[By Alysha Griffin]
Today, I conclude my Women in Hip-Hop series by providing part II of my interview with Nicole Hodges Persley. I continue to ask her about the performative aspects of hip-hop and how does the interplay of lyrics, videos, and performances come together to create overarching impressions of women’s place in the evolving culture.
“Raising the Roof: Black Women’s Voices in Hip Hop” series has aimed to provide alternative visions of black women and hip-hop.
Griffin: In Hip Hop, we hear a lot about the exploitation of women’s bodies. From your point of view, what can be said about women’s self representations in Hip Hop culture?
Persley: Everything can be said. We can link devaluation and exploitation of women’s bodies in Hip-hop to slavery. As a community, we have all incorporated, resisted and rejected the dysfunctional idea that black people are somehow inferior to whites, despite our understanding of race and gender as socially constructed. The racist residues of biological notions of inferiority are imbedded in our national imaginary. Black women have always improvised subversive strategies of self-representation. As Tricia Rose argues in her recent book “Hip-hop Wars” “ sexism socializes all men and women, we have to work against it; being anti-sexist doesn’t come naturally in a system that rewards us for participating”(Rose 2008, 174).
Griffin: Most people understand Hip Hop based on rap- lyrics, videos, and rap personas. So, with the degrading, misogynistic images perpetuated in rap music, it seems that women are essentially powerless in Hip Hop culture. But, when we broaden the scope of Hip Hop, we can consider the ways that it has been a tool for women. To what extent is Hip Hop oppressive to women, and is there some aspect or realm of Hip Hop where women are empowered and play a significant role?
Persley: This is a complex question. What I can say is that Hip-hop, to me, is reflective of the contradictory and complex relationships that black men and women have to one another. These relationships include but are not limited grandmother, mother, sister, daughter, wives, partners, etc., yet we only seem to define male-female relationships in term of sexuality—and heteronormative sexuality at that. So Hip-hop is still in a time-warp when it comes to understanding the fluidity of male-female relationships. So the whole argument that Tricia Rose puts forth in The Hip-hop Wars ( 2008) about ‘There are bitches in hoes” is really complex because it transcends narrow definitions of male-female relationships. So if there are some bitches and hoes, as many male identified MCs argue, then does that mean your mam and grandmother are bitches too? Your daughter? Those are fighting words in the African American community, but that’s that gray area of feminism that Joan Morgan talk about that some folks don't’ want to get into. But we have to go there.
To critique misogyny and sexism in Hip-hop can be very ostracizing for black female artists because it is often read as a critique of all black men. If you want make it as an MC, dancer, etc., there is an unspoken rule that you have to comply to a particular formula-- sexually available and promiscuous. Artists such as Lil Kim and Nikki Minaj attempt to work within this formula by subverting this image in powerful ways- lyrically discussing their marginalization in the business, using videos to redress the exploitation of women (for example Nikki Minaj’s Super Bass) But many don't’ get the critique they present.
Commercial Hip-hop is manufacturing sexism against black women in epidemic proportions. How does this resonate to young black men and women coming of age, across class lines? We reward sexism. Many black women that participate in the industry accept the sexism and manipulate the terms of success it mandates by using their power in the video to gain other opportunities. For example ex-video dancer Lauren London is now a successful actress and argues that exposure in the videos of several mainstream artists was integral to her establishing herself as an actress. So what type of message does that send to young women who want to become dancers, actors, rappers? In order to be successful, you have to present yourself in a sexually provocative and/ or hypersexual way. Lauryn Hill critiqued such disease in the industry and resisted it. She was rewarded and then later punished. Hills demand for respect in the business has resulted in the mainstream labeling her as crazy, so how do we reconcile this? We have yet to see anything from her since 2002. Artists such as Latish, MC Lyte, Miss Detroit, Invincible, Jean Grae, Mystical, Medusa, all resist the “goldigger/ho” stereotype in Hip-hop. But does anyone know their name? Not many. There is so much work to do.
Griffin: Coming from a literary perspective, in what ways do you think black women perform in literature? How are they dramatized in text?
Persley: I think these questions overlap in that they that speak to the notion of author and text and characters within texts. We have to consider the performative connections between the author, intended audience, reader and the characters. When we look to fiction to get an idea of “how people are” we have to be careful because an author, like a playwright, has the capacity to use creative license to revise history. As Suzan-Lori Parks discusses in much of her work, writing a piece of fiction (novels, plays, etc.) is writing history. When Parks talks about writing history she is also signifying on the idea of “righting.” Our history is, or as Harry Elam argues, “our past is always present.” Parks encourages to dig—to literally and figuratively dig into history, in the archive, in our experiences, imagination etc., into our fears, etc. to reimagine the boundaries and limitless potential of expressing black subjectivity. This is frightening to many of us because we have been given a series of formulas of “how to be” a writer, a scholar, an actor. We have been given a series of formulas that tell us how we can “be”. Scholar/artists across genres such as Zora Neale Hurston, Sonia Sanchez, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Naomi Wallace, Suzan-Lori Parks, Dael Orlandersmith, Adrienne Kennedy, Robbie McCauley, Adrian Piper, Barbara Christian, Sandra Richards, E. Patrick Johnson, Harry Elam, Maryemma Graham, Marcyliena Morgan, Joan Morgan…. just a roll call of their names gives us power to—challenge the status quo and reimagine ourselves in new ways.
Hip-hop’s use of sampling is a very liberating lens for me and I use it as an artist and scholar. The idea of borrowing a part of an existing piece of music and repurposing it to create something original –something that may or may not have a direct connection to the original work can be expanded to think about how we write ourselves across genres, experiences, and everyday living. Why can’t I write an African American female character that is an expatriate that listens to the Grateful Dead, dates a Chinese American woman, both living on the beach in Croatia and is divorced from a man with whom she has left her three children? How do we process such a character vis-a vis- the confines of identity that have been ascribed to black women in literature and theater by the majority in a U.S. context? We have a rich tradition subverting these mainstream definitions of black female subjectivity and we must remember it when we write. To not be boggled by change we have to remember not to measure ourselves against a set of rubrics that do not hold and that are ultimately essentializing in non-productive ways. Parks and Hip-hop inspire me to take cross borders that limit what I can or cannot do as an artist/scholar. So as far as the way that Black women are dramatized in text—we have to ask how are we defining text? Whose text? What text? Whose text? What are the limitations of text? Aren’t we always already dramatized? Our very existence is based in our capacity to express and represent ourselves--vividly, emotionally, or strikingly—this is the core of dramatization and our lives are always doing that work.