Hip Hop's Lone Ladies Call for Backup

The B-Girl Be Summit preaches strength in numbers

Julianne Shepherd

published: June 01, 2005

Remy Martin. Lil' Kim. Shawnna. Aside from being three of the only female MCs corporate radio played in the past year, they have something else in common, and it's not just a penchant for bustiers: They currently are, or have once been, the sole woman in a crew full of dudes.

The "lone lady in the crew" is a rule that holds true with both mainstream rappers and local b-girls and graffiti artists, and it's been an issue since the beginning of hip hop--from the Zulu Nation's Wanda Dee, the first female hip-hop DJ ever, to MC Sha-Rock of the Funky Four Plus One and graffiti writer Lady Pink. If there only seems to be one space for a lady, women can wind up pitted against each other in ways they might not if they were collaborating. "Growing up in hip hop, the values that I learned were about healthy competition; you get in a circle and freestyle and dance and battle, but in many spaces I've definitely seen it escalate and get borderline violent," says Rachel Raimist, a hip-hop filmmaker/organizer/educator and feminist studies Ph.D at the University of Minnesota. "There's something about taking out that competitive 'there's only one' idea; in terms of the mainstream, it's been this competitive space where there's only room for one girl...and we're proving that's not the case."

Raimist has devoted much of her energy to women in hip hop. In 1999, she made an acclaimed documentary, Nobody Knows My Name, about the anonymity and challenges hip-hop ladies face, but thus far, her broadest effort is the B-Girl Be Summit, held at Intermedia Arts from June 2 through 5. B-Girl Be's subtitle is "A Celebration of Women in Hip-Hop," and the summit includes performances, panels, film screenings, live mural painting, and open mics with hip-hop women both local and national.

B-Girl Be has been two years in the making, and it started, partly, with an academic paper. "It was my pipe dream," says Raimist. "I took this course at the university about activism, and my final paper was a 20-page outline for this 'Women in Hip Hop' space, with panels and theater, basically what we're doing now--I got an A; a number of months later, we had a meeting about it; the community came together and people were so passionate about it. So I took the theoretical framework and citation out and mapped it out and we started meeting every Monday night for three hours."

B-Girl Be also had roots in the Encyclopedia of Hip-Hop Evolution, an all-female performance series hosted by local spoken-word artist Desdamona at Intermedia Arts. "It's been one of the most popular events," says Theresa Sweetland, IA's education and community programs manager, "because women in the Twin Cities aren't seen in venues performing together. B-Girl is meant to bring women together to celebrate, and I think all of us here want to collaborate."

If it sounds a little utopian, it is: Uniting and empowering women in hip hop, and encouraging them to collaborate, is certainly the shiny, happy side of a coin where the other option is the mainstream's violence and naked, gyrating women as props. However, if there was ever a ripe time in history for an event like B-Girl Be to occur, it's now. Over the past year, the hip-hop feminist movement has congealed somewhat magically. About a year ago, Spelman College initiated a boycott of Nelly for his graphic, misogynistic video for the song "Tip Drill"; subsequently, the Ying Yang Twins were barred from performing at Florida Atlantic University for their women-degrading lyrics. Essence magazine launched a "Take Back the Music" campaign, printing a series of articles addressing "hip-hop's outlook on black women's sexuality." And recently, the University of Chicago hosted a Feminism and Hip-Hop Conference, which brought together activists, academics, and critics for three days of panels on the mistreatment and degradation of women in hip hop. To some, these events and activities look like signposts that the ladies are getting organized: It's too soon to call it, but the signs are there for a critical mass of hip-hop feminism, which could, ideally, change the way women--especially women of color--are viewed in the hip-hop mainstream.

Raimist thinks the internet and blogs have helped usher along the national discussion of hip-hop feminism. "I could date it back to black feminists saying, 'We're sick and tired of being sick and tired,'" she explains. "We're tired. I've visited so many cities and met so many pockets of women leading the communities, and everyone was so isolated from each other. But with the internet and blogging, people are connecting. Pimp and stripper culture has always had a place in hip hop, but it was just a place, it wasn't morning, noon, and night, bombarded with all of these images that are questionable for young women. It's gotten to a point where everyone's just tired. We're just oversaturated with too much of the same. And a lot of women are getting educated."

One of B-Girl Be's strong points is that it's built on a multi-tiered, well thought-out platform. It includes theory, education, and analysis--for instance, panels on Women in Hip-Hop Scholarship and analysis of Women in Hip-Hop Media--but achieves its goal of ground-level, cross-generational outreach and community-building by showcasing the active culture of hip hop. The summit will also host interactive events and local and national hip-hop legendaries, i.e. graffiti artist Lady Pink, b-girl Asia One, MC Psalm One, DJ Kuttin Kandi, ex-Source editor Miranda Jane, and longtime hip-hop photographer Martha Cooper. Says Cooper, "It's refreshing to see women taking control of their own lives in response and fighting back in words and actions, [though] it's important to realize that many, if not most, women were drawn into hip hop through male friends and there are plenty of 'good guys' who have supported and taught them along the way," she explains. "My experience with these conferences is limited, but I believe that there is strength in numbers and that it is helpful for women to combine forces, air their grievances, and speak to each other about how they have dealt with discrimination against women in hip hop. At our We B*Girlz battle in Brooklyn, the audience was predominantly girls and women, many of whom were seeing b-girls dance for the first time. This is empowering, especially for younger girls. We are hoping our book [We B*Girlz] will present the b-girl as a strong role model, one very different from Barbie."

Because there's a dearth of nonsexualized women in mainstream hip hop, and women in the underground have to fight for visibility, many believe that to be "hip-hop" and "feminist" is contradictory. In her keynote speech, ex-Minneapolitan Gwendolyn D. Pough hopes to dispel that notion. "A whole lot of people have been lamenting that 'I love feminism' and 'I love hip hop' can't coexist; I want to move us past that," she says. Pough, who now teaches feminist studies at Syracuse University and wrote the book Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture and the Public Sphere, says the community building aspect of B-Girl Be is of great importance, especially in destroying the "lone woman in the crew" idea. "It's a chance for women to see that you can build with women, and we can validate one another and don't need to wait for some male crew to validate you. I was just thinking about being 16 and being the only girl in the basement with a bunch of guys, and getting on the mic, saying your rhymes. One experience, I said this rhyme about a guy trying to kick it to me, and my DJ felt like I was dissing him and he did a little battle rap about my rhyme afterwards. It's feeling like you're the only girl and trying to hold your own. When I look at women [in hip hop] today, I have so much admiration."

Also in this issue: Making the Perfect Woman: Mali Kouanchao critiques new media with old images by Molly Priesmeyer