More mind, less grind: Women of Detroit hip-hop 

While the men of rock 'n' roll have dropped a lot of insensitive faux pas over the course of the genre's rich and illustrious history, the men of hip-hop are surely the kings when it comes to outright, blatant misogyny. We shouldn't generalize too much — there are plenty of rappers who have known right from wrong from Day One. But there was also a time when Snoop Lion was Snoop Dogg and he spouted shit like, "Bitches ain't shit but hoes and tricks / Lick on these nuts and suck the dick."

(Shakespeare said that first, we think.)

Perhaps it's no surprise that Chief Keef is in and out of jail when he writes lyrics like "You ain't gonna let me fuck you, and I feel you, but you gone suck my dick or I'll kill you."

You big ol' charmer, you.

Detroit can't claim innocence either. D12's Bizarre proved that nothing is sacred when he said, "My little sister's birthday, she'll remember me; for a gift I had 10 of my boys take her virginity." Eminem has said a bunch of shit, including, "Slut, you think I won't choke no whore, till the vocal cords don't work in her throat no more." And more recently, Danny Brown proved that self-awareness isn't always a gift when he rapped, "Love a feminist bitch, oh, it get my dick hard, so no apologies for all the misogyny."

Sure, words like "satire" and "in character" will be thrown around willy-nilly, and maybe there's some truth in that. Maybe Jadakiss meant no disrespect when he said, "It's damn near 4 in the morning, ain't shit to discuss, till you ask which dick do you suck." Maybe. It's more likely, however, that the many dudes who rhyme about women with less reverence than they would bestow upon a slab of beef are fronting. It's the macho show, the big "I am." It would be great to be able to tell you that things are improving, that it's getting better. That isn't the case, though. If anything, lyrics are getting more outrageous.

It shouldn't be like this. It's not as if there haven't been enough positive female role models in rap. Going right back to the 1980s, Salt N' Pepa, MC Lyte, and others wrote witty, sharp lyrics that, while occasionally covering sexual topics, were not overly explicit. Queen Latifah and Lauryn Hill really raised the bar in the 1990s. More recently, however, those positive role models have been increasingly absent from the mainstream.

"It's got more explicit," says local rapper Mahogany Jones. "Women feel that they have to up the ante on their sexuality, and they feel like they have to exploit themselves, and I don't see that changing. I hope it changes."

That sucks, and Jones' opinion is far from unique. "You can take it a step further because I've been in the label offices, and I think that it has to do somewhat with the labels and what they're putting out there," says Mae Day, another excellent local hip-hop artist. "There was a time when they were saying, 'If you're going to be a female rapper, then you need to talk about this or do this.' Not all of them, but I will say a lot of them or even most of them. They only knew what sold to them, and what sold to them was, 'You've got to be naked, and you've got to rap about sex. You have to be this eye candy thing; you can't talk about anything that has any substance.' It's about what they're putting their money behind also, what they're projecting."

Thanks to ladies like Mae Day, Mahogany Jones, Piper Carter, Insite the Riot, Deidre Smith, and more, plus institutions like the 5E Gallery, there's a definite shift taking place here in Detroit. Women with intelligence in music is nothing new, but the fact that they're banding together, tired of all the institutional bullshit and mainstream-encouraged hyper-sexualization — that is a wonderful thing, and it's happening here now.

"There was a time when nobody wanted to hear anything if you weren't a male," says Day. "Now we have these emerging rappers like the Iggys and others. I guess they're more receptive to it. They're still a little hesitant, I think, but I think they're a little more inclined to give it a listen. But it's better, I can say that."

Insite the Riot is a little less optimistic. "If you look at mainstream rap music, the artists that are primarily listed definitely are talented, but they still fit a hyper-sexualized model," she says. "In some ways, I don't think it has [changed]."

Piper Carter can't tell if attitudes have changed or if she only recently realized how much people hate women. "When I was younger — and I don't know if it has something to do with being young — it seemed as though maybe I wasn't aware of how much misogyny organically exists in our culture," she says. "I wasn't aware of it. Maybe it wasn't as prevalent to me. It's hard for me to tell. I've evolved as a person, and I've become aware of misogyny. I always knew about things like self-esteem, women's rights, and things like that working in higher, executive levels. But it wasn't until I started learning about misogyny that I actually started to see how much actually exists."

During a recent interview, local rapper Big Gov told me that female Detroit rappers are getting sexier, yet they don't really rap about sex. He's absolutely right; there's nothing more attractive than a strong, talented woman brimming with self-esteem (unless you're a weak man). Mahogany Jones is blazing a trail for female rappers, conducting herself beautifully and demanding respect without losing one iota of her femininity.

"I think that there's [been] a gradual shift in the last 10 years," Jones says. "I feel like females are great storytellers and a lot are amazing MCs, but they still seem to get this attitude towards their sexuality, high levels of machismo, or both. It has to be a requirement, and if you don't fit that box then there's really no room for you. The only person who has been able to escape that somewhat is, of course, Lauryn Hill."

Deidre Smith believes that a general lack of exposure is the biggest obstacle that women have to face, especially those hoping to break outside of Detroit. "In Detroit, I think we've always had an inclination towards female MCs and women in hip-hop," she says. "But seldom do we have enough exposure and enough information about those artists who are embraced locally or globally. There are always maybe one or two prominent figures concerning women in hip-hop. That's our problem; we don't get enough exposure. [Because it's still] a male-dominated arena, we seldom get our accolades."

So there are two things going on: Nationwide, female rappers are feeling pressured into wearing nothing and saying less. Here in Detroit, however, female rappers are getting increasingly comfortable speaking out and basically saying, 'To hell with anyone who feels intimidated.'

"I think we've gotten comfortable with our voices and images, where we present ourselves and realize we don't need to be manipulated by the powers that be into being hyper-sexualized or even submissive or passive in our approach to the delivery of our art," says Smith. "I feel as though women are being accepted, thanks to our content. We're lyrically adept, and we're giving our competitors a run for their money."

Mae Day says that Nicki Minaj provides the measure of contemporary success for women in rap. "A lot of what she's doing is similar to what female MCs were doing previously," says Day. "She's the biggest thing that you have to compare it to. A lot of what she's doing is reminiscent of the previous artists, with the Lil' Kims and the Foxy Browns. The female MCs from the 1990s. She's also ascending with the other styles of music that she's doing. I think the other female MCs that are coming up now from the underground, they're trying to push the envelope further and diversify their lyrical content, the stories that they're telling. People are getting tired of hearing the Lil' Kim hardcore just being recycled again and again. If you're telling some new stories from a different perspective, then it's a little easier on the ears."

Insite the Riot is keen to point out that these things are often simplified and are actually not so black-and-white. "I feel like the female rappers that I'm connected to are [obsessed] about being authentic," she says. "You'll see that in their messaging, and in the projects that they put out — there's a certain level of authenticity. That's not to say that some of that music isn't sexual, because women are sexual beings. But I think it's about showing that we have more dimensions than that."

However, this is Detroit, not L.A. or New York. People don't give a shit about image here, right? Detroiters only have ability and talent on their mind. That's kinda true, according to Day. "You could say that because there are hip-hop heads here in the underground who will listen to a woman, regardless of what she looks like out here," she says. "That is a plus. But the minus comes into play where we don't have the industry here. Yeah, you're making some strides and you're getting people to listen to you, but outside of Detroit, where's the exposure? Attention is not on Detroit in comparison to where you go to an L.A. or a New York, where every third person is in the industry. The money is there. In Detroit, you can get heard by the locals, but on a larger scale, if you're really trying to do something with the music, we don't have the same opportunities or resources."

Insite the Riot credits the 5E Gallery for playing a huge role in pushing and encouraging female rappers in Detroit, providing them with a platform, though Smith stresses that the intellectualism has, of course, always been there. "Women sometimes don't get their just dues unless they dumb it down a bit — unless you put your heels on, unless you let your hair down, unless you have a carefree type of sex-kitten vixen type of image," she says. "Right now ... you're experiencing the whole spectrum of what femininity is and what it symbolizes. What is does symbolize is strength. So you have the many facets of that strength through a variety of different artists who showcase different images in style, but they're all in the spectrum of femininity and hip-hop."

Carter digs a little deeper, exploring the working-class nature of Detroit, as well as the divides that keep the city apart. "With a city like Detroit, you had a lot of gangster music in the 1990s because it was an urban setting, and it was enforced by the radio," she says. "In Detroit, the culture was not 'conscious hip-hop.' J Dilla's from Detroit, but it's interesting that he's considered conscious because if you listen to his music, it's not necessarily conscious music. It's still the gangster kind of stuff that he's talking about, it's just that what he did musically was so genius that people are ignoring his message and looking at his production. Detroit on a sociological level has a rich history of Motown with this business owner and internationally successful music business that was forced to move out of the city. All of the music business left Detroit at that point."

Carter adds that it was the techno movement in the mid-1980s that ushered in independent musicians and producers being able to do business from Detroit. "Making that overseas connection," she says. "They're able to go overseas, make money, make a living, have their own record label, and you see hip-hop being that same independent formula here. Well, think of how much money it costs to run a label. It takes a lot. Here in Detroit, you have the strip club music, drug dealer music, because it costs a lot to own a record label, and these are the people you were friends with. That's the culture that [existed] in Detroit in hip-hop. All of that stuff laid the foundation on Detroit for the culture of hip-hop — that gangster culture, the stripper culture, the heavy misogyny, the heavy killer drug culture. That was pretty much what laid the foundation in Detroit."

Despite the fact that the world's eyes were on Detroit in the 1990s and beyond, Carter finds it incredibly sad that no female rappers broke big. "In the late 1990s, you get Eminem," she says. "D12 was trying to do something. In the late 2000s to current, you've got your Danny Brown and your Royce da 5'9". But no women. All of these men get the press, all these men get the voice. At the same time, all these women are rapping, making records, doing shows, doing collaborations, making projects, writing ghost lyrics for other MCs, so ... you've got this sort of underground culture. Then poetry comes around 2002. The poetry era softened up the urban thing. It provided an alternative for the urban listener. If you were into hip-hop but you didn't want to hear about gangsters and strippers and you were about something — you were going to college and had other things in mind — then you were listening to poetry. A lot of these rappers were going to the poetry side."

So that's the history. Female rappers did manage to make a name for themselves locally over the past few decades — people like Miz Korona, Smiley, and Boss. But it's been hard. The music industry is a minefield to negotiate under the very best of circumstances. For a woman in hip-hop, for someone who doesn't want to get near-naked and rap explicit lyrics, it's a nightmare. Mae Day says that it's still very much that way.

"I've been in front of the executives and the A&Rs who have plainly told me that they can't sign me because I'm a female," she says. "These are words that came out of their mouth. 'Females don't sell.' It had nothing to do with my music — these are people who had been fans of what they heard or what they saw, but the fact that I was a woman is what 'held me back.' It's getting better because a lot of these up-and-coming female MCs or the women of hip-hop that I see — they have men or money behind them that believe in them. Somebody had to take that chance and stand for it. If you find that, you're blessed. Otherwise, it's still hard. People are torn about how they feel about Iggy Azalea, but the fact that she has a hit is a good thing because now we know that Nicki isn't just a fluke. If somebody else has some major success, that'll help warm up for women."

Smith says that she deals with misogyny day-to-day. "You have the male counterparts saying, 'Maybe if you dumb it down' or 'Maybe if you were less intimidating,' and that comes from the female audience too," she says. "A lot of them would prefer that you become something they can idolize. Something that they aren't themselves most of the time. Escapism — anything that can take them away from the reality of what they are. That's where the misogyny lies."

According to Jones, it can get a little sinister at times for a woman in the music industry. "Of course, having to deal with business, there's sometimes a sexual motive," she says. "I feel like we're being overlooked and there's an overflow of men. If there are women, there's always just one. The token woman. It's not like a real mixture. You don't see Insite, myself, and Miz Korona."

Such is the enormous level of talent on display from the Detroit ladies, nobody should ever have to feel like a "token woman." So how does one deal with that sort of bullshit?

"You just do it," says Jones. "You can choose to compromise, but I think the whole reason I'm driven to be an artist is that I think I have something to say, and I believe it's important that my voice says it. I can't change what I think is important."

She's not kidding. After all, Jones is a woman who kick-started an initiative at 5E to help process the backlog of 11,000 untested rape kits in Detroit. That's important. Meanwhile, Carter's current initiative is Women in Hip-Hop.

"That's a ... collective of women — scholars, academics, B-girls, DJs, MCs, poets, graffiti artists, community activists, vocalists, musicians — and so what we're doing right now is performing together at various universities, conferences, festivals, and that sort of thing," she says. "We mentor young people, and many of us develop our own curriculum for working with young people and adults. We do personal and professional development with women. Also business skills. I'm a photographer, and I [shoot] video, so we have media skills too."

This isn't an ego thing. These wonderful, beautiful, and talented women aren't in it to polish their own delicate sense of self-worth. These are people who are using their musical ability, plus their drive to give back to their community. All five of the women interviewed here, and many more besides, are gifted hip-hop musicians. They are all deserving of your attention. Great things are happening, but as a society we still have a long way to go.

"I'm 42," says Carter. "I grew up with hip-hop. I remember hip-hop infusing technology and electronic music. I remember initially when hip-hop was new, that the whole concept of rapping on a record was revolutionary. If you look at the recorded music, it wasn't necessarily intellectual content. On a deeper level, people were talking about the ills of society, but a lot of it was party music. A lot of it was talking about having fun and partying. At the time, when I was young, those types of lyrics didn't feel misogynistic, but having learned about misogyny since, I can actually see right now how a guy talking about having a bunch of girls is misogyny."

Yep. Cut that shit out, fellas. — mt

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