Pass the Mic
As scholar Tricia Rose examined in her book Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994), most women rappers didn't get in the game because they saw themselves as feminist warriors – indeed, quite a few of those women consciously distanced themselves from even the perception that they might be feminist. Besides a basic desire for self expression, most female rappers where driven by the same thing that drives male rappers – they wanted to show that they could rock mic. But too often for the earliest generation of female rappers, the men and boys in ciphers weren't overly willing to pass the mic, so it's not surprising that the first commercially successful female rappers only got play by recording responses to their male peers. Twenty years after the release of Roxanne Shante's "Roxanne's Revenge" and Salt & Pepa's "Showstopper," for the most part women rappers and scholars are still struggling to be included in the cipher of hip hop culture. Taking a page from Jean Grae's Bootleg of the Bootleg EP, Gwendolyn Pough's new book Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere (Northeastern University Press) is a bold attempt to grab the mic.
Though Tricia Rose's Black Noise is generally recognized as the first scholarly study of hip hop, the idea of the hip hop intellectual has largely been informed by black male scholars Michael Eric Dyson and Todd Boyd. Long before the publication of his book Holler If You Hear Me: In Search of Tupac Shakur, Dyson had established himself as the mainstream's favorite hip hop critic via books like Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism (1993) and From God to Gangsta Rap (1995). Boyd's expertise has been at mapping hip hop's influence on film and sports (he's a regular contributor to ESPN), particularly in books like Am I Black Enough For You? (1997) and the recent Young, Black, Rich, and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, The Hip Hop Invasion and the Transformation of American Culture.
Very often black women scholars and journalists were relegated to the margins of public discussions about hip hop (for example, it was only through an 11th hour intervention that Rose was included on a panel for Russell Simmons's first hip hop summit in 2001) unless of course the subject was about the culture's portrayal of women. As Pough notes "Much of the work currently being done by Black feminists and feminists on rap focuses on the sexism and misogyny of Black men rappers...the work of women rappers is being ignored." It is this tendency to ignore the narratives of women in hip hop that Pough challenges throughout Check It While I Wreck It. Pough cites a passage in Nelson George's Hip-Hop America, where he claims that hip hop has produced "no Bessie Smith, no Billie Holiday, no Aretha Franklin," arguing that if no "female artists had ever made a record, hip-hop's development would have been no different" as part of the inspiration for her book: "Those words have troubled me for some time, and I see this project as a way to correct these kinds of misguided statements. Hip-hop may be a uniquely testosterone-filled space, but to say that women have not contributed significantly to its development is false."
Pough links the ignoring and silencing of black women's voices in hip hop to larger societal issues. According to Pough, "Black women's speech and expressive culture have been limited in the public sphere due in part to circumstances...such as maintaining community, promoting Black manhood at the expense of Black womanhood, and constantly vindicating Black womanhood against misrepresentation." Pough adds that black women's voices have also been "limited because the places in which they have been allowed to thrive have been devalued." Pough's comments here challenge the conventional thinking that when black women get together in the beauty parlor or in the kitchen that it is simply a "bitch session" about trifling men and a chance to gossip.
But Pough, an avowed black feminist, also chides the feminist movement for its failure to take seriously the voices of black women in hip-hop. "Black feminism needs to be accountable to young Black women, saving their lives and widening their worldview and the choices they feel they can make" writes Pough, adding that "In order to accomplish this – in order to reach young Black women – feminism needs to come down from its ivory tower. Young black women, like it or not, are getting their life lessons from rap music." Pough's comments echo those made by Pearl Cleage a decade ago when she criticized her fellow black feminists for not being more vocal about Dr. Dre's attack on talk-show host Dee Barnes in early 1991. As Cleage wrote in her book Deals with the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot (1994), "because the noise of the world in which Dee Barnes lives and works – the world in which our teenage children go to school and fall in love and decide to have sex – is so insistently loud and irritating to our thirty-or forty-plus ears, we tune it out completely and hope it will just go away."
What makes Check It While I Wreck It such an important entry into hip hop scholarship is that Pough makes clear the ways that hip hop has not only been responsible for how the mainstream thinks about blackness, but very often the ways in which the mainstream is introduced to contemporary black femininity. According to Pough, "If Hip-Hop culture and rap music made the ghetto a recognizable entity on the U.S. landscape, the Hip-Hop cinema represented by the Boyz 'N the Hood/ghetto exploitation cinema of the 1990s made the ghetto girl a recognizable element of that landscape." Though Pough is clearly critical of these films, with their focus on the "baby mama," "hoochie" and "chickenhead" who are out to undermine black men, she notes that they "grant us a deeper understanding of the negative rap lyrics that men rappers spout about black women.."
Underlying many of the stereotypical images of women in hip hop is the idea that women pursue sexual relations with young black men, simply out of material desire – the relative financial rewards that come with being the "baby-mama" and "chickenheads." But is in the context of this line of thinking that Pough finds value in the lyrics of women like Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown. Pough writes, "The sexually explicit lyrics of these women rappers offer black women a chance to face old demons and not let the stereotypes inform or control their lives. After years of Black women being read as supersexual – or asexual, in the case of the mammy stereotype – the lyrics of these women rappers offer black women a chance to be proud of – and indeed flaunt – their sexuality.
The recent National Hip-Hop Political Convention was a bold step into the future of Hip-Hop. Gwendolyn Pough's Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere proves that hip hop scholarship is marching to the same beat.