On Monday, BET premiered My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth about Women in Hip-hop, which was posted in full on Miss Info’s Web site. Unfortunately, the first two segments have since been taken down, but you can see clips on the BET Web site.
In truth, I’m waiting for Rachel Raimist to drop some science on it for The Crunk Feminist Collective next Monday, as she promised on Kristen at Dear Black Woman‘s Facebook page. I’m pretty sure the director of the fantastic Nobody Knows My Name, the forebear of BET’s inquiry on gender and hip hop, has some exquisite criticism plotted out. I’ll read, re-tweet, and provide a link in this entry when the blog post goes live.
Also, if you aren’t following The Crunk Feminist Collective, consider this your call to action. rboylorn’s piece this week about black women and depression was one of the best things I read in recent memory.
But I did see My Mic Sounds Nice and, as a feminist hip hop fan who is also a big fan of Nirit Peled’s Say My Name, feel I should use this space to comment and start a dialogue about it. Overall, I liked it.
1. I’m happy BET felt the need to address this subject matter at all. As far as I know, this was the first documentary made for the network and, not unlike Mad Men‘s Birth of the Independent Woman documentary included in the DVD set for season two, the network’s larger programming context was incorporated into the documentary’s narrative. They could’ve done this quite a bit more — say, launch into a discussion of BET: Uncut — but I’m happy a discussion’s starting.
2. Ava DuVernay directed My Mic Sounds Nice. If that name is familiar, you might have seen her documentary This Is the Life: How the West Was One, which I recommended in a previous post.
3. There’s a good mix of mainstream and independent female MCs. I like seeing Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Lil Mama, and Jean Grae share screen time.
4. In general, the documentary is a good primer for the development of women in hip hop. And early in the documentary, there’s lots of great context for nascent female involvement through battle rapping and emphasis placed on now-obscured female acts like the Sequence.
5. The overall approach to talking about women in hip hop is refreshingly discursive. DuVernay frames each voice and opinion as distinct and weaves differing or contradictory viewpoints from each subject. For example, it puts Yo-Yo’s intimations that she felt pressure to project a hyper-sexual image in the wake of Foxy Brown and Lil Kim’s mainstream success in the mid-90s in sharp relief to Trina and Nicki Minaj’s lucrative construction of their personae.
There are some things I felt a little strange about, though. These issues don’t speak to the documentary, but rather internal struggles from within a music industry conditioned toward conventional business practices, which hinge on patriarchal thinking.
1. Many mainstream artists — particularly EVE, who came up through the Ruff Ryders crew — have no problem with male mentorship and don’t feel any need to challenge or question it. Conversely, some male recording execs frame certain female MCs’ success as inherently positive, regardless of their views on gender and sexuality.
2. Likewise, there’s some strange pathology around mainstream female rappers being more of a financial drain on the music industry because of conventional beauty ideals. I don’t want to pathologize women of color any further by making essentializing claims about the upkeep of black hair and will instead refer you to Dear Black Woman’s rules. However, I find Missy Elliott, EVE, and Trina’s unchallenged claims that female hip hop artists have to be glamorous and therefore financially burdensome against the idea that male MCs just have to throw on jeans and a t-shirt in need of greater complication. How might fashion-forward MCs like André 3000 and Kanye West challenge this? And why do female MCs have to be conventionally attractive in order to be successful? While the latter is a rhetorical question, I’ll continue to keep asking it.
3. I love Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott. Also, I know how Hill’s absence from the music industry speaks to a profound loss within the genre, but I would’ve liked a) less time devoted exclusively to them, b) more conflicting opinions about them beyond universal praise, and c) a larger context of what other female rappers were doing — particularly in the underground — during their commercial reign.
4. A key idea that is both perpetuated and challenged is that female MCs don’t sell. I would have appreciated more nuance about the state of the music industry in general. Hip hop’s boom crested into pop music’s record-breaking commercial success in the late-90s. However, the 2000s have largely been defined by the ubiquity of digital music culture and a bankrupt music industry. Surely this speaks more to low sales than the cost of hiring and maintaining a glam squad for a female MC.
Best of all, though, the documentary ends with a look toward the future. The interview subjects plug female MCs they think will continue the legacy. Refreshingly, and with not a little business savvy, much consideration is given to underground artists. Jean Grae name-checks Iris and Psalm One. Fembassy editor-in-chief Glennisha Morgan recommends Invincible. A genre with all of them working in continuum with Nicki Minaj is one I’ll continue to follow.
Originally, I was going to write about Mama’s Gun, Erykah Badu’s second full-length album, in tandem with PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. The reason for this was two-fold: for one, I got the two albums within a week of one another my senior year as Christmas presents (one of the few perks of having divorced parents) and, for another, both albums are turn-of-the-century declaratives about the complexities and contradictions of women being in and out of love, sometimes thrillingly occupying both positions at once. I also thought, as a neat aside, that it might be useful to think about contemporary female artists’ work across racial and/or generic boundaries.
However, I worry that I’d be doing a disservice to those particularities by glossing over them in what would inevitably be an overgrown post. Furthermore, there are some jarring differences between the two albums that I cannot yet resolve in thinking about them together. Harvey’s “happy” album is largely believed to be about her by-now defunct relationship with hipster auteur and New York die-hard Vincent Gallo; Badu’s “game-changing” album is conclusively about the end of her relationship with OutKast’s André 3000 and possibly the beginning of another one with Common. Harvey’s album finds her brightening her sound after her more experimental, less well-received Is This Desire? (which absolutely will be discussed as a record that made me a feminist once I start recounting my college years). Badu’s album finds her expanding her sound (and perhaps the sound associated with “neo-soul,” however silly a term that became), a project she would continue to do with last year’s mind-blowing, radically political, and tremendously funky, New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War.
Most importantly, for my purposes, while the former speaks more specifically to love’s ability to project, the latter speaks to the embodied, conflicting feelings of a female place in a relationship.
Badu and I had met previously. Baduizm came out in 1997 and I found out about it thanks to Kurt Loder and the good people of MTV News who proclaimed that I would, in fact, hear it from them first. I bought it that summer for my birthday (for what it’s worth, I bought it with Ben Folds Five’s Whatever and Ever Amen — happy birthday to 14-year-old me!). She also made appearances on One Life To Live as herself, and acted in Blues Brothers 2000 and Cider House Rules (which I still have not seen in its entirety, but I know that she does a good job playing a tragic character in what I thought was an otherwise totally boring movie). But I treasured my copy of Baduizm, marvelling that someone could make vintage jazz, R&B, and funk sound so refreshingly hip and contemporary. She had such an interesting and beautiful voice. I loved that the music was coming out of a Texas girl who also spelled her name with a “y” (albeit for far more politically motivated reasons than me; Erykah Badu changed her name to be closer to her Ghanan roots while I became “Alyx” because we were studying Egypt in sixth grade social studies and I thought the spelling looked — ugh, white girl fail — more hieroglyphic).
But this album, which came out during my senior year hit me like a soft, sexy bomb (an apt reappropriation of Tom Breihan’s assessment of D’Angelo’s Voodoo, another pioneer 2000 release that, for some reason, I don’t own. I have, of course, seen the delightfully NSFW video for “Untitled“). I actually heard “Didn’t Ya Know” for the first time at a movie theater in West Palm Beach visiting my dad on Christmas vacation (I think it played before a screening of Cast Away). The Spice Girls’ “Holla” played some time after that, but as J. Dilla’s warm, soulful production wrapped around me and Badu’s at-times wrenching and at-times assured vocal delivery let me know what I’d be spending that Sam Goody gift certificate on.
Speaking of J. Dilla, Badu’s collaborative spirit was also something of an inspiration to me, especially since was able to work with men. Like Björk, who has worked extensively with like-minded dudes like directors Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, as well as producers like Matmos, Mark Bell, and Nellee Hooper, Badu was always able to forge creative spaces with men while still standing her own ground. With The Roots or producer J. Dilla (and later Madlib and 9th Wonder), she was still fully able to articulate her artistic imperatives. When she duets with Stephen Marley on “In Love With You,” she seems to be coming at the song (and its subject matter) as an equal. It should also be noted that she’s got room for the ladies too, working with women like Jill Scott and, on this album, Betty Wright.
One thing I’ve always felt Badu doesn’t get enough credit for as a musician is her loopy yet razor-sharp sense of humor. Anyone who follows fatbellybella on Twitter can tell you Badu is hilarious. But her humor is also evident in her songwriting, which while often confessional will often diffuse potentially maudlin moments with daffy yet incredibly perceptive asides (the bridge to “…& On” recounts memorable moments — in loose rhyme — going with her mom to the laundromat, her first period, learning about oppression at school, watery cereal, hearing herself on the radio, and wearing head wraps). Her self-awareness is also evident — “…& On” makes several direct references to Baduizm‘s breakout hit “On and On,” and “Cleva” mediatates on how she uses her brains and wit to compensate for self-perceived physical deficits, lamenting that her breasts sag when she’s not wearing a bra, bragging that her thrift-store togs look awesome, and stating, upfront, that this is what she looks like without makeup.
Her humor is also in her voice. People tend to focus more on her voice’s supposed “jazziness,” especially early on in her career when critics were clamoring to figure out how most subtly to compare her timbre and tone to the tragic Billie Holiday’s. And while Holiday’s humor also gets obscured from this discussion, if we have to compare Badu’s voice to someone else, I actually think Badu is closer to Blossom Dearie, the recently deceased singer who used her high-pitched coo to utilize a myriad of possibilities, whether it be taking pot-shots at hipsters or singing about unpacking adjectives. I could hear Badu doing both, maybe even in the same song.
What makes Badu’s approach to songwriting interesting is that her sense of humor can turn a song whose subject matter seems silly or inconsequential or rote on the surface into something surprisingly more progressive. Take “Booty,” for example. The song originally seems to be a a diss song directed at a woman whose man has turned his attentions toward Badu. While the woman has a PhD, is more conventionally attractive, is a better cook, boasts a fast-tracked career, and is more financially stable than Badu (at least in this song, as college-educated Erica Wright went to Grambling), Badu still has to fight off her partner’s advances. At first, when Badu says “I don’t want him,” it seems to suggest that this man (and, by association, this woman) are beneath her. Yet, in the bridge (the song has no verses), Badu reveals that her intentions speak toward a kind of female solidarity, albeit one strained by classed circumstantial differences. She doesn’t want this man, not because she has designs on someone else, but because he doesn’t respect his current relationship enough to be honest and make arrangements with his partner. In essence, Badu believes both women need to cut this man loose because they can do better.
She performs a similar feat with “Bag Lady,” which at first seems to be an indictment about women who enter into relationships with too much baggage. What it ends up becoming is an anthem about personal freedom and empowerment, with Badu encouraging the woman to break free from her self-imposed shackles, stressing that self-love will make it better while being backed by a euphoric women’s chorus.
Many would argue that “Green Eyes,” a ten-minute suite that stands as the album’s final song, is its centerpiece. I’d be one to agree, and find it especially astonishing that OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson,” which tells André 3000’s side of their break-up was released but a few months before Mama’s Gun came out (Badu also makes a cameo on the album, singing with her former partner about broken dreams in the chorus of “Humble Mumble”). As Touré discusses in his Rolling Stone review of Mama’s Gun, it’s hard not to read into these musicians’ personal moments that then get projected into their work, with the audience knowing who’s singing (or rapping) to who. You could easily do it with Beyoncé singing about being “Crazy in Love” with Jay-Z, who would then reply that he’s got hip hop and R&B’s “number one girl . . . wearing (his) chain” in “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” You could also easily do it with Badu’s appearance in the music video for Common’s “The Light,” a song the rapper wrote for her about their (now-defunct) relationship, strengthening the musical association by having J. Dilla steer the production.
But on its own, “Green Eyes” is an epic, discursive, devastating break-up anthem whose power few since have touched (though I think Aeroplane and Kathy Diamond’s “Whispers” comes the closest). It begins with a flirtatious, jazzy lilt wherein Badu claims that her eyes are green, not because she’s jealous that her former lover now has a new partner. Instead, she unconvincingly lies, her eyes are green because she eats a lot of vegetables. After claiming “it don’t have nahhhh-thing to do with your . . . friend,” the music becomes slower and more dirge-like. Her voice and lyrics also become less certain, shakier. She doesn’t know if she loves him anymore, but thinks she might, and is clearly frustrated how love is putting in her in such a tether. From here, she pushes her lover further away in one phrase, claiming to do fine and realizing how angry she is at him for not recognizing her worth, while a few lines later asks if they can make love one last time. Her humor is still there, at times helping her sell the lie of her feelings, while other times confronting her with the truth. She calls herself silly at the thought of her lover being true, stating that she should change her name to “Silly E. Badu.” It’s a joke, but no one — least of all her — is laughing. You know she’ll get through it eventually, but she has to work through her hurt before she moves forward. I know it was a song that helped me work through a broken heart, even if I had to lie face down and sob into the carpet to do it.
But there is plenty of love and lust on this album, acknowledging that women can turn art out of being happy and healthy. “Orange Moon” begins as a stately, romantic ballad to finding someone helped her believe in love, only to erupt into pure, unadulterated about how good/God her lover is (the “God” reference potentially serving as a Five Percenter allusion). “Kiss Me On My Neck (Hesi)” focuses its attentions instead on the more immediate nature of necessary gratification. The inclusion of these songs evince that for women, love and sex are neither mutual nor exclusive concepts. They can be both.
The album also allowed me to think outside of love (and thus myself) to start questioning more political matters and begin to want for more radical action. While Badu may be charming and funny, she’s also a fine, agitated mind. The song that accomplished this most specifically for me was “A.D. 2000,” a song about Amadou Diallo and his brutal murder at the hands of a quartet of trigger-happy police officers. Excepting the Rodney King beating and subsequent hearing, this was the first time I really thought about police brutality (note: Bruce Springsteen also addressed this horrible tragedy in song, to some controversy).
A year later, I would read about Mumia Abu-Jamal. Two and a half years after that, I would start dating a person who got pulled over by a cop for driving the speed limit with the headlights on in a residential area at 10 p.m. while listening to GZA’s Legend of the Liquid Sword. Eight months after that, I would read Assata Shakur‘s profound autobiography. About a year after that, I would read Angela Davis‘s autobiography, stunned that this intelligent, sensitive individual was the same person Ronald Reagan swore would never teach in California. Two years after that, I would get accosted by a cop for jay-walking through a red light at 3 a.m. when it was clear that the officer was more concerned by the nervous young college student of either Middle Eastern or South Asian descent walking three steps in front of me. In all this time in between, I would come to know several people who shared similar stories or worse, whether they were arrested for “obstructing a passageway” during protests or were accosted with racial profiling. I would also read about similar reported items in the news, always sad and horrified and sick and helpless that these kinds of actions still go on.
Badu would continue to be concerned with political issues like religious freedom, institutional racism, the drug trade, poverty, and sexism, and incorporate these matters into her music, which became increasingly more experimental as she matured as an artist. But with the political she always intersected personal issues, whether it was remembering growing up on hip hop records, motherhood, reconciling the fact that she had three babies with as many men, growing older, working within the mainstream, looking for ways to work outside of it, and always thinking about the ways that she fit (or chose not to fit) within it. This album was the start of thinking through these issues for me. I look forward to what Ms. Badu has to say next.
It’s Mother’s Day weekend and to celebrate, I thought today I’d write up a tribute to some awesome women who balance and blend the dual identities of musician and mother in their own ways.
First up, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott.
So much to love about these two. They’re smart, talented, politically conscious, unconventionally beautiful, and have earned plenty of mainstream recognition but choose to stay on the fringe of popular culture.
Also, they’re autonomous women who have opted out of a conventional family unit. Both are unmarried. Badu had son Seven and daughters Puma and Mars from her relationships with André 3000 of OutKast, The D.O.C., and Jay Electronica, respectively. Scott is divorced and welcomed the birth of her first child, Jett, with her boyfriend, Lil John Roberts, last year at the age of 36.
And finally, I love that they’re friends, came up from the Philly “neo-soul” circuit together, and often perform together (as evidenced from the photo above; see also their stirring performance of “You Got Me” on Dave Chappelle’s Block Party). I like to imagine that they hang out together a lot, helping each other write, sing, or think through the struggles and joys of daily life.
Next up, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon.
After being married to bandmate Thurston Moore for about ten years, Gordon (who kept her name, thank you) gave birth to Coco Hayley Gordon Moore in 1994, thus bringing presumably one of the coolest girls into the world as a result. I like to imagine that Coco was schooling her classmates about Merzbow by the sixth grade. Also, a friend of mine’s sister used to babysit Coco, and says that she is a really nice, well-adjusted kid. Yay!
I like that Kim had Coco — an only child — on her own time and later in life. It probably reminds me of my mom, who had me (and only me) at 36. Plus, Gordon and Moore performed a song with Coco on The Gilmore Girls. How cool is that?
Speaking of cool moms, what about M.I.A., who welcomed her first son Ikhyd into the world with fiancé Benjamin Brewer earlier this year?
Unfortunately, I can’t find a hi-res version of the Grammy performance of T.I.’s “Swagga Like Us”, but I really love it. I love that M.I.A., whose song “Paper Planes” is sampled and provides the song title, opens the performance. I love that she interacts with the other rappers, who seem to be treating her as an equal. I love that the men she shares the stage with, all of whom are African American and thus stigmatized by the racist, sexist stereotype of the wayward, absentee black father, seem to be excited and happy for her. I love that she’s ready-to-burst pregnant in public and is wearing a tight, short, see-through black and white dress, thus confronting and subverting the conception of the sexless matriarch (in fact, she got a lot of flak for the dress; some people dubbed it “slutty” and “trashy”). I also love that she paired the ensemble with sneakers, because pregnant ladies gotta be comfortable. And most of all, I love that we haven’t seen much of baby Ikhyd since he came into the world, suggesting that the family wants their son to grow up a person and not a tabloid ficture.
Another low-key mom is Yoshimi Yokota, legendary drummer of Boredoms and singer/guitarist of OOIOO.
Like Gordon, she’s got one daughter, and seems to be pleased with that. But like M.I.A., she’s not forthcoming about her personal life, particularly the family she’s creating for herself. And finally, I love that unlike what we may expect from mom musicians, Yoshimi doesn’t think her entrance into motherhood has changed her music.
And finally, the mother of all cool musician moms, Björk.
So, Björk is interesting for many reasons. Like Badu, she had two children with two different partners (son Sindri with former Sugarcubes bandmate Þór Eldon; daughter Ísadóra with artist Matthew Barney). There’s also an unsual age difference between her children. Sindri was born in 1986, when Björk was 21. Ísadóra was born sixteen years later in 2002. And, despite her diminuitive figure and elfin looks, Björk is fiercely protective of her children and their privacy (anyone remember when Björk went off and beat up a journalist who waved a microphone in Sindri’s face at the airport?). Don’t fuck with mom.
But these moms are just a few examples. Who are your favorite musician moms?