My Mic Sounds Nice, Check One, Think Two

by Latoya Peterson

“Male rappers have such an amazing amount of power and influence. If they spend their time dissing African American women, then what’s expected of the people that are buying their records; its not much to be said for them to want to spend money to hear an African American woman speak her mind.”  — MC Lyte

Reader Tatisha sent in a request for us to cover BET’s My Mic Sounds Nice, saying “If that network could revamp it’s current negative image with one show, that was it.”

And was she ever correct. Over the long weekend, I caught up with my backlogged programming and found that in just one hour, the documentary managed to outshine all of the panels and conversations on hip hop and present a truly engaging conversation about the role of women and the evolution of hip-hop culture.

Ava DuVernay’s amazingly smart documentary relies on first hand testimony from those in the industry to provide the narrative, cutting between interviews with people like Eve, Trina, Joan Morgan, Chuck D, Roxane Shante, MC Lyte, Missy Elliot, Salt N Pepa, Rah Digga, Jermaine Dupri, Swizz Beatz, and Smokey Fontaine.

“Females don’t get as much exposure as men in hip-hop.” Eve provides a strong start, as the documentary begins to frame some of the challenges for women in the hip hop space.

Much of the discussion is reminiscing. Missy talks about crafting her first ryhme as a freshman in high school. A raft of women MCs including Roxanne Shante and MC Lyte reflect on how they got started in the industry, watching hip hop battles, providing answers to the assertions men made, or watching other women representing on stage.

MC Lyte and some of the other pioneers added moments of history in. Lyte traced the start of women in hip hop all the way back to Mercedes Ladies, then to Sequence and B. Angie B, who later became as neo-soul songstress Angie Stone. MC Lyte remembers Sha-Rock from the Funky Four and One More. Salt-N-Pepa wax on Roxanne’s Revenge, tributing Roxanne Shante.  Shante herself explains she was a “battle emcee…willing to battle anyone at any time without fear.”

Shante credits her willingness to go to war as a reason for her initial success. Salt N Pepa concurred, explaining “no one was trying to hear you unless you challenged someone one.” Battle rap was really how a lot of women were put on in the beginning, and its a sad reflection of our culture that this write of passage has fallen out of favor. But we’ll return to that in a moment.

Rah Digga observes how in that day, women had to rhyme like men in order to be taken seriously. Later in the doc, MC Lyte discusses studying her craft, and how she learned to rap from her diaphragm and not her throat. She demonstrates, and it’s hard not to notice how her voice also drops a few octaves, giving her that trademark depth. Was she subconsciously mirroring a male voice? That’s hard to say.

Jean Grae, looking nerdy-fabulous, talked about diversity – everyone in the game being themselves, and not feeling the need to conform to a mold. While women in the 80s had to prove they were vocal equals to men, visually speaking, women had a lot more options for presentation. The idea of rapper as eye candy wouldn’t come into vogue until the mid-90s, so women like Queen Latifah had a lot of fluidity with their images and could adopt a variety of images. Indeed, Queen Latifah came up often as a role model, with everyone from Lil’ Mama to Diamond to Medusa admiring that she claimed her own space “like an Amazon” and demanded respect.

Joan Morgan put the idea of women in hip hop in the 80s succinctly: “We thought of hip hop as ours – this wasn’t a male field and we were trying to break in.”

Most named the 90s as an era of change, where hip hop’s image of women stated to metamorphose into something completely different.

Lady of Rage talked about feeling pressured in as time went on to soften her look, to lose weight, to become more visually appealing, and all the female emcees echoed similar sentiments. They showed images of Da Brat at her debut and in the 1990s, noting that most women felt obligated to trade in their jeans, caps, and Tims for a more stereotypically feminine look.

However, the 90s wasn’t all negative – it was a time of redefinition for women. Kim Osario says it is hard to define a golden age of hip hop, but most women agreed that the mid 90s 90s was definitely a golden age – particularly in terms of framing the image of the genre.

In the 90s, there were dozens of female emcees signed. (A somewhat depressing graphic shows the faces of all the women who were being heard on the airwaves in the 80s, the large number in the 90s, and the handful that exist today).  Big Lez also talked about the crews, and how almost all camps had a woman signed. As Jean Grae noted “It’s almost chivalry – but it’s not.” Eve, who came up with Ruff Ryders, said she never thought about it, but the idea that a crew needed their “first lady” used to be considered a requirement.

Jermaine Dupri says many of these women were developed artists, and that the decline of artist development contributes to the thinning of the ranks.  However, Roxane Shante explains that being tied to a male dominated label meant you would rise and fall with the male reputations. Lady of Rage (famous for her afro puffs) talked about how at the time of her debut, Death Row Records was crumbling, which inadvertently took her down as well.

Salt mentions that how hip hop, period, is so male dominated, so masculine, that it’s just a difficult genre to survive in. Many of the established female rappers from the 80s said they were initially shocked at Kim & Foxy’s persona, but that led to what Jean Grae tagged as hip hop’s “sexual revolution.” Ultimately, due to Lil Kim and Foxy Brown’s lyrical skills and reclamation of the sexual self, it opened a new space for women to occupy lyrically.

However, to be unabashedly sexual brought about new problems, as well as a sense of liberation.  Smokey Fontaine points out that Kim strengthened the male fantasy because “you could kind of own her.” Big Lez points out how Kim appealed to almost every man on the planet because it was still an ownership fantasy, unlike Foxy’s I-could-take-you-or-leave-you attitude.  Aliya S. King pointed out how both Foxy and Kim were the sexualized rappers who can actually spit. And while both Foxy and Kim enjoyed massive respect from their contemporaries in the game, their legacy did give rise to the idea of emcee as eye candy.

Jean Grae talks about how sex sells, and in the 1990s that evoking one’s own sexuality switched from an individual preference to an industry imperative. Joan Morgan followed up by pointing out how the model of sex + rap sold, and became the model.

Yet, while everyone was trying to step their sexy game up, Lauryn Hill entered as another game changer -  which probably explains why why so many of us are still clinging to L-Boogie’s legacy nearly a decade and some later. Lauryn’s whole vibe and flow was being unabashedly her own, and there were heavy expectations put on Ms. Hill post Miseducation.

(Sidebar: Can I just say I remember watching this video on MTV and VH1 and wanting to be Lauryn Hill? From the hair down to the shoes to the city.)

The documentary spent a lot of time on the fall of Lauryn Hill.  People wanted Miseducation part II, and people were disappointed by the Unplugged album and many of L.Hill’s subsequent performances.  But what is interesting to note, MC Lyte, Big Lez, and many other women talked about how much respect they have for Lauryn to push back and preserve herself at the expense of her career. But…

“One person’s decade long break is another movement’s drought. Or tsunami.” – Questlove, on Lauryn Hill

Tiye Pheonix put forth a point that bears repeating:  L represented what is missing in hip hop culture;  to engage with that broader idea, we have to look at what is currently happening and not just mourn those who left the game.

The conversation then shifted to women and power within the industry.

Missy Elliot is the most commercially successful female emcee of all time. Her videos also helped her to stand out since she was amazing, unconventional, and unapologetic.  Much of Missy’s power, however, came from the fact that she is a writer, producer, and performer.  So why aren’t there more Missy Elliots?  Kevin Lyles said “there was no secret meeting to disempower women” but this is exactly what occurred, as women have felt the industry change the sharpest.

Chuck D explained that the industry basically said people have to sell millions. It’s a corporate decision, not solely reflection of the culture. However, the budget required to support a female artist is often presented as a reason why industry executives were unwilling to develop more women as talent. Trina and Kimberly Osario talked about the image, make up, hair, and how execs just made a budget decision, based on a bottom line.

Still, that line of reasoning struck me as strange.  They say men can wash and go – but these same labels still develop and push out low selling pop stars with the same types of budgetary considerations as female emcees. Why not the same treatment for rap stars?  I’m personally wondering if it’s an extension of devaluing black women on the corporate side.

As I pondered that, the camera cuts to MC Lyte, who pulls a power punch:

“Male rappers have such an amazing amount of power and influence. If they spend their time dissing African American women, then what’s expected of the people that are buying their records; its not much to be said for them to want to spend money to hear an African American woman speak her mind.”  — MC Lyte

Worrrrrd.

The film then shifted to one of the current queens of the game, Trina. As one of the few women left standing, Trina caters directly to her audience to stay relevant. Trina talks about her image being sexy, playing her position. She looks at it from a male perspective, saying:

“They don’t really wanna see you in the baggy jeans, they wanna see you sexy. It’s because you’re a female, I’m a dude, I’m not learning nothing from you, I just wanna see you. So whatever you’re talking about, I don’t really care, I want to see you…and that’s just real, that’s how it is.”

Nicki Minaj is brought up, and they talk about all the hoopla around Nicki Minaj, but how she’s appropriating the playbook of successful female emcees and creating a character. King notes that at the end of the day Minaj can rap. Still, there is a lot more hesitancy around Minaj’s legacy, as the women interviewed did not want to condemn her work.  However, the awkwardness was best captured by Phoenix who wondered “what is she creating?”

The documentary ends on a strong note, featuring all the women who participated in the doc as well as shouting out the names of many women who are currently paying their dues in the underground, who deserve a chance to shine. It’s a point that’s well made, and one hopes that BET commissions Ava DuVernay to continue this conversation.