The Revival

A Declaration for Female Emcees

by Quentin B. Huff

14 April 2010

Photo of Roxanne Shante (partial) by
© Jesper Skouboelling 

A Declaration for Female Emcees

I propose a change in mindset. Instead of thinking that all we have to do is find The Next Top Femcee, some lone female rap assassin who will carry the entire gender on her shoulders, hip-hop’s outlook should be long range and comprehensive.  It’s going to take more than hoping that Jean Grae finally releases the album that brings her the name recognition she truly deserves, and more than acknowledging the innovations of Missy Elliott. It’s bigger than supporting a single artist who enjoys a moment in the spotlight.

Hip-hop needs a women’s movement. Maybe it would need to be sparked by something like the Seneca Falls Convention way back in 1848. Now that’s old school. Of course, no one was rapping at the Convention, but speakers stepped to the mic to address issues that were important to women on social, legal, and religious grounds. The brains and motivators behind the Convention—Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martha Wright, Mary Ann McClintock, and Jane Hunt—unveiled the Declaration of Sentiments at the event.

The Declaration of Sentiments used the Declaration of Independence as its structural model (in hip-hop we call that “sampling”), and it affirmed the natural rights of women and outlined the “history of injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” That’s awesome, right?

Photo (partial) from Seneca Falls archives

Photo (partial) from Seneca Falls archives

Well, as I advocate something along these lines for a women’s movement in hip-hop, it’s possible that the foundation has already been laid. A manifesto of sorts could be developed from The Revival, a brief documentary directed by rapper Invincible that features footage of the all-female We B Girlz hip-hop tour. 

The title emanates from emcee Bahamadia’s statement in the film that the tour was designed to do more than entertain. It was meant to “get the word out about what we do through the podium of live performance.” The film likens the tour to a church revival, and compares to the hip-hop performances to “ministering”. The title might also imply that there should be a revival in female participation and stature in hip-hop. 

The Revival spotlights five spirited, intelligent, and talented rappers: Invincible of Detroit, Michigan; Canadian emcee Eternia; Stacy Epps of Atlanta, Georgia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s Bahamadia; and New York’s Roxanne Shante) along with a dynamic deejay (Shortee of Los Angeles, California). The documentary captures the first ever meeting between industry veteran Bahamadia and the legendary Roxanne Shante, and it addresses a few of the concerns shared by women in hip-hop. By interviewing the women who took part in the tour and getting their feedback, The Revival gives us ideas for boosting the profile of female rappers and deejays, a few of which I’ve outlined below.

1. Female artists should support each other.
The Revival emphasizes the need for female musicians to be supportive of each other. Bahamadia notes the external distractions that keep women separated from each other, such as men using controlling and divisive tactics “in the background.” On the intimate and internal side, Roxanne Shante reveals that she had never been on an all-female tour, and she found it an eye-opening and rewarding experience. In the past, she says, she had not always been supportive of other females, but had become more supportive as she has matured.

There are many ways to show and give support. The Revival demonstrates that one of the most profound ways to do so is for women to share their lessons and experiences with one another. As they traveled together, the documentary gives the impression that these artists bonded as women and also as artists sharing a love for their craft. Also, it is encouraging to see that although Roxanne Shante is deserving of legendary status, she comes across as being open to learning new things from the younger emcees on the tour. 

2. Female rappers should strive for self-identification.
An intriguing issue in The Revival concerns artistic freedom and identity.  In the short film, the artists are adamant about not wanting to be known simply as “female rappers”.  They want to be “rappers” and “emcees”, plain and simple, perhaps not without complete regard to gender, but definitely with the understanding that their appeal goes beyond the supposed novelty of being female.

At first, I was like, “What’s wrong with standing out because you’re female? You’re on an all-female tour.” That response, I think, comes from a certain male privilege. It’s easy to point out that these artists are participating in an all-female tour while also ignoring the adverse conditions for females in hip-hop that make such a tour a necessity. It’s also easy to say, “Well, being female helps you standout,” but when you think about it, is it really such a compliment to have your gender trotted out as a selling point?

In this context, gender, which is a relatively obvious descriptor for an artist (unless androgyny is part of the persona), gets treated as the attraction rather than the art itself. Women rappers are thereby seen but not heard, spotlighted but silenced. 

Women in hip-hop, then, are working toward being identified on their own terms and through the categories that they create for themselves. This requires a delicate balance because, on the one hand, we want to acknowledge the need for gender equity but, on the other, we want to make sure people are focused on the music.  Hip-hop fans and critics can be helpful here by avoiding quick comparisons between female emcees. When we only compare female rappers to each other, we give the impression that women can only compete against each other, and can’t compete with the fellas.

3. Touring is the Lifeblood of the Movement
Pigeonholing women as “female rappers” instead of locating them as “artists” and “emcees” is a point well taken. At the same time, the idea of an all-female tour is kind of awesome. What better way to get the word out to the people that female rappers and deejays are on the scene?

Sweeter than the publicity aspect is the amount of coordination and organizing that has to take place to pull off a tour like this. I don’t know if there needs to be a hip-hop version of Lillith Fair, but it’s the touring aspect of The Revival that gives the documentary its edge and urgency. Honestly, without the fact that these artists were touring together, the significance of their interaction would be diminished. It’s one thing to get together and talk about doing big things. It’s a greater thing to talk about doing big things while you’re in the middle of doing something big!

Another facet of The Revival brings us right back to the issue of female-to-female support. Invincible remarks that this tour had brought things full circle. There was a time, she says, when Bahamadia would always bring femcees up to the stage to perform during her shows. She had done this with Invincible. Following Bahamadia’s example, Invincible would in turn bring talented ladies to the stage during her shows, and she did this with Stacy Epps. Eventually, Stacy Epps brought Invincible and Bahamadia together for the tour that became the subject of the documentary. 

I understand if you think the story is a little soft and sweet (I think it’s mad cool, actually), but it makes an excellent point about the intersection between artists supporting each other and having venues available to facilitate such support. Add to that the potential for new revenue streams to be collected from these tours, including merchandise, and it’s clearly high time for the ladies to get entrepreneurial with this idea so they can expand its frequency and reach.

4. Females Should Showcase Their Variety and Diverse Content
In The Revival, Roxanne Shante makes it known that she and the other performers are bringing more than a single act. It’s an entire evening, an experience designed for the wide variety of tastes among the hip-hop audience. Fans looking for engaging flows peppered with social commentary would enjoy Invincible, especially performances of her selections from 2008’s Shapeshifters

Those looking for a sophisticated cadence and smart wordplay can get what they need from Bahamadia. Canadian emcee Eternia and Atlanta, Georgia’s Stacy Epps bring even more variety to the table while Roxanne Shante definitely holds down the old school end of the genre. Also, Shante is not afraid to go for the jugular as far as hardcore and explicit lyricism is concerned. The bottom line is that a wide range of expression attracts a wider audience.

From this, female emcees can deepen the impact of their various styles and messages by honing in on their vibe as a whole. Instead of focusing on one aspect of the performance, be it lyrics or choreography or delivery, it might be advantageous to think of the entire persona as a package. This would mean more attention to detail, in some cases, but also more concept-driven songs and albums. This way, it’s not simply a matter of flipping the script on male rappers and proving that women can play the game as well as the guys. It’s also about playing the game with a unique and personal strategy and vantage point. 

All of this probably seems counterintuitive, given the current focus on singles and instant downloading, but we’re talking about a movement here. As such, the philosophy behind it should be comprehensive and aggressive.

5.  Female Rappers Must Co-Sign and Collaborate.
Bahamadia and Roxanne Shante gave The Revival a co-sign, that touch of credibility that comes with being anointed by someone with insider status. Males in the industry do it all the time, giving each other props and declaring that their newest discovery meets a certain quality standard. It would be great to see this happen as often among the females.

However, that assumes there is a critical mass of female emcees with the necessary clout to create buzz around new acts. We don’t seem to be at that point yet. In the meantime, the congenial collaboration evidenced in The Revival might be feasible. Not only should female rappers offer guest spots to other females, they should use female deejays and producers whenever possible.  Mixtapes and compilation releases would be a good start as well.

Along these lines, it would be helpful if R&B artists, many of which regularly use cameos from male rappers, would enlist the services of female emcees. Male rappers have collaborated with female rappers in the past but, again, we’re talking about a support structure among women within the industry that might start to unravel the stereotypes surrounding female emceeing.

Not to pick on the record, but I don’t think Ludacris’ Battle of the Sexes, which featured female emcees, made much impact on this front. I don’t think it was supposed to, though. It was Ludacris’ album, not a compilation. At the end of the day, it’s up to the ladies to tell us who they are and what they want be.

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