A woman’s voice to this game right now is so extremely necessary in order to save it.–MC Lyte, My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women in Hip-Hop
On Monday August 30th, BET premiered My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women in Hip Hop, a documentary that traces the rise of female MCs within hip hop and that strives to challenge the view that hip hop is a “man’s game.” Although the rappers interviewed–for example Medusa, Salt N Pepa, Trina, Eve–all agreed that men are a strong presence in hip hop, they are proof that they are not living in the shadow of male rappers (perhaps in the shadow of Lauryn Hill? Yes? No? Maybe?). The documentary helped bring me back to questions I had about women and hip hop, questions that arose while doing my research on hip hop and representations of urban space.
I come to hip hop not just as a music fan, but as a cultural studies critic. I like hip hop, but I really started paying attention when I saw the connections between the music I was bopping my head to and the stuff I was reading and thinking about. It started with Kanye West, one of my favorite rappers, and his song “My Way Home” (from Late Registration). At the time I was taking a course on African American realist fiction and the City, and thinking through what the idea of home meant for all of the migrants who had come from the South to the North. Chicago weighed heavily on my mind as I drove up from New York City back to Upstate NY one weekend, and listened to Late Registration along the way. The opening sample, from Gil-Scott Heron’s “Home Is Where The Hatred Is,” came on, and I had one of those serendipitous moments researchers dream of: “Chicago is home for Kanye. Chicago is the place where many of these characters live. But is it home for them? Can this city ever be a home?”
My questions led me to revisit my iTunes and my boyfriend’s CDs (we’re both big music fans, and one of the bonuses of moving in together was that our music collections became one big collection) in search of other songs about cities. I started building a playlist for my paper and buying songs like no one’s business. I was drawing connections between the African American fiction I was reading and the songs I was listening to. They both underscored the importance of urban spaces in the development of a post-migration identity–a very urban one at that. And hip hop is an inherently urban genre. However, amidst Kanye and Mos Def, Jay-Z and Gil-Scott Heron, Murs and Ice Cube, I noticed a big, dark, deep hole: where were the female MCs? It had been easy to find plenty of songs about cities by male rappers, but songs by female rappers? Not so much.
After I got over my initial embarrassment that I had gone so long without noticing this lack in my iTunes playlist, I started to search for female MCs rapping about the city. I collected names and songs. I looked up obscure remixes online, and downloaded songs by female rappers I’d never heard of before. (My favorite from that search? “Philly Philly” by Eve. Once I start humming, I can’t get it out of my head.) But there was less of a variety, and they talked about urban space differently. Whereas many male rappers put the grit, the violence, and the dangerous streets of the city front and center in their music, this was not so for the female rappers I looked at. A good example of this is Lauryn Hill’s “Every Ghetto, Every City” where she reminisces about her childhood in Jersey, but says that “every ghetto, every city” brings her back to the streets where she grew up. I used to think that I didn’t have enough of a sample to say what was the tone of female MCs toward urban space; now I wonder if the sample issue had anything to do with the lack of female MCs nowadays.
However, the documentary ends on a positive note: after calling into question whether Nicki Minaj’s popularity is helping or hurting rap (see adurhamtamu’s post on The Crunk Feminist Collective for a more thoughtful look at Nicki Minaj’s performances), we have Glenisha Morgan from The Fembassy, who argues that if you want to listen to female MCs all you have to do is look for them. She provides viewers a long list of female rappers out there, albeit underground: Medusa, Jean Grae, Tiye Phoenix…Maybe my problem wasn’t that I couldn’t find female rappers rapping about cities, but that I was looking in all the wrong places. I am looking forward to checking out these female rappers and seeing what they have to say about their relationship to urban space through their music. Thanks, BET, for caring.
Last month, I braved hail, snow, and just about every kind of plague-like spring weather to hear Karen Tongson’s talk at Cornell about her soon-to-be-released book, Relocations: Emergent Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press’s Sexual Cultures Series). Karen’s project remaps U.S. suburban spaces as brown, immigrant, and queer, thus relocating the foundations of both queer studies and urban studies. While not a part of the “dykeaspora” of color that Karen deftly details, I am in solidarity with the lives she traces and the soundscapes she amplifies more passionately than Lloyd Dobler with his boom box.
After all, Karen and I grew up together in the dusty, palm-tree lined streets of Riverside, California, meeting at Sierra Middle School and plotting our way the hell out of Dodge. . .only to later realize that our mutual plottings were really survivings—and a hell of a lot of fun—and the Riv—with its raincrosses and dry riverbeds, lifted trucks and low riders—would stay with us wherever we went.
Since leaving Ithaca—Karen’s voice still warm in my ears like it used to be when tying up our parent’s pre-call-waiting phone lines—I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the way in which Relocations also reimagines the power of music. For Karen, music can help us know and love who we are more deeply, to enable us to “make do” with what we have been given in a way that liberates rather than incarcerates. Music is not just about “the differences it makes audible” (as Josh Kun writes in Audiotopia) but also, as Karen argues, about the ways in which sound gives us back to ourselves.
For example, a song that is spliced into Karen and I’s mutual musical DNA is “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” by The Smiths, (from 1986’s The Queen is Dead). Its various revolutions—both on turntables and in life choices—have affected us profoundly. In “The Light that Never Goes Out: Butch Intimacies and Sub-Urban Socialibilities in ‘Lesser Los Angeles,’” Karen uses the song as an affective touchstone for the ways in which sound can create “queer sociability, affinity, and intimacy” (355) while providing sonic moments of “self- and mutual-discovery” (360) and mediating relationships of place, power, pleasure, and privilege.
Karen’s ideas have since helped me understand why I used to listen to the song over and over in my lonely yet womb-like suburban bedroom, as if it were revelation and incantation. As I struggled with issues—identity and otherwise—Morrissey’s silken voice had the power to sound out the shape of my most secret wounds and simultaneously soothe them. Although I now know I am not alone in this, I thought I was back then, alone and waiting for someone to:
“Take me out tonight
where there’s music and there’s people
who are young and alive.”
In a now slightly-embarrassing Anglophilic phase—this was also around the time I was reading The Adrian Mole Diaries, watching My Fair Lady with Karen, and exchanging mixtapes with my British penpal—the Smiths were part and parcel of an England that I imagined as a long lost home. The U.K.’s pop cultural exports made it seem so much more tolerant of misfits of all kinds, let alone more temperate than SoCal for black turtlenecks and Doc Martens. At the time, I thought I was listening to difference—to the most remote space imaginable from the sweltering hothouse of Riverside—but Karen’s work reveals that I was really hearing the maudlin voice of my own longing, the jangly chords of my own desire, the oddball rhythms of my own heart.
I finally got myself to the actual England years later, thanks to the wonders of credit-card leveraged conferencing in destination locations. After the conference—at which I was, ironically, presenting on Los Angeles—I had the pleasure of spending a damp, foggy day record-shopping my way through brick-bound Nottingham. While I was gleefully flipping through velvety fields of plastic covers and comparing American imports with their UK counterparts, “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” came on the shop’s PA. With the first flare of guitar, I looked up from the record bins, startled by the warm recognition I felt at the sound of “home.”
At the time, I remember thinking that my thirteen-year-old self would be totally geeked out. However, I harbor little nostalgia for the volatile claustrophobia of my lonely tweenhood. Karen would describe my flash of recognition as “remote intimacy,” an asynchronous experience of popular culture across virtual networks of desire, a way of “imagining our own spaces in connection with others.”
Singing along for the thousandth time to Morrissey’s bittersweet grain, I realized that I wasn’t listening to my past in that record shop, but rather my thirteen-year-old self had been hearing the future in her bedroom. Dreaming of England had given her a way to grapple with the pains that ultimately produced my deepest longings: to overcome the “strange fears that gripped” me, to one day be able take myself “anywhere, anywhere,” and to feel the “light” of a love that would “never go out.”
It had taken a 5500 mile plane ride for me to realize that “home” was, in fact, a feeling of arrival rather than site of destination . . .and I couldn’t wait to get back to L.A. to give my homegirl Karen a call.
“There is a light that never goes out
There is a light that never goes out
There is a light that never goes out
There is a light and it never goes out. . .”