"WHEN A QUEEN STEPS TO THE MICROPHONE all she wants from you is silence," raps Los Angeles underground hip-hop artist Medusa. With her profound lyrics and looks, it's easy to see why some call her the Angela Davis of hip-hop. Medusa, along with her sisters in a small, underground cadre of female artists, record producers, and concert promoters, is fighting hard to uphold the revolutionary spirit that has all but disappeared in mainstream hip-hop today.
Hip-hop got its start in the late 1970s in New York City, with block parties and jams in public parks. Then, artists such as Sister Souljah and KRS-One brought politics to their performance, urging their listeners -- comprised primarily of African-American youth -- to "fight the power."
That revolutionary spirit is sadly underrepresented in the genre today. Now that hip-hop has gained a wider audience, it has become increasingly image-driven -- an international phenomenon defined by capitalism and consumerism.
You look up and you see these visually beautiful Levis ads trying to use hip-hop characters," says Omana Imani, one of the organizers of the Underground Railroad, a San Francisco Bay area youth activist organization that also hosts all-women hip-hop shows. "They're taking our culture and trying to throw it back at us for a profit."
"Hip-hop now is like hip-pop," confirms Loushanna Rose, cofounder of the Oakland, Calif.-based UMA (Universal Music Awareness) Productions. To combat the watering down of hip-hop culture, UMA produces "Herstory," a series of monthly, all-female hip-hop and spoken word events, where the spotlight is on lesser-known female hip-hop artists such as Medusa and DJ Pam the Funkstress of the Coup.
Recently, Herstory teamed up with East Coast artists the Jazzyfatnastees, Jaguar and Flo Brown on the Black Lily Tour, a more grassroots hip-hop version of the Lilith Fair. The Black Lily Tour filled nightclubs nationwide as it traveled to Washington, D.C., Boston, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., Philadelphia and New York.
In important ways, UMA, Underground Railroad and the Black Lily Tour are linking culture, politics and spirituality in these alternative spaces, where the voices of women are heard and respected. "We don't tolerate any bitch/ho music on our stages, on the turntables, nothing," says Imani. "It's really important that all people come through and feel safe and feel comfortable."
Whether they're performing acrobatics on the mike or on the turntables, these female hip-hop artists remain true to their own idealistic visions. Meet the women behind the movement -- dedicated to preserving the revolutionary roots of hip-hop music.
DJ PAM THE FUNKSTRESS
Queen of the turntables, DJ Pam has skills on and off the vinyl. She is co-writer and co-producer of several songs on Steal This Album, the most recent release from her politically-fueled hip-hop group The Coup. With Raymond "Boots" Riley as the emcee and main writer of the Coup, the group brings a level of social consciousness to hip-hop.
How does a typical performance happen for you?
DJ Pam: When I'm DJing, the type of thing that I like to do first is bring back the original old school songs. ... If I really start showcasing, then I'll start to go back and forth using my nose and my breasts on the turntable. So, that's what I'm famous for, putting my breasts on the cut. [Laughs.]
How did you get started?
DJ Pam: I wanted to be the first girl DJ. I wanted to be the first girl break-dancer. I was, in a sense, a tomboy. ... So my parents bought me some turntables, and then I started jumping into battles, scratching.
What is it, do you think, that women and lesbians find appealing about female hip-hop artists?
DJ Pam: A woman is going to promote a woman, regardless. I have always, as a female, promoted everything a female does. And I love women rappers. I always wanted to stick with a female group. ... Because nowadays we need more strong women in the hip-hop community and also in business, period. ... There is a lot, I have noticed, of lesbian women in the hip-hop community and fan world. ... There's not a lot of men out there buying Foxy Brown, Lil' Kim, Queen Latifah or MC Lyte tapes. It's mostly us women.
What would you like to see for the future of hip-hop?
DJ Pam: I would like to see more underground people getting noticed as opposed to the same old cats you hear every year -- and more women. ... All of us underground people need to stick together and build our own. ... I wish some of the record execs would go underground more to these poetry readings and things like that and see a true artist. ... Because everybody wants to be a rapper now: "Oh I wanna rap, give me some 'bling-blings' and Versace and all that." That's not what hip-hop is all about.
The Jazzyfatnastees singer/songwriter duo Tracy Moore and Mercedes Martinez have released a debut album, The Once and Future, on the Motive/MCA label. With a blend of soul-nourishing, jazzy, hip-hop harmonies and lyrics, the Jazzies offer an alternative to commercial music. The group performed nationally on the Black Lily Tour.
How do you see hip-hop music today?
Mercedes: It used to be an underground thing and it used to be the alternative to what was out there. Now, there are certain artists and certain forms of hip-hop that are just pop -- by the nature of all these people gravitating to this particular type of music.
Who does the Black Lily tour speak to? Women only? Men too?
Tracy: We're totally geared toward women first and helping women to get their voices heard. The men that come there support that. It's like they're happy to see women doing it for themselves.
How do you create a female- and gay-positive environment?
Mercedes: I think that there is a certain openness. ... It's just like, "Look, you can come and share this vibe. If you're not feeling like that, then you're welcome to leave." ... We're all about love and being open to different people's energies and what talent they have to bring.
Do you see yourself as part of a new movement?
Tracy: I definitely believe that. I think that there is about to be a change. Along with the use of the Internet, the underground is coming to the forefront. It's beginning to be what people are listening to most often.
Mercedes: We're trying to really create an artistic community and movement, and bring about another option in music. There is certainly more power in banding together with various artists than just trying to be out there on your own, in a vacuum. Trying to make the difference in the sea of "bling-blings" and Britney Spears. A hip-hop prophet, this queen of the underground is spreading her message with a diverse sound that combines the influences of Sly and the Family Stone, The Labelles and KRS-One. Eager to do battle in arenas most women won't touch, she recently won the Rap Emcee World Championship. Medusa also runs a hip-hop, jazz and Reggae club called Nappy at Da Roots in Los Angeles.
How has hip-hop changed since you started in the 1980s?
Medusa: We didn't talk about a whole lot of violence then. It was really about what you did. If you didn't like a female, she wasn't a "bitch," but she could be a "gold digger." She could be wrong like that. But we didn't use a whole lot of profanity, back in the day. I think that has kind of gotten out of hand. In addition to that, there was no, like, major battle with men and women. It was more like stating who you are and how you are within yourself. ... Right now there is just a lot of finger pointing going on.
What are some of the obstacles you've confronted as a female in hip-hop?
Medusa: There are so many West Coast events that go on, and there will be all males on the bill. And I'm wondering, "How did I not get on this bill?" I know I'm dope. ... They don't think it's rough enough, or they don't need a female, or they just don't think about it. Women just don't come to mind. And if they do, they're trying to put us all together on one bill, and not on these primary bills that are going on. So I think that is sexism in itself.
Is it harder to be out -- for fear of acceptance?
Medusa: There's plenty of gay men and women that are emcees, but no one looks at them and thinks that they're gay and that makes them whack. They look at their talent and at their skills. ... You know, if women are with women that's fine, that's beautiful. You love who you love. ... I do my thing. I love men. I love women. I'm just "love." But, like, gay pride and all of that, it's like, you know, "I'm a woman first, and I'm Black first," and those are my issues first. I'm not going to walk around looking for gay rights, when I haven't achieved my true rights as just a human being, as a Black woman. So I think people avoid speaking on that because they don't want that to be the primary focus of who they are. Because that can dilute everything else.
Why are people saying that you're revolutionizing the music industry?
Medusa: I'm willing to speak what I truly feel on the mike. ... [I have] the ability to pull cultures together and have an understanding and a love all in the same room. You know, people think that is a difficult thing to do, when really that's just what hip-hop is all about.
"WHEN MOST PEOPLE THINK OF 'WOMEN'S music,' they think of a woman and her guitar," says Erin Raber, who interviewed women of color hip-hop artists and producers for her story "Hip-Hop Her." "But it's more than that -- women are representing in all genres. These artists Inspire their communities, and bring love, spirituality and conscious politics to their music." Raber is a San Francisco-based writer and editorial assistant at CURVE.