Éloise Bouton is a feminist activist, journalist and author, and founder of Madame Rap the first French online media dedicated to women in hip hop. Launched in 2015, Madame Rap provides female rappers, DJs, dancers and artists with the platform and visibility they deserve. I spoke to Bouton before a panel discussion on women in hip-hop at Hip Opsession, a two week festival in Nantes, France, dedicated to showcasing all forms of hip-hop culture.
As the founder of Madame Rap, can you tell us a bit about how it all started?
In the beginning it was just a tumblr where I posted about female rappers. I had the idea because in my feminist entourage, it is often very badly looked upon to listen to rap. Rap is often considered as the most sexist type of music, and among my activist peers, it was seen as a contradiction to like rap and be feminist. This annoyed me because I find that the criticism rap music faces is not always necessarily justified. Often the people with these views are not familiar with hip hop culture, don’t really listen to rap and are not interested in it. I wanted to show that women were already present in rap music, contrary to popular belief, and contrary to many prejudices. It is not an only masculine field; there are also many, many women who are active in rap. And there are also other male rappers who are not sexist, not homophobic and all the rest, who propose alternative discourses. It was really the aim of Madame Rap to highlight female rappers, and all women active in hip hop, whether they are dancers, graphic artists, DJs, beat boxers, or beat makers etc.’
You describe yourself as a feminist activist. Can you talk to us a bit about your own feminism?
Yes. I don’t know if I have a specific feminism. I have been an associative activist since I was fifteen. I’m thirty four now so it’s been a little while. I have ben active more individually, out side of any collective, since 2014. I’m freelance, as I like to say. I am kind of a freelance feminist. I don’t affiliate myself with any specific branch of feminism; I can work as much with pro-sex feminists, as intersectional or institutional feminists. For me there is not a single feminism, there are multiple. I think it is important to build bridges and maintain dialogues between every type of feminism. We need to unite on common issues, rather than spending our time arguing about the points we don’t agree on, like the hijab, female surrogacy, prostitution, for example… subjects that can be extremely divisive. I’m not really interested in that. I prefer to go where everyone is listened to and there is common ground.
Hip-hop culture and rap are often targeted as being misogynist, more so than any other type of music. Do you find this is the case? If so, why?
I find that this is particularly the case in France. It’s very noticeable. I can’t say if it’s the case in all countries. From talking to many female rappers from America, I get the idea that it is not perceived the same way in the United States. That said, we can’t compare France with the United States. They do not have the same history, and it’s not the same size, or the same music market.
But, in France I think hip-hop is targeted as being misogynist more than any other style of music. There is a very classist and very racist view of hip-hop. In France, rap is perceived as music from the “banlieue” – it’s not great to call it the “banlieue”. But there you go. There is a perception of the “banlieue” that scares people. It is considered a place of Black and Arab youths who steal cars and eventually become terrorists, and all that… There are all of these images that frighten people, images that I find very racist. And when rap and hip hop artists engage in sexist discourses in their music, people point fingers. However, when it is pop artists and film producers from a white bourgeois background, we don’t accuse them in the same way. That’s what annoys me, the hypocrisy.
When talking about sexism in music, we need to talk about every type of sexism everywhere, in all arts, all cultures. We can’t just speak about rap music. Look at sexism in opera, in classical music, where today it’s necessary to put up curtains in auditions so that women will be cast in orchestras. No one speaks about that, but it’s the same thing.
Sexism is clearly a particularly big issue in the music industry. What roles or responsibilities do you think that labels and other structures in the industry have concerning this?
They are very responsible. I think that the people who are responsible for the rendering invisible of women in rap are the major record labels. They look for an image. They are no longer interested in the artist, and are just trying to make a profit. We know that the CD industry is seriously in crisis. We know that it’s very difficult to nowadays to sell CDs, unlike before. There is a type of willingness to seek a product rather than an artist, male or female and to format them, usually in the case of women, to look for what is appealing – that’s to say appealing to men. I find the mainstream media also presents rap in an extremely caricatured way, and therefore reinforce this stereotype. Today, we still see artists who, when speaking about female rappers, say “Oh wow, there are women who rap, how is this possible?”. This must stop. We should be speaking about their music, their art, and not writing articles simply saying that there are women who rap.
Thinking about the invisibility of women in rap, it’s something very relevant when talking about the history of hip-hop. Do you think that we have to start with the narrative of the history of hip-hop to really change how things are in the current moment?
Absolutely, I think that the history is important. It’s through that that we can give back what belongs to these women. And once again, it’s the same outside of rap or hip hop, we see in every field, in literature, in painting, very few female artists are taught in schools and universities. We’ve only been talking about this for two or three years, and we’re realising that this is a real problem. It’s exactly the same thing in hip-hop. The problem is that today we still have to put on female specific events so that we talk about it. Women need to be integrated into events and global panel discussions. In a discussion on hip-hop activism, for example, we must speak about men and women, about LGBT people… everyone must be present in the same space. But, unfortunately we are not yet there, so specifically targeted events are necessary.
I’m really pleased that Madame Rap is being associated with Hip Opsession here in Nantes. I like this festival and have been following it for many years. It’s artistic choices are very interesting and interdisciplinary, covering many, many areas. I have wanted to work with the festival for a while now. So, I spoke to Pierick, the artistic director of the festival and we decided to coproduce this event: a discussion panel followed by a showcase from the rapper Illustre. Personally, I’m really pleased, but, once again, for me it’s simply one step.
I’d like that, in five to ten years, at Hip Opsession, and all festivals because Hip Opsession is far from being the worst, that women are included in the entire programme of a festival, and that there is not only a spotlight event on women. I want women to be included in all areas. With time, that is the goal.
Thinking a bit about the current movements taking place in popular culture, #MeToo, Time’s Up, etc. Do you think that these movements making women who have suffered from sexual assault and harassment visible have the power to make a real difference on the level of the general public?
I think that there is a obvious before and an after to #MeToo, #BalancetonPorc and #TimesUp. It has taken on such a scale. It is a global phenomenon and it goes further than the field of cinema. We see now that it affects all areas. I get the impression that everyone is concerned. Men are saying to themselves, “Sh*t, I see now that I’ve behaved badly in the past” without realising. Women are realising that perhaps they have been victims of aggressions that they had not identified or put labels to. Others have memories that are resurfacing. While this liberation of expression is very positive, what is quite frightening is that we are realising the number of people who have been assaulted, men as well as women. And I find it quite worrying to see that our society is based upon all of these people who have experienced these aggressions. The fact that we are starting to speak about it, that will have to change things. In any case, if these assaults happen again in certain environments, we can no longer be complacent, saying I wasn’t aware. Now, that is finished. We know now. That is the difference.
There is clearly something wrong with how society thinks about relations between the sexes. Do you think that now is the moment where we must think about deconstructing and reconstructing ideas of feminism and relations between the sexes?
I think that deconstruction is the key to equality. There are constructions around men as much as women. We are a society that is based on relations of domination, and that must be deconstructed. Primarily, through education; but also, it will happen through working on oneself and the individual before anything else. If every individual starts saying to himself or herself, when I do this, it’s not OK. When I do that, it’s potentially violent. When I educated my children in a gendered way that puts them in a box – absolutely we will be able to build something better. As well, in France, feminism has a very pejorative image. Like in other countries, unfortunately, sexist and antifeminist clichés have been attached to feminism for many years. And we have not yet been able to get rid of them. There is something wrong there, because it’s pure and hard sexism and we’ve not been able to do anything about it. Maybe in one way we are responsible, or can be proactive in changing this by showing that feminism is not women who want to emasculate and dominate men. We just want equality, that’s all we want. That is feminism. From that moment onwards, I think we will all be able to agree.
Within hip-hop, there is a quite a strong image of masculinity. Do you think that is something we have to think about as well? That it doesn’t just concern women, but also the way we think about masculinity?
Of course. Masculinity must be deconstructed. There is an extremely caricatured, testosterone charged image of masculinity that can be seen in rap, but also in many things, in football and popular culture in genera. This image does a lot of harm to men and women. There are many men who do not recognise themselves in these images. There are also many men who find themselves constrained and suffer from injunctions as much as women. They are under pressure to be extremely sexually powerful, earn lots of money… etc. I know many heterosexual men who don’t identify at all with these prejudices and concepts. So, yes those diktats must be deconstructed concerning men as much as women. That is how we will achieve equality.
So you have recently been working on a film, Le bruit de nos silences (The Sound of Our Silence). Could you tell us a bit about this project?
The Sound of our Silence is a fifty-two minute documentary broadcast on 6th March on France Ô that was filmed in Martinique in November 2017. I co-wrote it with D’ de Kabal, the cofounder of Kabal, a rap group from the nineties. He is also an author, director and comedian who works in writing. I have worked in parallel with him on separate sex support groups, with men and women, for about two years now. These groups have been looking at these questions around deconstructing notions of masculinity and femininity, and on the ideas of consent and desire that are central to that work. The film follows the work being done in these groups.
Have you found any cultural differences when it comes to how men and women think about these questions in Martinique in comparison with France?
No… what was very interesting is that since starting this work, we have realised that it is universal. Contrary to what we might think, despite our cultural differences, despite our social, religious, gender differences, we are speaking about the same thing when we speak about consent, for example. No matter what country you are from, we are talking about the same thing. That is what is so interesting about working on this type of discourse. They come up everywhere, in extremely different contexts.
Considering how universal these subjects are, and the range of movements taking place at the moment, are you optimistic for the future for women in hip hop and gender equality in general?
It’s difficult to be optimistic. We’ve seen the figures, and real gender equality is currently not there. It’s going to take time. But I still think there is a lot of movement happening, I have huge faith in the new generation that I see, despite the trials we put them through and all the negative images that are associated with them, or frightening youths etc. Personally, I find them much more open than my generation and the generation before me. So, now we are talking about it and that is a huge progress. People have become aware, there are things happening. There is Madame Rap, but there are also thousands of female initiatives highlighting women in rock, coding, in all sorts. Today there is lot happening, and that is what’s great. I think it’s a necessary step to be able to achieve equality. I think once we no longer need Madame Rap and that type of structure, that’s when we will truly have made progress.