MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Gentle Pressure, Relentlessly Applied: Women’s Voices in a Man’s World

Hip-hop music is a male-dominated field, although there have long been female voices fighting for a place above the testosterone-heavy fray. When the predominant voice of a culture, artistically, politically, and socially, belongs to one gender, how does the other perspective get heard — and, when it is heard, taken seriously?

This weighed heavily on my mind following a late-night AFI Dallas screening of Say My Name, a documentary about female hip-hop artists. Say My Name takes us from New York to London, from Los Angeles to Philly, from Atlanta to Detroit, as director Nirit Peled gathers the stories of the women who paved the way for female MCs and rap artists, and the younger generation who have been inspired by those who came before them.

The stories of these women and the unique perspectives they express through their music are compelling and inspiring, as Peled presents the audience with a brief (albiet abridged) history of women in hip-hop. While the film does give a solid rundown of a good many female hip-hop artists past and present, fromRoxanne Shante to Estelle, it’s largely absent the context of the rise of artists like Salt-N-PepaMissy “Misdemeanor” ElliottQueen Latifah and Lauryn Hill (although Erykah Badu and MC Lyte are represented) , and doesn’t delve as deeply as it could into artists like Lil Kim and Foxy Brown, who took the sexualization and objectification prevalent in the male hip-hop community’s attitude toward women to a whole new level, exploiting themselves as much as any man would have dared.

On the other hand, Say My Name does explore the lesser-known history of female hip-hop through the stories of many of the women, past and present, who’ve fought to find a place within a field where men have largely dominated the mics. These women are mothers, artists, modern-day poets and bards, spirited advocates for the power of the female voice. Their music often speaks to the same core issues found in the music of male hip-hop and rap artists: poverty and political disenfranchisement, power and powerlessness, class, race and gender divides — but from a feminine view those issues can look very different from the same social and political issues filtered through the perspective of a male artist.

Some of the more interesting voices Peled does include in Say My Name are Chocolate Thai (she has a great bit toward the end where the talks about the writing she did while pregnant with her son); Mystic (a heartbreaking story about her song “Fatherless Child,” which she wrote after learning of her father’s death due to a heroin overdose) and Roxanne Shante (whose freestyle rap “Roxanne’s Revenge,” made when she was a sassy fourteen-year-old with a gift for irony and rhyme, is iconic in the history of female hip-hop).

One of the most fascinating subjects was Detroit’s MC Invincible, who immigrated to the US from Israel at age seven and learned English, in part, through an early love of hip-hop. Invincible is particularly interesting for the way in which she views music as a means of social activism. She’s heavily involved in a non-profit community collective, Detroit Summer, which organizes youth around social issues; the way in which Invincible has fully integrated art, life, and helping others was a standout among many inspiring stories; she speak to real issues around poverty, economy and community intelligently and passionately, and I could have watched an entire documentary — or an 8 Mile-type feature film — just about her story and her ideas.

What Say My Name lacks, though, is a deeper exploration of issues such as the differences in how female hip-hop artists actively portray ideas around female power and sexuality, as opposed to the passive role women tend to be relegated to in the lyrics (and videos) of male hip-hop artists. It also doesn’t explore much the long history of women in hip-hop needing an established male artist to discover or “vouch” for them to allow them to break into the industry in a significant way (as with Estelle, who’s Kanye West’s “protege”); nor does it delve as deeeply as it could into the dominance in hip-hop overall of the idea that women are “bitches” and “hos” who exist to be used by men as accessories or sexual objects rather than being appreciated and validated by the male hip-hop audience as intelligent artists in their own right.

Neither does Peled attempt to draw any parallels between the disenfranchisement of women in hip-hop with women struggling to have their voices heard in other male-dominated fields. Because the director never pulls together a strong thesis tying this otherwise potent history of women in a male-dominated musical world into a broader exploration of socio-political issues, Say My Name, for all its merits, tends at times to feel like little more than a VH-1 “Whatever Happened To…?” focusing on female hip-hop artists of the past, while more time is spent on today’s female artists with them rapping lyrics and one-upping than discussing the problems they face (this is particularly a problem when the lens is focused on the London-based artists).

We do get tantalizing bits and pieces of the pertinent issues, in particular the obstacles these female artists face in achieving financial success on par with both their own notoriety and the success achieved by male artists making similar music, but the focus is more on the “what” and not enough on the “why.” I would have liked to have heard some of these women discuss more the reasons they think the gender disparity in hip-hop exists. Do they see it as reflective of broader issues other women fighting to make a name for themselves in predominantly male fields (software development, electrical and mechanical engineering, architecture, research science, surgery and, of course, film) also face? Or do they see the disparity in hip-hop as being related more specifically to gender relationships in African American culture or other factors?

Does it really matter if female musicians, writers and directors are able to get their voices heard? Absolutely. Music and film are inroads to popular culture that allow feminist perspectives to be heard and, over time, accepted, more broadly than the fieriest, most impassioned speech by a feminist talking head being interviewed on CNN. When women speak about feminist issues, it’s easy to tune them out; wrap the same ideas of female empowerment in relationships, the strength of women in communities, or the power of women socially and politically within smart, ironically constructed rhymes laid over a catchy hip-hop beat, though, and you start getting somewhere — both with empowering young girls who will glean and hone their own philosophies and worldviews from the artistic expressions they’re exposed to and, eventually, subtly infiltrating acceptance of those ideas into an entire culture.

The women profiled in Say My Name are raising their voices to be heard, but are the men listening? While some of them may emulate the sass and attitude of Queen Latifah or Missy Elliott, they have yet to achieve that level of prominence in their field — and it may be worth noting that both of Latifah and Elliott earned their respect without selling their bodies along with their music; it was their message, their attitude, their take-no-bullshit attitude that demanded respect from their male counterparts, that fueled their rise above the fray. M.I.A , who’s not profiled in the film, may be the closest thing we have right now to a female musician who demands that kind of respect, and even she has to wrap her socio-political messages in a veneer of whimsy and “swagga” to be heard.

In the end, it may not matter whether the men listen or not. If female artists keep putting their voices out there, challenging ideas around gender roles and societal structure, and acting as role models for their young female fans about what a strong, intelligent woman looks and acts like, perhaps those ideas will become such a part of the subconscious mindset of the young women coming up behind them that eventually, male hip-hop ideas of women as bitches and hos will fall by the wayside as the women they’re rapping about refuse to accept being painted in that light, and fight back against that misogyny with life and relationship choices as well as song lyrics.

Years ago, I had a sign over my desk that’s still one of my favorite reminders when the road seems long and the goals unattainable: “Gentle pressure, relentlessly applied.” Female artists, regardless of the canvas on which they work, have to keep that pressure going, even when it seems no one is listening, and fight to ensure their voices are heard.

– by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon