Where the Ladies at?

The battles and breaks behind the first female hip-hop festival

You are not women in hip hop
You are hip hop.
—local poet Jamie Wynne

 

When Crazy Amy moved to Minneapolis, she arrived on a Greyhound bus carrying everything she owned. She'd gotten her nickname as a teenager back in Milwaukee selling mushrooms, something she's not proud of now. Anything you wanted, she says, she could get for you, "low, fast, and cheap, like 'Crazy Amy's Used Cars.'"

When she wasn't hustling, Amy was skateboarding and rapping. So when she came to Minneapolis, one of the first things she did was check out the local circuit for rap battles—the competitive duels between MCs.

At first, the circle seemed closed. Amy tried to join a cipher—a huddle of improvising rappers—on the street, and they passed the mic right around her. She signed up for a battle, but her name never came up. So she started putting down a male name, "Bobby Sherman"—a "rah-rah-quarterback-that-dates-the-cheerleader name," she says.

Soon she was battling onstage at First Avenue—the only female on the night of September 7, 2003, when this reporter saw her wearing a bandana over her head and a "Wiscompton" T-shirt. She stoically faced down the men by attacking their words rather than their appearances.

The MC born Penny Anne Meyer has since found acceptance on the scene. Last year, after she announced on local hip-hop website DUNation.com that doctors had found a hole in her heart, friends staged two fundraisers to help pay her medical bills. (Rhymesayers stars Slug and I Self Devine stepped up to perform, as did many of the men she's battled.) Amy has since given up rapping while she recovers from surgery. For now, she says she still takes pride in having once bested freestyler extraordinaire Ice-Rod.

But Amy paid for respect in ways most people don't know. During a battle at Fifth Element, one guy took a punch at her (he was ejected from the store). At an event in Stevens Square Park, Amy was paired with a tall rapper who loudly complained, "I ain't rappin' with no bitch." According to Amy, he told her: "I'm from the North Side. I run with motherfuckers with guns. I pimp whores like you."

"I just kind of walked up and said, 'Look, I don't know what your deal is, but stop acting like this, it's bullshit,'" she says. "And so the guy punched me in the face. He messed up my jaw, which is still messed up to this day. My face opened and blood kept spurting out like a crazy drinking fountain."

Amy doesn't remember the name of her attacker. "I try to forget the bad things that I can't really do anything about," she says. But the incident illustrates the hard edge of a broader stupidity: the producer who withholds services from a female rapper unless payment is made with sex, the male graffiti writer who spreads rumors about the girl who spent all night spray-painting with the boys, even a well-meaning parent who warns a daughter of the physical risks of breakdancing.

Hip hop—now a vast global subculture and industry—is first and foremost meant to be fun. Which is the idea behind this weekend's third annual B-Girl Be festival at Intermedia Arts, an event created to reverse the poisonous effect of guys not playing fair. Truly, only a pimp could be alienated by a bunch of women putting on a four-day concert/workshop series with national names in rap, dance, graffiti art, and DJ scratching. (The events start Thursday; see A-List, p. 39, for more information.)

Still, men who would otherwise enjoy the weekend have stayed away, skeptical of what may seem like tokenism. "My guy friends are like, 'When's B-Boy Be?'" says young St. Paul rapper and singer Maria Isa. "I'm like, 'Man, B-Boy Be's every day.'"

The problem might be that men don't see a problem: The struggles that women talk about among themselves are a story hidden in plain view. But if females have the humor to admit, as feminist Joan Morgan writes, "that part of the reason women love hip-hop—as sexist as it is—is 'cuz all that in-yo'-face testosterone makes our nipples hard," men can concede that when it comes to the experience of women in hip hop, they don't know dick.

The story of women in local hip hop is actually many stories worth telling, and too many to tell here. It may seem silly to lump 25 years' worth of artists into one article simply because they're female. But then notice how few of them have been heard before, and how their stories harmonize. One reason you don't know most of these accounts is that women vanish from the hip-hop scene more quickly than their male counterparts.

"We tend to fall in relationships, have kids, make sacrifices," says Minneapolis rapper Protégée (Nicole White), an accountant and former b-girl (or breakdancer) who has returned to hip hop in recent years, working recently with Bernadette Cooper of the '80s band Klymaxx. Protégée attended business school for a while, setting aside her vocal calling until she found herself rhyming term papers. "As a guy, you tend to move more freely," she says. "When I was growing up, people would tell me it was unladylike to whistle, so you can imagine what it was like for rapping."

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