- “Be deceived if ya wanna be foolish”: (Re)constructing Body, Genre, and Gender in Feminist Rap
Often black people can only say in tone, in nuance, in the set of the mouth, or in the shifting of the eyes what language alone cannot say. Perhaps because of the ambivalence we feel about language, we must put the body itself to use. The hearer must pay attention, take in with all the senses, so that the act of speaking and hearing moves closer, like a dance that must be entered into with one’s whole being. There is no dictionary to refer to. Perhaps every word we have uttered since slavery has in it that tension between possibility and doubt, language twisted like a horrible face—the tension from which art itself arises.—Toi Derricotte, The Black Notebooks
Punkuwait Punkuwait Punkuwait Punctuate Punctuate Period. Dem dialects don’t work Words don’t fit like sexy slave skirts—Jessica Care Moore, “The Words don’t FIT in my mouth”
We have fun rapping, and the crowd really grooves with us when we’re on stage.Pepa:
We give the audience something to look at. Some rappers just stand there, and they don’t have any steps. We dance very tight all through our songs.—Salt ‘N Pepa, Hot, Cool, & Vicious
Hip hop music gets a bad rap. Far too often it seems to be about the objectification of women, but hip hop artists position themselves around this topic in very complex ways. This complexity is missed when critics ignore the relationship between the verbal, musical, and corporeal levels of hip hop performance. Even as they make a show of their bodies—giving the audience “something to look at” as Salt ‘N Pepa do—female rappers often disrupt misogynist objectification by creating dissonance between the multiple layers of their performance. This dissonance reflects both a postmodern practice of resistance—subversion from within dominant modes of racialized and sexualized containment—and a long-standing tradition in African American cultures, from slave songs and quilts with hidden meanings to linguistic games and signifying stories. Within both traditions, artistic statements circulate about more than they seem to be.1 It is impossible to say just what they are “about,” as word, body, rhythm, and melody often communicate divergent messages.
In this paper, I analyze musical texts that refuse containment and categorization as much as the bodies they represent, fusing rap, jazz, and funk with poetry, performance art, and fashion. A number of strong female voices have emerged from within the hip hop industry, using rap music forms to assert their own identities and to critique the limited identifications offered for women within the genre.2 Their strategy is consistent with hip hop arts like dissing, posturing, mastering, mixing, and parodying antecedents with multi-tracked samples.3 They employ these artistic methods in powerful raps that seem, on the lyrical level, to echo slavery’s reduction of Black women to body and capital; but rhythm, tone, melody, and voice actively subvert this objectification. Poets Toi Derricotte and Jessica Care Moore suggest, in my epigraphs, that the English language requires physical contortions—twisting faces and dancing out of slave skirts—if it is to reflect African American identities since English has been antagonistic to Africanist values, experiences, and corporealities since slavery.4 Yet using the dominant language is the only sure way to address the dominant audience. In order to gain visibility within a racist and misogynist culture, the artists I analyze invoke the objectification of Black women but twist their content to exceed this framework.
I am most interested here in the recent work of Da Brat—the first solo female rapper to go platinum, and recently named the best woman in hip hop by Russell Simmon’s “One World Music Beat.” Other female rap acts—Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Yo-Yo—more clearly critique misogyny, but the ways in which they enact this critique distance them from the dominant media images of hip hop gender roles and thus limit their audiences. To a certain extent, Da Brat’s tremendous visibility can be attributed to the ways in which she invokes the...