Sunday night at 5:30 p.m., four panelists and more than 50 community members gathered at the Common Table community center in Minneapolis for Let the Woman Speak, a two-hour-long conversation addressing sexism in hip-hop. Discrimination against women is hardly unique to Minnesota, reaching across borders worldwide, but it often presents itself locally. Local organization Twin Cities Save the Kids (TCSTK) created the discussion to clarify problems and think through solutions.
The panel comprised spoken word artist/DJ Sol Rebel Phoenix Ras, dancer/choreographer Maia Maiden, producer/promoter/MC Omaur Bliss, and MC Alphonso Fleming (also known as DisputeOne, and formerly, Extreme). TCSTK’s Amber Gay facilitated the conversation, along with Kim Socha. Two more panelists and several other attendees were slotted to join the event, but in light of Jamar Clark’s recent shooting, they chose to stand in solidarity with protesters in North Minneapolis.
After a moment of silence for Clark, the panel started responding to the first discussion prompt, which asked about how each individual had seen or experienced misogyny in their lives. Maia Maiden responded, “Time and time again, I have not been chosen [as a dancer] — even though I was clearly better — because I was a woman or because I was black.”
Bliss remembered several concerts: “In a rap show, there would be 15 dudes and one girl, and she’d be there to sing the hook. And that’s it.”
As discussed by the panel, exclusion seemed like a key problem — women have been shut out of local conversations and transactions, subtly or not-so-subtly, unless sexual favors are involved.
Panelists mentioned that one way to break through exclusion is with empowerment from the community. Intentionally including women (and specifically, women of color) in hip-hop helps.
Another way to combat exclusion, the panel said, is with self-empowerment. Bliss encouraged local women to take more initiative, demanding attention and starting their own events (one successful example: the B-Girl Be festival). Fleming agreed: “2016’s going to be about ownership.” But as an audience member cautioned, women don’t always get to make decisions about what happens to them; her story warned listeners about putting burdens on women.
A few times, the panel discussed current hip-hop’s quality. Some panelists implied that today’s music lacks substance, criticizing mainstream artists. That shallowness can be detrimental; Bliss noted, “If every single radio cut is ‘Let Me See That Thong,’ then where are we learning to value the sensuality and the splendor of brown skin?”
However, Ras defended artists’ rights to express themselves provocatively: “Conscious music is very beautiful, but so is shaking your ass.” She added, “Embracing your body the way it is […] is a beautiful thing.” Later: “Wearing the pantyhose — or no pantyhose with a skirt — those aren’t bad things.” The danger’s in “the way that people are manipulating [those things] and using them to attack black women.”
Manipulation of women became a recurring point. For example: the panelists reminded each other that Nicki Minaj wasn’t always the sexualized rapper that she is today. The more outrageously she behaved, the more media and public attention she received. Eventually, panel members argued, she had little choice but to become the MC she is today.
As local fans know, there is much more to hip-hop than Minaj. Maiden pointed out that “what [consumers] see is not the diversity that’s out there.” But outside of SoundCloud and other streaming resources, women artists can find it difficult to connect with their public. Ras asked, “Who controls what’s being written […] and listened to?” Bliss said, “The key-holders are all dudes.”
The conversation skewed more national than it may have been intended to, but MCs the Lioness and BdotCroc came up as examples of talented local women who are working hard in music. Lizzo’s forthcoming album, Big GRRRL Small World, is one of the most anticipated releases of this winter.
Near the end, Ras said, “Anything we pump out is a mirror. All the things we don’t like about hip-hop are a reflection of our community.” An audience member added, “Hip-hop isn’t here to save us. It’s an expression of us being saved.” After sharing about her own experience, the same woman made a call to action: “We’ve got to create something new.”
Cecilia Johnson is a writer from the Twin Cities. Her favorite things include ramen, Hailey Colwell, and Master of None.