No doubt jaws dropped as the poetess proceeded to document the retribution of a young woman who was gang raped. The poem, “The Unlocking” was a lurid and disturbing close to the official “debut” release of The Roots, Do You Want More?!!!??!. The poet, Ursula Rucker would return for two follow-up cameos with The Roots on the tracks “Adventures in Wonderland” (Illidelph Halflife, 1997) and “Return to Innocence” from their most recent studio disc Things Fall Apart (1999). If the East Coast playas thought that the acoustic jazz/funk of The Roots was too soft for their taste, Rucker’s cameos proved that the group could get straight gangsta and that those gangstas didn’t always possess a penis or some facsimile of one as gangsta raptress Boss exhibited on her 1992 track “Deeper”. Gangsta like Rucker’s single mom drug don theorizing in “Adventures in Wonderland” that she was the “Modern day vixen vampire slayer / Unauthorized player in the capitalist contest to see who gets . . . money.”
Rucker’s opportunity to record with The Roots occurred when noted poet and playwright Ntozake Shange declined an invitation to appear on their debut recording. Fittingly Rucker falls firmly within the tradition of Black Arts era poets such as Nikki Giovanni, Camille Yarbrough and Sonia Sanchez, who Rucker also shares faint visual likeness to. What distinguishes Rucker, and many other contemporary spoken word artists such as Saul Williams, Kevin Powell or Sarah Jones, from fore-poets such as the aforementioned Sanchez and Giovanni and others like Amiri Baraka and Haki Madhubuti is the influence of hip-hop on her poetic sensibilities. Giving (gangsta) bitch slaps to the ice brigade (bling, bling baby), wacked out internet racist, failing educational systems while affirming distinct woman-spaces, political resistance, and progressive creativity, Rucker’s “debut” Supa Sista is a much welcomed challenge to hip-hop’s materialism and posturing and the increasing complacency of the so-called neo-soul revolution.
The title track “Supa Sista” sounds like some funked-up “gangsta folk” music that invokes the flavor of Cassandra Wilson’s major label breakthrough Blue Lights ‘Till Dawn (1994). Produced by Tim Motzer who Rucker originally worked with on King Britt’s Sylk130, the song begins with Rucker’s slow big drum chant of “I rose and fell / As he called my name . . . he changed my name / Called my blackness untamed / He put me in chains / He changed my name / Then he changed my names.” The song’s intro speaks powerfully to the complicated web of racist and sexist oppression—what Kimberle Crenshaw calls intersectionality—that black woman have conjured to escape. At its root is a struggle over the naming and defining of black women and black femininity. Hortense Spiller’s acknowledges such a struggle in her groundbreaking 1977 essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” where she writes “‘Peaches’ and ‘brown sugar,’ ‘Sapphire’ and ‘Earth Mother’, . . . I describe a locus of Confounded identities, a meeting ground of investments and privations in the national treasury of rhetorical wealth.”
In Rucker’s mind, the black woman, the Supa Sistas, are forces of nature: “Angry ghetto-grown whirl-a-girl . . . swirlin’ / Twirlin’ / Her way through the darkest of days.” While Rucker sees the “Supa Sister” project as an effort to “deconstruct . . . preconceived misconceptions,” she also envisions a black feminist worldview that transcends specific gender politics and can be extended to efforts to “emerge from the muck and mire” and “set the brainwashed up masses on fire.” It is this notion of a tracendent black feminist politics that Joy James identifies in her book Shadowboxing where she identifies black woman such as Mary Church Terrell, Ida B Wells Barnett, and Ella Baker as political insurgents, who were not solely defined by their interests in feminist concerns. According to James, “this emphasis on political militancy and radicalism differs somewhat from the emphases of contemporary black feminisms that focus on cultural politics as isolated from state power and middle-class sensibilities.” Rucker echoes this theme as she urges “Supa Sistas” that their “mission is clear / Fear is not even an option / With your son on that frontline / There’s no time / Grab your tek9.” The songs ends with a nod, albeit forced, to Whodini’s classic rap ballad “One Love”.
Rucker’s hip-hop sensibilities are most expressly represented in her poison and brimstone assault on commercial hip-hop on the track “What???” Backed by the speedball hard bop production of the drum n’ bass producer 4Hero, the track seems a direct response to Jay Z’s “Can I Get A…” Though the chorus of Jay Z’s track begins “can I get a fuck you?”, the chorus was changed for radio and video consumption reading instead as “Can I get a What? What?” Rucker gives J-hova his “what?” with her straight challenge “you think you can rhyme over this nigga / You think you can sing over this playa / What . . . you think you can flow over this hustler.” Rucker provides the ground rules for the post-millennial MC battle suggesting that participants can not rely on the current ghetto-fab staples as she states, “No Crissy, no thongs . . . and absolutely no platinum or ice / No guns, no lies about your ghetto rep” later adding “so now what you gonna do?” Later in the song Rucker directly references Jigga’s “Nigga What, Nigga Who” by asking “So now what you gonna do / Wit your rhyme, wit your flow” which is a revision of Amil’s backing vocals on the track (“get your dough, wit you flow”).
The brilliance of Rucker’s work is in her ability to find value, meaning and elements of resistance in common everyday practices. Such is the case on “Philadelphia Child” where Rucker examines the lives of the “ghetto girls and the barrio boys” who look at the city’s historical landmarks and wonder “where do I fit in all-of this?” Rucker’s finds the answer to that question in the city’s legendary drill teams who are “White-booted / Philly attituded / zooted . . . up . . . on Schuykill Punch / They shout above drum and street-stomp saying / We are here / We are here . . . We are, we live, we matter.” The song’s power is buttressed by Robert Yancey III’s nuanced production, particularly his subtle use of strings which insistently propels the song’s narrative forward In another example it is a simple “letter to a sister friend” that allows Rucker to examine a dynamic black feminine identity. Like her fellow Philly-based poet Jill Scott, the track also allows Rucker to introduce listeners to her singing talents as her very capable vocals urgently create a lyrical “Sistaspace” that is malleable, shifting, nurturing, passionate, ethereal and mystical. The lyrics reflect the multiplicity of feminine identities that black woman take on in the role of “Mother, Lover, Sister, and Friend”. While such lyrics can be read “naturally” in a heterosexist context, Rucker suggest a more specific notion of woman sharing where her sister friend is “always mother, sometimes lover, sister eternal, friend blessed.” The track serves as a reminder to her “sister friend” and presumably other black women to “honor your house (body), fleshy and sacred, artcarved and curvy . . . Offer it . . . never . . . to those unworthy.”
On the track “Brown Boy”, Rucker walks the fine line between feminist critique, as witnessed on tracks like “What???” and “Supa Sista” and the buttressing of black patriarchy. Rucker’s vacillation is likely the product of being a real-life mother struggling to raise young male children in a society that views their lives as “raw sewage”. Rucker makes a specific investment in the various mythologies that have accompanied the historical transition of blacks in America from pre-modern African natives to what Cornel West has called “new world Africans”. Often this transition, as is the case on “Brown Boy”, is reduced to the dichotomies of “chief to slave” and “king to cotton picker”, that do nothing to engage the complexities of African survival and resistance in the Americas. Rucker’s choice of language here is likely a reflex to criticisms often faced by black feminists within the mainstream black community. As she admitted in an interview with Philadelphia Weekly, “You get so many labels, I don’t need more. I don’t to pigeonhole my work and say it’s feminist work.” Often the embrace of a lay Afrocentrism or rather what I’ll term the “myth of true African identity” is a response to what Kendall Thomas has called “a crude racialist litmus test to establish true ‘blackness’” where those who embrace anti-sexist and anti-homophobic politics, often at the expense of “true identity” myths, are viewed as outside the parameters of “true” blackness and thus the black community proper. In the case of Rucker’s “Brown Boy” which suggests that there has been “epic memory stricken with the disease of conditioning,” her investment in the “myth of true African identity” and its attendant patriarchy obscures her more principled critiques of the black male condition where they are viewed as “blips on the screen of America . . . Tuskegee Airmen and experimental recruits / Strange fruits and strangers in the village.” The last lyric speaks to the forms of oppression—the practice of lynching and the syphilis experiments on black men in the 1930s—that are specific to the black male experience. Again Rucker undermines her critique here, by reinforcing the US Constitution’s “3/5ths” definition of black bodies (“Black not beautiful, black like oil spillage / Diminished to 3/5 of whole”) as a male construct, effectively obliterating the legitimacy of oppressions, particularly sexual violence, specific to black woman.
Rucker is much more sophisticated on the project’s most affecting piece, the tragic “Song for Billy”. The track gives another spin on the crack game/sex games themes found in Rucker’s earlier work with The Roots on “The Unlocking” and “Adventures in Wonderland”. At its core the song is about sacrifice, namely the sacrifice of a young girl “cast into a fire . . . a sacrifice / For a crystalline god / Offered up by a once goddess / Now mindless / Mother / Fucker of men / Demonic suppliers of her desires.” In other words baby girl is tragically offered up to “not even men/ More like / Monsters” so that mama can again hit the pipe. The narrative recalls song’s like Paul Lawrence’s “Strung Out” (“strung out, left in doubt, f-r-e-e-b-a-s-i-n-g”) and Oran “Juice” Jones’s “Pipe Dreams” (“inhale now feel the rush . . . the demon has arrived, nightmare begins”). The tragedy is not just the mother’s addiction or her insensitivity to her very young daughter, but the men who willingly defile a girl that is “not even a woman yet / Not even an adolescent / Not even a toddler . . . yet.” As Rucker more pointedly suggest the young child was an “innocent orifice / Too young to produce woman juice / Still tiny / Still dry and clean / Just weaned off mama’s withered, weathered tit.” Rucker uses the track to raise more specific questions about female sexuality and male privilege. In the aftermath of the 2000 Puerto Rican Day Parade or the most recent Woodstock travesty (lest we think only black and brown men can’t control their urges) her insistence that a woman’s vagina (“Her baby hole / Not big enough / But a hole just the same”) is “supposed to be/only a confirmation of sex . . . not an invitation to sex” is a forceful reminder. In the end Rucker also points to a process where a child already understands that her own sexuality and the abuse of it by others (including her cracked out mother in this case) is of value in a world that will read no value in her own humanity.
TAKE YO’ PRAISE
Rucker’s debut is only the latest example of a long line of black women poets and spoken word artist that have offered trenchant and necessary critiques of American life and culture, often without the kinds of promotional support that even the most morose rappers get in the current music industry environment. Thirty years ago Nikki Giovanni recorded Truth is on the Way the first of two spoken word recordings in which she collaborated with the New York Community Choir (under the direction of Bennie Diggs) performing “gospelized” versions of her already published poetry. A third recording, The Way I Feel, was done for the Atlantic label in 1975 with the legendary Arif Mardin behind the boards. Giovanni’s “major” label debut was reflective of an overall trend in which major labels became interested in signing “black” acts, effectively annexing the remnants of the independent black music industry. It was during this era that Clive Davis’ then burgeoning Arista label would sign the mercurial genius Gil Scott-Heron. Many of these recordings have been forgotten, save the hip-hop community’s fixation with The Last Poets, who were easily the most bombastic and militant of the most well known spoken word artists/poets of the 1970s.
One of the many important recordings from that era forgotten during the past two decades was Camille Yarbrough’s The Iron Pot Cooker which was released on the Vanguard label in 1975. In the linear notes to the recording’s 2000 re-issue, Kevin Powell writes, “As a hip-hop journalist, I was keenly aware of the influence of musical wordsmiths like The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron . . . on what is popularly called rap music. Because hip-hop has traditionally been a very male-centered art form, I naively assumed that its forbears, too, had been men. This historical and cultural omission speaks volumes about the continued ignorance and oppression of woman artists in American culture.” With tracks like “But It Comes Out Mad”, the surreal mega-poem “Dream/Panic/Sonny Boy the Rip-Off Man/Little Sally The Super Sex Star/Taking Care of Business)” and the brilliant “Take Yo’ Praise”, Yarbrough spoke insightfully to the dynamics and contradictions of black life at the culmination of the civil rights/black power era. The recording is legitimately, as Powell argues, the ground on which the later works of Badu, Lauryn Hill, Me’shell N’degeocello, Jill Scott, and Ursula Rucker’s stand. In the linear notes, Powell tells the story of initially finding a vinyl copy of The Iron Pot Cooker in a crate somewhere in New York’s East Village. One can only hope that Ursula Rucker’s Supa Sista will not endure the similar fate of being obscured, ignored and forgotten.