New Dawn: The Journal of Black Canadian Studies

http://aries.oise.utoronto.ca/dawn/journal/

 

 

 

The Black Female Body and Artist in Canadian Hip Hop: 

The Question of Femini(st)ne Space

                                 

                            

J. Maki Motapanyane

York University

 

When I was young I used to wonder what I’d do with my life:

How many babies would I mother?

Would I be someone’s wife?

My mental vision always seemed to be including a mic

I didn’t know that I’d be married to these tunes that I write…[1]

-Motion

 

 

     Women have been present in hip hop since its inception.  Their poetry, rhymes, steps and tags mark the margins of masculinized contemporary urban artistic spaces, seeping through the in-between gaps, asserting their own centrality in the absence and silences, which continue to mask their presence.[2]  In Canada, the masking of female presence in hip hop is exacerbated, among other things, by a substantial lack of literature on hip hop in Canada, and of women’s participation in it in particular.  This essay aims at beginning steps in the theorizing of Black female artistic space within the hip hop industry and communities of Canada.  Central to this theoretical exploration will be an examination of the ways in which female artists negotiate, carve out and strategize spaces of/for artistic expression and living within a Canadian hip hop industry that remains male dominated.  Furthermore, of interest to this examination is an understanding of what the efforts of female artists reveal about the characteristics and future of hip hop in Canada.  Before delving into an analytic discussion of female negotiations of masculinized artistic spaces, I must first visit two questions.  First, what is hip hop?  Second, why focus on the Black female body?

 

Hip hop is an artistic form of expression with many faces.  It has been a living, breathing vehicle and voice of social and cultural critique of politicization and activism for marginalized Black and non-white voices, primarily in North America and to a lesser extent but increasingly today, in many parts of the world.  Rap music, the more prominent aspect of hip hop, is historicized as having emerged out of the South Bronx of New York City in the mid-1970’s as the cultural product of urban African-American, Afri-Caribbean and Hispanic communities.[3]  Other aspects of hip hop include graffiti, break dancing and the art of the disk jockey (DJ).  Contemporary understandings of hip hop have opened up space for poetry, various forms of hip hop inspired narrations, painting, journalism and filmmaking, to also be embraced as hip hop art forms alongside Emceeing, graf art and breaking.  For emcee and hip hop artist Eternia, hip hop is

 

… a culture I live everyday.  I got into a debate with a good friend the other day, about hip hop being purely an art form, or perhaps even a subculture, versus my belief that hip hop is a culture…Hip hop is a culture to me because we have our own value sets, dress style, speech and body language, mannerisms, cultural artifacts.  Hip hop provides a point of reference, to me, when confronting other larger social occurrences (war, school, politics, education)… I would say I make rap music…but live hip hop culture.[4]

 

Hip hop in Canada is an artistic body of work, an ever shifting and dynamic urban culture that rhymes, narrates, paints, documents, dances and in so many other ways, expresses, critiques and theorizes the social realities of our time.  It is important to emphasize that hip hop theorizes, that hip hop has the capacity to philosophize, that hip hop and its artists are legitimate intellectuals of our time and furthermore, that there is no intellectual space where hip hop, its artists and learners do not belong or in which their experiences are not intellectually appropriate for discussion.  That being said, the socio-political potential of hip hop in Canada must be maximized through the process of holding ourselves and one another accountable in our knowledge and cultural production.  In the words of emcee and poet Motion (Wendy Braithwaite),

 

…I started seeing how hip hop is the voice for this era of history, like jazz was, or blues, soul, or even spirituals and griots in Africa.  Like how we look back at those eras and characterize them by the music and expression is the same way the future will listen to the music and try to visualize us.[5]

 

But if hip hop is a living, breathing vehicle for social and cultural critique, if it is an ever shifting and dynamic urban culture as I claim, why am I choosing to center my exploration around understanding the manifestation of the Black female body within hip hop?  Surely the artistic spaces of hip hop are not solely occupied and influenced by Black bodies?  They are not.  My choice of terminology here echoes the response of Rinaldo Walcott to Awad Ibrahim during a question period at the Researching Black Canadian Musics and Black Music Cultures in Canada conference (May 2003) at York University.  Upon being asked if hip hop is a Black musical/cultural form, Walcott responded affirmatively while adding that it is a hybrid Black musical form.[6]  While Canada’s hip hop spaces are clearly populated by bodies of varying ethnic backgrounds, and although this exploration is interested in engaging with the experiences and strategies of any female hip hop artist, emphasis is given to the Black female body as a way of maintaining and subtly re-articulating the major and dominant influences of Black diasporic identities in hip hop in Canada.

 

     Canadian literary spaces and cultural criticism has been surprisingly silent on manifestations of hip hop in Canada.   Much of the research surrounding hip hop in North American has been written by Americans about the manifestation and socio-cultural significance of hip hop in the United States.  Even within this substantial body of American writing on hip hop, the presence and experiences of female artists and hip hop community members are virtually invisible.  Much U.S. literature surrounding hip hop continues to centre and historicize male figures while devoting a few negligible pages to the presence and contribution of women.  Researchers such as Tricia Rose have made important contributions to the documenting and theorizing of women’s experiences in hip hop.  As well, writers such as Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cornel West, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Hazel Carby and Paul Gilroy (among many others), have complicated debates surrounding hip hop and Black music cultures in important ways.  Theorizing the intersection of race, gender and class in urban Black music and examining the meaning of culture and identity as these relate to hip hop, these writers have made important contributions to ongoing debates surrounding hip hop. 

 

In Canada, writers and researchers such as Awad Ibrahim, Tony Young, Dalton Higgins and Rinaldo Walcott have begun important steps in building a foundation for thinking and writing about hip hop in Canada.   Filmmakers as well have played an important role in recording and participating in the production of knowledge about hip hop in Canada, as exemplified by the work of filmmakers Alison Duke in “Raisin’ Kane”: A Rapumentary and Andrew Munger in Make Some Noise!.  More recently, hip hop has witnessed the release of the U.S. filmmaker Rachel Raimist’s Nobody Knows My Name, a documentary on the experiences of female artists in underground American hip hop spaces. Canadian journalists have also been at the forefront of efforts to document the dynamics of the hip hop industry and community.  Journalists such as Emily Mills and Silk Kaya (among many others) have contributed valuable pieces of hip hop oriented commentary and critique to a number of current Canadian hip hop websites.   The Internet has provided a space for sites such as theCyberKrib.com, hiphopcanada.com, and phemphat.com to develop into useful databases and sources of information on the hip hop community and music industry in Canada.  In addition, conferences like Researching Black Canadian Musics & Black Music Cultures in Canada are a fundamental step in building a framework and support base for theorizing and documenting the many aspects of hip hop in Canada.  The work of researcher Rinaldo Walcott in attempting to frame a methodology for reading hip hop in Canada, exemplifies the slow yet consistent strides being made in building a Canadian body of literature surrounding hip hop and urban music.[7]

 

Because much of the existing Canadian hip hop spaces have not been extensively documented, direct dialogue with members of the hip hop community and industry has been (for this project) and must continue to be a central component of writing and theorizing hip hop in Canada.  The involvement and space given to artists and community members in the institutional academic production of knowledge surrounding hip hop in Canada, and vice versa, the community and artists’ opening of space to interested learners or “researchers” can benefit both communities. Additionally this would be a form of participatory research with the potential of not only undermining more traditional Eurocentric research methods, which emphasize imagined “objectivity” on the part of researchers while constructing those researchers not as learners but experts over the subject(s) in question; but instead create a network of support for research projects which exemplify extensive collaboration with and within communities of interest.  This means a shift away from the fears associated with not having sole recognition and in some instances, even sole control over a research project.  It also entails challenging the myth that any process of knowledge production surrounding a particular community(ies) can be done and is complete without acknowledgement of the extent to which the research project is indebted to the intellectual contributions (whether visible or hidden) of the members of that community.

 

Female Artistic Expression in Canadian Hip Hop Spaces

Theoretically engaging with women’s presence in the Canadian hip hop industry and communities necessarily involves an examination of the racialization and masculinization of the industry.  While the Canadian hip hop industry has always been and is increasingly a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-faceted space of artistic expression, it does not come without its own racialized, gendered and classed power dynamics.  This is more clearly articulated by artist Eternia (of Assyrian descent) when she states,

 

the hip hop community and hip hop industry are two  separate things, in my mind.  The industry welcomes anything that is new or different, in fact it thrives on this.  So someone like me can probably make larger career strides at a faster pace than my local black male emcee counterpart…I stand out…people want to see ‘novelty’ things that are different…but still TALENTED of course…I’m not saying this is fair. It’s not.  But it’s business.[8]

 

The complexities of race, gender and class, their interconnectedness and simultaneous manifestation in the Canadian hip hop industry, are exposed when Eternia begins examining the dynamics surrounding her racialized (White) body in a race, sex, class and sexuality conscious music industry.  Eternia’s statement is significant because it reflects a subtle self-awareness that allows her to somewhat examine her standpoint while pointing to the role of racialization in hip hop marketing.  The imaged popular understandings of Eternia’s body as White (race) and feminine (gender) result in a construction of her as a “novelty” in contrast to the predominantly Black masculinized hip hop spaces in which she seeks to express her art form.  The components of this novelty therefore, in combination with her artistic skills and talent become the basis on which she is marketed within an overwhelmingly commercial and capitalist Canadian urban music industry.

 

Significant in Eternia’s discussion of the reception of her raced and gendered body as a “novelty”, is the way in which this statement (by way of contrast to Black male bodies), subtly teases out the fact that White bodies are also raced bodies.  It is evident from the artist’s words that the colour of her skin (“White”) has meanings attached to it, which coupled with her gender, make her a novelty in hip hop spaces that continue to be raced and gendered as Black and masculine.  As Razia Aziz indicates in Feminism and the Challenge of Racism: Deviance or Difference?, drawing out the racialized characteristics of the White body is important because not theorizing Whiteness, not seeing it as a “raced” identity, has played a large role in feeding the ongoing myth that Whites are not affected by processes of racialization.[9]  

 

The complexities associated with the presence of female artists in hip hop is further evidenced when race is examined in relation to gender, class and sexuality.  The maculinization of hip hop presents significant barriers to women’s expression and equal participation in the industry.  Masculinity is a constructed set of characteristics, behaviours and traits that are equated with strength, control and reason, traits which have been constructed as the characteristic monopoly of the male gender.  In its being equated with hip hop, masculinity has supported the imaging and myth of women’s participation in hip hop, particularly as rappers, graf artists and break dancers, as out of place, not serious and amateurish.  Eternia indicates this when she explains,

 

In the actual venues, clubs, open mic nights, streetcorners: well I would argue women face discrimination in a subtle fashion… Dudes will invite you to do music, come to their studio, work with them…and even though their belief in your talent is sincere, they will ask you in the same sentence: So do you have a boyfriend? Or look at you like you’re food…I meet Women regularly who should have numerous independent projects released, and don’t…I think these women are constantly in a creative battle with their male counterparts…I think many men in the industry (not all) take on women as a ‘talent’ to ‘raise’, instead of an ‘equal’ to ‘support’…we are something to be molded, we are told ‘sound more like this, don’t wear that, do this’.  Yet many male artists are in equal positions of power with their male counterparts, they collaborate, they make music and finance their music together.  I don’t see those networks happening with females as much.[10]

 

While the isolation of female hip hop artists in Canada from one another as well as from the financial, technical, managerial, legal and promotional resources (among other considerations) needed to develop and promote one’s artistic work continues to be significant, a number of female artists are collaborating and creating professional networks.  Native female emcee Eekwol One of InnerSoulFlow and Ndidi Cascade for example collaborated on a cross-Canada campus tour in 2003 that undoubtedly increased the exposure of both artists, while reminding audiences that hip hop can have a Native female face.  This is further demonstrated by the work of West coast rapper Girlie Emcee (Cynthia Smallboy).  As a member of the Native rap group War Party, Girlie Emcee has shared the stage with a number of Canada’s more well known “mainstream” (read-male) hip hop artists including Maestro Fresh Wes, Choclair, Kardinal Offishal and Ghetto Concept.[11]  

 

Not surprisingly, while a select number of audiences may be aware of the artistic output of Native female hip hop artists in Canada, much of the information disseminated on hip hop music in Canada remains male focused and Torontocentric.  While much more needs to be written of the role of pioneering (and now Ontario-based) female hip hop figures such as Michie Mee and Tara Chase, both of whose artistic contributions have made it to video in Break the Rulez with the group The Day After and Like it Like respectively, even less is known of the activities of East coast artists such as Shy Luv, Quebec residing artists such as Killa Jewel and Western Canada and Prairie-based artists such as Eekwol One, Girlie Emcee, Kia Kadiri and Ndidi Cascade.[12]  Indeed, with the prominence of PhemPhat Productions in Toronto, a significant amount of the exposure given to female hip hop artists in Canada, whether through showcases, workshops, shows and/or conferences, is clustered in the urban spaces of Toronto.[13]  Added to the socio-political manifestations of gender, race and class in complicating the access of female artists to industry resources within a patriarchal, racist and capitalist Canadian landscape, is sexuality.  How intricate must be the process of strategic masking undertaken by Queer identified female artists within the industry?

 

The struggles of female hip hop artists in a male dominated industry are not to be examined without pointing out their own inherent complexities.  The manifestation of women’s presence in the Canadian hip hop industry is not without its own contradictions.  As Tricia Rose indicates, the masculinized discourse of the hip hop industry is both critiqued and supported by female artists in various ways.[14]  In Canada, this is illustrated in the various strategic devices utilized by female artists in forming and shaping their artistic output.  In an interview conducted with Emcee Tara Chase by journalist Del Cowie, Chase discusses the sexism and insults she experienced from peer male emcees in direct response to her gender and her attempts to equate and relate this gender to the masculine imaged art of rapping.  She importantly points out that this sexism pushed her to work harder at and within her art form.  Simultaneously however, Chase states,

 

I didn’t want to be looked at like she’s good for a female rapper.  It should be like she’s a wicked

rapper period.  Sometimes I would write to stand with the guys too, so I kinda stayed away from the lovey-dovey topics. I was definitely more into the raw and tried to blend with them too.[15]

 

This statement is illustrative of the complexity of female engagement with what remains a male dominated industry.  Chase does not neglect the sexism she experiences within the industry, thereby, highlighting the masculinization of hip hop and the consequences of this in relation to the experiences of female artists within hip hop.  However, in her association of “lovey-dovey” topics as non-guy-like (in this instance and many others, guys being and determining the standards of legitimate artistic output), Chase is complicit in the on-going masculinization of hip hop, the equating of female artists with femininity and therefore artistic weakness and ultimately, the maintenance of Black masculinity as the legitimate decision-making and defining source of what hip hop is and means.  Her account importantly illuminates Chase’s personal strategy early in her career as a female hip hop artist.  Toughening and making her artistic output rough and raw was one way to gain legitimacy and stand on equal ground with already validated male peers.

 

Alternatively and more currently, Motion has this to say about strategy and being female in the Canadian hip hop industry,

 

Hip hop came up for me being the antithesis of everything I was supposed to be, know and  value… flipping concepts, coming rugged, turning backs on the status quo, affirming yourself in a world that tries to keep you quiet… It’s meant being myself, and stating my identity, telling the story from my perspective as a feminine being.  As a woman making music, especially in hip hop, it take perseverance to be what you want to be, and to resist expectations that try to influence you or limit you to certain roles.[16]

 

 The strategies are many and shifting, what one female artist begins with is not where she finds herself a few years or even a month later.  The purpose here is not to characterize, categorize or strictly associate particular artists and strategies with one another, but rather to illustrate the range in strategies and their shifting nature over time, context and circumstance.  These realities manifest within the many corners and spaces of the hip hop industry and community.  They can directly impact the strategies of female artists in ensuring the development and success of their art and can frame the public discussions and debates surrounding hip hop in a manner that contributes to the silencing and undermining of the female voice.  As argued by Tricia Rose, the subtle and negative effects of the masculinization of hip hop culture can evidence themselves in public reactions to the critiques of female journalists and writers to the sexism present within many hip hop spaces.  Unlike respected or at least debated critiques advanced by male journalists, academics and writers, the critiques of female intellectuals tellingly become characterized and reduced to “complaint”.[17]  This corresponds to the wider efforts of female artists in, as Rose states, “struggling for parity, fighting to be taken seriously in a music industry that has a horrible reputation for tolerating and participating in the abuse, sexual harassment, and sexist containment of women artists and employees”.[18]

 

It is important here to point out that race, gender and class based inequalities and injustices that take place within Canada’s music industry are reflective of the racism, sexism and consumer culture supported within the larger networks of power in Canadian society.  Therefore, the intent here is not to classify hip hop as unique in its (as of yet) inability to develop noteworthy spaces free of the complexities of race, gender and class.    As Deborah McDowell states in Pecs and Reps: Muscling in on Race and the Subject of Masculinities, “Obviously, to single out rap music in order to decry violence and sexism is patently hypocritical, given the fact that violence and sexism have immemorially given this society perhaps its most distinctive signature”.[19]  Although McDowell is in this statement speaking specifically of the U.S., her words apply to the Canadian landscape if one thinks of the genocide and as Enakshi Dua has illustrated in Canadian Anti-Racist Feminist Thought: Scratching the Surface of Racism, the racist and sexist immigration past and present that have been at the core of the formation of the Canadian “nation”.[20]  

 

 

Black Elaborations of Canadianess through Hip Hop

In his May 2003 keynote address at the Researching Black Canadian Musics and Black Music Cultures in Canada Conference at York University, Rinaldo Walcott engaged the audience in a theoretical analysis of hip hop as it may be understood within the context of Canadianess and nation.  Central to hip hop Walcott stated, is an attitude of insubordination whose complexity is (among other areas) reflected in its popularity and current commodification.  This insubordination, while being a site of commodification, is also a site from which according to Walcott, (male) hip hop artists elaborate the Canadian urban landscape.  This elaboration takes place through the refusal of (male) hip hop artists to be limited to neither a particular ethnic cultural heritage (Caribbean, more specifically Jamaican or St. Lucian for example), nor to modernist understandings of the Canadian nation.  These artists remain insubordinate in their emphasis, as exemplified by Kardinal Offishal’s Bakardi Slang, that hip hop in Canada is not always dependent and in search of U.S. guidance in its development. 

 

As Walcott indicated, with Bakardi Slang, Kardinal Offishal distances himself/his Canadian crew from Black American language, presenting a Black Canadian voice that is neither homogeneously Caribbean nor dependent on Black American influences.  This relatively ambiguous stance, Walcott argues, is reflective of a “self-assured diasporic Blackness” that is aware of the fact that it/he belongs and at once does not belong.  Therefore, Kardinal’s Bakardi Slang can be viewed as an example of an articulation of Black Atlantic diasporic identity, in which the artist is aware of the ways in which his belonging in the Canadian landscape continues to be contested, and yet he remains sure (due in part and undoubtedly unintentionally to Canadian Multiculturalism according to Walcott) that the space he does occupy within the Canadian landscape is in fact his rightful space.  Thus, Kardinal’s Bakardi Slang can be viewed as one example of this Black elaboration of Canadianess.  What remains unclear however, is women’s presence and role in this insubordinating process of re-configuring Canadian identity. 

 

While examples of the work of well known male hip hop artists are certainly more widely discussed and possibly more easily available for analysis, theorizing the insubordination of Black Canadian culture(s) and the role of hip hop in particular in elaborating modernist understandings of the Canadian nation, remains incomplete without an adequate analysis of gender.  If using the Black feminist analytical frameworks advanced by Patricia Hill Collins (1990), Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Johnetta Cole (2003), June Jordan (2002) and Audre Lorde (1984) among the works of many other Black feminist theorists, to analyze Kardinal’s Bakardi Slang, an impression slightly different from that presented by Walcott could arise.   There is no question that Kardinal’s use of language insubordinately destabilizes notions of Black Canadian dependency on U.S. guidance for the formation of Black identity (particularly within the context of hip hop), while his confident assertion of belonging in the Canadian landscape and simultaneous insistence on not being reduced to that landscape, challenge modernist understandings of nationhood.  However, the extent to which his work in Bakardi Slang truly represents a Black elaboration of the Canadian nation through hip hop is not easily determined.  The potential of the former in accomplishing the latter is curbed by the role assigned to women in his video.  A more accurate representation of hip hop in Canada would have been one in which women were present as active agents, one in which the insubordination of Kardinal’s message would have reflected the extent to which it was shaped by both men and women. 

 

Despite the fact that the majority of Canadian hip hop artists signed to record labels are men, the voice and influence of female artists can be heard and felt on a number of tracks by well known male artists, as well as within the many community-based spaces of hip hop in Canada.  Kardinal’s insubordinate message was limited by its failure to reflect this.  Instead, the Bakardi Slang video presented its audience with barely clothed seductresses in the context of a nightclub.  Kardinal and his crew took center stage in their representation of Canadian hip hop, while ready-to-please women filled the backdrop, seductively co-signing the self-absorbed masculinity of the video’s male star(s).  What could have really been insubordinate, what could have really stretched and elaborated current understandings of Black Atlantic diasporic Canadian identity would have been Kardinal’s insightful use of language as a tool for re-defining and re-asserting claims to space and identity, expanded by the creation of space in his song and video for images more accurately representative of the dialogical dynamics (across “race”, gender, class and sexuality) that form contemporary hip hop in Canada.  For, as M. NourbeSe Philip states, “The power and threat of the artist, poet or writer lies in this ability to create new i-mages, i-mages that speak to the essential being of the people among whom and for whom the artist creates”.[21]  Thus, we begin to understand what Ntozake Shange might have meant when she wrote:

 

…she’s half-notes scattered

without rhythm/no tune

sing her sighs

sing the song of her possibilities

sing a righteous gospel

let her be born

     let her be born

     & handled warmly[22]

 

Female artists have been long looking for a language and spaces within which to express the complexities and aspirations of their communities and their lives.  What a powerful act it would be if more male artists also worked to find a language and means by which to image their communities and themselves in a manner divested from the smoke screens of patriarchy, masculinity and heteronormativity.

 

Lingual Negotiations

 

What are the words you do not yet have?

what do you need to say?  What are the

tyrannies you swallow day by day and

attempt to make your own, until you

will sicken and die of them, still in

silence?[23]

                        -Audre Lorde

 

     The masculinized space of a male dominated hip hop industry is not the only space in which female artists strategically negotiate their presence.  Language, its masculine structure/over and undertones, is another site of sticky negotiation for women whose art is based on the maneuvering and manipulating of words to squeeze out expressions of their experiences and surroundings.  The prosaic questions posed above by Audre Lorde touch core elements of interest in the explorations of this essay.  First, what do the various strategies of female artists discussed in this essay reflect about the numerous “tyrannies” manifesting in these women’s experiences?  Second, what is this language that contains the ability to carry and express the complexities experienced by female artists?  As suggested by Patricia Hill Collins in Black Feminist Thought, language is powerful precisely because it has the power of creating and making real.  When people tongue (language) and “cheek” (mock) us in negative and oppressive ways, we must believe them and take control of the word. 

 

When M. NourbeSe Philip discusses language in A Genealogy of Resistance, she begins from the point of the colonial destruction of the link between i-mage and word for the colonized peoples of the Black Atlantic.  This i-mage according to Philip, represents the literal imaging of oneself, the insertion of one’s body and experiences into the word, which then communicates this body, its visions and experiences to others.  For the African in what (borrowing from Paul Gilroy) I am now referring to as the Black Atlantic diaspora, the link between i-mage and word was destroyed by the enforcement of a hostile European language mobilized specifically (in relation to the African) for the purposes of colonization, exploitation and erasure.[24]  The process of decontextualizing and destroying i-maging abilities of the African body through the erasure of African languages, the languages through which the African body contextualized itself and transcended its experiences, can be equally applied to the effects of masculinized languages of domination upon the Black female body.  M. NourbeSe Philip does not explicitly address the masculinization of language, although her subject is always a female “she”. 

 

It remains unclear whether Philip, had she examined the masculinity of language, would have found similarities in the male centredness of some African as well as European languages, and therefore been inclined to also reflect the particular complexities of language as these relate to the Black female body.  Philip suggests that as Cecilia Bustamente states, “…This is the dilemma of the dominated: to disappear or change at the price of their lives”.[25]  Yet in changing, one does not necessarily die.  Elements of one’s cultural embodiment and consciousness are forced upon, in Philip’s words, the language of “anguish”, in ways that can transform the language itself.  Philip acknowledges this when she suggests that although enforcing a European language of domination upon the African body constitutes a process of distilling one’s past, the enforcement of English upon the Black colonial/postcolonial body is not “the clearest distillation”.[26]  In the words of poet Jessica Care Moore,

 

Don’t be afraid of the poets of the Hip Hop

     generation

     Internationally invading your intellectual

institutions

     Past present and future tense sense…

And if they still don’t understand what

     We’re talking about

     Tell them their words don’t fit in our

mouths

     Exclamation point

     !

     Period.[27]

 

I would argue, as have Walcott (2003) and Stuart Hall (2000) elsewhere, that the Black tongue, consciousness and body’s refiguring of English and “White” spaces carries the power to unsettle, re-formulate and re-define Eurocentric patriarchal constructions of a national past and present.  How do Black women stretch racist and sexist language to include and express fundamental parts of themselves?  There is no easy answer and the methods are many.  Equally as important to highlight is the fact that this process of stretching and re-configuring language does take place in the efforts of female emcees to negotiate the masculinized and racialized spaces of language, and reflects the role of Canadian female hip hop artists in also re-configuring meanings of (Black) womanhood and Canadian identity.

 

Where to Now?

Here is the vision of one woman:

 

…If women ran hip hop

men would be relieved because it’s so

draining

to keep up that front of toughness & power &

control 24/7

         

…but best of all, if women ran hip hop

     we would have the dopest female emcees ever

     because all the young women afraid to bust

     would unleash their brilliance on the world

cause it’s the time for the reclaiming of

hip hop.[28]

 

The question at heart is not whether men or women should “run” hip hop.  Aya de Leon’s verses however cut to the center of the politics of a male-dominated hip hop industry in which female artists must negotiate spaces of lingual and artistic expression reflective of their standpoints and perspectives.  That being said, it is important to remember that to speak of female hip hop artists in Canada must mean addressing the subject of standpoint in a way that clarifies the different ways in which race, gender, class and sexuality manifest within the lives of Canadian women.  Clearly, the experiences of Native rappers Girlie Emcee are not interchangeable with those of Eternia, nor those of Eternia with those of Motion.  Though a number of female hip hop artists may attest to similar experiences with regards to the making and sharing of music in a male dominated industry, this industry is itself (as are the geographic spaces that accommodate it) a space that is raced, gendered, classed and sexualized in particular ways and within the context of and in relation to which, the subjectivities of individuals do not manifest in a homogenous manner.  At the forefront of a movement to create and support equitable artistic spaces for women of varying backgrounds in hip hop must be networks of support and increased collaboration between female artists and supportive male artists and members of the hip hop industry and community.  As Eternia indicates, “…females need their own support networks (crews, producer, engineers, deejays, etc) in order to get music done and done on time and with all professional seriousness”.[29]  Motion seconds the sentiment when she states, “My vision would be to see and hear the female energy behind the boards on production in this thing.  There are so many emcees who are stressed by the fact that they got lyrics, but no beats, and often they’re put on the last priority list when it comes to producers giving them the time and right music”.[30]

 

A number of female hip hop artists have begun creating these much needed support networks.  Rapper Apademek has launched a project entitled She5Elements, which attempts to bring “bring together a collective of diverse female artists committed to preserving the spirit of hip hop.  The project, while in its initial stages, will be a platform for artists to develop their individual talents as well as collaborate with other female artists”.[31]  Moreover, as Motion points out, “PhemPhat opens a forum to expose female talent…(DJs) L’oquence and SVP lug crates.  And rappers like Mizdemeanor, Eternia and Tara are important because they represent that straight up, mic-controller mentality that sometimes gets overlooked in favour of flesh and flash”.[32]  Having women as an influential presence in music production and management (among other areas) has been key in the visions some female artists have expressed for hip hop in the future.

 

     While this essay has articulated a number of the more pressing concerns regarding women’s presence and participation in hip hop in Canada, there is much work left to be done.  The theoretical contextualization of the strategic negotiations in which female artists engage within a male dominated industry and masculinized language, has drawn significantly on the work of Black feminist theorists throughout the Black Atlantic diaspora.  This theoretical analysis has attempted to “scratch the surface” of the complex interconnectedness of race, gender, class and sexuality as these manifest within the subjectivities of female artists, whose words and forms of expression continuously nuance modernist understandings of hip hop as masculine, of Black Canadian as failed mimicry of Black American and of “Canadian” as White.  This limited exploration represents only the beginning of its own inquiries, and has hopefully been clear in its encouragement of others to critique and augment its theoretical premises.  As the current collaborations and activities of a number of female hip hop artists indicate, the beginning steps have been set in motion, it is up to the invested and concerned among us to support these steps and write them into the history of the Canadian landscape.

 

 

 

 

J. Maki Motapanyane is a PhD candidate in the department of Women’s Studies at York University in Toronto.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Aziz, Razia.  “Feminism and the Challenge of Racism:

Deviance or Difference?” In Black British Feminism: A Reader.  Edited by Heidi Safia Mirza. London: Routledge, 1997.

 

Bannerji, Himani. “Returning the gaze: An introduction.” In Returning the Gaze: Essays on Racism,

Feminism and Politics, Edited by Himani Banerji. Toronto: Sister Vision Press, 1993.

 

Bell-Scott, Patricia ed.  Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black

Women’s Lives.  New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1998.

 

Braithwaite, Wendy.  Motion in Poetry.  Toronto: Women’s

Press, 2002.

 

Carbado, Devon W. (ed.).  Black Men on Race, Gender, and

Sexuality: A Critical Reader.  New York: New York University Press, 1999.

 

Carby, Hazel V.  Race Men.  Massachusetts: Harvard

University Press, 1998.

 

Cole, Johnnetta Betsch and Beverly Guy-Sheftall.  Gender

Talk: The Struggle for Women’s Equality in African

American Communities.  New York: Ballantine Books,

2003.

 

Collins, Patricia Hill.  Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge,

Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.  New York: Routledge, 1991.

 

Dua, Enakshi and Angela Robertson (eds.).  Scratching the

Surface: Canadian Anti-racist Feminist Thought.  Toronto: Women’s Press, 1999.

 

Gilroy, Paul.  The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double

Consciousness.  Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993.

 

Gordon, Lewis R.  Her Majesty’s Other Children.  Lanham:

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1997.

 

Hall, Stuart.  “Old and New Identities, Old and New

Ethnicities” In Theories of Race and Racism. Edited by Les Back and John Solomos. New York: Routledge,2000.

 

Haskins, James.  One Nation Under a Groove: Rap Music and

its Roots.  New York: Hyperion Books, 2000.

 

Jordan, June.  Some of us Did not Die.  New York: Basic

Books, 2002.

 

Kelley, Robin D. G.  Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical

Imagination.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.

 

Lorde, Audre, “The Transformation of Silence into Language

and Action” In Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black

Women’s Lives.  Edited by Patricia Bell-Scott. New

York: Henry Holt & Company, 1998.

 

--   Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches.  California:

Crossing Press, 1984.

 

McDowell, Deborah E., “Pecs and Reps: Muscling in on Race

and the Subject of Masculinities.” In Race and The

Subject of Masculinities.  Edited by Harry Stecopoulos

& Michael Uebel. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

 

Mirza, Heidi Safia (ed.).  Black British Feminism: A

Reader.  London: Routledge, 1997.

 

Moore, Jessica Care.  The Words Don’t Fit in my Mouth.  New

York: Moore Black Press, 1997.

 

Philip, Nourbese M.  A Genealogy of Resistance and Other

Essays.  Toronto: The Mercury Press, 1997.

 

Rose, Tricia.  Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in

Contemporary America. Hanover: Wesleyan University

Press, 1994.

 

Shange, Ntozake.  For Colored Girls who have Considered

Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.  New York: Macmillan

Publishing Company, 1977.

 

Walcott, Rinaldo.  Black Like Who?: Writing Black Canada. 

Toronto: Insomniac Press, 1997.

 

---. Rude: Contemporary Black Canadian Cultural Criticism. 

Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2000.

 

---.  “Towards a Methodology for Reading Hip Hop in Canada.

”Keynote address presented at the Researching Black

Canadian Musics and Black Music Cultures in Canada Conference, May 1-3, 2003, York University, Toronto, Canada.

 

 

Internet Sources

 

Adonijah, Has Canadian Hip Hop Truly “Arrived”?. 

HipHopCanada, [Accessed on July 7, 2003] http://www.hiphopcanada.com/_site/entertainment/articles/ent_art010.php

 

Collins, Emily Maureen, The Birth of a New Era: Women Join

Forces to Change the Face of Hip Hop. July 7, 2003 (http://www.journalism.ryerson.ca/online/tangents/body/ecollins.htm

 

Cowie, Del, Interview with Tara Chase.  [Accessed on April

25, 2003]http://www.phemphat.com/tara.html

    

Daley, True, Interview with Si Vu Play. [Accessed on April

25, 2003] http://www.phemphat.com/sivu.html

 

De Leon, Aya, “Vision/If Women Ran Hip Hop”. [Accessed on

April 25, 2003] http://www.ayadeleon.com/vision.html

 

DJ Ducats, Ladies on the One’s n’ Two’s.  HipHopCanada,

[accessed on April 13, 2003]. Available at

http://www.hiphopcanada.com/_site/entertainment/articles/ent_art073.php

 

Fuzion, Honeys Who Jam.  HipHopCanada, [accessed on

September 2002].

http://www.hiphopcanada.com/_site/entertainment/articles/ent_art020.php

 

Wilkes, Tachelle, “Nobody Knows My Name”: Women, Truth &

Hip-Hop, One on One with Filmmaker Rachel Raimist. [Accessed on April 25, 2003] Available at http://www.planet hiphop.com/bgyrl/interviews/rae.htm

 

 

 

 

 

Email Correspondences

 

Braithwaite, Wendy.  Email correspondence with author, May

1, 2003.

 

Semiramis, Eternia.  Email correspondence with author,

April 23, 2003.

 

 

Additional Internet Sites

 

www.phemphat.com

 

www.theCyberKrib.com

 

www.warparty.cjb.net

 

www.nativehiphop.net

 

www.hiphopcanada.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Motion (Wendy Braithwaite), Motion in Poetry (Toronto: Women’s Press, 2002).

[2] “tagging” is a term associated with the process of creating graffiti art, in which an artist painting a particular space (a wall or building, subway car etc.) is said to be tagging that particular space.

[3] Tricia Rose, Black Noise.  (London: Wesleyan University Press, 1994).

[4] Eternia (Semiramis), email correspondence with author, April 23, 2003.

[5] Motion (Wendy Braithwaite), email correspondence with author, May 1, 2003.

[6] Discussion between Awad Ibrahim and Rinaldo Walcott; question period following Walcott’s keynote address “Towards a Methodology for Reading Hip Hop in Canada”  (at Researching Black Canadian Musics and Black Music Cultures in Canada Conference Saturday, May 3, 2003).

[7] Rinaldo Walcott, “Towards a Methodology for Reading Hip Hop in Canada  (keynote address at the Researching Black Canadian Musics and Black Music Cultures in Canada Conference, May 1-3, 2003).

[8] Eternia (Semiramis), email correspondence with author, April 23, 2003.

[9] Razia Aziz, “Feminism and the Challenge of Racism: Deviance or Difference?  in, Black British Feminism: A Reader, ed. Heidi Safia Mirza (London: Routledge, 1997).

[10] Eternia (Semiramis), email correspondence to author, April 23, 2003.

[11] Information taken from Girlie Emcee’s online biography, http://www.warparty.cjb.net

[12] For further information on a number of Canada wide female hip hop artists see http://www.hiphopcanada.com/_site/entertainment/articles/ent_art073.php

[13] PhemPhat Productions is a company devoted to exposing and supporting female artists in all mediums of urban music in Canada.  The company recently gained the support and sponsorship of Universal Music Canada for its Honey Jam Showcase (2002), which takes place annually in Toronto, Ontario.  For more information on PhemPhat visit www.phemphat.com

[14] Tricia Rose, Black Noise.  (London: Wesleyan University Press, 1994).

[15] Tara Chase in an interview with Del Cowie.  http://www.phemphat.com/tara.html accessed on April 23, 2003

[16] Motion (Wendy Braithwaite), email correspondence with author, May 1, 2003.

[17] Tricia Rose, Black Noise.  (London: Wesleyan University Press, 1994).

[18] Ibid., 170.

[19] Deborah E. McDowell, Pecs and Reps: Muscling in on Race and the Subject of Masculinities.  In Harry Stecopoulos & Michael Uebel (eds.), Race and the Subject of Masculinities.  Durham: Duke University Press, 1997; pg.376.

[20] Enakshi Dua, “Canadian Anti-Racist Feminist Thought: Scratching the Surface of Racism” In Scratching the Surface: Canadian anti-racist feminist thought ed. Enakshi Dua & Angela Robertson (Toronto: Women’s Press, 1999).

[21] M. Nourbese Philip, A Genealogy of Resistance and Other Essays  (Toronto: The Mercury Press, 1997).

[22] Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1977).

[23] Audre Lorde, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.  in Flat- Footed Truths: Telling Black Women’s Lives, ed. Patricia Bell-Scott ( New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998).

[24] M. Nourbese Philip, A Genealogy of Resistance and Other Essays, (Toronto: The Mercury Press, 1997)

[25] Cecilia Bustamente, “The Poet and Her Text (Excerpt),”  in  A Genealogy of Resistance and Other Essays, ed. M. Nourbese Philip, (Toronto: The Mercury Press, 1997).

[26] M. Nourbese Philip, A Genealogy of Resistance and Other Essays (Toronto: The Mercury Press, 1997).

[27] Jessica Care Moore, The Words Don’t Fit in my Mouth (New York: Moore Black Press, 1997).

[28] Aya de Leon, “Vision/If Women ran hip hop” (2002).  http://www.ayadeleon.com/vision.html accessed on April 25, 2003.

[29] Eternia (Semiramis), email correspondence with author, April 23, 2003.

[30] Motion (Wendy Braithwaite), email correspondence with author, May 1, 2003.

[31] Emily Maureen Collins, “The birth of a new era: Women join forces to change the face of hip hop” <http://www.journalism.ryerson.ca/online/tangents/body/ecollins.htm> (April 25, 2003).

[32] Motion (Wendy Braithwaite), email correspondence with author, May 1, 2003.