The Next Hip Hop Revolution
The women of hip-hop are taking their place in the spotlight during the 46th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 8.
In the coveted Song of the Year award category, hip-hop artists have claimed four out of the five nominations, and three of the nominees are women. The works by female performers range from the overtly sexual lyrics of rapper Lil Kim to the soulful stirrings of the "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul," Mary J. Blige.
In the competition for the Best Rap Album award, rapper and producer Missy Elliot is pushing into the male-dominated category with her compact disk, "Under Construction." She is also in the running for three other awards: Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for her collaboration with the rapper Ludicrous, Best Female Rap Solo Performance and the coveted Album of the Year.
As they rise to the top of hip-hop, female performers are doing more than singing and dancing. In their work, they are taking on such issues as domestic violence and AIDS. Some, such as rapper Rah Digga, are pursuing performance styles that challenge sex-role expectations. They're also lending their celebrity to everything from organizations opposing domestic violence to initiatives aimed at educating young women about safer sexual practices.
Recently Elliot, who as a young child watched her mother being abused by her father, has turned her off-stage attention to the problem of domestic violence. She now serves as the national spokesperson for Break the Cycle, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit for young people -- between 12 and 22 -- who are currently in abusive dating relationships or who may be at risk for such abuse. Break the Cycle provides preventive domestic-violence education and free legal services. "I know how domestic violence can affect a family and I want to do everything I can to stop it from happening to others," Elliot said in a statement.
Mary J. Blige serves as a spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics' MAC AIDS Fund, which helps finance AIDS education and research. Blige, who grew up in a single-parent home in Yonkers, N.Y., sings about her own pain, struggles and eventual triumph over self-hatred, giving voice to what she hopes will be a helpful and healing message to listeners.
Aside from the female performers, other women are also putting a new, more pro-female spin on hip-hop.
Film director and producer Lisa France, is one example. In early December, her feature-film directorial debut, "Anne B. Real," was nominated for two 2004 Independent Spirit awards; the John Cassavettes Award (for the best feature made for under $500,000) and the Best Debut Performance. The awards, given by the Independent Feature Project, a Los Angeles-headquartered nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of independent film, will be announced on Feb. 28 in Santa Monica, Calif.
In what might seem an improbable literary device, the film juxtaposes the struggles of Cynthia Gimenez, a young woman struggling to become a rapper, to those of the sequestered Jewish girl in the memoir "The Diary of Anne Frank."
"We are in no way saying that today's ghetto compares to the ghettos of Amsterdam and what the Jews experienced during the Holocaust," said France. "But we do think that their voice is key. (These are) two young women who want to be heard and are afraid they may not be," France said. She added that a famous piece of historical literature, like the "Diary of Anne Frank," can "inspire a contemporary life."
Sensitive to the often derogatory treatment of women in hip-hop, France took a decidedly different tack. "There are no half-naked girls dancing for men drinking Martel. Women are not objectified in our film," said France, who has held various film industry positions from assistant director to stunt person. "We wanted to shift the paradigm of the urban, hip-hop story to make it accessible and powerful to all people. I think women are smart, quick and powerful in our film."
Rah Digga, the lone female rapper--or "MC" as they're dubbed by hip-hoppers--in Busta Rhymes' Flip Mode Squad, a six-member rap group, knows first hand the challenges of female MCs.
Digga, along with France, served on panel addressing women in hip-hop at the 2003 H20 Hip-Hop Odyssey International Film Festival, a five-day event held in New York City late last year. She told the capacity audience at City College's Aaron Davis Hall that her raspy deep voice and facial expressions were considered "too hard core" by producers and record executives. She said they preferred a softer, more sexualized style in female performers.
Digga, a former engineering student, released her first CD, "Dirty Harriet," in 2000. She named it after the underground conductor Harriet Tubman because, as she said in an interview with Hiphopline.com, "(I am) paving the way and leading a new species of female MCs to just feel confident enough to come with raw rhymes and not have to worry about exploiting themselves sexually to succeed."
Her next effort, "Everything is a Story" scheduled for release in early 2004, is "a more in-depth and personal" album than her previous CD and includes a song dedicated to her young daughter and a tribute to a deceased friend. "You have to learn how to manipulate (the system) without compromising yourself and still feel comfortable as a lyricist," said Digga.
Martha Diaz, a filmmaker and an educator, is pushing to turn a powerful pop-culture into a medium that sends girls an inspiring message. Diaz is founder and president of the National Hip-Hop Association, a New York-based promoter of hip-hop as a socially legitimate means of self expression and way to educate youth.
"We really need to educate the sisters," says Diaz, who recently conducted a summit on the use of hip-hop in the classroom as an "academic discipline and art form that can be used to engage under-served communities and at-risk youth." Over 300 educators participated in the two-day event in New York City that included speakers such as hip-hop star Fab 5 Freddy.
"We need to show girls alternative roles women play in hip-hop culture like that of lawyers, stylists and business women (not just singers and rappers)," said Diaz.
To help young female hip-hop fans develop a more positive identification with hip-hop, for instance, Diaz suggests that teachers, in the context of talking about strong historical women, cite Queen Latifah as a powerful contemporary example. Latifah, who was born Dana Owens, is a rapper, film producer, record-label owner and a 2003 nominee for Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role as "Matron 'Mama' Morton" in "Chicago."
Carla Thompson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY.