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

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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."

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