In the academic classroom, across disciplines, I use Hip Hop to talk about all kinds of issues from poverty to power to portrayals of women. In my fitness classes I use Hip Hop to inspire movement including two of my favorite Hip Hop yoga tracks: "Yoga Mat" by Stic Man and anything by MC Yogi. Hip Hop was what inspired me to dance outside the fitness box when I combined it with belly dancing.
But Be Steady's performance reminds me how important it is to promote women in Hip Hop by sharing knowledge of artists who don't get noticed in the narrow halls of mainstream Hip Hop. A recent interview with a graduate student working on a Master's thesis about women in Hip Hop rekindled my desire to share a few artists and observations about women and Hip Hop. But first things first...
Whenever I teach about Hip Hop, students often argue adamantly that Nicki Minaj is an "empowered" female rapper, and she is often the only example, besides Beyoncé and Rihanna, students can cite. I am not here to argue that Minaj is or is not empowered (especially since empowered can mean many different things); instead, I want to use her as an example of the problems with mainstream American culture and Hip Hop culture. It is no secret that the few women who have found marginal success are conventionally attractive and often use sex to sell themselves and their work (like American culture demands as much as Hip Hop does). My students overwhelmingly cite Nicki Minaj as "proof" that women can succeed in Hip Hop. Many of my students find her to be "strong" or "successful" or "powerful."
Even in a song like "Monster" (Kanye West featuring Jay-Z, Bon Iver, and Rick Ross as well as Minaj), a song that is blatantly misogynistic and highly disturbing, she is seen as holding her own and being empowered. I even had a student post a video on a social media site with only the verse that Minaj contributes and with a very long analysis of the empowering lyrics supported by the image of Minaj's split personalities. When I asked her to contextualize her analysis within the song as a whole, she declined because she didn't think that the bigger context (a video where the only other women are dead, hanging from meat hooks and being dragged around or used sexually) really mattered because of how "empowered" Minaj was in this one part of the song. Later, when her mother asked her not to post such disturbing things because grandma might see, the student removed her post.
Women who want to achieve mainstream success also have to fit stereotypes and so sexual confidence can be exploited just as much as sexual exploitation. For instance, when Nicki Minaj adds her voice to songs by popular male artists, many women see this as positive. They see her as empowered, as playing the game with the big boys, as holding her own. But this empowerment is all in a context where she has to play their game to find a place for herself. For instance, as I was writing this I came across an article where a quote, "I have bigger balls than the boys" is featured in the headline. If the headline doesn't say it all, then the tagline does: "She has a body like Marilyn and a mouth like Eminem. No wonder Nicki Minaj is the hottest female rapper in the world." No matter how big her balls, she will only ever be a female rapper.
Female artists who play this game gain success. Those who don't will stay at the margins or will achieve success only in limited and limiting ways. So, maybe it is actually a positive that women don't gain mainstream success. Maybe this means that female artists aren't willing to play a game that makes them a victim, a margin, a window dressing, a receptacle. Because Hip Hop is a powerful and empowering art form, because it is a form of social and cultural criticism, because it gives voice to the voiceless, maybe mainstream success is not what female rappers should waste their time trying to achieve. Women rappers are already challenging mainstream conventions by their mere existence; their messages do so even more. Women with a voice, women of color with a voice, are a real threat to mainstream America. So, I share these examples because they shatter mainstream perceptions of women in Hip Hop.
A student in my classes introduced me to Angel Haze. Her covers of "Same Love" and "Cleaning Out My Closet" take two popular and iconic songs and twist these songs to meet her experience as a black, pansexual female artist. Certainly the mainstream success of "Same Love" has exposed many people to Angel Haze since someone who is searching for Macklemore's song will inevitably find Angel Haze's version. This provides opportunities to educate--in and out of the classroom. When I show students Angel Haze's version of "Same Love," most remark that it is more real, more meaningful then the original. But, the original exploded Macklemore's career for a variety of reasons that speak to the politics of the mainstream. He is white and not gay, so the song is safer and can have "anthem" status. When Angel Haze adds her story to his message, she is exposing the limitations of the mainstream. Her identity, sexuality, and experiences with oppression are in the forefront, amplified with her talent for words.
Mainstream America is not ready for Angel Haze, and yet she recently recorded the theme song for the film 22 Jump Street. Another contradiction--this recording features Ludacris, lending it mainstream validity. In this song, she is singing for most of the song, and when she does rap she is rapping about the film's characters. She isn't seen anywhere in the videos I found for the song and no one listening would guess that she was anything but a "lesser" Nicki Manaj. So, again, mainstream success is limited. But it might be a start!
This picture of Invincible is a powerful statement about women in Hip Hop as well as queer women. When I first saw this picture, it brought tears to my eyes. I bought Invincible's Shapeshifters album, a title that is exactly in line with my passions for flexibility, interdisciplinarity, and transformation. "Shapeshifters" and "Sledgehammer" are my two favorite tracks and I use them in academic and fitness spaces often. Invincible opens "Shapeshifter" with: "Music's not a mirror that reflects reality/ it's a hammer/with which we shape it." Taking this popular revolutionary phrase and adapting it to her purpose speaks to the power we have to shape culture if not also reality.
Her politics are clear through her lyrics, but more so through her community activism and the larger picture of the projects in which she collaborates. A co-founder of Emergence Media, she produces her own music as well as videos about topics like women in Hip Hop and gentrification in Detroit. She's also involved with Detroit Summer, "a multi-racial, inter-generational collective in Detroit that is transforming communities through youth facilitative leadership, creativity and collective action" and other such social justice work. Her music plus her activism only strengthens the hammer.
I don't remember how I came across Eekwol, an indigenous artist whose songs speak to experiences of colonization, violence, and freedom. Her songs "Too Sick" and "I Will Not Be Conquered" provide perspectives that "represent the truth." As her ReverbNation profile notes, "she holds a lifelong background of Plains Cree Indigenous music and culture, and invites the audience into a space of experimental hip hop unique to her land and place while respecting the origins of hip hop." Eekwol's work raises consciousness and connects communities.
She also speaks to the roles of women in mainstream Hip Hop in this interview/video that was created as a part of a seminar/presentation and a teaching tool for use in high schools. In educational settings, these artists can be used to make connections to our communities as much as they can be used to raise individual students' consciousness. Artists like Eekwol and Invincible combine art and politics in powerful ways.
Which leads me full circle to Be Steady, an artist I discovered via Words Beats & Life. I started watching her videos and songs and fell in love with her. I didn't really imagine that I would be able to bring her to UMA to perform. I was almost surprised when I booked her so easily. At first she seemed shy and humble, so when she started singing, and her voice filled our little event room, I was speechless. The first few minutes of her performance and her first song "Worthy," hooked the audience. (Fast forward a couple of minutes through my awkward intro and movement of the camera!) I often play this haunting song over and over.
From there, the performance unfolded with songs combined with commentary about her music--the art and the subject matter. She fielded questions from the audience and wove her answers into her performance. She addressed everything I hoped she would address--including questions of identity and sexuality. (Click here for part two of Be's performance). My students were so energized by her visit and shared her music with other students and through social media. Be Steadwell was an amazing performer, but because she was a down-to-earth person, her work reached students even more. Will she gain mainstream success writing songs about her love for girls? Probably not. Will her fans continue to love her music? Will she continue to evolve as an artist, to connect communities, and inspire people? Outside the mainstream, such growth and transformation are possible.
Hip Hop cannot be contained by the mainstream as much as mainstream representations limit what people know about Hip Hop. Our heroes circulate in different spaces. None of these women have messages that mesh with mainstream American expectations let alone the narrow confines of women and Hip Hop. But they are changing Hip Hop as much as their work is transforming minds and lives. All we have to do is listen... and pass it on.