A brief history of men seeking to disrupt the status quo, because gender inequality is a communal issue
We shouldn’t have to pat men on the back for not being sexist. Treating people fairly, regardless of gender, sexuality, religion, politics, economics or any other factor that has literally no bearing on their humanity, should be the norm, not the exception. However, we still live in a society that is so heavily biased, sometimes we do have to acknowledge when people – especially people from the historically oppressive side – start making noise on behalf of equality. That doesn’t mean that championing equality makes someone exceptional, it just means that it’s still such a rarity that it can be exciting to see the cause spreading. For instance, given the sexism being constantly exposed in the music industry, it’s promising to see men standing with women in defiance against those harmful gender biases.
As Max Mohenu, investigating music industry sexism, wrote for Aux.tv: “regardless of where you sit on this topic of the ally, the lack of voice and self-awareness amongst men and their industry peers is what allows predators to go undetected, especially when said dudes are too scared to expose their friends or boss in order to help a woman who might be in a dangerous situation.” With that in mind, here are ten visible men in the music industry who have stood up against ingrained sexism.
Kurt Cobain wrote “Polly” after reading about the rape of a 14-year-old girl in the news, and the song is disturbingly confronting. Cobain was a strong advocate against rape in the press, and in a 1991 interview with NME said, “Rape is one of the most terrible crimes on earth. And it happens every few minutes. The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape." He also wrote in his published journal, “It’s up to men. ... I still think that in order to expand on all other -isms, sexism has to be blown wide open. But there are thousands of green minds, young gullible 15-year-old boys out there just starting to fall into the grain of what they've been told of what a man is supposed to be and there are plenty of tools to use. The most effective tool is entertainment.”
Over the years, Jack White has been vocal about his feelings for fellow musicians – not all of it positive. Regardless, White has an awareness of the gender disparity in rock, and isn’t afraid to address it (as he isn’t afraid to address most things that perturb him). In an interview with SiriusXM Music, he spoke about his decision to use an all-female band on occasion. “It’s a real shame that if a woman goes onstage with an instrument, it’s almost a novelty,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh, isn’t that cute.’ It’s a shame that in 2014 that’s a little bit of what’s going on in the perception in the room.”
You probably wouldn’t characterize Tupac as a “feminist” rapper, but back in his day he did take pause to acknowledge the way women are treated and the injustices in gender disparity. In “Keep Your Head Up” Tupac raps, “And since we all came from a woman/ Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman/ I wonder why we take from our women/ Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?/ I think it’s time to kill for our women/ Time to heal our women, be real to our women.” The sentiment, in 1993, was a powerful one for gangster rap.
David Bowie had a storied, and sometimes troubling relationship with women. While he has been accused of sleeping with underage groupies in the 70s, he has also done his part for feminism in the music industry. His fluid sexuality and various public personas all embraced femininity (including clothing, makeup and hairstyles) in a way that was, in the public eye for such a popular figure, really before its time. Meanwhile Bowie held progressive views on women, explaining: “I find it intensely offensive to see women treated as chattel or appendages. I cannot think of a situation where a woman could not do an equal if not better job than a man. Possibly, a situation requiring only brute strength may be the exception, but here again, a woman would be smart enough to organize the right person for the job. In that singular case, probably a man.”
Following the past week’s outing of Life or Death PR’s CEO Heathcliff Berru as a sexual predator by the Dirty Projectors’ front woman Amber Coffman (and an army of other industry women who spoke up via Twitter after Coffman’s initial Tweet), hip hop artist and activist Killer Mike spoke out against sexism in the music industry. Not only did he cut personal and professional ties with Berru, he posted a rousing call to action for all men on his Facebook page, writing: “Men have to be able to tell our friends and peers when they’re wrong. We cannot just say it's not my problem. We can't expect ppl (sic) to improve if we’re not willing to hold them accountable and push them to be better.”
Founding member of Public Enemy, Chuck D, has been a vocal advocate for gender equality. Although Public Enemy has some unfortunately homophobic lyrics in “Meet The G That Killed Me”, Chuck D has since spoken out in support of same-sex marriage, and giving people the room to reform and grow on these issues is surely beneficial to a more progressive society. He also sang against sexism in “Revolutionary Generation” (with lyrics like “Day to day, America eats it's young/ And defeats our women/ There is a gap so wide we all can swim in”), and has consistently called out hip hop’s inherent sexism in interviews.
You might question Macklemore’s sincerity when listening to his tireless lyrical campaigns, but consider the influence that such positive thinking about equality can have on a young generation of pop-star-idolizing teeny boppers who don’t know any better might have. From his support of queer women in “Same Love” to his homage to the working mother in “Stay At Home Dad”, Macklemore is more than aware of the gender constructs that oppress some and benefit others, and practices tearing them apart in his music.
Hip hop is problematic in its attitudes to women and the LGBTQ community at the best of times, and the Beastie Boys were certainly not immune from homophobic or sexist lyrics in their time. However, they publically apologized for their homophobic lyrics, and backtracked on sexism in 1994’s "Sure Shot," in which MCA rapped, “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue / The disrespect to women has to got to be through / To all the mothers and sisters and the wives and friends / I want to offer my love and respect till the end.” The Boys dedicated a lot of the later part of their career to erasing sexism and homophobia from their repertoire, even asking The Prodigy, while touring together, not to play “Smack My Bitch Up” because of the offensive lyrics.
Remember in 1992 when Eddie Vedder paused during an MTV Unplugged performance to write “PRO CHOICE” on his arm in pen? Considering that would still be considered a provocative act today, it was no doubt a bold feminist statement in the 90s. Vedder has since been a vocal advocate for the pro-choice movement, that same year writing an op-ed on the issue for Spin Magazine, saying “Decide on the issues and vote — male or female — for this is not just a women’s issue. It’s human rights. If it were a man’s body and it was his destiny we were deciding there would be no issue. Not in today’s male dominated society.”
The Party God is also an advocate for equality. One of his best party tips was posted to his twitter, and read simply, “PARTY TIP: Men can be feminists.” In his advice column for The Village Voice, he seconded himself when responding to a guy who had been cheated on by his “feminist” girlfriend, and subsequently began hating all feminists. W.K. pointed out that individuals and ideologies are different things, and that just because an individual’s actions were hurtful, it doesn’t mean that a political ideology isn’t still important. He wrote, “Seeing someone as less than an individual – someone who isn’t unique or doesn’t matter in the same way we do – is the first step toward prejudice.”