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

Aug 6, 2014 at 1:00 am

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."