Last night, I got my nose out of the book I was reading (Ien Ang’s Desperately Seeking the Audience, for curious parties) and went out to shake a tail feather. The Majestic, a local venue in Madison, hosted a hip hop-themed 80s vs. 90s dance party.
Obviously, I don’t need to defend the merits of hip hop’s golden era. OutKast’s ATLiens, Tribe’s Midnight Marauders, Queen Latifah’s All Hail the Queen, Wu-Tang’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Nas’ Illmatic, Biggie’s Ready to Die, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, De La Soul’s Stakes Is High, Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly, Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride, Goodie Mob’s Soul Food, Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s Very Necessary, Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, MC Lyte’s Lyte as a Rock, and The Fugees’ The Score all belong in the history books as much as they do in my car. Since this music scored my adolescence and many bedroom dance parties, I was happy to raise a glass and toast myself on the floor.
As this was the music of my youth, it was also the music of my feminist awakening. While I recognize that many female MCs don’t associate with the term “feminism,” their commanding presence and demand for self-respect and sexual autonomy was hugely influential on how I came to understand the world and my place in it as a teenage girl and later as an adult woman. Later I’d acquire a copy of Tricia Rose’s definitive Black Noise, a tremendously influential piece of hip hop scholarship that I believe has only been surpassed by her more recent effort, The Hip Hop Wars.
Lest we encase this era of mainstream hip hop in amber, there are a number of contemporary female MCs whose careers and artistic contributions warrant attention, including Psalm One, Dessa, Las Krudas, Nicki Minaj, Invincible, Miz Korona, MicahTron, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Lady Sovereign, JNaturaL, Rita J, and Jean Grae, among so many others. Let’s also not forget the veteran female artists who rose to prominence during this point in popular musical history and are still in the game. Missy forever.
Last night, the deejay represented Ladybug Mecca from Digable Planets, Lauryn Hill in Nas’ “If I Ruled the World,” along with Janet Jackson, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Queen Latifah, and (after I checked in with one of the deejays) TLC. But c’mon–this was a monumental time for women in hip hop, as well as female R&B groups who were influenced by hip hop and hip hop culture. A handful of songs hardly suffice when you could devote an entire night to women’s contributions to hip hop during this period.
To be fair, I didn’t hear Positive K’s “I Got a Man,” Bone Thugs’ “First of the Month,” or the Bad Boy remix of Craig Mac’s “Flava in Your Ear” either. But as fine a time as I had last night, there were a number of voices I’d like to have heard from folks like Amil, Erykah Badu, Eve, Lil Kim, Rah Digga, Foxy Brown, maybe even dig deep into the crates for some Sparky D. Some of them may have gotten their due after I left. But all of them necessitate future dance parties. Maybe some clips can help get one started. Feel free to make requests.
The other night, I watched Missy Elliott’s Behind the Music. It’s a pretty good episode. I forgot how many talented ladies Elliott worked with, including Tweet, Nelly Furtado, and Alyson Stoner. Joan Morgan champions “One Minute Man” for articulating that women can seek out sex for it’s own sake. Mary J. Blige backs Elliott’s genius regardless of her size. Elliott’s mother Patricia talks about coming forward as a domestic abuse survivor at her daughter’s behest. And Elliott speaks candidly about working through traumas related to incest and childhood molestation, living with Grave’s disease, struggling to break into the music industry as part of the girl group Fayze, and getting edited out of the video to Raven-Symoné’s “That’s What Little Girls Are Made Of” because she was fat, even though she co-wrote the song. Damn. At least Heart videos had Ann Wilson’s face, even though the camera lusted after Nancy’s guitar-slung torso.
I knew we were going to talk about protégée Aaliyah’s death, which brought back so many memories. The plane crash. The news reports. Fatima Robinson crying. The posthumous release of the video for “Rock the Boat.” Jackets with the singer’s face airbrushed on the back. DMX in the “Miss You” video. Her older brother Rashad weeping during her episode of Behind the Music. Missy and Tim’s hearts breaking. All these feelings came up again when I watched the Elliott episode, as I’m sure they do for the rapper-producer every day. They flooded back this morning when I read Leslie Pitterson’s Clutch Magazine piece, which commemorates the 10-year anniversary of her death excerpts Damon Dash’s Billboard interview about his relationship with the singer and the grief he worked through.
In a weird way, the loss of Aaliyah also came back last week when I watched an episode of Buffy that featured Ashanti as a demon. She seemed to be channeling Aaliyah in Queen of the Damned, or maybe that’s who writer Jane Espenson and the wardrobe department were trying to conjure. I knew something wicked was afoot, because there’s no way Ashanti would date a schlub like Xander. This also made me think of what a weird time the early 2000s were when Ashanti broke Billboard records but left no impression on me besides coming off as impolite to a chauffeur in an episode of Punk’d because she expressly forbid him from talking to her. Ah, Punk’d. How it played into (and often betrayed) celebrity image construction. Justin Timberlake is a stoned mama’s boy. Magic Johnson is quite level-headed when dealing with his son’s scorned lover. Katie Holmes gets pushed around. Of course, the show also presented a lot of scenarios where black celebrities had to deal with law enforcement. Call out Ashton’s racial insensitivity, Dave Chappelle!
Anyway, Ashanti wearing belly chains and wielding swords just made me miss Aaliyah. This might have worked better if it was Rihanna. I’m willing to see her an action movie, even if it’s stupid to build a film franchise on a board game. Maybe the “Hard” video was her audition for a Tank Girl reboot. Maybe Michelle Rodriguez will be in it. . . . But I digress.
I love Aaliyah’s music, as do many friends. In high school, girlfriends made up dances for her songs. Ginny created an interpretive dance for the first verse to “Are You That Somebody?” Brooke came up with a routine for “Try Again” that she performed at prom. I was introduced to Aaliyah in junior high when I saw the video for “Back & Forth” on the Box (a channel in need of more academic scholarship and a Grantland oral history). Who was this cool girl with the silky voice and why was she wearing sunglasses? It’s staggering how many amazing singles she had in her too-short career: “One In a Million,” “If Your Girl Only Knew,” “We Need a Resolution,” an amazing cover of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love),” and my all-time favorites “More Than a Woman” and “4-Page Letter.”
For me, Aaliyah represented the future. In this and other ways, she reminds me of Selena. Both women were veteran entertainers who were just about to break into the mainstream when their lives were cut tragically short, at 22 and 23 respectively. They continue to influence artists and develop fan bases across generations and borders. They also seemed to have a lot of self-respect. Both women were sexy, but refused to be degraded or turned into objects. They seemed in control of their sexuality. They knew girls were watching them, and they also knew to save some of themselves from the public eye. Like Janet Jackson before them and Beyoncé after, they made self-possession sexy. Hell, Aaliyah was secretly married to R. Kelly as a teenager and that didn’t stick to her (or him, really). She kept quiet about it. It undoubtedly changed her, but she wasn’t a victim and it wasn’t your business what transpired between them. It didn’t define her. It was never going to. The cover to Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number says it all. Notice which figure is blurry and out of frame and who doesn’t have to take off her shades to look directly at the camera and hold your attention. All that, and she never had to raise her voice. You were one a million, Aaliyah. You still are.
I made a girlfriend a mix CD for Galentine’s Day. This was the reasonable thing to do when said friend made you an awesome batch of vegan Linzer cookies and a homemade card with Burberry hearts. I don’t want to disclose too many of the songs, because I made the mix especially for her. However, here are a few tracks I’m willing to share with ya’ll.
For all the lahhh-vuhhhs.
For promising introductions.
For the soldiers of love.
For those who know the best love is the kind you give yourself.
Do kids still go to book fairs? I hope so. In grade school, I always anticipated them. It was at book fairs that I got some of my favorite titles, including Dyan Sheldon’s Tall, Thin, and Blonde, Sherryl Jordan’s Winter of Fire, and selections from Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series. Well, that and the odd Garfield digest because dammit if that lasagna-eating tabby didn’t garner my affection at an early age. But I’d also grab those biographies and user-friendly historical surveys about Beethoven or alternative rock. Hence why I bring up book fairs for a post on Marissa Meltzer’s Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music–it’s great for the sixth grader who’s just starting to pick up a guitar or headphones and wants some direction toward ladies who rocked when his/her parents were coming of age. If I could assign readings for my Girls Rock Camp music history workshops, I would. Perhaps I’ll tell them to consult their local library or give it a skim on Google Books. Not that I endorse Google as an intermediary.
However, I’m not sure Girl Power will do much for folks who were there or have a deeper understanding of women’s contributions to alternative rock, riot grrrl, Lilith Fair, and pop music in the 1990s. I anticipated how sentences would end before my eyes registered closing punctuation marks. Like, I was there when everyone bought Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. I’ve seen Courtney Love . . . evolve. I wore barrettes and black nail polish and made bedroom wallpaper fashioned from magazine images. I remember when girls pretended to be the Spice Girls at junior high talent shows. I didn’t know about riot grrrl in 1993, but after college and student radio, I think I could teach an undergrad course on it.
This isn’t to dismiss Meltzer’s efforts, as she succinctly outlines the players, the period, and the stakes with user-friendly, assured prose that evinces her success as a music journalist. However, I wasn’t surprised by any of her findings and was frustrated by how little there was for me to latch onto. I do commend Meltzer for attempting not to present the decade as a halcyon era whose promise hasn’t been fulfilled in subsequent generations of female musicians. However, I would have appreciated more context about why this decade is especially significant to the development of women in popular music beyond being the time in which Meltzer, some of her respondents, and her peers experienced and identified with music for the first time. At roughly 140 pages, there’s little room to explore these issues.
I certainly appreciate Meltzer’s acknowledgment that riot grrrl and alternative rock were largely the pursuits of white, middle-class musicians and that these subgenres are often privileged by third wave feminists, who reflect these racial and class identities. I empathize with her surreptitious attitude toward women’s music’s earnestness, its influence on the development of Lilith Fair, and the transphobic practices of some women’s music festivals. However, I don’t think she does a good job presenting counterexamples. Her chapter on girl groups focuses almost exclusively on the Spice Girls, without addressing the group’s racial make-up or discussing black female vocal groups like En Vogue, SWV, TLC, or Destiny’s Child. When she talks about solo artists, she inadvertently constructs a binary between commercially friendly confessional singer-songwriters like Fiona Apple or jailbait bubblegum starlets like Britney Spears. Hip hop reached its peak during the decade and several female emcees were responsible for its success, but folks like Salt-N-Pepa, Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, Da Brat, Foxy Brown, Lady of Rage, and Sistah Souljah get at-best minimal attention. R&B artists like Adina Howard and Aaliyah confronted and challenged cultural assumptions of black female sexuality. Selena’s influence continues to grow. Here’s hoping subsequent editions of the book include them.
This book is a good start, but begs to be dialogued with books like Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. I’d love to get feedback on what seventh grade musicians thinks about how these books represent their musical periods. Better yet, let’s hear how they might be honoring, improving upon, or dispensing with their legacies altogether. I have a hunch Meltzer and Marcus wanna know too.
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.