by Lisa Merolle
Spirits were high at the 12th Annual Sarah Lawrence Women’s History Conference The Message in the Music: Hip-Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music, and More as attendees piled into the living room at Slonim House for the last session of the day. They were perched at edge of the overcrowded sofa, on windowsills, and stairs for the panel, “Love, Sex and Magic: Hip-Hop Feminism as a Tool for the Creative Renegotiation of Black Female Desire,” presented by four scholars from the University of Alabama. Despite the late hour and the long day the atmosphere hummed with energy from an audience eager to learn.
Panelist Tammy Owens delivered her paper, “‘It Must Be Your Ass’: The Commodification of the Black Female Booty from Slavery to the Present.” Owens chronicled the exploitative history of African American female bodies from the slave auction block to rap videos. As Owens read her work, she paused intermittently to confirm that the audience was absorbing her argument. Her assertion that even though Hip-Hop can be problematic it can also serve as a discursive space for the advancement of Black feminist theories, was met by nodding and clapping from a rapt audience. Owens’s powerful paper and effective engagement with the crowd inspired a lively discussion.
For Owens, Hip-Hop is a “discursive sport.” She contends that the theories of “dead white guys” like Sigmund Freud and Michel Foucault are limited in their application to Black female experience. According to Owens, Freud’s phallus-centric theories fail to consider that all women do not experience penis envy while Foucault’s social constructions do not have relevance for women who have yet to be socially acknowledged. “Black women can never be deconstructed out of something that we have never been constructed into.” Reinforcing her claims, Owens suggests that Freud and Foucault’s theories are principally employed by privileged and educated white women and men. Hip-Hop, however, is a discursive sport that can be played by women and men of all socio-economic backgrounds or geographic locations. Hip-Hop is, according to Owens, an unbiased tool; as accessible to children of the Upper-East Side as it is to those from the South Bronx, regardless of color or ethnicity. It is a mode and methodology that reaches into the margins and provides a space for Black women to be heard.
The conclusion of Owens’s paper addressed potential qualms regarding her claims that Freud and Foucault’s methodologies are not germane to the experiences of Black women. “Some of you might say I can’t negate the theories of Freud and Foucault.” Looking straight into the audience, Owens proclaimed, “Yes, I can!” Applause from the gathered crowd clearly signaled their support for her declaration. The audience quieted as Owens elaborated by stating simply that those who may question her ability to apply or dismiss theory at her will are revealing their own misappropriated and unclaimed academic privilege.
Owens’s suggestion that Hip-Hop could replace the theoretical models of Freud and Foucault opened the audience up to the idea that this cultural and musical medium could have academic relevance. While Freud and Foucault have been integral to the development of a white feminist’s discourse that articulates the dynamics of their systemic oppression, her argument contends that their theories are only accessible to the privileged and educated (white). Hip-Hop, however, is presented as a cultural space that is ideally suited to combating the subjugation of Black women and serves as an instrument of change and resistance. When the enthusiastic applause and boisterous shouts subsided, the audience lingered, digesting the implications of Owens’s argument. Her presentation left a lasting impression: Hip-Hop can be a viable and credible means for academic study and the advancement of Black feminist theory.
Following Owens’s presentation, panelist Brittney Cooper offered her piece titled, “’She’s A Movement By Herself’: Black Sexual Politics and Independent Black Womanhood in the Hip-Hop Feminist Era.” Cooper primed the audience for her presentation with Louisiana rapper Webbie’s single “I.N.D.E.P.E.N.D.E.N.T.” from his 2007 release Savage Life 2. The audience began to slowly move their bodies as the lyrics, “I.N.D.E.P.E.N.D.E.N.T. do you know what that mean?/She got to her own house/She got her own car/Two jobs work hard you a bad broad,” kicked in over the melody. Across Slonim living room, heads bobbed and nodded along to the music as the audience became increasingly engrossed and involved in active listening.
Cooper asked listeners to consider the idea that Hip-Hop has endorsed a positive archetype of Black women: the Independent Woman. Unlike the stereotypical and limiting tropes for Black women like Sapphire, Mammy and Jezebel, the Independent Woman is a positive and encouraging image. Building on Tammy Owens’s idea that Hip-Hop is a discursive sport that all can play, she asserts that the medium offers Black women a forum for self-expression while simultaneously encouraging listener (i.e. Black men) support.
Cooper’s work links the promulgation of the “Independent Black Woman” archetype to the idea that Black men have become increasingly receptive to Black women’s calls for change. This relationship might suggest that Black women’s place in Black sexual politics is improving. Tracing the emergence of the independent woman, Cooper claims that the 2000 release of “Independent Woman” by R&B trio Destiny’s Child – comprised of Beyonce Knowles, Kelly Rowland, and Michelle Williams – was the start of a decade long shift in Black sexual politics.
Using music to engage her audience, Cooper proposes that Hip-Hop’s embrace of the Independent Woman is a moment that deserves to be acknowledged. The stakes are high, as she notes, because all too often feminists overlook the moment when men and the community at large respond positively to their calls for change.
The growing prevalence of male driven songs like R&B singer/songwriter Ne-Yo’s “She Got Her Own” and Webbie’s “I.N.D.E.P.E.N.D.E.N.T.” exemplify how Black men have acknowledged “I love her ‘cause she got her own…There ain’t nothin’ that’s more sexy/Than a girl that want, but don’t need me.” These lyrics imply a growing agency and power for Black women that is appreciated and supported by Black men. With Hip-Hop as their instrument Black women may be able to claim increased sexual and economic autonomy proving that there really “ain’t nothin’ that’s more sexy” than a woman that has her own power. ▢