Where the Ladies at?

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

Longtime breakdancers embraced and schooled Seoul, and though she's moving to Las Vegas soon, she says she'll miss this crowd. "A lot of people may not accept me for one, my race, and for two, my sexual orientation," she says—Seoul is proudly bi. "It doesn't really matter in the end. When people see you in that circle, flat out, they forget about everything else."

In Seoul's wake, the number of local female breakdancers has multiplied. It helps that some of her b-boy mentors conduct classes at academies such as Zenon. This weekend, you'll likely spot more than a few beginning b-girls in the crowd, alongside krumpers and other rump shakers. What dance experts want to pass along to kids is a sense of history. "A lot of girls don't know anything before 2000," says choreographer Amy Sackett (Suga Mama of the Rhythm QueenZ). "When I say 'popping,' they think I mean booty-popping."

T he revival of b-girling is only one of the streams that fed the creation of B-Girl Be in the first place. Another was the female audience coaxed by the Rhymesayers.

"I tell everybody that all these women are moving to the Twin Cities now because of Slug," says Indigo, one of many to make the transition from fan to performer. "Because everybody thinks he's rapping to them." (Or as L.A. MC Pigeon John quipped on a track last year: "Underground hip hop equals no women/Except for a Slug show.")

A third—and more serious—influence is the spoken-word scene, which has nurtured such voices as Shá Cage, Dessa, Isis, Sarah White, Madame Mimi, and Tish Jones. Arriving from the small town of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in the late '90s, Desdamona experimented first in performance poetry. She has since seen the community mushroom to the point where two slam teams from the Twin Cities will compete in August's National Poetry Slam, and seven or eight regular open mics dot the club scene. But her first love was always hip hop.

"The only reason I started doing spoken word was I didn't have a DJ," says Desdamona, who chose her name after the wife of Shakespeare's tragic hero Othello, another muted female voice. "I had kind of tried to get into hip hop, but people were still like, 'You're a girl.' They would just look at me and walk away."

Desdamona still meets female fans on the road who rap, but do so at home, just for fun. "These girls are getting labeled groupies, but they're not," she says. "They actually work in the art form, just nobody knows it."

For these would-be stars, and as a challenge to herself, Desdamona began booking an occasional all-female version of her monthly hip-hop event at Intermedia Arts. In 2004, gallery programs manager Theresa Sweetland approached her with the idea of blowing the night up into a festival. They reached out to local hip-hop documentary director Rachel Raimist, who by coincidence had just written a term paper for a U of M class outlining a "hip-hop feminist multimedia event," and began recruiting experts.

There had been festivals elsewhere devoted to women and hip hop, Raimist says, but none that combined all the culture's elements. And so the inaugural 2005 "summit" was probably the first of its kind, with the giddy energy of an event discovering itself. (Maria Isa compares it to Disneyland.)

One of the largest aerosol murals ever painted by women went up over Intermedia's baby-blue cement-block exterior, as heated discussions indoors spilled outside to celebrations. Desdamona did her second gig with celebrated male battle rapper Carnage beatboxing beside her—which seemed fitting. There are no battles at B-Girl Be unless performers initiate them, with the reasoning that girls have been fighting for attention long enough.

"All the dudes, they're not alone," says Desdamona. "They're in cliques and crews and got their boys and stuff. So how does somebody exist in that world alone, as the only girl in a crew?"

"The reason for the festival is to create a space where women can build their skills without all that sexist crap," she continues. If success puts the fest out of business, Desdamona will be happy. "Someday," she says, "I hope that there's no need for B-Girl Be."

The above version of this story reflects corrected text.

Our cover story on B-Girl Be misattributed an off-color remark to choreographer Amy Sackett, a.k.a. Suga Mama of the Rhythm QueenZ. In fact, the banter came from another b-girl present at the same photo shoot. At no time did Sackett--a veteran dancer, teacher, and scene supporter--make any sexual joke or gesture. City Pages regrets the error.

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