Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Meeting Girls Where They Are


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One of the most fascinating things about feminism is the many roads to getting there.  If you find yourself in a room full of feminists and ask each of them how they were introduced to the ideologies of feminism, the answers will be as varied as the women and men represented.  And my feminist sensibilities were sparked long before I ever heard of the word; my introduction to feminism was through the lyrical and visual imaginaries of Li'l Kim.

As a hip-hop head, I was often the lone girl on the stoop debating the flows of Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas. I could read lyrics and identify double-entendres like no other.  The words spoke to me and I mastered the language of being able to speak about those words.  But I was silenced when the conversations would center on sex (and as a middle-school student, that's often where the conversations went).  The music I loved had very clear articulations for the role of women. She is a receptacle for penetration, an unspeaking subject who exists for the purpose of satisfying male sexual needs.  I had no words to speak back.

That is until Li'l Kim came through, legs spread open looking directly into a camera that functions for the male gaze.  She was speaking back, with a little sass and a purpose.  When Junior Mafia said, "fuck bitches, get money" she responded with attitude"fuck niggas, get money." For me, Li'l Kim represented the ability to talk back. Screaming, "fuck you" and "I can do it too" and "My body belongs to me" all at the same time, she was my introduction to an equality feminism of sorts, not much different from that strand of feminism represented in the mainstream.

And it is here where I feel like elder feminists missed a key opportunity to engage with young girls by meeting them where we were.  Me and my girls were from Brooklyn, from the same streets Li'l Kim walked so we were protective of her. And even though we couldn't articulate then what she was doing for us, we were resistant to adults who wanted to critique her.  We felt like they didn't understand her and subsequently didn't understand us.  What if they moved from a pedagogy of understanding? If they would have first paid attention to what it was we liked, and then gave us context for how this method of equality was problematic.  Women's Studies classrooms shouldn't be the only space where young women are asked if doing what men do is desirable. I didn't need to let go of Li'l Kim, I needed a context for understanding her.

As Crunk Feminsts, we are now confronted with another opportunity to engage young women and girls where they are through the representations of Nicki Minaj.  As we move into positions of elders, we must ask ourselves what kind of elders we want to be? One of the key skills that hip-hop heads have developed over the years is the ability to listen.  Hip-hop has required a participatory listening audience from its inception.  We must transform this ability to intently and purposefully listen into a pedagogy of hearing. If we listen to young women and girls, they will most definitely teach us something.  We have to move beyond what makes us uncomfortable about Nicki and the way she is taken up by young girls and instead ask why is she being taken up this way? We must ask what she doing for young girls and what she can do for feminism?

As a Crunk Feminist, I am always and forever dedicated to the disruptive voice, one that I hear through the rappings of Nicki Minaj.  Listening to a Nikki Minaj song causes a disruption in your ear drums as she plays with her voice, both volume and accent, and causes one to pay attention. As the only mainstream femcee being represented, her voice is single-handedly disrupting the testorone of the airwaves. Her performance disrupts politics of normativity and respectability as she rocks her pink wig and Freddy Krueger gloves. And there is something remarkably different and refreshing about this linkage to other women in the game. In the midst of black women represented in popular culture as being in competition with each other, she refuses to compete.  While fans of Eve, Jean Grae, Li'l Kim and other women beg their favorite emcees to battle Nicki, they all refuse.   They are not interested in the continual Foxy vs Li'l Kim debacles that plague women in hip-hop. There is a recognition that battle rap and competition that pits women against women isn't useful and instead they actively choose sisterhood.

All-in-all, Nicki gets crunk! And as Crunk Feminists, we are best equipped with the tools to engage with those aspects of Nicki Minaj that are not worth celebrating.  Who but us can help young girls understand the false empowerment of Barbie and the way in which this image encourages women of color to drastically conform to white standards of beauty? Who but us can situate Nicki's sexuality in larger trajectories of materialism and the sex industry? Who but us can allow space for young girls to celebrate but also give them context to critique? And who but us can stand behind her and push through where she is able to make small cracks? (i.e, no one else could effectively read her verse in Usher's Little Freak alongside Queer Theory of Color, I'm just saying)

And to be behind her means we must watch around her. We have to watch for the times when she is Crunk and "marching to the rhythm of her own heartbeat" and when someone else is choreographing her movements.  We must watch when her movements are being made to uphold standards of domination and patriarchy. We must watch when her positionality as the lone female in the crew is serving as a stand-in for messed up gender norms of what it means to be a ride or die chick.  We must push when she's pushing in directions that disrupt all the bullshit, and gently push her when she goes astray.  She needs to know that while she may feel like she's doing this alone, Crunk Feminists are behind her screaming Nicki!!!


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