Where the Ladies at?

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

Katana (Tana Suruvadzai), who performs Saturday afternoon at B-Girl Be, similarly returned to rap only as an adult. "My pops told me when I was 15, 'That's not a real job,'" she says. "I never took it seriously. I'd just rap for the homies."

Other women interviewed for this story, two dozen in all, echo that sentiment. B-girls from the '80s remember each other by name, and wonder what ever happened to that girl who could kill it at a talent show. For them, B-Girl Be is the encouragement they never had, and food for the imagination that girls apparently still need.

"The question isn't why do women give it up," says Doomtree rapper Dessa, who picked up the mic after college. "It's why don't they start. Even when I go into grade schools to do the occasional workshop, if the task is, 'Let's make a rap song,' then the boys will start writing verses. And the girls will start writing hooks"—the sung, melodic portion of so much contemporary Top-40 rap.

By contrast, as the women above suggest, there are more women rapping and recording in the Twin Cities than ever, a wave that represents some of the most exciting new voices in local music. Red-haired spoken-word lioness Desdamona, who wrote the poem that gives B-Girl Be its name, sings and raps against the delusions of male supremacy in a striking fusion of poetry and jazzy R&B (more on her later). Maria Isa might be the first talent to flow about Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebrón while combining hip hop and bomba. And Nena Brown, a lyricist from the North Side, turns the language of contemporary street rap back on the kind of guys who would say they "run with motherfuckers with guns." "I was raised in the streets around hustlers and thieves," she raps on one track. "The only difference in me was once a month I would bleed."

When Brown played the first B-Girl Be with her Minneapolis trio, Heat, it opened her eyes to a wider emerging scene. "There's probably a lot of female MCs out there, and we just don't know about them because they don't get to do shows," she says. Brown blames sheer male ego: "A lot of dudes don't want to put you on songs because, me personally, they know I'm going to eat 'em up."

The first Minneapolis woman to get tough on the microphone was Sugar Tee, at least according to Sugar Tee. Back in the early '80s, Terry R. Burks took up that moniker, and wrote a rap that rhymed her stage name with her height, "five-foot-three," in a hard Sugar Hill cadence. She was 13 when she bumped into Travitron (Travis Lee) on the bus. A U of M student from New York, Trav would go on to become the godfather of local hip hop.

"He busted a rhyme, and I said, 'Oh, I know how to do that,'" says Burks now.

Travitron demanded a demonstration, and was impressed enough with Tee's skills to invite her into his TNT Breakout Crew. She debuted at the Inner City Youth League, and eventually cut a rare single with Travitron, "Make Moves." The two later dated, and today, their 20-year-old son is himself a rapper who goes by the name S.O.S. (Same Old Slang).

"Sugar Tee was an icon," remembers Sheryl Jackson, a breakdancer at the time, with her own rap aspirations. "She looked like a cross between Salt from Salt-N-Pepa and Sparkie Dee. And she would just crush people. She spit so tremendously at Powderhorn Park one Fourth of July that I went home, sat down, and I didn't get up from the table for the whole rest of the weekend, just writing."

Nobody battled Burks, and by the time Jackson might have mustered the courage, the older rapper had graduated from North High School and retired from music.

"My father, he didn't really understand rap," says Burks. "He was pushing me to go to college." Today, the former Sugar Tee teaches fourth grade in College Park, Georgia, and still kicks the occasional rhyme for her students.

As a breakdancer, Jackson—known then as Shampel C—would often face off against another b-girl named Latika at Travitron's parties in Coffman Union. "We would hear Wednesday at school that Latika would be battling Shampel at the party that weekend," says B-Girl Be co-founder DeAnna Cummings. "It was usually just those two—they would battle each other because there were no other girls."

But despite support from her half-brothers—members of the pioneering IRM Crew—Jackson found men in the scene reluctant to give women a chance. "Not only did they not believe we could rap, they believed we shouldn't," says Jackson. "We'd rap at Billy Harvelle's party at the Oz, the disco in downtown St. Paul, and if you weren't super well-known, you would never touch that mic."

Other women tried their hand at rapping, including Ms. Key Colo, Playgirl Fle, Lady Ice, and Micee (Alero Ogisi), who performs spoken-word today as Mimz. Recruited from Chicago by way of L.A., Catherine Vernice Glover became the most famous local woman to rap simply by answering Prince's famous call, "Cat! We need you to rap!" on the extended version of 1988's "Alphabet St." Her response was the memorable instruction to "jerk your body like a horny pony would—now run and tell your mama about that!"

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