It has been three decades since hip-hop was born in the Bronx, but the popular musical form and its attendant culture still thrive primarily as an institution of power and privilege for men.
That was the consensus of a panel of Bronx-based female hip-hop artists and writers who spoke on Jan. 22 as part of the Bronx is Building lecture series at Fordham.
The panel called into question the “creation narrative of hip-hop” that mythologizes the art form as having sprung forth from men alone. Women, they said, have played a critical role in the art form, but have been largely undercut in a business that promotes misogynous lyrics, images and treatment of women.
“There’s nothing in hip-hop that is representing us as something positive,” said Sheri Sher, author of Mercedes Ladies (Vibe Street, 2008), a fictional account of Sher’s early days as founding member of the first all-female MC and DJ crew from the Bronx. Sher recounted her early experiences on street corners where she and her friends “were known as females who started crew and weren’t going to take no mess.”
Since those days in the 1970s and 1980s, Sher said, hip-hop has moved from a cultural phenomenon to a multi-billion-dollar industry in which women are denigrated and where the few slots for women artists are filled with women who compromise their image to remain at the top.
Successful artists like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown have “lost the essence of what got them where they are,” Sher said. The panel criticized Kim, the first female rapper to have a number one Billboard hit, for her plastic surgery makeovers and breast-baring outfits.
While both artists have been commercially successful, Kim has been incarcerated, and Brown has been in and out of institutions for addictions and a series of physical altercations with hotel employees, a manicurist and other innocent bystanders.
Music critic and journalist Elizabeth Mendez Berry recounted the difficulty she had getting a controversial article about domestic violence in the hip-hop industry published. The article, “Love Hurts,” chronicled abuse against women by rappers Big Pun, Biggie Smalls and others, and eventually was published in Vibe magazine. It won ASCAP’s Deems Taylor award for music journalism.
“There are a lot of women behind the scenes in hip-hop, and some of them are incredibly talented,” said Mendez Berry, whose work has received praise from hip-hop entrepreneur Jay Z.
“Some of them are writing people’s materials, some of them are doing production behind the scenes and some of them are supporting a human being to enable him to get to the place where he got.”
The problem, Mendez Berry said, is that they look the other way when men either abuse or disrespect them or other women.
“Women need to approach the business with respect for themselves and for the other women who do not respect themselves,” she said. “Only then will things begin to change.”
The third panelist, spoken-word poet and actress Patty Dukes, said that the technology is ripe for women in hip-hop to promote themselves. Dukes has her own podcast, “The Patty Dukes Show,” and travels the world as an MC and advocate for “putting a mic in little girls’ hands instead of a doll.”
“Right now, the technology is fantastic for a female MC, so take advantage of it,” said Dukes, who said she feels driven to use her voice to speak for those who grew up like her. “It’s not about shaking your butt on stage, but creating a radio show, or writing for magazines, directing each other, or doing our own books. It’s about finding those resources and creating those opportunities.
“You go do it for yourself,” she said. “It’s time for the girls to make the songs.”
The event was moderated by Oneka LaBennett, Ph.D., assistant professor of African and African American studies and research director for the Bronx African American History Project. On hand was local DJ Beat Man, who spun records by female artists ranging from Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin to industry newcomer Madeline.