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.
I recently read T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting’s Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women, a book on women and hip hop. Overall, I found it useful and engaging. Until recently, scholarly analysis of hip hop’s gender politics (at least in the books I read) were often relegated to a chapter or two or a section of an anthology. To have an entire book on the subject is welcomed by me.
Engaging and accessible, Pimps Up, Ho’s Down weaves in interviews from both printed publications and field research, as well as the author’s own personal experiences with hip hop. It offers astute observations about well-reported news items like the student protests at Spelman College over Nelly’s degrading “Tip Drill” music video. It also covers less-discussed cultural developments, particularly the rise of African American men participating in sex tourism in places like Brazil, and how music videos like Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful” may have contributed to the country’s sexual allure for many straight men in hip hop.
I’d recommend Sharpley-Whiting’s book to anyone looking for an feminist entrance into hip hop scholarship. I hope it’s on some syllabi for the Feminist Hip Hop Studies courses that I hope exist in our universities. I also hope it’s getting into the hands of our tween and teenage music geek girls. I’ll make sure to assign it when I get the chance to teach classes.
I also look forward to continued reading on the subject. I’ve got Tricia Rose‘s Longing To Tell: Black Women’s Stories of Sexuality and Intimacy and the Gwendolyn D. Pough-edited anthology Home Girls Make Some Noise on the slate. If you’re just getting started, I’d also recommend Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip Hop Feminist Breaks It Down.
That said, I had a few qualms with the book.
1. Sharpley-Whiting’s gets so close to talking about girls, but she never really considers any listeners or cultural producers who aren’t at least college-aged. I would have valued the insights from younger women, as girls listen to hip hop and girls of color are often ignored when scholars construct or consider girlhood. For further inquiry into work on black girlhood, I’d happily refer you to Ann Ducille’s work on black Barbies and Kyra D. Gaunt’s book The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes From Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop. I’d also offer up Jennifer Fuller’s essay on Flavor Of Love, wherein she considers season three’s twin contestants Thing 1 and Thing 2 as rare instances of black girlishness on television. If you have any suggestions, please share in the comments section.
2. I would have appreciated if Sharpley-Whiting had broadened her scope to include more opinions offered from female rappers, as well as dancers, graffiti artists, producers, deejays, on-air personalities, journalists, and other women in the game. I would’ve especially welcomed recollections from both mainstream and independent talent, as both sides of the game are dominated by men.
Oh, and if we could get some queer women like Shunda K and Jwl B, formerly of Yo! Majesty, in on the conversation, so much the better.
As such, she mainly talks to and about participants of the adult entertainment industry, particularly exotic dancers. She also focuses on female rappers like Trina and video star and rap groupie Karrine Steffans, who worked as strippers.
Admittedly, Sharpley-Whiting offers up an interesting and valid point that the strip club has become an eminent cultural space for hip hop, both as a barometer for a single’s success and as a site for industrial networking. She also points out that scholarship and biographies on women of color in the adult entertainment are lacking, either from management or talent. Ihe majority of published work on the subject has been written by white women.
But she doesn’t (or perhaps wasn’t given access) to look elsewhere, which I think potentially skews her findings. Admittedly, there is a clear power imbalance along gender lines in hip hop, complicated further by issues of race, class, sexuality, and age. But some ambiguities are missing here and would be greatly appreciated.
Saturdays aren’t always about going out. Sometimes they’re about mourning the loss of a feminist icon by eating cheesecake and watching episodes of The Golden Girls (R.I.P., Bea Arthur). Sometimes people like to curl up with a book and nest on a Saturday night (I’m one of these people tonight; I’m finally picking up Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and it’s breaking my heart).
If you’re looking for a new book, I recommend The Hip Hop Wars, a new book by Tricia Rose. (FYI, on my list of bad-ass professor ladies I want to be when I grow up, Tricia Rose is up there with my thesis adviser Mary Kearney.)
Rose breaks down contemporary issues in hip hop to contextualize and debunk many essentialist claims made about hip hop. The first five chapters focus on what detractors often purport to be wrong with it (that it causes violence, that it suggests the ghetto is a wasteland, that it hurts black people, that it destroys American values, and that it demeans women). The next five assuage a critique on what defenses people have made for it (questioning what it means when people say hip hop is about keeping it real, that it isn’t responsible for sexism, that some women arebitches and hoes, that hip hop cultural figures don’t want to be role models, and that nobody talks about hip hops positive attributes). The final section seeks to answer some of these questions, pointing to the importance of grssroots activism, the rise of independent hip hop, and progressive figures in the game (specifically mentioning documentarian Raquel Cepeda, and MCs like Lupe Fiasco and Jean Grae, one of my all-time favorites).
(Note: I may be doing a disservice to the blog by skipping out on Jean’s show in ATX tonight, but I kinda need to nest tonight. If you have means to get to the Scoot Inn, though, you should go. She’s amazing live.)
This book really puts hip hop in a larger context and in the present. There’s a lot of discussion of contemporary MCs, which is appreciated, as hip hop scholarship can tend to get stale (i.e., dwelling on the 80s and early 90s, neglecting any female MC unless her name is Lil Kim or Queen Latifah). Rose also does an admirable job of dialoging MCs with one another and framing them within an increasingly conglomate music industry. She also critiques the charity organizations that hip hop figures put together, suggesting that they actually do little to change the hardships of urban poverty in America. Thus, she also pays attention to the American underground and considers why an alternate business model, alongside the increasingly ubiquity of digital media, may help level the extreme wealth promoted and maintained among hip hop’s elite.
And finally, she does something that scholars tend to shy away from doing — providing solutions to some of these problems, endorsing community building, activism, non-profit work, and that trusty word Obama likes to use, volunteerism. She even provides a list of organizations she found out about in her research as a way to get started. So pick up a copy (if from your local library or bookstore, so much the better), and then figure out a way you can get involved. If there’s a local affiliate of the NHHPC in your area, start attending some meetings. And if there isn’t one, start your own chapter.