Last night, I got my nose out of the book I was reading (Ien Ang’s Desperately Seeking the Audience, for curious parties) and went out to shake a tail feather. The Majestic, a local venue in Madison, hosted a hip hop-themed 80s vs. 90s dance party.
Obviously, I don’t need to defend the merits of hip hop’s golden era. OutKast’s ATLiens, Tribe’s Midnight Marauders, Queen Latifah’s All Hail the Queen, Wu-Tang’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Nas’ Illmatic, Biggie’s Ready to Die, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, De La Soul’s Stakes Is High, Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly, Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride, Goodie Mob’s Soul Food, Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s Very Necessary, Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, MC Lyte’s Lyte as a Rock, and The Fugees’ The Score all belong in the history books as much as they do in my car. Since this music scored my adolescence and many bedroom dance parties, I was happy to raise a glass and toast myself on the floor.
As this was the music of my youth, it was also the music of my feminist awakening. While I recognize that many female MCs don’t associate with the term “feminism,” their commanding presence and demand for self-respect and sexual autonomy was hugely influential on how I came to understand the world and my place in it as a teenage girl and later as an adult woman. Later I’d acquire a copy of Tricia Rose’s definitive Black Noise, a tremendously influential piece of hip hop scholarship that I believe has only been surpassed by her more recent effort, The Hip Hop Wars.
Lest we encase this era of mainstream hip hop in amber, there are a number of contemporary female MCs whose careers and artistic contributions warrant attention, including Psalm One, Dessa, Las Krudas, Nicki Minaj, Invincible, Miz Korona, MicahTron, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Lady Sovereign, JNaturaL, Rita J, and Jean Grae, among so many others. Let’s also not forget the veteran female artists who rose to prominence during this point in popular musical history and are still in the game. Missy forever.
Last night, the deejay represented Ladybug Mecca from Digable Planets, Lauryn Hill in Nas’ “If I Ruled the World,” along with Janet Jackson, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Queen Latifah, and (after I checked in with one of the deejays) TLC. But c’mon–this was a monumental time for women in hip hop, as well as female R&B groups who were influenced by hip hop and hip hop culture. A handful of songs hardly suffice when you could devote an entire night to women’s contributions to hip hop during this period.
To be fair, I didn’t hear Positive K’s “I Got a Man,” Bone Thugs’ “First of the Month,” or the Bad Boy remix of Craig Mac’s “Flava in Your Ear” either. But as fine a time as I had last night, there were a number of voices I’d like to have heard from folks like Amil, Erykah Badu, Eve, Lil Kim, Rah Digga, Foxy Brown, maybe even dig deep into the crates for some Sparky D. Some of them may have gotten their due after I left. But all of them necessitate future dance parties. Maybe some clips can help get one started. Feel free to make requests.
The other night, my heart broke while watching Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. It seems like All That Heaven Allows has a greater impact on the culture–feminists love Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson provides ample fodder for the queer theorists, it got the Criterion treatment along with Written on the Wind. However, Todd Haynes seems equally influenced by Heaven and Imitation, bringing both films’ preoccupations with closeted identities and tenuous racial integration into Far From Heaven.
Imitation resonated with me in terms of how women attempt to form bonds across racial lines and the racism and self-loathing women internalize to accommodate white Eurocentic beauty standards. I can’t relate to the second issue like Sarah Jane Johnson (Karin Dicker as a child, Susan Kohner as a teenager), a biracial girl attempting to pass as white in pre-Civil Rights America. Nonetheless, I ache for her to love and accept Annie (Juanita Moore), her black single mother who works as a caretaker for Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), a successful Broadway actress whose career places demands against being a full-time mother to daughter Suzie (Terry Burnham, later Sandra Dee).
As a white woman, I’m sensitive to Annie and Lora’s friendship and its power imbalances. Black and white women historically have a difficult time being friends. It’s hard to ignore cultural differences and systems of inequality while holding onto them at the same time, figuring out when to be empathetic and remembering to treat people as individuals and not symbols. Speaking in generalities, many white women feel good about being friends with black women, and thus disregard black women’s humanity. They aren’t friends with black women so much as they’re proud of themselves for being friends with black women, factoring black women out in the process. When you bring in the racial injustices waged by white mainstream feminism(s), it’s little wonder that many black women’s default mode around white women is incredulity.
Annie convinces Lora to hire her as a nanny when Lora is still struggling to break into show business and Annie is ostensibly homeless. However, Lora becomes a sensation, acquiring the means to essentially buy her friend. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Lora enslaves Annie, because I’m cautious to use a term so loaded that disregards Annie’s agency and suggests that Lora doesn’t consider Annie to be a person. But Annie is staff. As she reminds Lora late in the film, she’s paid to be the mother Lora didn’t have time to be. The sad irony is that she’s more of a mother to a blonde white girl than she is to her own daughter, who wants very badly to be treated like a blonde white girl.
Since it’s a Sirk movie, there are some amazing shots that beautifully visualize key themes. The opening credits shimmer as an avalanche of diamonds overwhelm the frame. They gesture toward Lora’s opulence. About half of the film’s budget was for Turner’s wardrobe, and I’d imagine most of it was spent on jewelry. The credits are accompanied by a song that shares the film’s title, sung by Earl Grant. The word “imitation” suggests that the diamonds could be fake, and thus represent a emotional hollowness underneath Sarah Jane’s aspirations. Don’t be an imitation of life, the song encourages. Embrace who you truly are. Lauryn Hill gave similar advice to self-hating black women in “Doo Wop (That Thing)”: “don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem.” In this context, the jewels are garish and oppressive.
Another image that stays with me is Sarah Jane’s discarded black doll. Perhaps because I came of age during kinderwhore and the mainstream coopting of riot grrrl, dolls embody a white feminine ideal. As Ann DuCille notes in her seminal essay, “Dyes and Dolls: Multicultural Barbie and the Merchandising of Difference,” that ideal often excludes black femininity and its integration is troubled by colorism, hair politics, and fallacy of colorblindness. Even though I don’t want girls to see themselves as dolls, I don’t want Sarah Jane to hate the doll in her arms.
Sirk’s Imitation was the second film adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel. A lot of changes were made, particularly that Lora became independently successful as an actress instead of building her fortune on Annie’s pancake recipe. The casting is also interesting. Sarah Kohner is Jewish and Mexican American. She’s not black, and perhaps today the part would go to Hallie Steinfield (though don’t be so sure). But I think Kohner is a more progressive casting choice than Natalie Wood, who was considered for the role.
It hurts to witness Sarah Jane’s desire to pass as white and her anger toward her mother that she can’t. She’s well aware of the limited choices and consequences of her racial identity, but hates her mother and herself instead of a racist society that so totally values whiteness. I was angry with Sarah Jane for how she treats her mother, and how Annie allows herself to be treated. She removes herself from Sarah Jane’s life as requested rather than fight to stay in it. I wanted her to shake Sarah Jane for her racist behavior and tell her that black is beautiful. But maybe this is just what I wanted to see, affirming that audiences prefer films that represent racism as a choice made by characters instead of an entrenched societal problem.
Annie dies of a broken heart after Sarah Jane runs away to be a white chorus girl. She returns for the funeral, throwing herself on the casket and claiming that she killed her mother. There are so many powerful moments in the final sequence, though I was particularly moved by the image of a black boy having his hat removed by an adult as a sign of respect when Annie’s carriage passes by. But Mahalia Jackson’s performance as a church soloist defines the film. I don’t want to make Jackson the voice of the Civil Rights Movement anymore than I want Annie to be reduced to a sacrificial figure, but it’s hard not to feel shame and heartbreak in Jackson’s solemn rendition of “Trouble of the World.” Mavis Staples believed the NPR segment linked above would make listeners stop and take in the power and grace of Jackson’s voice. She certainly does that in Imitation, reminding us of two lives cut short by racism that deserved to be lived.
I’ve never cared for Alicia Keys. “Fallin'” may be the song that launched her career and got butchered at countless American Idol auditions, but “frontin'” is the verb I associate with her. Yet articulating these feelings means checking any impulse to serve as the race police. Where does a white southern girl get off calling a New Yorker of mixed racial heritage a phony?
A few months ago, I was tipsy in my house. The Grammy nominations were announced, and I went on a rant about the Arcade Fire. Deeming them Grammy bait, this dovetailed into me yelling about Taylor Swift and then, as if the heavens parted, I announced that Alicia Keys is exactly like Swift. My reasoning was that they both project an air of authenticity that I think makes them even more artificial. They also let Grammy voters feel really progressive for championing young women and artists of color, even though both artists do very little to upset traditional notions of gender and race. Also, it don’t hurt that they’re pretty and align with conventional (re: white) beauty standards. Or something like that. You’d have to ask my partner what I actually said. He thought I had a point and should explore it in a post, but he probably also thought the drunk lady needed a nap.
Shortly thereafter, I attended a bachelorette party. Back at the hotel, one of the guests put on As I Am as we were getting ready to throw lingerie at our friend (I bought a gift card to a local fetish boutique; I’m liberated, but I’m not the friend who buys you drawers). “Superwoman” came on and one of my friends mused “I really like this song.” Given the proceedings, and that the honoree was a friend from the college feminist group I was involved in, it was somewhat in the spirit of the evening. I think I gave said friend a reassuring nod and poured myself a margarita.
In theory, I like “Superwoman.” It’s got a nice message. I thought it was cool when Keys performed it with Queen Latifah and Kathleen Battle at the American Music Awards a few years back. As a feminist, I should like it. But I just can’t get into Keys. I’m bracketing off her film career, though I do want to see Smoking Aces and The Secret Life of Bees at some point. I do like one Keys song, which is also off As I Am. “Teenage Love Affair” is pretty catchy. But my enjoyment has much to do with “(Girl) I Love You” by the Temprees, which Keys’ hit generously samples from. The strings, groove, and backing beat all inform Keys’ track and make it irresistible. Keys’ vocals fluctuate between gleeful innocence and carnal grit. The lyrics, though trite, suggest expressions of teen female sexuality too complex and conflicted for the virgin/whore binary.
But I’m not fond of the video, which repurposes Spike Lee’s School Daze. The source material is a disquieting film about the political life and troubling race and gender relations at a historically black college. The clip is a sweet love story between two college students (played by Keys and Derek Luke). Luke’s character registers as sensitive because he leads demonstrations for AIDS relief in Africa (he also lines up with Keys’ charity work). Vaughn Dunlap’s anti-aparthied efforts in School Daze didn’t suggest he was an enlightened male. Like many progressive males, his activism often engendered deeply ingrained chauvinism, misogyny, and elitism.
People treat Keys like a Serious Artist when I think she’s silly. When the press dubs certain musicians as Serious Artists, I’m automatically incredulous and looking for threads to pull (I did come around on Joanna Newsom and Antony Hegarty, though). Molly Lambert recently compared Keys to fellow New Yorker Billy Joel in a write-up on “Un-thinkable,” which placed 64th on Pitchfork’s Top 100 Tracks last year. I get the comparison–they’re piano-playing balladeers with an Empire state of mind. It’d be pretty cool if Keys had a defunct metal band in her closet, though I’ll take her Cosby Show cameo.
More than anything, Keys reminds me of world-class showboater Céline Dion, who is completely artless about how her big dumb feelings play out on stage. Keys’ scenery-chewing performance of “Adore” during the Prince medley at the BET Awards? Totally a Dion move. Actually, I’d really like to see Dion roll around on a piano. Wait, no I wouldn’t. Okay, yes I would. Keys doesn’t have Dion’s pipes, but she pumps love songs with such empty bombast that it becomes ridiculous. Maybe I just filter too many things through irony. Or maybe I think there’s something hollow about her performed earnestness. It’s probably both. Back me up, Maria Bamford.
Not that Billy Joel is above being a silly goose. What is boomer pablum like “We Didn’t Start the Fire” if not dead serious and, thus, sublimely silly. Damn you, Cola wars!
There’s also something insidious about the racial politics of Keys’ critical success. Upon arrival, I was always suspicious that the press and music industry embraced Keys in response to Lauryn Hill’s rapid artistic decline. In 1999, Hill swept the Grammys. By 2002, Hill went into hiding and Keys was the lauded newcomer. Both dropped out of Columbia, won Best New Artist, and had the burden of model minority status to deal with. But Keys was the one with a steady career. She latched on to political causes that relied on institutional reform rather than radical action. Hill made one of the best records of the 90s and then promptly got branded as crazy, in part for questioning a racist music industry. One fit in, the other dropped out. Given her status, Keys was able to assert an urban black female identity, so long as it was diluted and palateble to a white audience. She did this largely through sartorial choices and in generic identification that could accomodate a mass audience.
I would imagine the presence of Keys’ white mother eased some people’s concerns. It certainly seemed to give her allowances. When she wed Swizz Beats, who was married when they got together, few raised an eyebrow. The rumor mill was not so kind to Fantasia Barrino. But I’m not making any pronouncements that Keys plays up her blackness or projects a studied black authenticity. I will say that I think it is a performance, and one I don’t particularly care for, but will leave it at that. Stronger claims are dangerous. I have no right to assume how Keys conceptualizes her identity.
Furthermore, I don’t know how one negotiates mixed heritage and issues of passing and representing. Having seen friends work through it, I can gather that it’s a fraught ongoing process but refuse to offer judgment over something I can never experience. Nor am I intending to blame Keys for benefiting from institutional racism, as I’m sure she could tell me some stories. What I am saying is that there’s something profoundly unsettling about a music industry that treats talented black women as replaceable. I am also saying Keys has benefited from this system. As has Beyoncé, an artist I like but gave me pause after she donned blackface and performed for Hannibal Gaddafi.
I don’t have a tidy conclusion to offer. I’m still struggling with why I don’t like Alicia Keys and what racist underpinings might inform my disdain. I’m tempted to chalk it up to having little regard for a competent musician championing love one bland pop song at a time, but I know it’s never that simple.
On Monday, BET premiered My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth about Women in Hip-hop, which was posted in full on Miss Info’s Web site. Unfortunately, the first two segments have since been taken down, but you can see clips on the BET Web site.
In truth, I’m waiting for Rachel Raimist to drop some science on it for The Crunk Feminist Collective next Monday, as she promised on Kristen at Dear Black Woman‘s Facebook page. I’m pretty sure the director of the fantastic Nobody Knows My Name, the forebear of BET’s inquiry on gender and hip hop, has some exquisite criticism plotted out. I’ll read, re-tweet, and provide a link in this entry when the blog post goes live.
Also, if you aren’t following The Crunk Feminist Collective, consider this your call to action. rboylorn’s piece this week about black women and depression was one of the best things I read in recent memory.
But I did see My Mic Sounds Nice and, as a feminist hip hop fan who is also a big fan of Nirit Peled’s Say My Name, feel I should use this space to comment and start a dialogue about it. Overall, I liked it.
1. I’m happy BET felt the need to address this subject matter at all. As far as I know, this was the first documentary made for the network and, not unlike Mad Men‘s Birth of the Independent Woman documentary included in the DVD set for season two, the network’s larger programming context was incorporated into the documentary’s narrative. They could’ve done this quite a bit more — say, launch into a discussion of BET: Uncut — but I’m happy a discussion’s starting.
2. Ava DuVernay directed My Mic Sounds Nice. If that name is familiar, you might have seen her documentary This Is the Life: How the West Was One, which I recommended in a previous post.
3. There’s a good mix of mainstream and independent female MCs. I like seeing Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Lil Mama, and Jean Grae share screen time.
4. In general, the documentary is a good primer for the development of women in hip hop. And early in the documentary, there’s lots of great context for nascent female involvement through battle rapping and emphasis placed on now-obscured female acts like the Sequence.
5. The overall approach to talking about women in hip hop is refreshingly discursive. DuVernay frames each voice and opinion as distinct and weaves differing or contradictory viewpoints from each subject. For example, it puts Yo-Yo’s intimations that she felt pressure to project a hyper-sexual image in the wake of Foxy Brown and Lil Kim’s mainstream success in the mid-90s in sharp relief to Trina and Nicki Minaj’s lucrative construction of their personae.
There are some things I felt a little strange about, though. These issues don’t speak to the documentary, but rather internal struggles from within a music industry conditioned toward conventional business practices, which hinge on patriarchal thinking.
1. Many mainstream artists — particularly EVE, who came up through the Ruff Ryders crew — have no problem with male mentorship and don’t feel any need to challenge or question it. Conversely, some male recording execs frame certain female MCs’ success as inherently positive, regardless of their views on gender and sexuality.
2. Likewise, there’s some strange pathology around mainstream female rappers being more of a financial drain on the music industry because of conventional beauty ideals. I don’t want to pathologize women of color any further by making essentializing claims about the upkeep of black hair and will instead refer you to Dear Black Woman’s rules. However, I find Missy Elliott, EVE, and Trina’s unchallenged claims that female hip hop artists have to be glamorous and therefore financially burdensome against the idea that male MCs just have to throw on jeans and a t-shirt in need of greater complication. How might fashion-forward MCs like André 3000 and Kanye West challenge this? And why do female MCs have to be conventionally attractive in order to be successful? While the latter is a rhetorical question, I’ll continue to keep asking it.
3. I love Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott. Also, I know how Hill’s absence from the music industry speaks to a profound loss within the genre, but I would’ve liked a) less time devoted exclusively to them, b) more conflicting opinions about them beyond universal praise, and c) a larger context of what other female rappers were doing — particularly in the underground — during their commercial reign.
4. A key idea that is both perpetuated and challenged is that female MCs don’t sell. I would have appreciated more nuance about the state of the music industry in general. Hip hop’s boom crested into pop music’s record-breaking commercial success in the late-90s. However, the 2000s have largely been defined by the ubiquity of digital music culture and a bankrupt music industry. Surely this speaks more to low sales than the cost of hiring and maintaining a glam squad for a female MC.
Best of all, though, the documentary ends with a look toward the future. The interview subjects plug female MCs they think will continue the legacy. Refreshingly, and with not a little business savvy, much consideration is given to underground artists. Jean Grae name-checks Iris and Psalm One. Fembassy editor-in-chief Glennisha Morgan recommends Invincible. A genre with all of them working in continuum with Nicki Minaj is one I’ll continue to follow.
You may have seen my recent post about the space in my heart forever reserved for Lauryn Hill. I included a link to an NPR story about her. If you clicked on it, you may have noticed that Hill is one of many artists comprising NPR’s 50 Great Voices. The year-long series is about half-way through its run. Thus, there are still several artists yet to be revealed. Hopefully more hip hop artists will also appear on the list, as Hill is presently holding court alone.
The series’ selection process began with listeners offering suggestions. Kristen at Act Your Age elbowed me to submit a list, which I remember included Édith Piaf, Björk, and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe. From there, a panel pooled together their selections. Between these two resources, a list of nominees was formed, out of which the chosen 50 great voices emerge. Perhaps this process sounds over-involved and potentially off-putting, especially to listeners whose favorites were not chosen. However, at the risk of sound like a shill for NPR, I’ve liked most of the results so far and appreciate what this series is trying to accomplish.
1. It’s not definitive. Note that this is not the “50 GREATEST Voices OF ALL TIME EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE THE END” or some such hyperbole. These are just 50 great vocalists, with the recognition that there are thousands more who are just as great.
2. It’s not particularly interested in ushering celebrated singers into another canon. Apparently Frank Sinatra is not on this list because of his considerable renown. So much the better to discover other voices time forgot. Plus I never see Jackie Wilson in consideration for any canon, and that’s a shame.
3. Its attempts at incorporating a global focus. As the “national” in NPR refers to the United States and has been recognized as one of the many things white people like, I find this quite admirable. While I don’t pretend to imagine there aren’t biases at work, I do think many of the selections are great. Another list may have Pakistan’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sing for the Middle East, so I’m glad Afghanistan’s Ahmad Zahir is included. I hope this interest in singers outside of a U.S. or Western European musical context remains consistent.
3A. I’m learning about so many female vocalists I’ve never heard of before who are blowing my mind. Hello, Radmilla Cody. Greetings, Asha Bhosle. How are you, Elis Regina? Hope you’re doing well, Esma Redzepova. Nice to meet you, Fairuz. You as well, Sezen Aksu. It’s nice to have you all together with artists I’m a little more familiar with, like Lydia Mendoza (who I learned about at the American Sabor exhibit), as well as old faves like Hill, Ella Fitzgerald, Sandy Denny, Umm Kulthum, and Mahalia Jackson and deserved mainstays like fellow Texan Janis Joplin.
3B. Iggy Pop is on the list, which is awesome. It’s also a personal reminder to check out that standards album he cut a while back.
4. Its emphasis on sociohistoric context, technical ability, and musicianship. Each segment contains lots of good information from scholars and experts explaining their cultural and musical significance.
4A. The archivist geek in me is thrilled to hear some evident sound restoration, as some of the original recordings may not have been in great shape. The more people are given access to music — particularly historically significant music that may have suffered archival neglect or was previously unavailable — the happier I am.
Tune in Monday evenings to hear who the next great voice will be. While I hope some of my nominees will be represented, I look forward to hearing whoever might be included. I’m also happy to keep collaborating on a list here with you readers long after the series concludes.
On Monday’s drive home, I tuned in to NPR’s All Things Considered. There was promise of a story on rapper/singer Lauryn Hill later in the broadcast, but it didn’t air while I was in the car. Thus, I picked it up via Twitter and listened to it yesterday.
Since I tend to comment on things in pairs, my interests in the brief feature were two-fold.
1. It contained some people talking about how they grew up listening to her music.
2. The reclusive Hill was herself interviewed and intimated that she may be recording again.
I may not have a signed meal card like one of her fans talks about in the piece, but too grew up with Hill. The Fugees rose to fame in the mid-90s, approximately around my awful year in 7th grade. While I hadn’t listened to the debut Blunted on Reality, MTV engineered the feeling that I discovered them. I remember first seeing L-Boogie, Wyclef, and Praz on Squirt TV. A few weeks later, the music video for “Fu-Gee-La” played on Yo! MTV Raps. And then their cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” took over the world, selling millions of copies of their 1996 breakthrough album The Score, putting the group on the cover of Rolling Stone and catapulting Hill to superstar status.
It didn’t hurt that The Score was a great record. With the glaring exception of that racist skit in the Chinese restaurant, most songs on the album bridge pop accessibility with political nuance and a distinct cinematic quality that showcased each members individual talents. “The Beast,” “Ready or Not,” “Family Business,” especially “The Mask” . . . this album is a classic to me.
But then Hill struck out on her own and made The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which came out in 1998. I loved it. It was so affirming and singular and deserved all the Grammys it received, including the first Album of the Year given to a hip hop full-length. I was so thrilled by her success. To me, she was the whole package: great singer, dexterous rapper, smart, funny, politically conscious, and beautiful to boot.
Of course, then things got complicated. Lawsuits were filed. Hill never recorded a proper follow-up and reports circulated of increasingly erratic behavior. I recall someone asking why Lauryn Hill wasn’t included in the hip hop documentary Say My Name at a Q&A following a SXSW screening. Director Nirit Peled stated that Hill was originally approached to be in the documentary, but told the crew not to look her in the eyes and refused to answer to anything but “Ms. Hill.” Having heard similar things elsewhere, I’ve long been of the mind that the music industry really damaged her.
But I’ve always rooted for her. At the risk of drawing inappropriate comparisons, I have much more invested in Hill returning to music than, say, Courtney Love (who recently played with Hole at the 9:30 Club to at least one irate critic). I was excited to see the Fugees reform for Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, but glad that they didn’t do much past record a track or two if it didn’t feel right to them. I don’t want Hill to force a comeback. But if she’s ready, I’m here to listen.