I’m a feminist. I listen to hip-hop. I am not a hip-hop feminist. I don’t know what a hip-hop feminist is, but I gather the term is used to talk about women who are part of the so-called hip-hop generations, meaning women who grew up around the time hip-hop grew up and became a dominant musical form and/or women who listen to hip-hop but cringe every time they hear bitch/ho or the Ying Yang Twins. I also gather that it refers generally to young women of color.
I could be mistaken, but the word originated on the book jacket of Joan Morgan’s, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down. It’s been a good while since I read the book but the Bronx bred journalist and cultural critic explores how female hip-hop fans feel torn between self-respect and “Salt Shaker” (I’m paraphrasing.) While she touched a nerve then and still does now I never understood why so many women embraced this term. To me it was just a concise catch phrase intended to spark interest and sales not a transformative socio-political movement. A book subheading does not a movement make.
A few years ago I headed out to Chicago to participate in the what was billed as the first Feminism and Hip-Hop conference. It was a well organized conference with an impressive roster of panelists (including then Spelman College student activist Moya Bailey, video model Melyssa Ford, the aforementioned Joan Morgan, Byron Hurt, Kim Osorio, Tricia Rose and even Jesse Terrero who, by emphasizing his work with artists like Jill Scott, went over extraordinarly well with predominantly female activist crowd.). My talk was titled “Grammatics that are masculine,” (taken from Common) and I explored the various ways hip-hop media reinforces a male dominated hip-hop industry. Let’s take one small illustrative example from XXL. The prominent “Eye Candy” section makes it read like a men’s magazine (e.g. Maxim). What if XXL or any hip hop magazine more resembled Essence than Maxim? How would it be as a man to read a magazine about hip hop culture that was packaged with a different gender of reader in mind? How would it be as a woman? If you were a ten-year-old boy obsessed with rhyming, would it make you more or less inclined? What if you were a ten-year-old girl?
But I’m not primarily concerned with criticizing hip-hop, nor was the conference. As I see it, the most feminist action is engaging in the culture as an active participant or consumer. One example is legendary b-girl Rokafella who rocked out at the Feminism and Hip-Hop Conference closing by ceding the linoleum to up-and-coming b-girls, spurring them on, and challenging them to be better. And that was no ruse, she’s been offering free breaking lessons at various locations in NYC for a good while. Toni Blackman is another example in that she teaches young women how to rhyme and provides developing female rappers a space to cipher. For women who don’t see themselves behind the microphone or on stage, you can still speak with your attention span and your purse. When confronted with Webbie-type ignorance, don’t just retreat to Amel Larrieux’s discography—search out and support other voices in hip hop.