In an effort to tend to a Criterion backlog in my Netflix Instant queue, I watched Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank last night. I remember being intrigued when I caught the preview during a screening of An Education (which would pair well thematically). I was also more than a little nervous that the movie would take working-class girlhood less as a subject of exploration and instead as grounds for moral panic.
What transpires in Arnold’s 2009 feature is something altogether more disconcerting. It’s an unsettling film about Mia (Katie Jarvis), a fifteen-year-old girl who lives on an Essex council estate with her young mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and kid sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Joanne, who was probably close to her eldest daughter’s age when she had her, is perpetually drunk and between boyfriends. Mia’s contentious relationship with Tyler is probably the closest thing she has resembling a homosocial friendship. Beyond her connection to local boy Billy (Harry Treadway), Mia doesn’t seem to have friends. Her mom’s new beau Connor (Michael Fassbender) reeks of dishonorable intention.
Mia’s creative outlet is dancing. But this is a solitary activity. She has aspirations to be a b-girl, yet there’s no one with whom to battle or practice. The film is bookended by scenes where Mia attempts to engage with girl dancers in her peer group. All of them are more interested in gyrating like a video vixen instead of popping, locking, and spinning. At the beginning of the film, she admonishes some neighborhood girls for their jiggly routines. Mia spends much of the movie preparing to audition for a local club. When the tryouts finally happen, she’s horrified to discover that the staff is looking for exotic dancers. Two judges preside over the audition. In an interesting twist, it’s the female judge who requests that Mia wear her hair down and asks why she isn’t wearing hot pants. Perhaps recalling an unfortunate set of events with her mother’s boyfriend, Mia walks out of the audition and ultimately leaves home.
Mia’s inability to find a female dance partner or a community who takes any interest in her dancing recalls b-girl Asia One’s frustrations in Rachel Raimist’s hip hop documentary Nobody Knows My Name. Asia One is constantly searching for another girl to dance with and a hip hop video production that isn’t holding casting at a strip club, but neither are easy to come by.
Mia’s one-sided love for a genre and dance form is what really resonated with me. It’s hard to love hip hop sometimes when it doesn’t reciprocate. The film’s soundtrack features Wiley, Eric B and Rakim, Nas, and Gang Starr (RIP, Guru), as well as tracks from James Brown, Gregory Isaacs, and prominent use of Bobby Womack’s cover of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin'”. The beats are banging and the grooves are deep, but Mia’s often dancing to them alone.
This is why my favorite scene in the film is at the end. Mia is preparing to leave when she finds her mother in the living room, dancing to her daughter’s Nas CD. Joanne tells her daughter to fuck off, which prompts Mia and Tyler to join in on a dance to “Life’s a Bitch.” It’s a touching scene in a film that’s relentlessly bleak. While the movie knows this tender moment is fleeting, it’s also the only time we see Mia dance with people instead of for them or in isolation. It’s also the rare instance where we see a smile on her face. And while Mia moves away from her mother and sister, she leaves her CDs with them. Perhaps this will lead to future dance parties.
The last weeks of my film blog series for Bitch are upon us. I’m doing two entries this week and another two next week, which I hope is the perfect stocking stuffer. Seriously, aren’t the holidays the best time to watch movies? We kick things off with Nobody Knows My Name, Rachel Raimist‘s pioneer documentary about women in hip hop. If you haven’t seen it, read my post and put it at the top of your wish list.
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.
I recently saw the documentary This Is the Life: How the West Was One, which, as folks like Olu Alemoru have noted, did a huge service to music history by documenting the little-discussed but influencial Good Life scene. Emerging out of an open mic night at a veggie/vegan restaurant called the Good Life in South Central Los Angeles during the late 1980s, the scene came to fruition in the early 1990s, forming outreach programs like Project Blowed and getting lots of talented folks on the mic and behind the wheels of steel in the process.
Heavily influenced by jazz, artists at the Good Life could not swear and priviledged improvisation and complex, imagery-laden rhyme schemes over route memorized rhymes about money, guns, and bitches. Oh, and if you weren’t on point, you got booed. Especially if you were Fat Joe, who was forced to pass the mic.
At times, artists associated with the scene competed with commercial hip hop artists or got signed to major labels (most notably Jurassic 5). Emcees like Volume 10, Ganjah K, and Myka 9 of Freestyle Fellowship saw more successful acts like Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Bones Thugs-n-Harmony swipe their phrasing, content, and style. Sometimes the scene was alluded to in early 90s television shows like Fox’s South Central. For the most part, the scene, which was perhaps more politically in line with the Native Tongues movement, was eclipsed by gangsta rap and the tiresome and deadly East Coast-West Coast beef.
Fortunately, director Ava DuVernay put together an invaluable documentary so that the artists of this scene (many of whom, like Jurassic 5, Cut Chemist, Abstract Rude, Aceyalone, and Myka 9, among others, are still recording today) can tell their own story in their own words (for her story, I highly recommend this interview). Also included are contemporary artists who were influenced by the scene (most notably Busdriver, who is easily one of my favorite rappers recording today).
My only big complaint is that, while there are women in the scene who are interviewed for the documentary, they really only get fifteen minutes to talk about their work and then spend the rest of the time talking about how much they admired — and sometimes had crushes on — many of the male MCs.
But that said, there were women in the scene who made awesome music. I’d like to highlight a few of them now.
Figures of Speech – a duo comprised of Jyant and Eve (Ronda Ross and DuVernay). So breezy and jazzy and also strong, smart, and in command. So rhythmically intricate yet so in sync and so in tune with one another. And also, I’d argue, so clearly feminist. I only wish I knew about them earlier. You can listen to a live recording of “Alpha Omega” here.
Medusa – assuredly familiar to those who’ve seen Rachel Raimist’s Nobody Knows My Name, a wonderful documentary about women in hip hop that looks at emergent MCs, dancers, and producers. Ms. Moné Smith is a warrior — fierce, fearless, not one to mince words or suffer fools. An inspiration who is still recording today.
T. Love – also familiar to those who’ve seen Raimist’s documentary (indeed, her song “Nobody Knows My Name” provided the film’s title). Poised, poetic, and uncompromising. In addition to rapping, she has also does a considerable amount of freelance writing and has run her own label.
B. Hall – there’d be no Good Life without the proprietrix of the Good Life, a veteran activist and city organizer and an advocate for local youth. She’s also the enforcer of the no profanity policy, because wordsmiths shouldn’t have to swear to create art. Someday, I hope she gets a street named after her.