This is actually an amazing question! Although it relates to subjects that are perhaps less light-hearted than Sir Mix-a-lot’s song “Baby’s Got Back.” The spoken word monologue is important to answering your question, especially this part:
“She looks like a total prostitute, okay?
I mean, her butt, it’s just so big
Uh, I can’t believe it’s just so round, it’s like out there
I mean, uh, gross*, look*
She’s just so… Black*!”*
Criticism of the features of black bodies is something that goes back all the way to the 19th century colonial empires, where pseudoscientist ideologies tried to justify colonialism. The prominence of certain body parts (in the case of women, the buttocks), were used as arguments to frame black women as extremely sexual and profligate. Some women were even exhibited in human zoos or during scientific demonstrations, the most famous of which is probably Sarah Baartman, who was dubbed the “Hottentot Venus” during her lifetime. This framing of black women during the 19th lead to a popular perception of black women as overly sexual, promiscuous, etc. In other words, white colonialist fantasies were projected onto them. (For more on this topic, see Robin Mitchell’s Book Vénus noire: Black Women and Colonialism in Nineteenth Century France).
Hypersexuality To Justify Segregation
These conceptions remained deeply ingrained in western culture. Patricia Hill Collins dedicates the entirety of the sixth chapter of her classic book Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment to politics of black sexual womanhood in the United States. In this chapter, she talks about all the ways in which this colonial objectification of black women’s body manifests itself in contemporary American society. The so-called hypersexuality of black women was again used as a justification for the segregation system in the US. While an ideal of purity and virginity was projected as the ideal for white womanhood, black women served as the counterpart of this model and were strongly subjected to objectification. This was further strengthened by difficult economic context that brought some black women to prostitution.
At the root of this all there is a much larger history of African Diaspora and its ever-evolving cultural impact not only on people of African descent who were moved out of Africa via slave-trade, but also its impact on the cultures where those larger African populations now reside. This dynamic is observable in the monologue, with the valley girl establishing clear links between blackness, prostitution and “gross sexuality”. There are residues of the colonial period that still permeates today in the form of stereotypes.
Hip-Hop as we know it today evolved from a cultural out-pour in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s from African Americans in highly urban environments. The culture of hip-hop manifested itself through four main avenues: graffiti or tagging (visual representation); b-boys or break boys and b-girls (dance); DJs or Disc Jockeys (audio); MCs or Masters of Ceremony (verbal.) Again, to stay focused, we’ll fast-forward to specifically DJs and MCs.
Within these dense metropolitan areas, street hangouts and block parties (which were already a common event) began to occur in more modern formats. Although it grew up from humble/varied gatherings, what we look back at today is generally this formula: a DJ (or several) would set up an area (or stage, if available) to play music while friends and neighbors gathered to dance and socialize. The MC (a much less significant role in the beginnings) was there merely to introduce the DJ or entice the crowd– a hype man, if you will. However, as events went on, gatherings would produce sometimes multiple MCs and they were much more active in livening the crowd by engaging them through call-and-response.
Within the realm of African tribal musical styles exists a very prevalent “call-and-response” music. This is a style that persisted in the U.S. from field songs sung by African American slaves (an individual or few leading a chorus, and then the rest responding with the refrain) to gospel choirs and Baptist churches (the preacher giving gospel and then pausing to allow the congregation to respond aloud with affirmations) up to the topic at hand- MCs. This call-and-response from multiple MCs with the crowd and even with each other, helped develop what we refer to as “Rapping” today.
Preference for Bigger Butts
Cut to Sir Mix-a-lot, a rapper recording “Baby Got Back” in 1991 and releasing it in 1992. The focus of the song is not just, as mentioned, a preference for bigger butts, but is additionally a cultural value statement. With Hip-Hop (and Rapping) rising in popularity enough to gain a U.S. national and global spotlight (Baby Got Back was the #2 selling song in the U.S. for 1992, spent five weeks as the number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 and received a nomination by many musical awards ceremonies, including the Grammy’s, as best Hip-Hop song of the year), it became a platform to really vocalize and amplify the repressed cultural expression and representation that this particular generation of African Americans were experiencing.
The opening vocalist, Amelia Rivas (Dorsey), had commented later that the song was mostly just a challenge to the then current (predominantly white) cultural preference toward dubiously skinny models as the ideal aesthetic– Which is what we will pivot toward now.
Seattle and Grunge
In the early/mid 1980’s, a grunge scene developed, heavily in Seattle, Washington. As time went on, Grunge music (think Nirvana and Pearl Jam) and accompanying counter-culture grunge aesthetic of the 1980’s had gone more mainstream by the late 80’s and early 90’s. Coincidentally (or not?), Nirvana and Sir Mix-a-lot are both from Seattle, which is the unofficial birthplace of the grunge movement. This rise of popularity is relevant, because some of the main “looks” of grunge were pale faces, dark sunken eyes, and underweight figures. To the untrained eye, the grunge look was very much the look of a heroin addict.
As for the 1990s, it is important to remember that this was the decade of the notorious “heroin chic” look, which meant extremely skinny, waifish models. Definitely the polar opposite of what we see today. I would say that there was a divide among racial lines in the sense that high fashion was (and still is) a very white and upper-class environment. Today, fashion coopted a lot of black culture (streetwear, black hairstyles, plumpier figures), although not always acknowledging its roots, which explains the frequent controversies we saw in recent years.
Sir Mix-A-Lot Empowering?
I don’t want to make Sir Mix-A-Lot seem like a militant here, he’s probably just a guy who love a nice round butt, but there is certainly something daring and countercultural about his song, that seeks to empower women whose body has been historically invalidated and presented as something shameful. This is kind of the same reason why some people applaud the song today as feminist and liberating, where others might see it as objectifying.
In summary, (1) pop culture and magazines in the 90’s did indeed focus on being skinny, bony and waifish because of the hype that the grunge counter-culture movement brought alongside the fashion industry’s heroin chic-centric models. (2) Both of these microcosms were predominantly white in creation, ownership and perpetuation, and Sir Mix-a-lot’s song “Baby Got Back”- being rooted heavily in African American culture and expression- was indeed a response to them.
- Robin Mitchell, Vénus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France, 2020. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 208pp.
- Patricia Hill Collins. Black Feminist Thought, 2nd edition, 2000. New York: Routledge, 283pp.
- Nicolas Bancel & Pascal Blanchard. Sexe, race & colonies, 2018. Paris: La Découverte, 544pp
- Suggested further reading on this specific topic:
- Sabrina Strings, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, 2019. New York: NYU Press, 304 pp.