Formerly held at Berkeley’s La Pena, “Queendom” came to Oakland for the first time this year. Produced by “Vinyl Mama” DJ Zita, a popular record-spinner who holds monthly residencies at the Layover, Lukas, John Colins, and Lazlo, Zita says that the series’ future—she’d produced five prior events, dating back to 2010—was up in the air, until Betti Ono’s Anyka Barber asked her to stage the proceedings at her gallery. Previous “Queendoms” had mainly been showcases of women involved in hip-hop’s four elements: rapping, DJing, B-Girling, and graff writing; this time, in addition to music and dance showcases by some fresh-faced newcomers, the proceedings also included an interactive discussion led by artist/educator Jazz Monique Hudson, as well as DJ sets by Zita and Pam the Funkstress.
How needed are pro-woman hip-hop events right now? At the time of this writing, the blogosphere is reporting that female rap trio PTAF has just scored a major record deal on the strength of their viral sensation, “Boss Ass Bitch,” which has clocked more than 14,000,000 YouTube views. (Yes, that’s 14 MILLION.) It’s not even worth noting the song’s lyrics, which make former Kreayshawn cohort V-Nasty look like Anais Nin. It IS worth noting that rewarding rachet rap with record deals sends out a dubious message to aspiring female artists.
More egregious evidence of the negative stereotyping of women artists can be found on popular website Bossip.com, which regularly features posts like ‘10 Greatest “Hoodrat R&B” Albums of All Time’. These include K’Michelle (described as “flamin’ hot Cheeto soup for the hoodrat soul”), Keyshia Cole (“the face of Section 8 soul”), Fantasia (“thirsty side chick”), Destiny’s Child (“Beyonce’s finest hoodrat moments”), Teedra Moses (“hood boogery”), Monica (“classiest hoodrat of her era”), and Nivea (“Princess of Hood&B”). Even eight-time Grammy-winner Mary J. Blige gets dissed; it’s stated she’s “worshipped by an entire generation of thug love-scorned hood chicks.”
Dayum, whatever happened to positive representations of female hip-hop artistry, like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Monie Love, Roxanne Shante, Lauryn Hill, the Conscious Daughters, Sistah Souljah, and Mystic? Has pop culture devolved to the point where we are now living in the Age of Rachet?
Not if the ladies behind “Queendom” have anything to say about it. The feminist-friendly hip-hop showcase was part of the Betti Ono gallery’s recent, groundbreaking “My Art, My Culture” series. Its mission, says Zita, is to address the gender imbalance in hip-hop, uplift women involved in the culture, and “give them a platform to shine.”
Hudson’s presentation, subtitled “Who You Callin’ A Bitch?,” could have been a direct response to the rachet rap of PTAF, as well as to the ever-present misogynist sentiments voiced by male rappers. She began by examining a very disturbing audio clip from Oakland legend and hip-hop pioneer Too $hort, which purported to offer “fatherly advice” to young black men. That advice actually consisted of instructions on how to sexually abuse young girls. As $hort’s dubious words echoed over the speakers, the room’s energy level sunk, as if weighted down by an invisible stone.
Hudson followed that by addressing another misogynist meme, with a clip showing young black women replacing the last 3 lines of the rap lyric, “all I want for my birthday is a bad-ass bitch” with conscious sentiments, among them, “stop dancing to or listening to music that hurts our spirits and does not take into consideration the livelihood of black and brown children.”
The energy in the room began to rise again as Hudson asked audience members, ‘what should the role of women in hip-hop be?’ Emcee Aima the Dreamer answered: “100% leadership, responsibility.” Female rappers, she said, needed to avoid self-exploitation and “think about who’s listening?” Another woman expressed her frustration with twerking and “stripper culture.” Hudson calmly explained that these forms of expression were rooted in indigenous dance, but had become perverted by “oversexualized culture, not just oversexualization of women.”
Then Hudson asked what the role of men should be with respect to women in hip-hop. One man, who said he was a father who had come to see his daughter perform, suggested, “what we offer is a counterpoint : we address the issue… we represent that with our actions.”
Next, Hudson turned to the woman rappers in the building, and asked what their role should be in hip-hop culture. Coco Peila noted that often, “little girls don’t get a chance to cipher” like their male counterparts, and said it was important to make space for women in hip-hop and also for women “not to shout each other down, [but] build each other back up.”
Queen Latifah portrait live-painted at Queendom
The performances which followed highlighted the dynamic women bring to hip-hop culture: dance groups Ladies United and Mix’d Ingredients’ performances veered between acrobatic B-Girl footwork and more theatrical performance art. Interestingly, both dance crews came out in masks – Ladies United’s blue, white, and black ones suggested a multi-hued female version of Blue Man Group, while Mix’d Ingredients evoked breakdancing female ninjas.
Emcees Shy’an G, Coco Peila, and Aisha Fukushima all showed that women rappers can hold the stage without resorting to rachetness—earning applause in the process—but Fukushima took it to the next level by performing an experimental version of an Azerbaijani folk song which built up layered a cappella melodies, over which she both rapped and sang.
While the rest of the country seems to be finding new ways to put women—especially black women—down, Oakland is finding ways to uplift them. The correct response to rachet? As Latifah once said, “U.N.I.T.Y.”