Written by: Morgan Franklin
“Instinct leads me to another flow
Every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or hoe
Trying to make a sister feel low
You know all of that’s got to go”
-Queen Latifah, U.N.I.T.Y.
This week Professor Harris-Perry’s “Hip Hop and Feminism” course centered around the question, “What difference does it make when women make the music?” As the topic of problematic messaging concerning women has been discussed often in previous classes, this examination of the work of female MCs was particularly critical in our understanding.
Specific questions that we were prompted to think about were:
Does it matter that women create music?
What are the tangible differences between the music created by women compared to that of men?
Are there barriers that prevent women from being as expressive as their male counterparts?
As Prof. opened her lecture, she asked us to think about an institution with which we would all be accustomed to seeing in a political science class: the U.S. House of Representatives. We were asked, “Why does it matter to have women in office and is the lack of women in office a crisis?”
On the one hand is the case for descriptive representation, in which it matters to have women’s bodies in office. This argument deals with the value of creating new heuristics that expand the schematic reference pool, including different voices and having individuals with experiential knowledge concerning what it is like to walk around in the world with a particular background.
On the other hand is the case for policy representation which concerns whether having women in office leads to different policy outcomes than having a monolithic body composed solely of men. This is, of course, a slippery slope, in that it leads to questions such as, “What are ‘women’s issues’?”
Following this train of thought, Prof. transitioned the class into applying our discussion of women’s representation in Congress to that of women’s representation in hip hop. Does it matter to have women on the mic?
In terms of substantive arguments, there are similar concerns in descriptive versus lyrical/musical realities. In the descriptive vein, the query is whether it matters to see people like you make the music you love. In relation to lyrical/musical outcomes, one wonders if the music is different when women are its creators.
Again, crucial questions such as “Which women?” and “What difference does it make?” came to the forefront of our discussion. We watched videos by female MCs and dissected each one to question the ways that they differed from those we knew by male artists.
In Salt-N-Pepa’s “Tramp,” with lyrics like, “I know a guy like that girl, he thinks he’s God’s gift to the world,” we saw an example of a message that wouldn’t be offered by a male artist, told from a woman’s perspective. In Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y” we witness her exercising her right to dress in whichever way she sees fit and rejecting male ownership of her body with the lyrics, “I had my cutoff shorts on right cause it was crazy hot” and “Don’t you be calling me out my name. I bring wrath to those who disrespect me like a dame.”
Who could forget MC Lyte’s “RuffNeck” in which she expresses female sexual desire unabashedly, or Missy Elliot’s “The Rain” in which she asserts that she’s “Supa dupa fly” without waiting for a man to dictate her worth.
Or even Lil Kim, Eve, and Nicki Minaj, who in their tracks “Queen Bitch”, “Satisfaction” and “I’m the Best,” respectively, all make claims for game domination, rejecting the objectification often afforded to women within the genre. As Minaj has stated, “ When I am assertive, I’m a bitch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss… Is that wrong? Wanting more for myself? Wanting people to treat me with respect?” In all of these examples we see women actively pushing the envelope and rejecting traditional and one-dimensional stereotypes.
Following the lecture we received a real treat when Melissa Weber, better known as DJ Soul Sister, came to engage all of us in a conversation about the way that hip hop music has evolved and how women DJs fit into the mix.
What was truly impressive about her responses to various student questions was the depth of her knowledge about her craft and the music she spins. She clarified for us that DJs were actually the focal point of hip hop, and MCs were there to support the DJs. Additionally, she reminded us that when hip hop started in 1973, it was really party music. That apparently didn’t change until 1982 with “The Message,” which was co-written by Sylvia Robinson (called the mother of hip hop and the head of Sugar Hill Records).
As a young black woman growing up in New Orleans, the first female DJ she ever saw was Spinderella (of Salt-n-Pepa). With no one to mentor her, she had to teach herself how to spin and developed a passion for soul filled music. She promotes the enjoyment of music and asserts that women should feel free to have fun if they’d like.
Early in her comparison of elected officials to artists, Professor Harris-Perry asked if we would trade, for example, a conservative woman for a liberal man in order to achieve favorable differences in policy. In comparison, she then asked if we would trade a song by a female MC that appears to have disparaging lyrics for a song by a male artist that idolizes his mother.
Though one might be tempted to make such a bargain in order to decrease the amount of unfavorable lyrics, our analysis in class today would give me definite pause. As Queen Latifah stated in U.N.I.T.Y., “Instinct leads me to another flow.”
Just as a male artist can have an album with lyrics that take him from saint to sinner and everywhere in between, it matters to have women in the game who express the nuances of womanhood. Are their lyrics occasionally problematic? Sure. Is it still incredibly valuable to resist the silencing of female MCs and push for safe spaces in which they can express themselves fully? Absolutely.