[By Alysha Griffin]
For “Raising the Roof: Black Women’s Voices in Hip Hop” series, I interviewed Tammy Kernodle. Kernolde, an Associate Professor of Musicology at Miami University, Oxford, has served as the Scholar in Residence for the Women in Jazz Initiative at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Missouri and has lectured extensively on the operas of William Grant Still, the life and religious compositions of jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams.
Given Kernodle’s background, her perspective on black women in hip-hop culture is informed by a larger historical and social tradition of black women and music culture in general.
Griffin: To start things off, what intrigues you about Hip Hop, particularly, women in Hip Hop?
Kernodle: To be honest I’m no longer intrigued with rap music; see for me there’s a difference between hip hop and rap. Hip hop encompasses many more things than rap music. It is the art of dance in the form of B-boying and b-girling; its graffiti art and djing. Its not just rap music, which unfortunately has eclipsed these other manifestations of the culture because of its financial viability, its all of these other forms of culture.
I believe the rap music has moved to a point of commercialization that it has lost its relevance. There are still some artists who are making music that says something that will progress our thinking, but for the most part there is a lot of garbage that is being passed off as music. With that being said you probably know my answer to the second question. The fact that there is not a better representation of women in rap music is telling about what imagery and points of representation that the commercial game wants to put forth. But there are a number of women Djs that are ripping it up and female writers (graffiti artists) whose work is receiving attention.
So I believe that there are “spaces” outside of what the media presents to us that shows some more representation of women within the culture. I believe Niki Minaj has the potential of expanding the context of hip hop, but people are so caught up in what she looks like verses what she’s saying. So it will be interesting to see how she develops as an artist.
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?
Kernodle: Initially I thought that rap music limited our (black women) place in society as being body parts, victims of male anger and to be denigrated as bitches and hoes and that this was oppressive to women. I still do! But can it be oppressive when you have a generation of women who have embraced these messages and daily live out a goal of being the best p*$$y or giving the best head in their neighborhood or school.
Young women who see being a video girl as a means of escaping economically depressed situations or the mundane aspects of their lives? Can we still blame men for oppressing us when we are so willing to be participants in the mythology of the “black macho” or “thug” phenomenon? I know grown women who relish in being the “ride or die chick” and I know college educated women who want to be video girls. So the question is who is oppressing who? Its easy for public intellectuals to sit back and place their analysis on the situation. But honestly we are operating under the auspices of the politics of respectability. Because there are many women who don’t see it that way. Go to the club in the hood and see how women play out the roles heard in the songs and seen in the videos and tell me who is being oppressed.
Having said that I do believe that there have been some women who have used hip hop as a tool to bring understanding of our view of the world and the relationships we have with men and other women. The Real Roxanne and all of the derivatives of this persona, Sha-Rock, Mc Lyte, Queen Latifah, Salt ‘n’ Pepa and the other female MCs who have traversed the hip hop idiom are evidence of this.
Even Lil Kim, who many saw as highly problematic contextualized a lot of things as it related to the struggles and triumphs of women growing up in the same post-industrial society that birthed the idiom. Look at how Latifah addressed the issue of the use of the word bitch in “U.N.I.T.Y.”? That along with Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s discourse on HIV and AIDS were significant in empowering us as voices at this cultural table. I believe that Lauryn Hill’s “Miseducation” album is one of hip hop’s seminal albums. And her and Missy Elliot’s work as producers has created a space for women in power positions that we are often excluded from.