“This is What a Feminist Looks Like”
by Nicolle Dupas
Hello dear readers!
Welcome to our first ever article on feminists in music! We are happy to have you here. Navigating the world as a feminist can be... interesting, to say the least. We are met with all kinds of questions, judgments, and reactions depending on the environments in which we find ourselves. The music industry is no exception.
It is full of people expressing their free speech in all kinds of creative and wonderful ways. It is full of imaginative sounds and vivid descriptions of personal experiences and views on the world. Music, in short, is a sanctuary where many of us go to reflect, feel, unwind and feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.
That being said, the music industry is also full of people pretending to be someone or something that they truly are not. It is full of competitiveness and at times a mentality of every person for themselves. There is often even rampant misogyny, sexism, racism, classism, etc. (see: genres like rock, punk and metal being fond of excluding women or people of color under their umbrella, or genres like country often appealing to white, middle/upper class individuals, etc.)
With so much going on behind the scenes every day and so many different judgments being thrown at artists in the spotlight, it’s no wonder that many of them steer away from openly discussing political issues, views or labels.
Enter Rohen Shah, aka “MC SKULE.” Rohen is the founder of SKULE.org, described as a non-profit with a mission to “Spread Knowledge Using Lyrics & Entertainment” to make educational songs for students, teachers, and people of all kinds all over the world. He himself is a teacher, specializing in mathematics, and is also the Founder and CEO of DiagKNOWstics Learning, which is an educational technology company that helps create adaptive learning platforms.
He sure looks impressive on paper, but beyond that? This man is a feminist, and he wants to use his music not only for classroom education, but for social change. Rap, in history, has often been an overtly political genre. But many of today’s popular hip hop/rap artists write extremely misogynist, over sexualized/offensive lyrics. So… a feminist rapper? Breath of fresh air.
We at Being Feminist stumbled across Rohen upon finding his music video for The F Word: Feminism; an upbeat rap song that helps demystify 3rd Wave Feminism for the masses in three-and-a-half minutes. Impressive! The focus is on helping individuals understand the difference between what feminism is truly about and what many folks assume that it is about. Since its debut on Facebook on August 21st, 2017, The video has already received over 1 million views, and has been shared across the popular social media site 1,000 times.
Naturally, upon finding a male rapper talking about an issue so dear to our hearts, we were immediately interested to speak with Rohen about his views on feminism, his experiences as a feminist in the industry and on what his ideal world looks like.
1) What would it take, from an adult male perspective, to raise a boy that would grow up to be a feminist?
The most important thing would be seeing adult male role models who call themselves feminists. Labels aside, it is important to explicitly teach boys to ask themselves, “would I behave differently if genders were reversed?” Thinking about this will help them not presume certain things about other people based on their gender. Challenging traditional gender roles is also something that needs to be done explicitly, and conveying that it is okay for them to have “feminine” hobbies, interests, and career paths. In general, what is needed is modeling behavior in front of them that shows respect towards everyone, and having age-appropriate conversations about sexism.
2) What, or who, inspired you to write this song/become a social justice activist?
On my very first day of college over a decade ago, I remember seeing people holding up signs on “The Diag” (an outdoor common area) saying “Feminism is Equality”. I stopped and inquired further, saying that that sounds like an oxymoron. I was then shown, in a dictionary, that the word “Feminism” means advocating for EQUAL rights for women. In that moment, I reflected on every conversation I ever had about feminism until that point, and how I needlessly disagreed with so many feminists simply because I misunderstood what they meant. I then decided that this information needs to be out there more, and began having conversations with almost everyone I met about the word Feminism.
Over the years, I’ve gotten responses ranging from “But the word has Fem, that means it’s about Female superiority”, to “Well, I would be a feminist, but I want to be a housewife.” So, a decade later, when I finally had the platform to write educational songs, I decided to write one that addressed all of these misconceptions. As a math teacher who is mostly known for rap songs that teach math, I decided that this song was especially important to make to help students dispel myths about men being better “biologically suited” for math. I firmly believe (and see in math class every day) that girls and boys have an equal potential and interest in math, but so few girls go into quantitative fields such as engineering because of the self-fulfilling prophecy of societal expectations.
3) What, or who, opened your eyes to feminism and its values?
My older sister, Jessica, probably had the largest part in opening up my eyes to the values of feminism—seeing her battle sexism in many forms and reflecting on it with me made me realize how invisible, subconscious, and institutionally ingrained sexism can be. My late uncle, Ashvin, was the first male role model that explicitly talked with me about the importance of gender equality. My mom, dad, and younger sister have also had many formative conversations with me over the years.
4) When did you first get into music? Back then, did you know that you wanted to use music as a platform for social change?
I first got into music when I heard Reggaeton music and memorized a few Spanish rap songs for my high school’s Spanish Club show performances. I quickly realized that most rap songs in general tend to have great beats, but lyrics that were vulgar, often sexist, and encouraged behavior I didn’t particularly care for. Because of this, I decided that I should use some of these wonderful instrumentals to write nerdy songs, and ones with lyrics that inspire people to help each other and fulfill their dreams. The first rap song I ever wrote was in 2006, when I was running for my high school’s NHS Presidency. The song was about helping those who can’t help themselves - and I unexpectedly end up winning the election. From the very beginning, my songs have always been used as a platform for social change.
5) What kinds of positive feedback have you received from men? From women?
The positive feedback I have received included people appreciating that the song invites everyone into the conversation about feminism regardless of their gender, political affiliation, or their current views on feminism. Men have said that they like how the song clarifies the common misconception of what feminism means, and that it’s nice to see men calling themselves feminists too. Women have said that it’s nice to see a song that talks about our shared values so that we can lower the stigma attached to the word feminism. Numerous people have also highlighted the attention the song gives attention to the ways boys and men are also impacted by gender roles and that encouraging boys to also reject the limits of gender roles is also part of feminism.
6) What kind of negative feedback have you received from men? From women?
The negative feedback so far has not been about the song itself, but feminism as a whole. Some men have complained that if feminism was about equality, feminists would talk more about the all-male draft or higher male suicide rates. Some men have actually left sexist feedback, saying that feminism doesn’t make sense because “men always have been and always will be superior” to women. Some negative feedback from women has been that while the first wave of feminism might have been about equality, they cannot identify as a feminist because the current wave seems to be focused on giving women “special treatment” and ignores issues such as bias in favor of mothers in custody cases.
This has led to some very good and healthy conversation about gender roles and how issues that negatively impact predominantly men are two sides of the same coin. Males are drafted because they are generalized to be more physically and emotionally capable of war. Mothers are more likely to receive custody of children in part because females are generalized to be more nurturing and expected to take on the majority of the child-rearing. Feminism seeks to undo these examples of inequity as well. So I very much welcome back and hope these insightful conversations continue.
7) Why do you think there is still a kind of ‘shock value’ in men proclaiming themselves as feminists? And why such a stigma for a woman to identify proudly as one?
I think that people are puzzled when men proclaim to be feminists because they mistakenly think that feminism is about believing in female superiority, or even hating men. Many people don't realize feminism is about trying to make a better world for all of us and that there are lots of reasons men should want to be feminists. Sadly, this same mentality leads women who identify as feminist to face a lot of backlash because they are viewed as man-haters. Striving for equality feels like discrimination or oppression to those who already believe things are equal. When women in particular talk about the ways they experience sexism, to someone who does not yet understand that things truly are unequal, it sounds like they are asking for special privileges.
Unfortunately, people who believe things are equal also hold the majority of power. They have more control over how feminism is understood in the mainstream so these misconceptions continue. It is true for other disenfranchised groups as well but it's getting better and I'm hoping this song helps.
8) Browsing the Internet, there is a common phrase used by ‘internet trolls’, which is ‘feminism is cancer’, or comparing feminists to hate groups like Nazis (ie. “feminazi”). If you had one quote or sentence to share with these kinds of people, what would it be?
If you want your criticism to be seriously considered, respect the people you are talking to and give them the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise; you might not realize that you are saying the same thing as the other person (that gender equality is good) if you (incorrectly) judge a label by what you think it means.
9) Why do you believe that feminism is still so important in the music industry?
There is a lot of sexism rampant in the music industry: from the way women are treated in lyrics to the ways in which female artists are themselves treated by the media and their own fellow artists sometimes. Music can reach people in very unique and powerful ways so I hope The F word capitalizes on this by using music to dispel some of the common myths about feminism.
10) Why do you believe feminism is still needed/important in 2018?
There is no doubt that we have made advancements toward gender equality over the years; feminists have helped us pass legislation that gave women the right to vote and outlaws outright gender discrimination. That being said, feminism is still important in 2018 because laws don’t reflect mindset. While employers might not discriminate by law, they likely have biases that they are unaware of that leads to male candidates appearing “more qualified” and therefore more likely of getting a job. This is a form of discrimination, and it is mostly this type of discrimination that we need to combat. This can’t be done through legislation, but changing our values. The song mentions some of this, such as getting rid of violence and abuse, closing the wage gap, and letting people choose their career without considering their gender. Hopefully this is a step in the right direction to help us change our mindsets in addition to just our laws.
11) What do you hope will be the greatest accomplishment for you in sharing this music video with the world?
The audience I had in mind while writing this song was actually not current feminists, but rather those who don't understand the word or even want to disassociate with it. My hope is for this audience to make the realization that they actually already embrace the core values of feminism and that they can feel not only comfortable but proud to call themselves a feminist.
12) What's next for you as an artist?
My next few songs will go back to being about middle/high school level content; math, science and economics in particular. I’m also hoping to collaborate with other artists to create more powerful songs that inspire people.
13) What does your ideal world look like?
My instinct is to say a utopian world is one where everyone is treated equally. While I think that this would be great, I realistically think that that will take too long to achieve. To think about an “on the way to utopia” achievable ideal world, it would be one where people understand the history of inequality and understand the responsibility we all share in making things equal. It's going to take time and it's going to take all of us, but that's the ideal: a small proportion of the world population, predominantly women, shouldn’t bear the weight of the movement on their own.
14) Who is your biggest inspiration? Not necessarily musically, just in general!
Sheryl Sandberg has been one of my biggest inspirations, especially as it relates to feminism. Her book and non-profit organization, Lean In, taught me that one can still be an inspiring feminist leader while having qualities that are a combination of what is traditionally thought of as “masculine” and “feminine,” based on your own individual preferences, rather than what you think society expects from you.
Musically speaking, Beyonce has been one of my biggest inspirations—the way she carries herself in and out of the recording studio is something I feel everyone should strive for. Her work also helped me see how sexism can look different across groups, and I admire that she uses her music and incredibly strong sense of values to inspire and empower women of all races.
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