Monday, December 12, 2016

Don’t Get Stuck on Being a Girl

Tish Jones, Desdamona, Dessa, Heidi Barton Stink, and Irenic Speak about Origins, Inspirations, and The Scenes They Are Defining

Graffiti created at Intermedia Arts during B-Girl Be in 2009. Photo by thehoneybunny.
Graffiti created at Intermedia Arts during B-Girl Be in 2009. Photo by thehoneybunny.

In the mid-to-late 2000s, the women of the Twin Cities hip-hop community united. For one weekend each summer, they took over Intermedia Arts for B-Girl Be, a celebration of female MCs, DJs, b-girls, and graffiti artists. Starting in 2005 (with a year off in ’08), B-Girl Be allowed women in hip-hop to connect, perform, and create together, inspiring local activity and building international influence.

Now, the festival’s organizers have decided that it’s time to evolve. The B-Girl Be banner has been passed to a series of Intermedia Arts-sponsored workshops and camps for young girls to learn about hip-hop, and the artists and activists who celebrated each year must find their place within the Twin Cities scene as a whole.

Women remain a minority in that scene—in its clubs, on its record labels, at its festivals. At the same time, the sexism and objectification of women in mainstream commercial rap doesn’t necessarily translate to a community as deep, active, and frequently progressive as the Twin Cities’. We asked women MCs from Minneapolis and St. Paul about their experience, and they told us in their own words.

Tish Jones is a spoken word artist, MC, teacher, and community organizer. She has hosted open mics around the Twin Cities, including the Midwest Youth All-Star series, which will send qualifiers to tour a new spoken word and hip-hop arts program at the University of Wisconsin.

One of the first pieces of writing that caught my attention was this play in second grade that my science teacher gave me. She was like the after-school specialist, so we had this group after school, and she brought this play, and it was called Rap-unzel. It was Rapunzel, obviously, but it was all in rap, bars through the whole thing, and it was tight. So that’s probably when I was like, “Oh yeah, snap, this is tight,” in terms of thinking that I could write it and perform it well. She let me keep it and I read the whole thing front to back like a million times, and just thought it was dope.

Desdamona has been an MC, spoken word artist, and community organizer in the Twin Cities for over 15 years. She was one of the founding members of B-Girl Be. Her new single and video, “The Come Back,” drops September 13.

I was making some music with a couple friends, and two of us, actually, moved up here to pursue music. It took me a good six to 10 months to figure out how to get in on the scene here. The first time I got onstage in the Twin Cities, interestingly enough, was the First Ave Mainroom. My friend invited me to the Coolio concert. I’d never been to First Ave before, and even though I was into hip-hop, I wasn’t into Coolio. But then, at a certain point in the show, he invited people to come up onstage, so I got up onstage, and there was another female MC who is local here named Protege, and she was up there, too. We both got up and rapped, and the crowd was really into it. That was the very first time I got onstage.

Because she didn’t know any musicians or DJs at first, Desdamona broke into the scene by performing her lyrics at open mic nights as spoken word.

I became known as a spoken word artist, and it happened so fast that I didn’t even really know what was going on. So in the process, I started to write more poetry, or whatever is considered spoken word. If you listen to my poetry or are familiar with it, you’ll hear hip-hop in the poetry, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with hip-hop, either rhythmically or the rhyme, the cadence, or even that I write hooks into the stuff. So it was interesting to kind of get in that doorway, because it forced me to write deeper lyrics.

Dessa is a member of the hip-hop collective Doomtree and performs as a solo artist with a live band. Her new album, “Castor, The Twin,” will be out on October 4, with a release show October 28 at the Fitzgerald Theater.

I entered the form of hip-hop indirectly. I had an interest in language and in language art ever since I was a little kid, but initially I had aspired towards being a writer. Then, finding myself on the brink of adulthood, I wasn’t exactly sure how to go about getting a book published, or making my literary interest a vocation. A friend ended up inviting me to accompany her to a poetry slam, which I did. I competed the next month and ended up winning, and then for the next year I represented Minnesota at the National Poetry Competition. It was through that participation and that scene that I ended up meeting the hip-hop community in Minneapolis.

I’m still not a scholar of hip-hop; I’m a practitioner first and foremost. I know that hip-hop fans can sound a little bit like baseball fans, in that they’re really well-versed with the particulars and the history and the development of the art form. And although I enjoy sitting in silence in those conversations, I’m not a source of knowledge.

“Alibi” by Dessa.

Heidi Barton Stink is a trans woman who raps and organizes community events around gender and LGBT issues. She will release her album, “A Charming Gut,” later this year.

I came up with the name Heidi Barton Stink gradually. I’ve thought about dropping the Barton. Originally it was going to be a concept album, just about the creative process, an album that talks about all the subtext that was in that movie [“Barton Fink”], ‘cause it’s one of my favorite movies. But I hadn’t put a real album together yet, so I wasn’t ready to do that kind of album. But I’d already performed under that name, especially at some of the kind of punk-oriented shows, and people knew me under that name. I was also starting to transition, and people I didn’t know were calling me Barton, which isn’t even my birth name, and it was just kind of a tongue-in-cheek thing. So people were calling me this male name, so I threw in my name so that if people were gonna use one word, it was my actual name.

Irenic is an MC and beatmaker from St. Paul. Her stage name means “aimed at peace,” and her next shows will be September 16 at the Depot in Hopkins and September 21 at Honey in Northeast Minneapolis.

I’ve always written a lot of poetry and stuff, and I liked hip-hop, but it wasn’t until high school—I got into high school and I discovered the thriving underground scene. Like, you always hear of Atmosphere and Brother Ali, but I got more connected with smaller programs and youth centers. One artist, Kristoff Krane, kind of opened things for me a bit. I was 15, I think, and I showed him this song, and he said, “You should perform this at my show,” and I was like, “Ahh!…OK!” And things kind of just took off from there. Through him, and performing, I’ve kind of connected with different people.

What inspires you? What are some of the themes in your art?

Prison. Young people being incarcerated. Education. My own personal story. Domestic violence comes up a lot. Women. Women in hip-hop. GLBTQ issues, rights. Just really the community, but also world issues. The people and movement and change.

Right now, the album that I’m working on is a lot about gender liberation, trans liberation, queer liberation. A lot of the troubles that myself and my friends go through, as well as the larger political issues and systems of oppression and stuff like that. I’m making it sounds more heady than it actually is. It’s not a gender theory book. I’m not that intellectual.

A lot of personal history. I grew up in a really dysfunctional environment. Especially when I was 11 through 14, it was really—like alcoholism and drug use, and I ended up switching homes. So you know, just like personal and family stuff. Lately, though, in the past year and a half, it’s moved more into society and issues that people have, like with disparity between incomes, and stuff that makes me really mad. Environmental problems.

I really want to write a piece about how in the last 10 years, things have changed a lot, even just in the open mic. There’s a lot of ego, and this entitlement, and I’m trying to really figure out what that is and where it’s coming from. I think a lot of it has to do with Internet stuff, and these spaces that have been created where you can say whatever you want. It’s interesting to have this one reality where you can say and sort of do whatever you want, and you can even delete people, and delete things. And how, if you can’t separate that from the real world, that then you can do that in the real world, too. It’s very antisocial and controlling, power-tripping.

I think a lot of my stuff is about personal power or ownership of your own actions, things like that. I think that’s related to the entitlement thing. It’s like, “You know, other people live in the world, too. We’re sharing this. So you can be an asshole or not.”

“The Source” by Desdamona.

Almost always, I write from a snippet, a moment, in my real life, kind of craft an aesthetic response. Sometimes it’ll be riding the bus, and there’s an overheard snippet of conversation that seems particularly indicative of some facet of the human condition. There was this woman who was just saying “Hallelujah” over and over again as she got on the bus, after every sentence she said, even though each sentence was really sad. So it was like, her feet hurt: “Hallelujah.” She was late to pick up her children: “Hallelujah.” And I remember thinking, “Man, that’s a really intense expression of how you understand your faith to relate to the daily struggles of your life.” So that was an example of something I jotted down in the notebook that I try to carry with me most of the time. Something that seemed poignant, something that seemed like it might grant a glimpse into a larger truth about the way we’re living our lives together.

How are you involved in the community, and how does that relate to your hip-hop?

Lupe Fiasco said a line, “Magnify the youth in me.” I really like that phrase, “Magnify the youth in me.” I don’t want to be old. I think that old is a mind frame, and I don’t want to be that. I would like to always be young. So it’s really dope to work with young people, and to just be aware of what’s going on in the community, because the young folks have a perspective that nobody else has. Young people are super creative, and the specific populations that I work with don’t get to articulate their stories often, so I really value the time spent with them.

I do a lot of work in inner-city schools, alternative high schools, and correctional facilities. I think that working with the population that I work with most often is really important. Young women here and young women of color in those spaces have it really, really hard, and again, just don’t always get to tell their stories. And they also don’t see themselves in the media as powerful without being hypersexualized. Nor do they see themselves in hip-hop as valuable. It’s like, how do you validate that experience?

I do end up working with universities and doing special events. Panel discussions, kind of Trans 101. Things that I work on in that capacity end up being like a mini-festival, where there’s music and performance. There’s lots of creative women; there’s a lot of creative queer people. Creative problem-solving is a huge part of community organizing, so I think the same sort of people gravitate towards both.

I host the Blue Nile open mic, and I’ve been hosting it for almost ten years. I feel like in some ways it’s a community service type of thing, providing a space for people. For me, when I first started, it was very hard to get a chance, and I like to create the chance for someone to do it. It’s sort of just putting the space out there and saying, here, do what you want to do with it. I didn’t have that, I didn’t feel that when I got onto the scene. I didn’t feel an openness or embrace, except from a very, very few people. So for me, it’s something that I need to do.

I hosted a workshop called Truth and Letters [at the Loft Literary Center]. That was on creative nonfiction, a genre that is concerned with telling true, real-life stories from your personal experience. It was a treat to work with dedicated, talented young people who were willing to work pretty hard over the course of an intense, three-day seminar. I enjoyed it, and I think I particularly enjoyed it because I had the opportunity to select the applicants. The opportunity to pick people who I thought I could really help was a treat for me, and it was nice working with the Loft to make sure the participants really got the most out of the program.

I’m careful about over-marketing myself in that direction. I make music for adults, and it has adult themes, so I don’t go looking for opportunities to speak to young kids, because I wouldn’t advocate for them to listen to my music. I do enjoy working with young adults, so I have had the opportunity to make some connections that really meant a lot to me. There are some pretty amazing youth workers and some amazing activists in town, and I don’t know if I would count myself among them, although I’m glad to enter that world when it seems appropriate.

Do you see discrimination against women in hip-hop?

Mainstream hip-hop doesn’t really support female rappers; they support female cartoon characters that rap. I would not want to be a woman in mainstream hip-hop, ever, because I don’t believe that women are allowed to be themselves. They become a character. And maybe it’s the same for men, too, but it’s amplified with women. Look at the last three or four women that we know of in hip-hop. There’s only room for one; you have to be over the top; you have to be really sexualized and become this product. I don’t want to do that. I want to make music. I want to be creative. I don’t want to be stuck in a box. I don’t want to wear a wig.

I think there’s as much or more misogyny in hip-hop as there is homophobia. I think homophobia is rooted in misogyny. Like I’ve known gay rappers who throw the word “bitch” around, and they’re like, “Oh, but it’s not about women.” They’re saying a man is acting like a bitch, and that’s just as problematic.

In general, no matter where you are, being a woman in hip-hop is going to be an interesting experience. Unfortunately, I feel like women in music oftentimes have to compromise themselves to get where they’re going. I think people have had to have sex to get where they’re going, or be someone’s girlfriend to get where they’re going, and I think it sucks. I have had people make assumptions when I’m onstage with a man that I’m with that person, that’s my boyfriend. I think it’s unfortunate that you can’t be valid as a female voice in hip-hop.

When you think of Slug, for instance, he talks about women a lot in his music and it’s always a very well-told story, and he’s telling a female’s story. But if you take a female and have her tell her story, even if it is as eloquent as him, it’s not looked at the same. It will never be looked at the same, on the same level. We don’t value women’s voices like we do men’s.

I will admit that I have the privilege of having a low voice, and a lot of people are just super sexist when it comes to people who rap. They think women’s voices aren’t as good, or are weaker or whatever. So I have the privilege of having a voice that can catch people’s ears at first. But then on the other hand, because of the build and because of the way I look, I can’t market myself much as a woman. I don’t have the sex appeal that a cis woman would have to sell music. So there’s different privileges.

I feel like where I’ve been discriminated against has maybe been in the press, where people get my press release or they get my press kit, and it says that I’m trans. There have been other queer rappers that were trying to capitalize off of it, and I’m not trying to capitalize, I’m trying to speak on it. So a lot of the time, I think I’ve been passed over because people think I’m a gimmick. And it’s my life; it’s not a gimmick.

It’s had a big influence on my entire experience. Someone was listening to my music and said, “I like this. I usually don’t like female MCs.” So that showed me that people aren’t always willing to just be open. They think they won’t like it before they listen, or they have an idea about female MCs before they experience them. I think there’s the surprise element, because we are a minority in hip-hop, definitely. But I think that in the Twin Cities, it’s way more open. It’s easier here. I think it’s actually opened more doors than it’s closed, because it’s not as common.

I would say that I’ve also experienced treatment because of my gender that benefits me. In the arts, part of the big struggle is getting attention for your work, and being different in any way attracts attention. So there are definitely some challenges associated with being a woman in hip-hop, but it would be wrong to say that there aren’t advantages, too. Any track that I’m on, people know which voice is mine. And that can be a big part of a male MC’s career, making sure his voice is associated with him, with his name and his records. As a woman, usually, there’s a degree of novelty that immediately attracts attention, and then it’s up to you to translate that attention into more interest.

How did B-Girl Be come about, and what effects has B-Girl Be had?

In late 2004 or early 2005, Theresa Sweetland, who was I think at the time the [Intermedia Arts] artistic director, came to me and she said, “What do you think of us doing an all-female hip-hop festival?” I had expressed my frustration in some of the festivals, how they didn’t book hardly any female acts, and their excuse is, “Well, we don’t know any, or they’re not very good.” I’m like, “Look at some of the dudes you put up here. They’re not good, either, so why not give some of the girls a chance, too? They’re at the same level.”

So Theresa was like, what do you think about this? I remember at first saying, “Uh, that seems like a really big freakin’ thing to try to do,” and being overwhelmed by just the idea of it. And then I came back and said to her, “Yeah, I think we should actually do this. This is something that needs to happen. But how can we do this by ourselves?” That freaked me out. And she was like, “Well, we wouldn’t do it by ourselves. We would invite other women in the community that would be able to offer things,” and I was like, “Oh. OK. Then yeah, let’s do it!” So we invited like 10 women to the table initially, and sat down and just started talking about the ideas. At the time, we didn’t know what it would be, and it sort of formed itself that way. It became its own thing.

B-Girl Be was home. It’s always really good to be able to connect with people that you don’t see often. I also think it has done a lot of what they set out to do. It has a rippling effect right now. B-Girl Be is making a lot of noise. There are a lot of festivals and people that are trying to organize around women in hip-hop now, and B-Girl Be had a lot to do with that, influence-wise, because it was such a successful festival. So yes, I will miss it.

I do think that the workshops are also beneficial, because I think that there is the hype of the performance and the festival and being around everybody, but there’s also the intentionality behind it. How do you educate further? And then, how do you keep it going? In a real way, in a way that makes a difference, especially to the younger folks.

Tish Jones freestyling.

I think it was a great thing to happen because it actually sparked some other stuff around the world to happen, too—some stuff in Puerto Rico, some stuff in Germany, some stuff in New York, and connected all these women from all over the world. So that was cool ‘cause now we have this network of people. But at the same time, I feel like in some ways it backfired.

For me, the backfire of it all is: We’re marginalized, so you get together and you try to become stronger. In the process of that, you marginalize yourself even further. And then you’re in this little box. So I love what it is and what it was, but I think that it had its time. Now what needs to happen is that now women who have been there in their little incubator now have to go out to the greater public, past just being in the group of females, and bring what it is that they have to the table, and know that it is up to the standard.

There are people who are still like, “Well, when are we doing B-Girl Be again?” and I’m like, “We’re not, but what are you gonna do?” Go do something! It doesn’t have to be an all-female show, but get out there. Don’t wait for the opportunity to come to you; go freakin’ create it. That’s how things are gonna change. I think for me, I’m really like, argh! What’s next? If we just stay and do that one thing, we’re not doing anything. Just inviting all the ladies to come back every year, it’s not doing anything. It’s not creating any change or any advancement. It’s just creating a tired little pocket for us to stay in by ourselves.

It’s a struggle. I go through it all the time. I don’t want to marginalize people even more, but it’s good to shed light on or create this space, because it does actually sort of build up confidence and build up an identity. The stronger your identity, the greater it is when you take it back out into the real world.

How would you describe the Twin Cities hip-hop scene and women’s place in it?

[The scene is] vast. There’s so many nooks and crannies that I keep discovering. You just meet people or there’s whole crews from some corner of town that you don’t frequent, and they’re really known in that corner of the city. There’s lots of different stuff going on. There’s not just stuff that sounds like Doomtree or Atmosphere or whatever. There just isn’t enough time to go around to give everyone exposure.

It’s probably one of the only cities where I could do really queer hip-hop, feminist-oriented hip-hop, and still do a show with vets who have a completely different take and approach and background than I do. And I won’t get bullied or anything at these shows.

I think if you’re a rapper in this city and you say homophobic stuff, you end up looking ignorant to everybody. It’s like, “What are you thinking?” Whereas that might not be true in other Midwestern cities. When a straight rapper is homophobic or misogynistic here, people notice it and don’t accept it as a part of hip-hop. There’s other places where it’s like, “OK, the white guy’s talking about bitches,” or homos or faggots or whatever, and it’s just kind of seen as a part of hip-hop.

“Love Who” by Heidi Barton Stink.

As a female act, it can be good for you when you’re the only one, but the bad thing that I see about it is, women today think that they’re unique in hip-hop because they’re a woman. To me, that is once again marginalizing yourself. I’m not unique because I’m a woman, I’m unique because of what I have to say and how I’m going to say it. And so when you get stuck on being a girl and that’s why you stand out, I don’t feel like you’re living up to your potential. You’re getting by on whatever, being cute or being the only girl, and then what happens when another girl comes around? What? Is it your competition? No! It shouldn’t be. I want to be standing among the people that are the greats, and even then, I don’t feel like I’m competition with them, but I’m trying to be better than what I was yesterday, whether I’m a man or a woman or a girl or a boy.

Every female artist in the Twin Cities needs more support. We all need it, because we are women, and because of the culture of hip-hop. People are more apt to go see a man rap, or a male MC, than they are to see a female MC or to support a female MC, to push her to have longevity in this work. We all need support.

I think women are very valuable here. I think B-Girl Be really put on for women in the Twin Cities, and really put on for women, period, in the world. And there are so many powerful women that are products of it. There’s so many powerhouses coming out of Minnesota that we have to be respected. I think Minnesota has such a great hip-hop community, just arts community in general, that we have a lot of room to be dope. We just have to be dope.

Local MCs (Women or Otherwise) Recommended by Interviewees

Tish Jones (@TheTishJones)
The Lioness (@thelionessmusic)
Maria Isa (@MariaIsa)
Akira Kamill

Desdamona (@Desdamona1)
The Lioness (@thelionessmusic)
MC Longshot (@mclongshot)
Lil ‘C the Lyrical P (@lilcthelyricalp)

Dessa (@DessaDarling)
Cecil Otter (@cecilotter13)
Crescent Moon

Heidi Barton Stink (@Barton_Stink)
See More Perspective (@Mr_SEEMORE)

Tyler Nelson
Zac HB (@Zac_HB)
Kristoff Krane (@kristoff_krane)
Kill the Vultures
Carnage the Executioner (@Carnagexxxl)
No Bird Sing (@NoBirdSing)
Coloring Time (@ColoringTime)

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“Callous” by Irenic.

Colleen Powers is the managing editor of Twin Cities Runoff. She lives in Northeast Minneapolis and goes to a lot of hip-hop shows.