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."

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!"

But Shampel C deserves credit as the first local woman to record a nationally distributed 12-inch single, 1989's "Posse in E-F-F-E-C-T" (for Jerry Sylvers's Wide Angle Urban label). Produced in the Chicago hip-house style then being pushed by local DJs such as Man-X (Tom Spiegel), a friend of Shampel's, the b-side "G-G-Get on Down" looped a sampled male grunt over electronic beats: "Come on, stop acting like you're scared," she taunted shy b-boys. "You're playing the wall while I'm having a ball/And I don't see no damn chairs."

Shampel C eventually gave in to the mispronunciation "Champaign," now shortened to Pain, and still raps in Sacramento, California. But despite abundant mix-tape play, she remains largely unknown in her hometown.

Other local girls in the '80s tackled other "elements" in the hip-hop quadrathlon: breakdancing and graffiti—though not, apparently, DJ scratching. (Early Twin Cities house music and jungle DJs included Miss Miss, Code Blue, and Bionic. But until recently, few if any female hip-hop DJs beat-matched.)

Graffiti had the advantage of anonymity, and the list of known practitioners is necessarily incomplete: SERIOUS of LBS (Latin Bomb Squad), CREST (from the AKB Crew), SNEK, PHANT (known for tagging with nail polish), ESKIMO (from the West Coast), MS. RED and M13 (names used by future B-Girl Be graf curator Melisa Riviere), RUKUS, SHIVA, POST, and newcomers SHVE and RUST.

These names don't include the first taggers, among them DeAnna Dodd (now DeAnna Cummings) and her foster sister Stephanie Stewart, who had brought back a Cholo writing style from the West Coast after visiting relatives there. One day in 1985, Stephanie, DeAnna, and DeAnna's future husband, Roger Cummings, went to visit a friend at Washburn, and discovered that the high school had just installed shiny new lockers the day before.

"Classes were in session," remembers DeAnna Cummings. "So we decided that each of us was going to tag every single locker in the school in the half-hour before classes got out."

She had scrawled "DEE" with her fat marker down half a hallway when the loudspeaker announced, "There are vandals in the building." Everyone ran, but DeAnna lost a flip-flop on the staircase. She was grabbed one floor down by the hall monitor, none other than future Fitness King Ron Henderson.

Her career in graffiti ended there, after a suspension and some community service. Like other girls, she moved on. But as Cummings tells the story, she's standing in the north Minneapolis aerosol-meets-high-art education center Juxtaposition Arts, which she co-founded in 1995 with Roger Cummings and their Washburn friend and artist, Peyton. With wide brown eyes and a brilliant smile, she points out the graffiti-style sneaker and textile art created by girls and displayed against white walls. One artist, "Asha," has painted a Nike with an anime image of a baby dinosaur emerging from its egg.

Having women as mentors at Juxta has made a difference, says DeAnna Cummings. "We noticed that when we got a female assistant for the class, suddenly more girls came. And they would go to her, too."

Presently, a boy and a girl in their early teens appear at the door. The boy, who wears immaculate white Nikes, has spotted the sneaks and jean jackets through the glass storefront, and asks about the class for painting clothes and shoes. Cummings answers his questions, then turns to the silent girl.

"What about you?" she says. "Are you interested in doing art?"

The girl hesitates, and shrugs shyly. "I do it for fun," she says. "At home."

"Well, we have a lot of girls in the class," says Cummings. Then she tells them about B-Girl Be.

Across town, 26-year-old b-girl Seoul (Stefanie Aasen) is doing a "baby freeze" on a stool in front of Intermedia Arts on Lyndale Avenue South. She balances her muscular body horizontally and facedown, her hands flat on the stool, her legs bent to the blue sky. Her cornrowed head is turned toward the camera as she smiles for a Lavender photo shoot. Some of B-Girl Be's other participants strike curious poses around her, goofing around in front of the building's bright Lady Pink aerosol mural.

Another b-girl stands between Seoul's legs. "This looks really sexual," she says.

Seoul is one of the girls now, but she's used to being one of the guys. When she started breakdancing in the late '90s, trekking nearly every week from Woodbury to First Avenue for the all-ages Sunday Night Dance Parties, most Twin Cities b-girls had disappeared. A tomboyish Korean with adopted white parents, she found her identity in hip hop ("Seoul" is now tattooed on her arm in Korean). She took up the b-boys' obsession, practicing footwork and power moves every day after school in someone's basement.

Like Seoul's b-girl dance partner, the b-boys mostly turn sexual suggestiveness into playful repartee. "I think there's joking sexism," Seoul says of the breakdance scene. "Like in battle, there's a gesture we call the 'cack.' In layman's terms it's"—she mimes holding out a giant cock. "Even girls do that. Or they'll slap it down and do the whole boob shake to the guys. It's just a clever way of saying, 'Come up with something better.'"

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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