Friday, August 2, 2013

Beat Makers with Boobs: Hip Hop, Race, and Feminism

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 photo wondagurl.jpg
by Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo

You may not have heard of hip hop producer Ebony Oshunrinde. Stop – Don’t rush to Wikipedia because you feel indicted and out of touch. We often don’t know the government names of many artists to whom we regularly listen and there’s nothing wrong with that. I enjoy producer/rapper Black Milk, but if you were to ask me my opinion of Curtis Cross’s latest album I would stare at you for a good 30 seconds before asking, “Who?” What’s surprising to me is that you may not have heard of Ms. Oshunrinde’s nom de plume Wondagurl, either. At just 16, this young woman has garnered production credits on Jay-Z’s game-changing album “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” a feat that men twice her age would gladly sell their souls to the illuminati to accomplish.

Say what you want about Jigga, but producing anything for a multi-platinum recording artist is a big deal, especially if you’re a woman.It is such a big deal that I was surprised at how quiet the mainstream feminist front has been about Wondagurl. Jezebel ran a short piece about Ms. Oshunrinde on the day that Jay-Z dropped MCHG, but the overwhelming majority of stories I encountered regarding her accomplishments appeared on hip-hop focused forums that are largely marketed to men. Perhaps I should not have been so alarmed given that the lack of engagement by mainstream feminist media with the women of hip-hop music is certainly nothing new. Popular feminist outlets have done a particularly poor job of highlighting the breadth of incredible contemporary female hip hop producers like Syd tha Kyd, TOKiMONSTA, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Ashley Okinawa, and Tasha the Amazon among others. To be fair both Bust and Jezebel have spotlighted Asian American rapper/producer Awkwafina following the success of her 2012 hit “NYC Bitche$,” but I still found myself wondering whether a story like Wondagurl’s might’ve received more coverage from mainstream feminist publications if she looked and sounded a little more like Taylor Swift.

While “mainstream” is not code for white, and “hip-hop” is not code for black, the connections between these constructs and race cannot be denied. It also cannot be disputed that the feminism of white women often ignores the needs, perspectives, and desires of non-white feminists. All too often the white middle class women who tend to crowd the forefront of mainstream feminism assume that their voices resonate with every woman, an assumption that activists of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds are working hard to expose.

As a black woman I couldn’t help but consider that this kind of assumption may have played a role in the lack of mainstream feminist coverage of Wondagurl: the assumption that Oshunrinde’s wasn’t the sort of story that needed to be run because of what Jay-Z, and perhaps hip-hop more generally, represents to many women. From a safe distance it can be very easy to label most contemporary rap as vapid, materialistic, and misogynistic garbage (which I think a lot of it is) but does that make the entire culture unworthy of engagement by feminists who don’t necessarily listen to hip hop?

A deeper exploration of hip hop and feminism should be imperative for mainstream feminist publications now more than ever as the genre is growing to include a wide array of successful white female rappers, several of whom forget to check their privilege at the door. In 2011 Bay Area rapper V-Nasty, formerly of the White Girl Mob, made headlines for her brazen and unapologetic use of the n-word; In 2012 Aussie rapper Iggy Azalea found herself in the center of a controversy when African American rapper Azealia Banks drew attention to lyrics from Iggy’s song D.R.U.G.S. that implied Azalea was a slave owner.

More to the point – even if you do not like rap music, stories like Wondagurl’s are important for women everywhere because they challenge the assumption that tools are for men, whether these tools are for building houses or songs. And if you think for a second that many people do not still view women as inherently technophobic and technically illiterate, one need look no further than my experience as a female hip-hop producer for the past ten years.

Initially I didn’t think I was doing something cool or special. Growing up in Ithaca, NY, a town with two prestigious universities meant that many of its children were the daughters and sons of some incredibly smart and talented people (myself included); I didn’t think that making music on the computer was particularly noteworthy. I had been crafting songs on the keyboard and guitar from an early age, and by the time I was in high school I had begun composing instrumental tracks with the Playstation game “MTV Music Generator.” When my older brother taught me how to use the digital audio workstation (DAW) Reason, during the summer of my junior year in high school, I added “making music on the computer” to my list of hobbies and I left it at that. Some of my friends acted in school productions and played soccer. I played volleyball and made beats.

I didn’t begin calling myself a producer until Kanye West released his debut album “The College Dropout” in 2004. The label “producer” is often confusing when it comes to music because it means many things to many people. In some cases a producer is credited as being the person that composes individual elements of a song, but does not necessarily execute the recordings. In other cases a producer is someone who oversees the overall “feel” of an album and makes executive decisions about which songs will end up on the final release. In the context of hip hop, the term is most commonly used to denote the person or team responsible for creating the beat over which a rapper spits. Prior to hearing Yeezy’s “Through the Wire” one night on MTV, I called myself a “video game DJ” because most of my instrumentation resembled the sonic landscape of video games. For most of my adolescence I had eschewed hip hop in favor of Björk, Radiohead, and Weezer but from the moment I first heard West’s chipmunk soul, charming bravado, and deep reflections on everything from weed to Jesus I knew that I wanted to make music just like he did. He called himself a producer, so I began calling myself a producer too.

My beats weren’t very good, but that didn’t stop me from eventually rapping over them and showcasing my songs at any venue that would book me. At that point I had just graduated with my undergraduate degree and moved to Houston, TX to begin a career as an elementary school teacher, while moonlighting as a rapper. It was around that same time that I started to suspect that I was really doing something unique by making hip hop beats. After each of my shows, an audience member or two would be sure to tell me that they had never seen a female hip hop producer, before asking questions that insinuated I’d had assistance. I was interrogated so frequently that I began to think that perhaps I was the only woman in the world besides Missy Elliott producing sample-based beats, and certainly the only other woman producing such beats and rapping over them. I had been a huge fan of artists like Ellen Allien and Imogen Heap as a teen, but they didn’t look like me and their production didn’t resemble the hip hop beats with which I was enamored. As I became well known around the local rap scene, the questions I continued to receive further confirmed my suspicions: "Wait, did you really produce that?" "Who helps you make your beats?" It got to the point that I began every set in the same way -- "Hello! Everything you hear tonight I produced. That’s right, produced by me!" -- and I found myself bringing up my prowess as a producer several times throughout my performances.

In retrospect I suppose that this type of pushback was fitting. After all, the moniker that a friend had given me for my artistic exploits – Sammus – was an obvious reference to Samus Aran, the main character of the classic sci-fi Nintendo game Metroid, who taught geeks everywhere never to judge a book by its cover. Spoiler alert: in the game, Ms. Aran traverses the planet Zebes, clad in an androgynous armor suit, in search of the evil Mother Brain and it is only at the end of the game that Samus is revealed to be a woman. I can recall with great clarity as my older brother first beat Metroid and my own assumptions about gender were thrown in my seven-year-old face. Still, I didn’t think my ability to make beats would be so difficult for some people to accept. I never heard anyone asking my male producer friends who “helped them” with their beats. It was through these experiences that I began to wear my production skills as a badge of my feminism – a powerful gift that I could use to counter the assumption that women can’t play with computers.

Stories like Wondagurl’s illustrate that women are just as capable of producing bangers as men but the reality remains that beat making is very much considered to be a male endeavor. Nobody raised so much as an eyebrow in objection last May when beat making legend 9th Wonder proclaimed that producers are like a brotherhood. This is something I hope changes while I’m still on this earth. There is nothing inherently special about the biology of men that gives them better control of an MPC and/or a digital sequencer, so I always find myself wondering why I haven’t seen more women beat makers at the same level as 9th Wonder.

Some scholars suggest that it’s mostly a problem of numbers. Specifically, they believe that technophobia, which develops from early childhood and continues throughout adolescence, is responsible for deterring women from becoming skilled with highly technical instruments. In her chapter from the book Sexing the Groove, musician and scholar Mavis Bayton writes: “As girls grow up, they learn (from family, school, books, magazines and above all, their friends) how to be ‘feminine’ and not to engage in ‘masculine’ activities.” She continues that girls who want to play the electric guitar are conditioned to feel as though confidence in technical skills is a masculine trait, resulting in an overwhelmingly female technical illiteracy. Vi Subversa, the guitarist for the now defunct punk band Poison Girls, echoed this perspective, saying: “I think there is a tendency for us still to be scared of equipment: the ‘black-box-with-chrome-knobs’ syndrome…I still don’t feel physically as at one with my equipment as I think most men do.”

Bayton argues that the few women who are able to transcend a culture that encourages female technophobia, are further discouraged by harassment, isolation, and a certain degree of invisibility from their male counterparts. Citing examples of women rock musicians, she states:

“[Female musicians]…face further problems which men do not; the entrenched sexism of the rock world. They encounter hostile male musicians, prejudiced promoters, patronising disc jockeys, obstructive technicians who sneer and make sexist jokes at their expense, inhospitable masculinist working conditions, unimaginative marketing by record companies, and sexploitative media coverage. They also face harassment and put downs-because they are women.”
Although Bayton is primarily concerned with women guitarists, one can easily see how these issues could also arise for women who make hip hop music. Regardless of ones musical aspirations, women who want to build a career in the music industry find that there are “few formal settings in which to learn” survival skills and thus informal networks are necessary for gaining “insider information and tips, which are routinely traded within them.” With few mentors and roadmaps to follow, female artists can thus wind up in precarious situations in order to secure production for their projects. One need look no further than the heavily scripted Love & Hip Hop “reality” franchise to witness countless examples of male managers dangling songs and production over their female artists’ heads as a form of leverage. Regardless of whether these story lines are completely contrived or not, they represent the real experiences of life in the music industry for many women.

I certainly agree that the lack of female musicians in prominent positions is partially a problem of numbers, but I also believe there has been an influx of women interested in highly technical instruments since Bayton’s chapter was published in 1997. Not only that but I suspect that there were a lot of women already making beats who didn’t have a forum for sharing their music prior to the creation of sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud. Thanks to social media I have discovered many talented women who produce hip hop beats, as well as online communities and websites devoted solely to female beat makers. A lot of us are making exceptional hip hop music, but you would never know that by looking at certain feminist forums.

Part of the reason I argue that it is imperative for mainstream feminist publications to start highlighting women like Wondagurl is that technophobic conditioning results both from negative messages and the absence of positive examples. Consider the sociological concept known as the “Matilda Effect,” which has more commonly been used to explore the underrepresentation of women in scientific publications and historical accounts. In 1968 sociologist Robert Merton developed the “Matthew Effect” to describe the symbolic power that prestige often carries within academia. Merton illustrated that it was easier for those who had already established themselves in academia via accolades and previous notable publications to gain even more prestige and credibility than those with very little symbolic capital. 

In 1993 historian Margaret Rossiter developed the “Matilda Effect” to contrast Merton’s assertion, which, as Rossiter revealed, excluded an examination of women within academia. After careful analysis she found that women were often less likely to receive credit for certain discoveries irrespective of their credentials and contributions to major journals. This same phenomenon can certainly be observed in literature regarding digital audio software. Historian Peter Manning’s book Electronic and Computer Music, which provides a detailed history of digital music software, makes just one brief mention of Laurie Spiegel, a self-taught software engineer, inventor and systems designer who worked at the Bell Labs alongside the “father of computer music,” Max Matthews. Women and their contributions are systematically “written out of history” so it is up to us to write ourselves back in.

I envision a world in which female rappers who want to develop an original track have the means to actually create the production over which they want to spit. This can only become a reality if more feminist publications are willing to share stories like Wondagurl’s particularly for those of us who desire to speak through hip-hop, a genre that continues to have a complex and often strained relationship with women and feminist objectives.

Related:

I Don't Listen to Current Hip Hop...Why Are You So Shocked?
The Case For Hip Hop
Stupid Bitches & Hoes: The Stagnant Position of Women In Hip Hop

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