Last week, the public radio show Soundcheck headlined with a story called "Searching for Female Rappers." Host John Schafer interviewed Quentin B. Huff, who wrote an article about the dearth of female MC's (femcees) in the aughts. Huff concludes that "hip hop needs a women's movement."
Schafer also spoke with female rapper/activist La Tehre, who organizes an annual meeting of femcees called Momma's Hip Hop Kitchen, showcasing women artists, especially women of color.
This 30 minute interview is a terrific piece to play for high school girls, and below are my suggestions for a discussion. Before I get there, some background on why I care.
When I was in college, I listened to Queen Latifah's "Black Reign" album until the tape ribbon broke. The song "U.N.IT.Y" was like an anthem: "Instinct leads me to another flow/everytime I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho/trying to make a sister feel low/you know all a that gots to go" (see the rest of the lyrics here. It's worth the click).
Salt n' Pepa took me through high school, with their strong focus on independence and, as Huff notes, "social and personal responsibility, particularly in terms of the consequences involved when people aren't honest and diligent in their dealings with one another ("Chick on the Side," "Let's Talk About Sex," "Heaven & Hell")."
In the 90s, Lauryn Hill's "Miseducation" album burned up my CD player. Known as one of the best MCs of all time, man or woman, she left the spotlight soon after her first album. Today, it's not that femcees aren't out there; it's that they can't make it big unless, says La Tehre, they're willing to conform to industry pressure to become sex objects.
Here are my suggestions for a discussion with girls. If you decide to incorporate my suggestions below for using actual songs and videos, please read the lyrics and watch all videos on your own before showing them to girls. They contain offensive lyrics and imagery and may not be appropriate for your audience.
Play the Soundcheck story (it's a little under 30 minutes) for your girls and start a discussion:
- Why do you think there are so few female rappers making it big? How do you feel about that?
- Are you more likely to see females in a hip-hop scene rapping or dancing? What do you think about that?
- Do the female rappers you are familiar with have anything in common? (Encourage girls to consider if they are conventionally feminine or sexy, for example)
- Do you agree with La Tehre that women can only succeed in the industry if they are willing to look like "Barbie?" Is that true in other entertainment industries? If so, what message does this send about the success and potential of women? Are women really equal to men?
- Ask the girls who their favorite female rappers are. Why do they like them? Are they different than male rappers or pretty much the same?
- Should female rappers be different, or is it unfair to expect more from them? Should they be role models?
Play the song "U.N.I.T.Y" by Queen Latifah and distribute the lyrics. Then - keeping in mind that she can curse a blue streak - play a song by Nicki Minaj, a currently successful female rapper, and look at those lyrics, too (here's her MySpace page for some song choices). Ask girls to reflect on the differences between the Queen's rapping and some of the female rappers they listen to today. You might also want to show girls some photos of each rapper: here's the cover for Black Reign, and here's one of Nicki; discuss the differences in the photos. Alternatively, compare music videos. Here's U.N.I.T.Y and here's a video by Nicki Minaj.
Much has been said recently about the representation of women in hip-hop. A terrific resource here is Byron Hurt's "Beyond Beats and Rhymes," which examines masculinity and manhood in hip-hop. This is a chance to go further and talk about women not just as images, but as agents trying to make it in the industry.