s point of view, a lot of people will feel as though it doesn’t concern them. It’s a shame.
Cadence: Before I ask you one last question, I’m curious to know which artists you’re listening to at the moment?
Éloïse: Obviously I listen to lots of different female rappers in relation to Madame Rap. I’m also a huge fan of Prince, I often go through some revival phases when listening to his music [laughs]. Otherwise, coming back to rap music, there’s an Indian rapper called Dee MC whom I really like. It’s linked to my profession, but I get to a point where the limit between pleasure and my job is very thin [laughs]! I really like Her, a female rock band called Le Butcherettes – who remind me a lot of the Riot Grrrl movement. I listen to a lot of different things.
Cadence: And if you could give one piece of advice to those who would like to become activist journalists – whether for feminism or another cause – what would it be?
Éloïse: I’d tell them to change country [laughs]. That’d really be the best advice, unfortunately. If you try becoming an militant journalist in France, it’ll be very, very difficult. It’ll be frowned-upon and ostracised. It’s hard enough to become a journalist altogether nowadays; I’d say you need to go to Nordic and Anglo-Saxon countries. They often have a certain relation to the subjectivity linked to these specific topics, and they value it a lot more. In France, we’re really lacking in a culture which encourages someone’s activism and associative actions. It’s considered as a quirk and even a problem. Personally, I’ve always been told I couldn’t be an activist and a journalist, because they cancel each other out. Whereas in Anglo-Saxon countries for example, it’s considered as a sort of prowess. They’ll tell you that because you’re a feminist or an ecologist or whatever, you know that topic inside-out and you’ll be able to have a certain expertise, you can deal with that particular subject. That would be my advice.