Say “women in hip-hop” and the conversation is quickly reduced to what is widely known as the genre’s “woman problem.” In the edited collection, Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology, co-editor and filmmaker Rachel Raimist writes, “Many of hip-hop’s ‘women problems” come in the monolithic and repetitious representation of hip-hop as simply a sexist male rapper surrounded by an entourage of nameless and faceless gyrating bodies in video after video.”
Issues of representations, as expressed by Raimist are at the heart of Say My Name (Women Make Movies) , the Nirit Peled documentary about women and hip-hop.
The film’s opening montage features a cascade of women’s voices, highlighting the lack of available space—sonic and otherwise—allotted to women within the genre. The lives, desires, and struggles of women are literally obliterated in the resulting cacophony as the montage serves as a metaphor for hip-hop’s relationship with women. Raimist cautions that “We must resist and counter the limited views of women in hip-hop… there are many agents of hip-hop and it is the sum of all of our parts to make this a living, breathing, and active culture.”
This limited view of women in hip-hop dates back to the culture’s origins in the Bronx, more than 35 years ago. While much of the culture’s early mythology was driven by larger than life male figures like Kool Herc (Clive Campbell), Afrika Baambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, there were always women involved, even if, for some, only at the level of mimicking performances with hair brushes in front of the mirror as female rap veteran Monie Love recalls in the film.
By the early 1980s, there were several visible women rappers including the group Sequence, Sha-Rock (a founding member of the Funky Four Plus One) and Sparky D, though these women were largely on the periphery of mainstream perceptions of rap music and largely treated as little more than novelties within the industry. Accordingly it was a novelty track—a “diss” song—by 14-year-old Lolita Shante Gooden that proved the first significant breakthrough for female rappers. “Roxanne’s Revenge,” by Roxanne Shante (Gooden), was a response to UTFO’s popular “Roxanne, Roxanne” and instigated a string of response records.
In the film, Roxanne Shante recalls popular DJ and producer Marley Marl reaching out to her to record the track and having to tell him that she had to do it quickly, so that she could get back to her laundry chores.
It’s a humorous moment in the film, but one that gets at the heart of many of the struggles that women rappers face, trying to balance the demands of the industry and the domestic expectations that society places on them. Roxanne Shante, for example, was a teen-age mother at the height of her popularity in the late 1980s. In this regard, hip-hop is reflection the challenges that many women face in the workforce. The sad irony is that these tensions are ripe for exploration as lyrical content, though few, if any, mainstream female rappers have been able to mine this subject matter with any success.
There was a relative critical mass of female rappers in the late 1980s including MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa, and Monie Love. When Queen Latifah and Monie Love collaborated on the popular “Ladies First” and joined forces as the Native Tongues with The Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest on “Buddy” expectations were high for female rappers.
Unfortunately when hip-hop became the business of “big business” in the early 1990s, the range of images and voices within hip-hop became limited. For female rappers (as well as male rappers) that meant much less focus on their technical skill and more of a focus on the “package.” In this environment, it became a struggle to maintain commercial viability for many female rappers. As MC Lyte notes in Say My Name, “female MCs’s names have always been larger than their record sales.”
In the film, Rah Digga laments that “everybody in the world that I meet, calls me their favorite female MC, but I haven’t been able to drop an album since 2000.” Indeed, at the beginning of the 21st century the so-called video-vixens far outnumbered female rappers in mainstream hip-hop culture. When commentators and activists began to police hip-hop culture on the basis of its sexism and misogyny, women rappers were ironically left out of the fray, excepting the vitriol directed at Lil Kim.
Say My Name offers one of the few opportunities for female rappers to weigh in on this particular aspect of the culture. Erykah Badu, for example complains in the film, “I really get tired of people shaking their ass on camera.” Remy Ma takes a contrarian view: “I’d rather see a girl at the end of a video shoot at the trailer [waiting for] her check, than to see her butt-ass naked in strip club counting singles.” The debate aside, one of the strengths of Say My Name is that it does not foreclose views that cut against the film’s more progressive aims.
Of the more compelling stories throughout Say My Name are those of Detroit based rapper Miz Korona and one-time MTV sensation Mystic. Miz Korona recounts being beat down by a male member of her hip-hop crew as she began to generate more attention among local industry types. She was 15 at the time. In the case of Mystic, she recalls using rap to record a track about raped in high school. It was only after recording the track that Mystic finally discussed the attack with her mother—years after the fact.
According to Mystic, she had a responsibility to tell that story in an effort to show many of hip-hop’s female fans that they have the strength to persevere. As Jean Grae suggest during Say My Name’s closing montage, “The most beautiful music comes from pain and struggles.” Too bad mainstream commercial culture has chosen to ignore much of this music for so long.
Mark Anthony Neal is a Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African & African-American Studies at Duke University. An author of several books including the recent New Black Man, Neal is a regular contributor to The Root.com and SeeingBlack.com.