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 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.