It’s officially fall (is it official? Fall, are you ready for this sort of commitment??) and my feet are starting to get cold. It’s weird because I feel like this could work metaphorically but I mean it in the most literal sense.
1) Hot Sugar – Leverage feat. Kool AD, LAKUTIS, and Nasty Nigel
2) Earl Sweatshirt – Hive feat. Vince Staples and Casey Veggies
3) Jean Grae – Trouble Man
4) Psalm One – Macaroni & Cheese
5) Janelle Monae – Electric Lady (Remix) feat. Cee-Lo and Big Boi
6) Spank Rock – Car Song feat. Santigold
7) Rye Rye – Sunshine feat. M.I.A.
8) The Cool Kids – Gas Station feat. Bun B
9) THEESatisfaction – Bitch
10) J. Cole – Power Trip feat. Miguel
In the “Ay Shawty 3.0” video, a soft lense captures Kitty’s flower halo as she walks through a field, sundress and all. For the “rap game Taylor Swift” this imagery is not uncommon. The coy femininity — eyes darting away from the camera while she leisurely spits rhymes — are part of what made her breakthrough, “Okay Cupid,” such a massive Internet sensation. “Okay Cupid” was a disconcerting juxtaposition of teenage girl iconography and veiled suggestions, Kitty rapping about receiving three a.m. thirst calls from men, while she and her friends lounge in a room decorated with Hello Kitty and various heart shapes. The success of “Okay Cupid” (and perhaps, Kitty in general) is attributed to novelty, with a young, innocent-looking white girl rapping about cocaine with a carefully-placed bow in her hair. Kitty was 19 when “Okay Cupid” was released, but her refusal to talk about her age led people to speculate that she was younger.
In Kitty’s video with Riff Raff, “Orion’s Belt,” Kitty moves with a forced awkwardness, walking in a stilted manner and standing as if she isn’t quite sure what she’s supposed to be doing. Between the attempt at gracelessness and the girlish doodling of hearts, the comparison to Taylor Swift seems more than fair. Both women play at outsider status while simultaneously being openly welcomed and celebrated for reaching the prescribed pinnacle of femininity as young, white women.
The summer before “Okay Cupid” made the rounds, there was Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci,” an annoyingly-infectious track that quickly went viral. With doorknocker earrings and a bow bigger than her head, Kreayshawn parties and drinks after persuading a shopper (played by Lil Debbie), to avoid designer clothes because “basic bitches wear that shit.” While the similarities between Kreayshawn and Kitty seem only surface level (white girls with YouTube views and a penchant for winged eyeliner) both of their successes can be attributed to, at least initially, the novelty. A few years ago Touré wrote in the New York Times that white women rapping is seen akin to “a cat walking on its hind legs.”
Kreayshawn’s success introduced the world to the White Girl Mob, a now-defunct group that consisted of Kreayshawn, Lil Debbie, and V Nasty. All three ladies were young, thin, and light-skinned, their poor rapping skills overshadowed by their looks and shocking attitude. V Nasty in particular made a name for herself for casually dropping racial epithets, answering to criticism with an emphatic “You don’t know where I’m from!,” as if the ability to use pejoratives without retribution would give her some sort of street cred (Popularly referred to as the hood pass).
What’s interesting is how, while the White Girl Mob’s skin color is a huge part of their success (Why else would you call yourself a ‘White Girl Mob,’ if you’re attempting to avoid novelty?), they quickly divorce themselves from critique by emphasizing their outsider status. Lil Debbie’s video for “Ratchets” is one of the most racist videos ever released, with black women backup dancers serving as Debbie’s “ratchets” while she raps “I got ratchets in my living room ’til 6 in the morning/ And when I finish up this weed, man I’m sending them home.”
In one interview, Lil Debbie shrugs her shoulders when confronted with her racism and degradation of black women with a simple “I’m just a white girl in this world,” brushing off her responsibility with the assumption that since she’s a white girl, she can’t be expected to know what she’s doing or be held accountable. Later, while reaming in Miley Cyrus for stealing ideas from her “Ratchets” video (if this didn’t illuminate how far the “white girl playing at ratchet” trope has gone, then nothing else will), Lil Debbie brags “I don’t twerk, I have a twerker. I have a bitch that comes and twerks for me.”
Lil Debbie’s “Ratchets” video is the prime example of what is troublesome about white women’s place in hip-hop. Debbie’s faux-outsider status allows her to avoid responsibility by being a white girl, but then she turns around and, in the video, dominates black women, calling them *her* ratchets, a racial domination that asserts her superiority. They are her ratchets, and they twerk for her. The desirability of white women in hip-hop, excellently covered by Cord Jefferson in Kanye West and his Thirty White Bitches, puts white women on a dehumanizing pedestal as a prize to be achieved. When these white women rappers come around, perhaps in order to avoid asserting themselves as the prize, they assert themselves as the victors. The racism this leads to, as it’s always white women dominating black women, is joined with internalized-misogyny. Status is achieved by having someone to dominate, and with white women, the only power that they can’t really touch is white men, who are, as of now, the predominant consumers of hip-hop.
Iggy Azalea’s song “Work” is her version the oft-required struggle narrative for rappers. Moving up from nothing (or starting from the bottom. Sorry, couldn’t help it!) and paying homage to that is a standard trope in hip-hop, though there are varying degrees of sincerity in the execution of that.
Iggy does have a very captivating origin story, earning money through labor jobs to move from Australia to the United States when she was a teenager. Her desire to be a part of the hip-hop community was what solidified her decision to live in the U.S., and she spent time in cities that have a prominent hip-hop scene like Houston, Atlanta, and Miami, before eventually moving to L.A. Her inspiration and connections in the hip-hop industry are decidedly southern rap, noted by association with T.I. and Grand Hustle Records. She eventually decided to move on from Grand Hustle, (it’s not 100% clear why, besides differing views on how her debut album should sound), but for a rapper of Australian origin, she takes a lot from southern sound and imagery.
Her video for “Work” is a Coyote Ugly-esque rags to slightly better rags story that’s prominent in southern mythology. Iggy says the video is a reflection of her life and story, but the video for “Work” clearly depicts a desolate, American southland, and not her hometown of Mullumbimby. The mobile homes, honky tonks, and semi trucks are all symbols of the south, and it’s interesting that Iggy co-opts them to show her own struggle. When people think of the south they don’t think of the gentrification of Austin or the upper class in Dallas, but the poverty and rural despair of unnamed southern towns. Strangely, Iggy depicts the south as a place to escape from, even though it was her first destination after she crossed the ocean.
A lot of it has to do with class. Rising from the rural south to move to Hollywood (as she does in the end of the video), has implications beyond the literal. Iggy “works her way up” to a place of higher living and finery, wearing iconic red-backed Louboutins while she’s at it. While there maybe be some truth in there (Iggy did have to work her way to Hollywood), it’s largely obscured by the common trope of the desolate, dirty south, which, as a prominent symbol of the struggle, is useful for Iggy’s image.
This isn’t the only video where Iggy references the American South. In “Murda Bizness” she and T.I. are parenting a very southern beauty pageant competition.
Iggy adopts a faux-genteel southern accent while pumping a kid full of sugar in order to do well in the competition. The reference is to Honey Boo Boo, the southern girl on Toddlers and Tiaras who later got her own show, having gained recognition from being an unapologetically uncouth oddball.
There’s a reason why Iggy regularly references the south, but it’s not particularly pleasant. The way she uses “lower class” and “southern” as interchangable is a continuation of many southern stereotypes, particularly those that paint southern lifestyles as uncivilized. In the video for “Work” she uses it to her advantage to gain credibility, but in “Murda Bizness” it’s used more for comedic relief. Either way, it doesn’t ring true, particularly when coming from an Australian rapper.
[Note: This is my first guest post! Please welcome my good friend Michelle Ofiwe, who has an amazing blog called The Doorknocker, which you should add to your RSS feed right away!]
One of the biggest songs of 2010 was Nicki Minaj’s “Did It On Em,” a three minute pop-rap taunt fest that coined phrases like “all these bitches is my sons,” and made generous references to “nappy headed hoes” and other “rap bitches.”
It got incredible airplay and club promotion, so we could all sing along and lament about “[crusty] bitches,” whoever they may be in our lives. The lyrics read somewhat like a declaration: Minaj raps in a choppy-style about haters and other female rappers who seem less like peers and more like staunch competition. Still, the beat is nice and we know (or assume) that Minaj is not posing her golden shower fantasies and rage at us, but other anonymous “hoes” who have been unfortunate to cross her path. In that regard, the song seems pretty standard.
To say that “Did It On Em” floats in a league of its own would be highly improper. Plus, I am fearful of creating scapegoats. Minaj was not the first to participate in what I have called the “Hip-Hop Highlander,” or the never-ending, blood-thirsty competition between female rappers that aches for a unitary ruler. In “On Femcees and the Hip-Hop Highlander,” I coined the phrase to explain the ideas and methods we as fans use to engage with female rappers. Now I feel that the term has to be broadened. It’s not just us, or just them. It’s all of us. We all participate in the Hip-Hop Highlander, but it’s becoming more and more apparent that participation in that system is likely to garner success for the individual femcees themselves. “Did It On Em” sold millions not just in the spirit of competitive vanity, but also in the fervor of watching women fight.
On first glance, the Highlander seems to be a mixture of female braggadocio and confidence. For example, when Sasha Go Hard claims that “ratchet hoes [mean] mug because they can’t handle her,” in “Bad Bitch on Deck,” her dismissal of haters shines through her heightened sense of self.
Braggadocio is not a lost concept in hip-hop or rap — male rappers constantly use this to effect in their own music by comparing themselves and their style to other rappers. Yet, female braggadocio as part of a real expression of self-love and confidence is lost to the Highlander. A quick aside about a “weak bitch” or a “rap hoe” and the expressions change to include other women negatively, but still not at the (female) artists’ expense. Such tenements of hip-hop and rap change in similar was when applied to the realm of female rappers: looking for the “realest” (claims of authenticity) or “baddest” or “strongest” or overall “best” female rapper diverges from mainstream male rappers because all of these things have different meanings when applied to women.
So how do femcees let us know that they are these things, that they live up to their own hype? They come for other women. No “other bitch is fucking with” the “Realest Bitch in the Game,” who isn’t checking for “swagless hoes.” In a whirlpool of adamant individuality, the Highlander comes out loud and apparent in femcee rapdom, where every look is polished and every second of media is an opportunity to separate oneself from every other woman. One personal note I’ve taken is that this form of female braggadocio is aggressive. It can be slipped into every verse, every line, and every word. There is an underlying need to prove ones self as not only the best and most skilled rapper, but the best and most skilled woman.
In “On Femcees,” I question comparing “the Highlander” to typical (male-fronted) beef found in hip-hop culture, and that comparison is still pretty sketchy today. The Highlander is built on a lot of social ideals, namely the ones that encourage constant competitiveness between women in professional, social, and personal situations. The Highlander is as structured as female peers competing for the top spot at the local law firm, but as flighty as the “Who Wore It Best?” columns. In a society that (c)overtly compares women perpetually, it is not surprising that we find that same sense of “sisterhood” with femcees?
Competition between women can be a very personal thing, but when you engage in such in a very popular, very public avenue, your intentions may no longer be your own. I have seen plenty a song get lost in the mix to overzealous fans looking for a bloodshed, and it seems that even if a femcee tries to avoid the Highlander, she may still be sucked right into it. Sometimes, if she requests that the beef itself be dropped by her fans, it may not be fulfilled. In contrast, male rappers are able to disengage quite easily from beefs. For example, Meek Mill’s beef with fellow Phildelphian rapper Cassidy is deadened with a quick refusal from Mill. Standom — or the loyal & attached fanbases of (usually) female artists/rappers — may not sometimes grant an easy exit for female rappers. The culture itself is everywhere — in her fanbase, in her music, in her peer group, maybe even her label, and is just a small part of the eternal catfight that the media and society are perpetually seeking. Catfight tropes are not limited to just rap/hip-hop, though. They masquerade themselves as movie plots, titillating scenes in TV shows, and even pornography.
In that sense, female braggadocio– or the overt and unapologetic expression of self — can’t ever be just braggadocio. It becomes some unfortunate extension of societal expectations of women. Can female confidence sell without the rejection of another woman? Are we always asking femcees to perform in the arena? Are we letting them express confidence, (even misguided) anger, pain or other emotions and escape the Highlander?
This beef was particularly uncomfortable because both rappers went below-the-belt in a way that was very socially troubling (Banks saying that Haze is in love with her, and Haze mocking Banks’ skin color), but as far as Twitter beefs go it seems pretty standard. It’s disingenuous to pretend that beefs don’t have a pretty important place in hip-hop and hip-hop culture, and hand-wringing over women participating in that (“Why do female rappers always have to be fighting each other?!”) ignores that context. There’s a tendency to pit female rappers against each other as if there’s only room for one in the game (a concept that Michelle at The Sociological Ear calls “The Hip-hop Highlander“), but that has more to with tokenism and the perception of limited space for women than the actual reasons that female rappers participate in beefs, which can be varied.
I think it’s kind of strange that Banks chose to make a video out of this particular diss track (both the song and the video were very hastily made), and as Michelle mentioned to me yesterday, it’s also strange that the video doesn’t really acknowledge that the track was originally a diss. Banks is partying at a music festival in Miami, famous dude musicians Steve Aoki and Diplo (who Banks has had an interesting history with) make an appearance, but beyond that the video is intentionally aimless. That aimlessness could read as a very subtle dig at Haze, a “you don’t even register anymore” statement, but if that’s true, it’s not very convincing.
I came across this video of Jean Grae where she talks about her career, her parents, and her frustration with the way people talk about female rappers. Gender discussion starts at about the 6 minute mark.
“I really hate talking about female rap. I am so sick of that shit. And not that I don’t support women who do hip-hop, but I just… It just seems so condescending to separate it. I don’t care, the race or gender doesn’t matter to me. And it bothers me, it DID bother me so much that people were so concerned with it, that it was such a big deal. I was like, I don’t understand why you’re making it such an issue. Why can’t you just enjoy the music? Do you like it or do you not? If you don’t like me then just don’t fucking like me. Don’t be like ‘You are so good! How do you have a vagina yet you’re able to put words together?’“
This is definitely not the first time Grae has expressed dissatisfaction with the conversation surrounding her music and gender. Between having a tour called “WTF is a Femcee?!” and her snap at music critics in the BET Cypher (“2012, stop saying femcee/ that’s not a word/ I hop the curb and hit you with my ten-speed”), she’s made it pretty clear that “femcee” is not something she identifies as.
The problem with the term femcee is that it creates a separation between female rappers and “normal” ones. (Dudes.) It’s one of the more common ways to steer conversations around female artists in an uncomfortable direction that bridges on novelty. (Think about why it’s so thrilling for music writers to write about an “all girl band.”) When being a lady rapper (or any other type of musician) is such an extraordinary thing that it gets it’s own extraneous label, it’s hard to command the same level of respect and acknowledgement that men do.
That said, I pretty firmly stand in the “identify as whatever you’d like” category when it comes to musicians (or more generally, people), so if femcee is a self-selected label I have no qualms about that. Gendering musicians usually has negative or tokenistic effects on women, so I’m wary of superfluous references to femininity, and how that will continue to affect women who try to make it in the music industry.
Shoutout to Le1f’s Twitter account for bringing my attention to a somewhat troubling occurrence. The rapper took issue with the way his music is covered, particularly the focus on his sexual identity when that might not always be relevant.
It reminded me of a tweet he posted a while back (which appears to have been deleted) about how not every dance he does is voguing, despite how it’s framed. For music writers to label that incorrectly reads as though they have little desire to understand the culture that they’re covering, especially since voguing has such a well-documented history. Misrepresentation of what that entails in order to cram as many gay references into an article about a gay artist is a means of erasure of experiences.
As far as identity goes, there’s an uncomfortably thin line between acknowledging an artist’s contributions to breaking down barriers, and using that identity as a novelty. Le1f is clearly not down with his sexuality being at the forefront of every conversation, and that’s a very valid way to feel, especially considering how fond music writers are of pinpointing trends (Le1f, Zebra Katz, Mykki Blanco, and Cakes da Killa are often grouped together by virtue of being gay rappers who live in New York). For publicly identifying as gay, Le1f does not have the benefit of divorcing himself from his sexual identity, and that informs how even innocuous verses (like those about playing Pokemon on the 1train) are perceived.
This is not to discount the importance of representation of gay artists in music (although there is something to be said about the particular kind of hand-wringing that comes with covering a gay rapper), but to point out the lack of agency in the the way gay artists, and gay rappers in particular, are framed.