Histories and "her stories" from the Bronx: excavating hidden hip hop narratives.
Popular and academic understandings of the cultural production of hip hop tend to focus on the music as a site of misogyny, aggressive masculinity and rampant consumerism. Historical accounts of hip hop have privileged male narratives, stifling women's stories and their valuable contributions to hip hop music and culture. This paper utilizes oral history interviews from the Bronx African-American History Project (BAAHP) to shed light on hidden hip hop narratives constructed by female Bronx-based artists who reside at the margins of the music industry and are peripheral to the dominant discourses surrounding hip hop music. Utilizing an anthropological approach to oral history research, I explore the unexpected, complex and often contradictory ways in which women's "creation narratives" figure into their use of hip hop as an educational tool, as a mechanism for political activism and as a springboard for articulating feminist ideologies. I argue that for contemporary Bronx female artists, hip-hop represents a means for demonstrating a feminist consciousness and for claiming racialized belonging. I further assert that women's hip hop narratives generate critical understandings of how Diasporic Blackness is (re) conceptualized in relation to local and global racializations (Thomas and Clarke 2006).
My title "Histories and 'Her Stories' from the Bronx: Excavating Hidden Hip hop Narratives," borrows from a long-standing tradition in feminist oral history research and is inspired by a collaboration between the pioneering feminist oral historian, Sherna Gluck (whose work began in the 1970s) and her students. That paper was entitled, "Whose Feminism, Whose History? Reflections on Excavating the History of (the) U.S. Women's Movement(s)" (Gluck et al.: 1998). The notion of "hidden narratives" is related to James Scott's concept of "hidden transcripts" which he characterizes as "discourse that takes place ... beyond the observation of power holders" (Scott 1990: 4). In his framework, "the hidden transcript is produced for a different audience and under different constraints of power than the public transcript" (Scott 1990: 5). Scott sees such hidden transcripts as "represent[ations] of power spoken behind the back of the dominant" (Scott 1990: xii). I aim to illustrate how Bronx women's oral histories reveal hidden narratives surrounding women's critical oral traditions and their ways of defying social norms that de-legitimize women's role in hip hop. In this paper, 1 wish to uncover or excavate what is valuable about women's narratives--narratives that often remain obscured from the public realm but which are vital contestations of how women are represented in mainstream hip hop. In turn, I will also emphasize the usefulness of oral history research for uncovering a second, related hidden narrative--the ways in which Puerto Rican and Dominican women use hip hop to claim local and global notions of African Diasporic belonging.
THE HISTORY AND "HER" STORY OF HIP HOP
So get ready to learn the truth about your hip-hop heritage. The Mercedes Ladies may not have reaped the monetary benefits or the glitz that "the game" soon delivered. But one thing we do have is the title of being the first all-female DJ and MC crew from the Bronx. Nobody can ever take that away from us. We will forever be a part of history. Wait a minute--let me rephrase that. Not just "His" story. That is "Her" story. Our story.--Sheri Sher, Mercedes Ladies: A Novel
Before turning to the three women whose oral histories inspired this paper, 1 must say a bit about the larger research project and the history of Bronx hip hop. I began working on a hip hop history initiative for the BAAHP in September of 2007. Although a number of the Project's now 200 plus interviews had centered on hip hop even before I formally began this initiative, much of the Project's early work focused on recording oral histories of Bronx residents who grew up in the borough in the 1940s and 1950s. Much of this work was based around interviewing individuals who played prominent roles in the Bronx's other vibrant musical traditions--jazz, Doo Wop and salsa, to name a few. With hip hop poised to enter its fifth decade of existence--it made sense to launch an initiative centered on its early history.
The common understanding is that hip hop originated in the South Bronx in the early 1970s. However, scholars of and participants in hip hop culture acknowledge the African diasporic origins of the musical form, which borrows from African, American and Caribbean traditions. Paul Gilroy explores these cultural currents in The Black Atlantic, writing, "hip hop culture grew out of the cross-fertilisation of African-American vernacular cultures with their Caribbean equivalents rather than springing fully formed from the entrails of the blues" (Gilroy 1993: 163). As in all recuperative representations, there is, however, a hidden component in the historical understanding of the origins of hip hop. I found, in my larger research on popular youth cultures, gender and the African Diaspora, that much of what is written on hip hop focuses on male artists and on what I call the "creation narrative of hip hop." Researchers from Gilroy to Jeff Chang rely on a creation narrative that represents hip hop as springing forth almost entirely from men. Gilroy posits, "The immediate catalyst for [hip hop's] development was the relocation of Clive "Kool DJ Here" Campbell from Kingston to 168th Street in the Bronx" (Gilroy 1993: 103). Indeed, Clive Campbell, popularly known as DJ Kool Here, is widely credited with pioneering hip hop soon after he migrated from Jamaica to the Bronx in 1967 and started spinning records at house parties held in the recreation room of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the early 1970s. In a chapter entitled, "Making a Name: How DJ Kool Here Lost His Accent and Started Hip Hop," journalist and hip hop historian Jeff Chang writes,
It has become myth, a creation myth, this West Bronx party at the end of the summer of 1973. Not for its guests--a hundred kids and kin from around the way, nor for the setting--a modest recreation room in a new apartment complex; not even for its location--two miles north of Yankee Stadium, near where the Cross-Bronx Expressway spills into Manhattan. Time remembers it for the night DJ Kool Here made his name" (Chang 2005: 67).
While Chang refers to this as a "creation myth" I prefer to focus on the creation narrative created by Chang, by Kool Here himself and by other hip hop scholars--most of whom rely on this account in tracing the origins of hip hop. Chang goes on to note that the party known for starting hip hop was actually the brainchild of Here's sister, Cindy Campbell, who, motivated by a desire to earn money for a new back-to-school wardrobe, obtained the space, purchased the refreshments and advertised the party. Still, Chang does not position Cindy Campbell as central to the creation of hip hop. Drawing on interviews with Kool Here and Cindy Campbell, Chang focuses instead on how Here's father, Keith Campbell a record collector and owner of a Shure P.A. system played a vital role in these parties. The elder Campbell provided the sound system with which Herc went on to spin records first inside 1520 Sedgwick and later at now famous outdoor block parties in surrounding neighborhoods. Here would go on to print "Father and Son," business cards acknowledging his father's central role. However, I suggest refocusing this creation narrative around the ways in which Cindy Campbell was both instrumental and largely overlooked. Chang is to be credited for even mentioning Cindy Campbell; she is completely absent from Gilroy's account. Even versions of hip hop's creation narrative which include the role played by Cindy Campbell, recount the story with male protagonists. Cindy Campbell not only promoted Here's first party, but many of the other early parties that made him famous and that cultivated the critical dance and fashion elements of hip hop. I am arguing, therefore, that hip hop's "creation story" is one that marginalizes the role of women like Cindy, instead presenting men as miraculously giving birth to the hip hop infant with little help from women. Gwendolyn D. Pough's book, Check it While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere offers an academic response to the male-centered hip hop creation narrative. Pough writes, "Women's contribution to Hip-Hop culture has been lost, or rather, erased. To hear some self-proclaimed Hip-Hop historians tell it, there were no significant women in Hip-Hop's history" (Pough 2004: 8). My present endeavor builds on Pough's project, yet charts a distinct course in that while she emphasizes the contributions of commercially successful and/or popularly known artists such as Roxanne Shante, Queen Latifah, Missy Elliott and Lil' Kim, I am more concerned with female hip hop artists whose narratives have remained largely hidden from the mainstream, mass-marketed hip hop industry. In so doing, my analysis is in debt to the work done by Pough and by a number of other scholars who have offered critical theorizations on the gender politics of hip hop (Rose 1994, 2004, Guevara 1996, Gaunt 1997, Morgan 1999, Keyes 2004, Perry 2004).
Sharon Jackson (also known as "Sha Rock"), a Bronx-based emcee who, in 1976 became the first female member of the seminal hip hop group, The Funky Four, is one of a few women recognized for contributing to hip hop's early development. In her 2008 novel, Mercedes Ladies, Sheri Sher presents an important revisionist history. Based on Sher's real experience as a member of the first all-female hip hop emcee and DJ crew, Mercedes Ladies reveals the ways in which women's work as early promoters, emcees, DJs, graffiti artists and break-dancers remain largely invisible. Yet, Gilroy and Pough's academic cachet and Jeff Chang's journalistic credentials position their accounts as more legitimate than Sheri Sher's novel. The cover of Chang's book, Can 'I Stop Won 'I Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation boasts "Introduction by DJ Kool Here". While Chang's cover flaunts collaboration with a "true" hip hop pioneer, Sheri Sher's book employs both the actual names of early hip hop actors (such as Sha Rock) and fictionalized names, with monikers such as "Shelli Shel" (instead of Sheri Sher) replacing "real" historical actors. If one considers the risks women in hip hop culture have faced when they dare to speak out on a number of issues, especially domestic violence, we can understand that the strategy of utilizing pseudonyms is often times a necessary protection when one is recounting hidden narratives. (2) Mercedes Ladies details the physical abuse, sexual harassment and tooth and nail struggles the group encountered as they transitioned from a crew of teenage girls whose hard-edged style and presence at all the right parties won them popularity and references on tracks by accomplished DJs, into the first, bona fide all-female emcee and DJ hip hop act. Not an academic treatment, Sheri Sher's work belongs in the genre known as "street lit" or street literature. There is, of course, a long tradition of incorporating elements of fiction in women's cultural writings, most notably perhaps with the work of Zora Neale Hurston and Ella Deloria and continuing with contemporary female ethnographers such as Karen McCarthy Brown. Regarding Hurston, Kamala Visweswaran writes, "there is not a clear-cut demarcation of her work into novelistic, autobiographical, or ethnographic genres, or even a clear sense that she worked for a time only in one form to begin with another (Visweswaran 1994: 3-4). Still, although feminist writers such as Visweswaran have acknowledged that all ethnographies (and histories, for that matter) are stories and that literature has influenced ethnographic writing in valuable ways, accounts such as Sheri Sher's, while holding street credibility, have arguably less status than the more formal accounts which often position men at the center.
With women's roles erased and women's narratives stifled, one might listen to the "official" creation story of hip hop and think that it is therefore no wonder that hip hop developed into an overtly masculine cultural form. Even if we think beyond rap music and incorporate the other elements of hip hop; dance, graffiti art and fashion, a cursory glance at mainstream hip hop confirms the notion that this is an aggressively masculine cultural product. In her book entitled, Pimps Up, Ho's Down: Hip Hop's Hold on Young Black Women, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting argues that hyper-sexualized and derogatory images of Black women are a crucial element of contemporary hip hop music and culture (Sharpely-Whiting 2007). Sharpley-Whiting is referring to the basic formula for most hip hop videos; numerous, scantily clad young Black and Latino women, whose rear-ends and breasts fill almost every frame, and who appear to have no other desire than to give sexual pleasure to the male rap star. Scholars and cultural critics such as Sharpley-Whiting, Tricia Rose and Nelson George, who have addressed misogynous lyrics in hip hop, have noted that from about the mid-1980s to today, many rap lyrics have centered not on the verbal dexterity of the artists, but rather on "bitches," "ho's" and on explicit slang for female genitalia (Sharpley-Whiting 2007, Rose 1994, George 1998). Yet, the actual experiences of the marginalized people, artists and consumers who grew up with hip hop and who continue to use it in meaningful ways, are glaringly absent from this dialogue.
AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL APPROACH TO ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEWING
I saw a hip hop history initiative focused in particular on Bronx women's experiences as a way to fill this gap. This paper draws most heavily on a BAAHP oral history interview with an artist named La Bruja (Caridad de la Luz) and incorporates two additional oral histories, one with Patty Dukes (Patricia Marte) and another with Lah Tere (Teresita Ayala) from the musical group Rebel Diaz. I conducted all three interviews in the fall of 2007. (3) The three women are Bronx-based performers who utilize hip hop in unexpected ways in their musical performances, in their personal lives and in their work as activists.
Like the majority of the BAAHP's interviews, these three oral histories were recorded in the Department of African and African American Studies conference room at Fordham University. Lasting between one and two hours long, the interviews were audio and video recorded and were based around open-ended questions. As an anthropologist, however, I strove to contextualize the three interviews beyond the confines of what was "performed" in our conference room. I did this by interacting with the artists at numerous performances and events, by communicating with them via email and by listening to their recorded music. These three women know each other and are part of a close-knit community of artists/activists. Therefore, for example, I saw Patty Dukes perform at an event organized by Lah Tere. I knew a good deal about La Bruja (the Spanish word for "witch") even before recording her oral history because I had viewed a documentary film made by Bronx filmmaker Felix Rodriguez entitled, "La Bruja: A Witch from the Bronx." 1 interviewed Rodriguez first, recording his life story but also asking him questions about Caridad. Even before she came to our office for an interview, La Bruja's mixtape CD "Brujalicious" became the informal soundtrack of Fordham's Dealy Hall for several weeks. In the fall of 2008, almost a year after first recording their oral histories, I invited Rodriguez and La Bruja to present a screening of the aforementioned film at Fordham, followed by a question-answer period in which 1 learned even more about La Bruja's life and work. Along similar lines, on January 22, 2009, the BAAHP's "Bronx is Building" lecture series featured a panel discussion entitled "Women in Bronx Hip Hop" in which both Patty Dukes and the aforementioned Sheri Sher participated.
Before I turn to La Bruja's life story I want to briefly reflect on the life history genre as it has been utilized in anthropology. Lila Abu-Lughod, following Geyla Frank, Vincent Crapanzano and Ruth Behar reminds us "we need to recognize that life histories are actually stories that people tell about themselves, texts requiring attention to the conventions of storytelling and the context of the elicitation" (Frank 1979, Crapanzano 1980, Behar 1990, Abu-Lughod 1993: 30). As Della Pollock has noted, "... the telling of stories is inherently performative: an interviewee puts on a show, creates an identity, within the context of talking to the interviewer" (Pollock 2005: xi). Scholars such as Abu-Lughod, Gluck and Marjorie Shostak caution us to always be aware of the anthropologist's positionality and how this affects what the narrator tells and how she tells it. Along these lines, my own positionality as a feminist researcher creeps in later when 1 interpret La Bruja's approach to gaining recognition from her male peers. In terms of thinking about La Bruja/Caridad's narrative as a performance or a story she told me about herself, I will say this: La Bruja is both a talented emcee/poet and an impressive story teller. In fact, I would argue that those two things always go hand in hand. So I was not surprised when she deftly drew my undergraduate assistant, our videographer and me into the story of her life.
LA BRUJA: A KITCHEN POET'S HEIR
La Bruja is a Bronx-born Puerto Rican hip hop emcee, performance artist and spoken word poet who gained some national recognition after appearing on Russell Simmon's "Def Poetry Jam." She is also the mother of two young children who recently separated from her husband and lives one block away from her parents in the South Bronx. A community activist who routinely volunteers to teach Bronx children at various schools and centers, La Bruja was born in 1973 and is the oldest of the three women I interviewed.
When I asked La Bruja what first influenced her to become a spoken word poet and later a hip hop emcee, she told me that it was her maternal great grandmother, a talented poet who lived with her family in the Bronx. Caridad spent her early childhood memorizing the old woman's poems.
OL: Did your great grandmother write the poems or did she recite them to you and then you memorized them?
LB: She recited them. She didn't know how to read or write, and she had a memory of gold. She had eleven children ... she never did poetry as a mother. Once she was older and wasn't in the kitchen anymore she said, that's when her memory, it clicked and she started sharing all these poems. She started sharing and my grandmother was like, we never heard you do this! So, it came to her later on and it was great ... She died when I was ten. That's when I started writing, because I couldn't remember her chorus, and ... I felt crushed ... I was like, "Oh my god, she's gone and I don't remember!" So I think that I've been trying to recite, or reword what she taught me. Her messages--because a lot of my poems, especially the ones that really made me popular, were about my grandmother or about my house, the Latino experience, the Puerto Rican experience. ...
La Bruja presents a female-centered creation narrative. Her birth as an artist sprung from her great grandmother's unexpected creative talents. Significantly, Caridad's great grandmother was not able to cultivate her own poetic abilities until after raising her children. In Krik? Krak! a collection of short stories inspired by Haitian women's oral traditions, Edwidge Danticat defines what she calls "kitchen poets."
And writing? Writing was forbidden as dark rouge on the cheeks or a first date before eighteen. It was an act of indolence, something to be done in a corner when you could have been cooking. Are there women who cook and write? Kitchen poets, they call them. They slip phrases into their stew and wrap meaning around their pork before frying it. They make narrative dumplings and stuff their daughters mouths so they say nothing more (Danticat 1996: 219-220).
Caridad's great grandmother was a true "kitchen poet" in Danticat's sense because her poetry was an oral tradition, confined to the private realm and imparted to her female heir. She shared her "hidden narratives" only after fulfilling her socially prescribed role of being a mother. Later, Caridad revealed that although her own Spanish was "not very good" she often felt like she was channeling her great grandmother when she recited poetry in Spanish. In this way, La Bruja's identity as a hip hop witch is predicated on notions of possession common in creolized Caribbean religions such as Santeria and Vodou. In fact, santeria and possession figure prominently in La Bruja's one-woman show, "Boogie Rican Blvd." in which she explicitly connects her pseudonym to her African ancestry and to creolized African religions. La Bruja's identity as an emcee also developed around Caridad's role as a teacher. I asked La Bruja how she transitioned from being Caridad, the poet to La Bruja, the hip hop emcee.
LB: 1 would do writing workshops in the community for youth, if I said, "Work on your poetry," they looked at me like, "Ugh, this is torture." "Okay," I changed it up, I was like, "Who listens to hip hop? I'm going to teach you how to write rhymes." And in the end, I was teaching them the same thing with a different title, and they were like "yeah!" you know? And then, I too was like, "Well, their language is in rhyme, it's flow, so I have to develop my flow," so I knew that I was a poet, I knew that I was pretty good at it-at the spoken word--and I was like, now I got other things developing, and I can do it with them. ...
OL: Where was this that you were teaching?
LB: At the East Harlem Tutorial Program, it was on 106th and 2nd, and 1 worked there for a bunch of years and did stuff at The Point Community Center [located in the South Bronx], So, from the beginning of being La Bruja in '96 I would do hooks for people they would be like, "Yo we need a girl to sing this, this is what the song is about," so I would go. I would write a rhyme, I would drop the lyric ... drop the verse. Eight bars or whatever, and I kept doing that for this person and that person, "You want a hook, you need a hook? Okay, I'll write a hook, I'll sing the hook." 1 wouldn't get paid, but I would build a relationship, I would build a connection, and get to hone my own skills. So by the time "Brujalicious" came on, it was like ten years into, or nine years after doing that, I felt like all those dudes that I paid, that "Brujalicious was the fruit of that labor. Because then I was able to get big names with me ...
OL: What was it like negotiating yourself in that new role; I mean by doing those hooks for other people, you know, relating to men in the industry, what was that like?
LB: I would have to defend myself. There were certain things 1 would tell them I'm not going to do. If it's a gang song I'm not going to do it ... I'm not going to do no guns, no this, no that. Actually, on "Brujalicious" it's a great story because the "Olvidate" song that has all those guys on it and I'm just singing the last verse. When I first went in there, they were all talking about pigs and shooting and I was like, "Hmmm, none of y'all live like that so don't even try," [laughter] ... I was like, "Please what is it that you're selling?" ... So, in the end of it, Don Dinero was like, "Why don't you just rep you, say what you have to say, just do it your way, let us do it our way ..." So, I wrote about, "I'm here to celebrate, to dance, I didn't come here to fight, and I'm gonna make you forget about fighting." So that's what the whole "Olvidate, was, forget about that." The whole premise of "That's not what I'm here for, I'm living my grandma ..." That's really what it was about, it was like trying to school these guys at the end of it.
Here, La Bruja brings her feminine creation narrative to bear on the contemporary problems surrounding hip hop's reliance on violence. She connects the nascency of her album, "Brujalicious," with her work as a teacher in urban youth centers. For La Bruja, poetry, teaching youth to write and hip hop are inter-related. The idea that hip hop is predicated on violence or misogyny is not part of her artistic process. However, I steered the discussion from her early years singing hooks, a traditionally feminine role in hip hop, to her interactions with male artists. Here, LaBruja reveals that she used her great grandmother's wisdom to "school these guys." After she finished this explanation I said:
OL: What you just said made me think of this in an entirely different way than I've ever thought of it before, because it sounds like when you went into that particular recording session where you said, "I'm not going to sing about that," because you were female, you had the freedom to sing about something else, where they felt they had to present their masculine identities. But because you're female, you had a little bit more freedom, which is interesting to think about.
LB: It is. The others think they're soft. I'm a writer woman, I can be soft ... I can be whatever I want to be. Then I've heard girls fall into the same thing and they're ... talking hard. Don't be hard. Look at Remy Ma. Remy, she's got children ... I read something in an interview about [her] just you know, "I'm keeping it real"? What? ... I long for some, some substance and I feel ... that Remy got caught up in that too. That they have to be hard to get respect from the dudes.
The above exchange is significant in terms of excavating a hidden narrative that goes against the grain of popular hip hop representations. It is also an important moment in which I injected my own interpretation into the oral history process, interpreting La Bruja's experience from my perspective as a feminist researcher. I brought this perspective into the narrative itself and La Bruja corroborated my interpretation but also offered that being female does not always release an artist from the pressures of "keeping it real." Gluck warns that "questioning our interpretations [the researcher's that is]" of the storyteller's narrative "is a critical part of reflecting on women's oral histories" (Gluck 1998: 75). Gluck goes on to suggest, in a statement than can be applied to my example, "... This was exploration of meaning and a discussion of interpretive authority but at the same time it put[s] meat on the query with the use of narrative excerpts to illustrate the kinds of activities in which the women engaged and the ways in which they seem to express a feminist consciousness" (Gluck 1998: 75). It is significant that La Bruja described herself as a "writer woman" rather than as a "woman writer." The awkward phrasing that she chose, "writer woman" puts writing first and emphasizes her role as a writer before identifying her gender. Moreover, La Bruja expresses a feminist consciousness in Gluck's sense because for her, "writer" and "woman" are inseparable.
In the telling of her own life story, in her recorded music, in her live performances and in her work as an activist, La Bruja routinely expresses a feminist consciousness. Here I am using Abu-Lughod's minimal definition of "feminist," that is, showing "a concern with women's conditions and with the political, economic, social, and cultural implications of systems of gender for them" (Abu-Lughod 1993: 4). La Bruja is not the only Bronx hip hop artist expressing such a consciousness. She, Patty Dukes and Lah Tere are all part of an artistic community of Bronx artists who use hip hop to create feminist spaces both figuratively through their music and literally through workshops and public events.
LAH TERE: "THIS IS NOT JUST RAPPING YOU KNOW"
"Momma's Hip Hop Kitchen: The Soup Kitchen for the Hip Hop Soul" was one such event. Organized by Lah Tere and a Fordham undergraduate named Kathleen Adams, "Momma's Hip Hop Kitchen" took place on February 16, 2008. Lah Tere described her vision for the event when I interviewed her along with the other members of the group Rebel Diaz (Rod Starz, a.k.a. Rodrigo Venegas and G-l, a.k.a. Gonzalo Venegas).
LT: It is hip hop for the soul, right. And it's specifically for women of color who are going to be reporting back about their organizing in HIV/AIDS and their organizing in reproductive rights. So it's a space where women are free to express themselves with whatever art form they feel, whether it be graffiti, just regular painting, emceeing ... There are going to be female DJs. Every element that you can think of in hip hop is going to be there, and it's going to be women doing it. So it's not only for women, but it's a women's event.
I attended Momma's Hip Hop Kitchen (where Patty Dukes performed) and interpreted it as a gathering of "kitchen poets" who demanded that their art, struggles and experiences be heard in the public sphere. Born in Chicago on September 24th, 1979, Lah Tere is the daughter of two teachers who migrated from Puerto Rico to Humboldt Park, a largely Puerto Rican community located on Chicago's northwest side. Lah Tere attended Jose Riego grammar school in Chicago, a public school with a political tradition. Many of Lah Tere's teachers were Puerto Rican and she attributes her early engagement in political activism to the education she received at Jose Riego. Like La Bruja and many other women who become hip hop emcees, Lah Tere began as a singer rather than as a rapper. She joined what she described as a "politically resistant salsa band" while in high school. Making frequent trips to Puerto Rico during her adolescence, she also incorporated the Afro-Puerto Rican musical tradition known as bomba y plena into her singing style. However, Lah Tere recounted how, during her high school years, hip hop became as important a musical element as more distinctly Puerto Rican genres.
LT: [Starting from] my freshman year ... I liked music. Wherever there's a beat, it sounded to me like bomba and salsa. It's the same thing, the sounds are the same, the beats are the same ... I would put the free-styling, the freestyle singing into the freestyle cipher. That's pretty much where I fit into the whole category.
Lah Tere was lured to the Bronx when Gonzalo Venegas arranged for a job interview for her with the social justice organization, Mothers on the Move (MOM), located in the South Bronx. MOM hired Lah Tere and she joined them in organizing Bronx residents on educational, housing, and environmental injustice issues. Lah Tere's job at MOM coincided with the birth of the group Rebel Diaz on April 10, 2006. The group sees their organizing work and their production of hip hop music as related parts of what Lah Tere described as a "spiritual calling." "The work that we do is front-line work," she said. "This is not just rapping, you know?" When I asked Lah Tere if the close, sibling-like relationship she has with her band mates, the Venegas brothers helped her negotiate her identity as a female hip hop artist, she said:
I have these awesome brothers, as a woman, as a queen, I feel like a queen everyday ... Even when we're fighting there's a level of respect where I feel safe, I feel protected. It's a real community, a real unit.
When I asked Lah Tere if she felt that as a female she had to play a different role than the male members of Rebel Diaz, she responded:
I feel like its up to you to do what you feel like you have to do in [hip hop] culture. Who cares if this girl is popping her ass over there, doing her thing ... I am a completely different person, and I have a whole other purpose. I can't sit here and worry about everything that's happened in the hip hop culture in regards to women and use that as a way to help me mold my thoughts in this movement. I don't have time for that! ... I'm sorry that that is what has happened in hip hop. And we can talk about it, but right now I have this work that I have to do. I have to speak for the immigrants. I have to speak for the women of color with AIDS and HIV. I have to talk about reproductive rights. If I focus on the negative there's no way I'll be able to move.
Here, Lah Tere echoes La Bruja's choice to chart her own course as a female emcee, one that diverges from the dominant representations of women in hip hop. Much like La Bruja, Lah Tere infuses these ideas into her rhymes and uses her talents to teach and organize. When they discussed their roles as female hip hop artists, similar currents of agency and determination rang through all three women's oral histories.
Notions of African diasporic belonging were another common thread throughout the three interviews. While the Bronx African American History Project is ostensibly aimed at recording the oral histories of Bronx residents of African descent, the project has interviewed individuals from many ethnic and racial backgrounds in order to reflect not only the diversity of the Bronx, but also to document how cross-cultural exchanges between several different ethnic and immigrant groups inform the history of the Bronx's Black residents. Negotiations between Latina and Black identities were central to each of the three life stories I conducted, with each woman revealing how identifying with African ancestry became a critical element in her work as a hip hop artist. These themes were especially prevalent in Patty Dukes' oral history.
PATTY DUKES: "PUT A MICROPHONE IN FRONT OF A LITTLE GIRL AS OPPPOSED TO A BABY"
Patty Dukes, nee Patricia Marte, was born on November 13, 1979. Marte got her stage name when the well-established spoken word poet, Lemon, jokingly punched her in the arm. The blow was hard and Patty retaliated by sneaking up on Lemon and punching him in the back of his head. In front of a rather large group of on-looking friends, Lemon was shocked that Patty had "put up her dukes" and he responded, "Who do you think you are, Patty Dukes?!?!" The name suited Marte and it stuck.
Patty's family is from Puerto Rico but relocated to the Dominican Republic where she was born. The family moved once again to the Bronx when Patricia was around five-years-old, soon settling at 167th St. and Jerome Avenue. Patricia's father, who had been in the military in Puerto Rico, began working as a building superintendent and her mother stayed home to care for the couple's three children. Patty recounted how she attributes the unconventionally feminine persona she cultivated as a little girl both to her father's influence and to her identification with hip hop.
It was really interesting, I think because of my father's influence. I mean my mother was ... [a] homemaker and really just a girly girly type. And my father was really ... a man's man ... he would wake us up at six in the morning on a Saturday to go jogging, military style. And I used to hate it but in some way or another, I was such a tomboy. I was always in sports and my brother-every time he would pick something, 1 wanted to do whatever he was doing ... whether it was basketball, and at that time music started coming out as far as like the Wu-Tang and all this other harder and aggressive stuff. While my mom and sister were listening to more bachata and meringue, the stuff like from the country, I was more into Mary J. Blige. So culturally I was completely different than my family. Even though we were all Dominican and Puerto Rican, I was definitely more of the New York kid. The hip hop kid. My sister is still that Dominican girl that listens to Spanish music, she doesn't really listen to hip hop. I'm the hip hop type, you know what I mean? So it was interesting though, I'm also the darkest one, I must say that had to do with it as far as skin color because my mother is really light ... And my dad is really, really dark.
Significantly, Patty connects her "tomboy" persona to her affinity for hip hop and her darker skin. In the above narrative she positions Dominican musical genres such as bachata and meringue as more feminine while situating hip hop as "harder and aggressive." The hip hop artists Patty mentions as early influences, Wu-Tang Clan (a hardcore all-male rap group who came to prominence in the early 1990s) and Mary J. Blige (a Bronx-born, R&B/hip hop singer known as "the queen of hip hop soul") are both New York-based acts known as much for their commercial success as for their street credibility. Patty revealed that her family equated her darker skin with her love of hip hop and that she was often explicitly told she was "the ugly one."
Yes, so there is also a lot of resentment ... I love my family and now I'm able to have conversations with my mom and she is able to understand what that did ... [when I was young] we had conversations where they would be like, you know you're the dark one, you know the ugly one. I was made fun of because of my lips, because they were too big and then if I listened to Mary J. Blige, "you're trying to be Black."
Patty's family's admonitions that her darker skin and fuller lips were "ugly" reflect the Latin American and Caribbean discourse of blanqueamiento (whitening), which renders Blackness as in-authentically Puerto Rican or Dominican and seeks to erase African heritage (Stinchcomb 2004, Godreau 2006, Godreau et al. 2008). "What is considered attractive, de buena apariencia, are a number of traits that Europeans are believed to have: thin lips, straight hair, and lighter-colored skin. The phenotypes opposite those traits--thick lips, kinky and/or curly hair, and darker-colored skin--are described as ordinarios (ordinary), malos (bad) ..." (Stinchcomb 2004:5). As a girl Patty was explicitly discouraged from playing with Black dolls. She related her aunt's reaction when she chose a brown-skinned Cabbage Patch Kid doll.
My aunt comes, "Why you want this ugly thing for?" Snatched it out of my hand, threw it to the back of the pile and picked up this little white boy, with frizzy hair, with perfect teeth and said, "Here!" And any little Barbie, my sister had all the Barbie collections and all this stuff. I hated it ... l hated all the typically girly stuff my sister would play [with] ... Now she has two kids. You become those things that you set out to be also when you're little. And people don't see that. Put a microphone in front of a little girl as opposed to a baby.
In the above narrations, Patty equates her family's hegemonic gender and beauty ideals with a conventional femininity that does not suit her. She distances herself from traditional femininity and advocates putting "a microphone in front of a little girl as opposed to a baby." Patty claims Blackness as a legitimate part of her identity and, by suggesting that a microphone is a more valuable plaything than a doll, she positions hip hop as an a crucial antidote to conventional femininity. In this way Patty uses hip hop to simultaneously subvert the discourses of blanqueamiento and traditional femininity.
Patty defied her parents by having African American friends and became even more of an outsider when she sacrificed weekend outings with her father and sister to attend acting classes. To her family's surprise she remained dedicated to acting, writing and emceeing beyond her teenage years. She continues to travel, to perform widely and stars in an podcast hip hop program called, "The Patty Dukes Show." Significantly, Patty has co-opted the 1960s predominantly white sitcom, "The Patty Duke Show," re-articulating it as a counter-hegemonic element within the realm of hip hop culture. Like La Bruja and Lah Tere, Patty only came to think of herself as an emcee after pursuing other artistic mediums. She began writing plays at an early age and only started rapping after meeting her emcee partner, Rephstar (Almicar Alfaro).
I didn't feel like 1 had permission to do that (write rhymes) until later on. I used to always listen to Method Man or other rappers and I would transcribe their rhymes and then repeat them back. Just to get their flow and their rhythm and their cadence-to go over the beats. So I would constantly memorize and recite it. I didn't know necessarily how to organize a rhyme, it's very different from organizing a poem or anything else. I sort of had to learn everything else before I could write a rhyme, which I'm more grateful for because I understand how to write in general. I started writing plays at sixteen. I wrote my first play, got it produced at the theater, was in it, got my friends in it, then I started writing poetry, which was more condensed ... rhythmically there was more rules than rhyming ... That's where I starting meeting Rephstar, is when I started to write rhymes and get it out there. And he sort of encouraged me to ... go do it and start in ciphers. I was terrified of cipher. There were no girls doing it.
While La Bruja channeled her great grandmother as an entryway into writing rhymes, Patty Dukes transcribed the lyrics of established hardcore male rappers such as Method Man. Both women initially felt that writing hip hop rhymes was not typically female behavior but both felt compelled to act unconventionally in order to express their creative talents in the realm of hip hop. The cipher, a circular formation where rappers compete by taking turns improvising rhymes until an individual is stumped, is a traditionally masculine space in hip hop. One of Patty Dukes' first experiences in a cipher was when she free-styled at a workshop in a youth detention center in California. The inmates had never seen a female emcee and the experience empowered Patty. "So right there they showed me I had the power to do this ... the fact that I may be able to show them a female that can do this." Patty and Rephstar started an organization designed to encourage young girls to write hip hop rhymes. She now sees her role as that of a "teaching artist."
I still see young people today, right now in the Bronx. I've been to schools in the Bronx, I've been to schools in Brooklyn-I've traveled. They tell me that they have not seen a female emcee, in front of them rap. And it's shocking, and that's why ... it motivates me ... I got to keep going, I've got to keep on, people need to know that there are [female emcees]. It's not even for me. It's for the sake of the movement.
Like Lah Tere and La Bruja, Patty Dukes sees hip hop culture as a potentially transformative social movement. Significantly, while these women are aware of how mainstream hip hop is interpreted as a site of violence and misogyny, they view hip hop music and culture as a positive political tool for women and girls.
In this essay I have argued that the public history of hip hop, which prioritizes male narratives, bolsters a contemporary cultural form that on the surface, presents itself as a male space. Bronx women's creation narratives, as they relate to hip hop's early incarnations, have remained largely hidden and their roles in developing hip hop culture in the contemporary context have been marginalized. All three women took indirect routes to becoming hip hop emcees because emceeing is not a traditionally feminine role. Patty Dukes echoes a sentiment articulated by the two other women and suggests that social norms initially discouraged her from writing rhymes when she says, "I didn't feel like I had permission to do that."
I want to emphasize that Bronx women's hidden hip hop narratives speak as much to social constructions of Blackness as they do to feminine subjectivities. For Patty Dukes, identifying with hip hop, a cultural form her family equated with Blackness and with non-traditional femininity, was a rebellious act. Lah Tere's experience was markedly different since her parents always encouraged her appreciation for bomba y plena, a musical tradition associated with Afro-Puerto Rican heritage. From an early age, Lah Tere's family taught her to be proud of her African heritage: "I didn't have a choice. It was from inception. My parents, my mom has always been a proud Puerto Rican woman ... And my father is Black ... so he made us conscious ..." It is significant, however, that in this quote Lah Tere describes her light-skinned mother as "Puerto Rican" and her dark-skinned father as "Black" although both parents are from Puerto Rico. This subtle distinction perhaps speaks to the findings of scholars such as Isar Godreau, who argues that Puerto Ricans associate authentic, national Puerto Rican identity with modernity and with lighter colored skin, while equating Blackness with an inauthentic, antiquated past (Godreau 2006). The three women's stories also reveal "the ways people understand, perform, or subvert racial identities by mobilizing knowledges gleaned both from the particularities of their local circumstances and from the range of ideas and practices that circulate within their public spheres, showing that racial subjectivities are always 'coalitional, contingent, and performative'" (Thomas and Clarke 2006: 4, Visweswaran 1998: 77). All three women's racial subjectivities were contingent on African diasporic racializations (stemming from either Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic), on local notions of racialized belonging (based on life in the Bronx) and on performative identity constructions (derived from and articulated within the cultural production of hip hop). Their subjectivities are also coalitional in the sense that they build upon and foster a feminist consciousness.
La Bruja, a fair-skinned Puerto Rican woman, did not question why her life story was being recorded as part of the Bronx African American History Project. Her reliance on Santeria, a creolized Caribbean religious practice in claiming the name, La Bruja, and on hip hop as her chosen genre both acknowledge a debt to African Diasporic cultural forms. Yet, her self-identification as Black did not come up until the very last moments of telling her story, when La Bruja pulled a printed page from her purse and began to read a poem she had composed. I want to conclude this essay with the poem La Bruja read--which underscores the utility of oral history for illustrating how feminine, African diasporic identities are socially constructed. This final, unexpected recitation La Bruja offered is indicative of the improvisational and inherently performative nature oral history and hip hop share. It reveals how, "The stories told, often deeply expressive of history's burdens, lay claim on us for retelling so that history may be known, shared, perhaps overcome" (Pollock 2005: xi). We had been sitting and listening to La Bruja's life history for almost two hours, with the air conditioner in the BAAHP's small conference room buzzing and gurgling loudly as it seemed to struggle to keep the room cool. And, due to the humidity, La Bruja's straightened hair had, at this point, begun to curl up, with small beads of sweat appearing on her forehead as she clutched the printed page. She began in the same even-toned voice she had been using throughout the interview but then, as she started reciting the poem, she gestured triumphantly with her hands and her rising voice defeated the noisy air conditioner.
LB: I was inspired by Langston Hughes ... because of his poem, "I, Too Sing America," and how they talk of "You can't eat here because you're black, and you can't be here because you're black." (Reading poetry):
Although you may find me fair With medium brown eyes and not too curly hair Of mixed heritage too many to name one thing was the same, We've all shared despair Believe it or not, in fact, I too am black. I have been stabbed in the back for being too much of this And not enough of that Have been compared to what exists And been told how much I lack. You may not know it now, But it's a fact, I too am black. Color lines run deep in my veins Behind covered mouths I've been called many names Instead of hope they taught me shame, But I chose to play another game. With ears I hear but heart unchained, You can keep it or take it all back. You have eyes but are blind to the fact That I too am black. Black, like the Ebony tree The deeper you carve into me You can easily see the beauty, The strength, Shape me, Shine me, In the finest homes you'll find me While strange fruit still hangs inside me, With all the love I can muster, My face glows with luster It took more than the slave trade to make us cry, But let me break it to you with truth and tact. I am proud of the fact That I too am black!
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(1) Oneka LaBennett is Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies and Co-Research Director of the Bronx African American History Project at Fordham University.
(2) Violence against women within the social space of hip hop culture figured prominently in a roundtable discussion 1 organized under the auspices of the BAAHP's Bronx is Building Lecture Series on January 22, 2009. The discussion, entitled, "Women in Bronx Hip Hop" featured three panelists: Sheri Sher, emcee/ actress Patty Dukes and journalist Elizabeth Mendez Berry. Berry who has written for such mainstream popular hip hop magazines as The Source and Vibe, recounted how she struggled to find a publisher for her investigative report on domestic violence in the hip hop industry entitled, "Love Hurts: Rap's Black Eye." Beny also related how many of the women she interviewed, including some commercially successful female artists, only participated under the condition that they would remain anonymous. Both Berry and Sheri Sher emphasize that hip hop women who report abuse face a real threat of further violence. Liza Rios, the widow of the platinum-selling, Bronx-based, Puerto Rican rapper, Christopher Rios ("Big Pun") is a noted exception; Liza spoke with Berry on the record, describing the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her late husband and chronicling it in a 2002 documentary. The silencing of women's narratives as they relate to violence in hip hop culture is apparent not only in abuse survivors' reluctance to speak but also in the industry resistance Berry faced as she attempted to get her article published.
(3) The La Bruja oral history was conducted on October 23, 2007, I interviewed Lah Tere and Patty Dukes on December 11, 2007 and December 14, 2007 respectively. BAAHP Affiliated Scholar, Dr. Natasha Lightfoot, acted as a secondary interviewer on the Patty Dukes Interview. Patty Dukes' emcee partner, Rephstar was interviewed simultaneously. BAAHP Principal Investigator, Mark Naison, acted as a co-interviewer on the Rebel Diaz oral history.
Oneka LaBennett (1)