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My Definition: Hip Hop Feminism

February 5, 2010

Hip hop, you da love of my life.

If talking about loves and hip hop was my primary partner, (un)fortunately, it has all the complexity that a human being has as a primary partner. This is especially true for someone like me, who is a self-defined hip hop feminist.

Despite aspirations and claims otherwise, hip hop started as party music. The expulsion of inner city youth (read: poor youth of colour) in New York in the 1970’s, as a result of a lack of physical and financial access to disco clubs, resulted in these same youth creating their own spaces to party/enjoy/express/ themselves. This allowed them to have the fortitude and ingenuity to create spaces to party in their own communities, which can very much be codified as revolutionary; but this was a bi-product of these youths’ social survival.

I came of age when hip hop’s face was transitioning from the party to the political. My earliest memories are of “Ladies First” (Queen Latifah), “It Takes Two” (Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock)“Push It” (Salt ‘n’ Pepa)Jamaican Funk (Michie Mee) and “Buffalo Stance” (Neneh Cherry). What drew me and keeps me near to hip hop is its storytelling capabilities, even within simple instrumental beats.

I acknowledge that I am from a lineage and culture of storytelling. Although my ancestral connection to the continent of Afrika and more recently Trinidad is less tangible, the stories that have been weaved through my parents, books and calypsos have allowed me to build upon my experience as an Afrikan-Canadian. This multi-layered experience growing up means that stories were recounted from various community members about immigrant experiences to my mother — recapturing what took place on the television drama the night previous. For the former it was about joy in the struggle. From these stories and networking with other women, I have developed my sense of self as a womanist. The expansion from womanist to hip hop feminist is not a large leap, as the latter with the two words combined signifies for me music+community+oppresshun awareness (as defined by Tomee Sojourner).The most valid and still perplexing argument in defense of hip hop — with some of its proponents promoting homophobia, classism and misogyny — is that hip hop is a microcosm of real life. In contrast and alignment to this, hip hop feminism is about bringing various women’s voices to eke out a sizeable space to challenge the phobias and isms that silence and mark invisible the impact on and influence that women have had on hip hop.

In acknowledging that freedom of choice means freedom of expression, some of the stories that come out of hip hop will not only be ‘bad’ and/or fake, but they will be detrimental to and sometimes overshadow the best storytelling that hip hop has to offer. As a hip hop feminist, I am responsible for exploring and exploiting those ideas that do not serve humanity in representing genuine and whole experiences. I understand this in terms of my claim of being a griot. As a griot, I inherit the West Afrikan tradition of using creative storytelling to document what is happening in the world around me. There will always be real stories that talk about the everyday lived experiences of people that cannot be shown on the afternoon special and won’t have a happy ending.

As a hip hop feminist who has a strong faith in storytelling, the best way to create balance in the stories that come out of hip hop is to create spaces for young women of colour to tell their stories. A couple of ways that Medina (an organization which I co-direct) has done this is through accessible university classes for young women of colour, after school programming for primary school-aged children and summer programming for creating hip-hop journalism.

Other ways  that this can be manifested is through accessible blogging sites, b-girl classes, emceeing and djing competitions –- namely, safe spaces and mentorship will allow young women of colour to be able to see themselves in hip hop as subjects —  not solely objects — through the stories they can tell and the myriad of ways in which they can do it.

Hip hop feminism in Toronto isn’t necessarily clearly branded as such. It is very grassroots. Various women of varied hues are using resources to create programming in libraries, community/recreation centres and schools to use the idea of feminism as a progressive force within hip hop to empower and enable children of different racial and cultural backgrounds towards social change.

Social change is defined within their communities and the larger world. These women also understand that while hip hop is a love for them and many of these children, these children also love music that represents their cultures, like reggaeton, soca, hip life, dancehall, etc. The practice of hip hop feminism within Toronto can be linked to youth-led movements and resistance within the city. Some examples are Freedom Youth Collective and LIFEmovement.  So like the early hip hop heads, resistance by those of us who self-define as feminist / womanist / storyteller / emcee / b-girl/ dj/ tagger,  will slowly build on this culture of hip hop feminism through word of mouth. Because we know it is bigger than hip hop.

Since I accept that hip hop, like life, will continue to exist in different forms for everyone, I can just keep telling stories and help others to tell stories that will balance what it means to love hip hop, be a woman of colour, who likes to (fill in the blank). As a feminist, I believe that choice without harm is one of the values which I hold sacred. Being a hip hop feminist is complicated, but through our stories people will begin to understand that the two words are not antithetical.

Kemba King is a hip hop feminist. Monthly, she co-hosts Womyn’s Word a community radio feminist show. She is a community actor and spoken word artist. She co-directs the Medina Collective an organisation devoted to supporting young women of colour and community organisations.

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