This post was written by Sarah Vorndran, a Research Master’s student in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam.
And so it dawned on me – We have entered the era of the DAW
Trying to achieve hip-hop’s beloved ﬂow without a beat is like boiling pasta without water – it is possible but hardly consumable. Of course, every music genre has its acapella moments but hip-hop has counted on the cooperation of rappers and DJs, since the emergence of the movement in the late 1970s.
We are currently witnessing the hegemony of the DAW (Digital Audio Work Station) within music production. Processes that previously required a cheeky spin of invaluable turntables, slick twists of cockpit-like synthesizer buttons, or generationally transferred instrumental skills have entered into competition with DAWs. These digital alternatives often still pay tribute to their hardware-predecessors-turned-software-processors in design, while also allowing artists to record, process, and sample sound bits within one contained digital space. On top of being this seemingly picture-perfect multifaceted partner that I, personally, would feel no shame in introducing to my parents, DAWs can also be open-source on a free basis. It comes as no surprise that DAWs have taken hip-hop music production by storm. Why pay for an expensive production studio if you can access an aﬀordable alternative with at-home availability? This potential democratization of cultural production across social classes seems to echo the bottom-up spirit of the hip-hop movement’s peripheral roots. Even the more stratiﬁed social demographic in music technology studies in contrast to the elite classical music demographic speaks for a shift towards inclusivity.
However, research presented by Yngvar Kjus, Ragnhild Brøvig-Hanssen, and Solveig Margrethe Wang at the GDC 2022 Global Perspectives on Platforms and Cultural Production conference suggests that gender inequalities prevail in the male-domain of music production. Female identifying participants are outnumbered, silenced, and overpowered by male group members, causing women in the study to prefer individual or female-only projects.
What a surprising choice considering that the car-mechanic-like, almost clinical, discussions of tech-bros sound much more enticing than testing the creative limits of DAWs.
The historical construction of technology around a traditionally ‘rational and objective’ male narrative and labor practices does certainly not help to oﬀ-set masculine domination through digital music production. This exclusionary dynamic surely translates into hip-hop collectives, no diﬀerent from rock bands in which women are told to stick to singing instead of drumming. In the late 1970s, hip-hop ﬁrst emerged in the Bronx, New York, where communities of color came together to address systematic inequalities through cultural resistance. Soon after in the 1980s, it made its way to Brazil, the focus of this blog post, where oppressed communities had faced deep dissatisfaction with the center-periphery divide during the unjust racial democracy that persisted post-independence.
Like our wonderkid DAW, hip-hop is not only limited to DJ-ing and rap-ping, it also bravely took on the city’s aesthetics through graﬃti and the streets through break (dance). I consider MC-ing and DJ-ing as intertwined, as the movement relies on collective activities and ﬂuidity across roles both within the same group and its practitioners. Even though resource scarcity was previously foregrounded by lyrical practices paired with accessible hardware technologies, new commodiﬁcation and integration of hip-hop into pop culture drastically changed the industry’s values. The use of technologically-advanced productions, now, can make or break one’s career in this cultural sector. This creates an even more hostile environment for the Brazilian female hip-hopper, as she does not only navigate racial and gendered inequalities within a male-dominated industry, but also a male-coded technological discourse.
Within the context of Brazil, this blogpost follows the ongoing battle for female emancipation within peripheral counter-hegemonic production. Not only are we listening to voices from urban margins but to marginal identities within margins structured by (post-)colonial catholic patriarchal relations. However, it would be reductive to deﬁne the female hip-hopper through her struggles. Instead, I explore how tool agnosticism, a concept that advises against the overreliance on one technological tool within (creative) professions, could be understood to challenge gendered socio-technical relations. I lead this discussion on technology and identity by asking how tool agnosticism could pose an alternative to the (1) dominant machismo as authentic identity in individual hip-hop practices. And, by exploring how tool agnosticism restructures (2) the collective dynamics so crucial to creative practices.
Intermission – Radio program The Margins of the City
As a follow-up, I recommend listening to the Federal University of São Carlos’ (UFSCar) radio program Às Margens da Cidade (the Margins of the City). The hosts and guests talk about their own experiences with- or research on urban inequalities through a compelling mix of music and talk, which certainly manages to capture my dispersed attention beyond the usual three minutes. The following was written while listening to their hand-selected playlists. Much of which also draws on their discussions, as well as the meetings I had with the wonderful supervisor Luana Dias Motta, and the hosts Luiz, Carol, and Ju. Thanks for letting me catch a glimpse behind-the-scenes, create promotional posters, and research radio and hip-hop culture.
Although their website is currently being remodeled and archived episodes have not been reuploaded yet, I want to pay credit where credit is due to the following episodes:
Female hip-hopper in Brazil – Can I subscribe to the gangsta attitude?
Brazil’s machismo culture greatly informs counter-hegemonic eﬀorts linked to what Pardue calls a gangsta identity in hip-hop. Authentic practitioners are expected to emit masculinity, to embrace negritude (blackness) against the state’s suppression – even if it means the rejection of more vulnerable traits, or the neglect of the gendered struggle. After all, to be anti-state, to be anti-hegemonic power, means to ﬁght by assuming a masculine attitude. Even the female rap collective describes their luta (ﬁght) through masculine connotations; they must make use of the mathematics and pragmatism contained within this practical gift that is rap. Yet, they “carry much more than a (…) snapback” that is part of a traditional gangsta expression. And indeed, their intersectional experience is much more than meets the eye. However, the female collective is caught in a dilemma. As female practitioners they cannot fully assume an authentic gangsta attitude as they would be seen as rejecting femininity. How could they dare to break the gender performativity expected of them, if this means risking societal rejection on one side, and subcultural rejection on the other side? However, if they were to embrace their femininity, they would not be seen as authentic hip-hoppers. This rejection shows in how women are pushed away from the stage to the backstage, audience, or organising committees in hip-hop soirée battles.
The female hip-hopper faces a paradox as the community rejects her regardless of whether she seeks authenticity through assimilation or contestation of the traditional identity. This is where technology and technique becomes crucial in gaining validation. She may choose to not ﬁt the attitude if she builds on professionalization through technical education (Pardue 2010, 444-5). The question that follows is whether the Brazilian female hip-hopper can claim authenticity beyond the assimilation-contestation paradox? The idea is to develop a localized approach to the intersectional challenges faced by a margin within a margin, the peripheral female hip-hopper, within socio-technically exclusionary cultural production.
Tool agnosticism against technological determinism?
Let me introduce you to tool agnosticism, a term that stuck with me since its introduction by Frédérik Lesage and Alberto Lusoli at the GDC conference. I was initially drawn in by its completely unrelated, but yet present religious connotations. It seemed almost ironically suitable as a counter-force to Brazil’s patriarchal structuring given the country’s colonially facilitated ties to the catholic church. Perhaps religious agnosticism or the lack of believing in knowing ‘the one deity to rule them all’ could be an empowering approach to technology. After all, technological determinism in music production has added another hurdle to the already masculine-coded gangsta attitude.
People in media industries studies loosely write about tool agnosticism, which suggests to not only rely on mastering ‘the one leading tool’ as there are other valuable tools and skills. That is, to expand within and beyond the hard and soft skills needed in their role. Whether you are a graphic designer or a project manager, it is important to be able to drop a tool and use another one at will, since a dogmatic attitude towards a technology hinders problem-solving abilities. Furthermore, Lesage and Lusoli mention the importance of developing intuitive skills. This means knowing how to make use of and embrace the capacities of the designers and marketers around you to allow for a well-rounded positioning within a team. Considering this team-related surplus value created by this diversiﬁcation of (non-)technological skills, tool agnostic practices reﬂect the collective nature of hip-hop in which writers, rappers, and producers come together. Could tool agnosticism in its socially and technologically ambivalent nature be used by the female hip-hopper to achieve authenticity beyond the masculinity-driven counterculture identity? Could professionalization pose a way out of the assimilation-contestation binary?
This is not to say that tool agnosticism is automatically empowering, it is also limiting as expectations are higher across the board. This means not only does a female hip-hopper have to excel at writing and rapping, but she also needs to prove her technological know-how. Here, I argue that tool agnosticism begins to describe the way in which the female hip-hopper may gain recognition if she exceeds across skills – cutting through DAWs used to produce as well as knowledge in other roles that she takes on. In other words, she must acquire skills that demarcate her identity as a hip-hopper. Hip-hop as such is said to strike an interesting balance between individuality, self-learning, and originality on one side as well as collectivity and community on the other side. Research on Swedish hip-hop learning practices conﬁrmed this dialectic. However, I argue that the community aspect is especially important in the Brazilian post-colonial context.
As the guest Thalita Silva (Nêga MC) from the collective Sarau Minas de Ouro puts it in Às Margens da Cidade’s episode on Rap of the Minas (11.11.2019): Thalita, too, highlights how agnosticism must be practised in a manner that also relies on lyrics and the community, not only evident tools like DAWs or microphones. You have to become a multi-tool swiss army knife to puncture misogynist norms from several angles, so to say.
Tool agnosticism as a challenge to the gender binary
For the female hip-hopper, a performance is never just a performance. It is a question of performing her identity beyond the one imposed on her. Often, she feels the need to perform in a sweater to not have her success reduced to her body. As Carol Conká says in the song Boa Noite “I’m in a sweater breaking the ﬂow, climbing the ladder, enjoying what is good”. Her participation in the subculture depends on her ability to enter the public sphere, as this is where she may ﬁnd community and recognition. Indirectly, this requires a counteracting of objectiﬁcation by wearing a sweater instead of a dress. This could be seen as a form of gender agnosticism, or the need to break with feminine stereotypes to direct attention to her technique instead of physique.
Cris SNJ states that her attitude might be that of a mother, but also that of a father. This could be alluding to her as a single mother but even more so, it highlights her ability to take on several roles and attitudes from a stubborn to a serene one. Especially when looking at DJs and their use of DAWs, we see how female hip-hoppers take on roles heavily attributed to men. Fluidity, again, becomes a tool to challenge mainstream representations put upon her by mainstream rap. In a way, the reconﬁguration of gender normativity occurs by breaking from expected gender performativity. However, at the same time, the dedication to a counteractive attitude reinforces the existence of a dominant attitude. Why should she not just perform in a dress or explicitly talk about her experience as a mother? The point is to do it all – to perform within the limits and beyond. This, then, means challenging hip-hop’s binary logic through practical (beat and performance) and epistemological (lyrics) interventions.
Tool agnosticism as authentic practice across spheres
Hip-hop spheres must be recognized as frequently informal spaces where peripheral youth ﬁnd support and orientation. I would go as far as to consider it a learning structure with pedagogical weight, especially considering the often-times limited access to higher (private) education in urban peripheries. Thus, the subjectivation of a hip-hopper begins in formative years across diﬀerent informal spheres. The street, here, takes on the role of another shared
space that is still primarily reserved for those represented as the ‘criminal peripheral youth’. While this is a harmful image perpetuated by the news and other media in Brazil, the young hip-hopper reclaims it by seeking empowerment by turning the gangsta into a poet. Nevertheless, women remain underrepresented, objectiﬁed, or are only mentioned in relation to their role as a mother grieving the loss of her son have no real identity to reclaim and are left to build their own. In other words, the female hip-hopper is constantly ﬁghting for the right to be in spaces that were supposed to be for peripheral inhabitants as a whole; ranging from informal education to soirées, to the streets.
As you can see, the creation of performativity ambivalent in techniques and technologies is not the only important aspect of how the female hip-hopper shapes the industry through tool agnostic principles. She must also challenge the clear-cut private and public division by diluting boundaries on and oﬀ stage. This battle continues with holding MCs accountable within the rules of the soirées as well as on social media or oﬄine, according to Nêga MC. Inclusionary practices are easier promoted when some of these public spaces are organized and upheld by female and LGBT+ individuals, such as battles by the initiative Batalha Dominação in São Paulo. Other collectives such as Rap Plus Size by Sara Donato and Issa Paz also speak about fatphobia on top of gender and sexuality-based exclusion.
However, as soon as she enters ‘playgrounds’ ruled by machismo culture, she ﬁghts for her space again. Yet, female hip-hoppers such as Nêga MC have stated that the visibility of them on stage has increased, not always because they were invited but because they let themselves in. As long as she persists in joining collectives, soirées, and other activities, female hip-hoppers continue to disrupt, assume, and reject attitudes. Rather than seeing tool agnosticism as a choice in hip-hop it is almost a necessity for a woman in the industry, who neither identiﬁes with- nor neglects the gangsta image imposed upon her. She is often forced to circumvent technological determinism and stereotypical roles by cutting across assimilation and contestation. Thus, challenging the ‘authentic norm’ within this subculture across space, technique, and technology.
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Sarah Vorndran is a Research Master’s student in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam with a background in interdisciplinary approaches to global and regional issues.