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Beats, rhymes and rap's gender gap

In the nation's hip-hop capital, many female MCs remain mainstream enigmas by choice



Three little brown girls, probably no older than 11 or 12, recline in lounge chairs on my apartment rooftop deck, rapping word-for-word with Nicki Minaj as she growls expletives and purrs sexual innuendo from a boom box. It's 10 o'clock on a Sunday night.

Minaj isn't exactly mentor material. But just a few blocks away and a week earlier, six of the dopest MCs in Atlanta's indie scene met, per CL's invitation, to address the much-hyped anomaly of the female MC.

The irony is that staHHr, Lyric Jones, Khalilah Ali, Sa-Roc, Adrift da Belle and Boog Brown represent the best of what hip-hop has to offer. Not just because they're the antithesis of Nicki Minaj, but because they also happen to be need-to-know artists in their own regard.

In recent years, the industry-perpetuated myth is that female MCs are a dying breed. Even BET, long fingered as a culprit, aired last year's documentary "My Mic Sounds Nice" to highlight the void. But take a good look inside the nation's nooks and crannies, and the hypothesis doesn't hold water. Case in point: A recent article in the British newspaper the Guardian shines a light on Detroit's wealth of female hip-hop talent. But in doing so it makes the mistake of drinking the Kool-Aid by suggesting that Detroit is the only city in the country with such a wealth of talented femcees. Staking claim to hip-hop bragging rights is one thing; allowing the tail (industry) to wag the dog (culture) is another.

And in Atlanta, several of the reigning kings within the independent hip-hop scene just so happen to be queens. Since they frequently perform and collaborate on projects together, it felt more like a family reunion than a roundtable as a mix of scene stalwarts and emerging newcomers gathered at Cloud IX Lounge in Castleberry Hill on a Sunday afternoon, the last day of HipHop Appreciation Week. Brick City native Adrift Da Belle entertained staHHr's toddler son while mommy went to the restroom. Sa-Roc and Boog Brown — both accidental MCs, though you'd never guess it — took their turns with the photographer while MC/English professor Khalilah Ali, and perhaps the only artist here young enough to be her student, Lyric Jones, sits in front of a laptop watching the video to Beyoncé's latest ladies' pop anthem, "Run the World (Girls)."

StaHHr and Sa-Roc - JOEFF DAVIS

"When I became serious about rap, I saw staHHr's "Still Dope" video, and I was like, 'What? She is crazy!'" said Sa-Roc. "And then when I met all of these sisters. When I heard their music, it was like iron sharpening iron."

All of which leads me to believe that if there are so many dope female MCs hidden in plain view in Atlanta — mainstream rap's reigning capital — the same must be true throughout the nation.

Of course, any conversation that revolves around gender bias within an industry tends to paint females as victims. My first and only interview with noted New York indie rapper Jean Grae went horribly several years ago when I made the unenlightened query, "How hard is it being a female in a male-dominated industry?" Men think we're being sensitive to the plight of women when we ask questions like that. We sound dumb as shit.

"Let's not be naïve about the industry we're dealing in. It's wicked, wicked, wicked," said Ali. "I'm 20 years in, this is 20 years here. I've had a million different names, a million different incarnations, a million different outfits, a million different hairstyles. I've been everybody and anybody. And I'm telling you, there's an evil you can't even conceive of 'cause the industry is built on 'How can I manipulate people?' And as an artist, we're often at the bottom of the totem pole."

And in fact, while many of these women talk about the difficulties of working in the industry, they're much more interested in shouting out the men in the scene who have helped them along the way. "When I first came here, I was wack as shit," said Boog. "I just hadn't found my voice yet. But when I got here and I started working on music, Illustrate was the first producer I ever worked with that was like, 'Yeah, that shit's dope — redo it.' Most of my influences are males just because that's just what I listen to."

But there's no doubt the tension between staying true to an artistic vision and assimilating to the mainstream weighs heavily on their minds.

"I get a lotta pressure," said Adrift. "I got a lot of people coming at me, like, 'Driftee, you're so pretty. You could do this, you could do that.' People don't know, but before I came [to Atlanta] I was being looked at by Def Jam [Records]. I was being looked at by [50 Cent's] G-Unit. And the trade off was, be Nicki Minaj. And I was like, 'Fuck that, I got a little sister.' So like I was saying, as an indie artist, I'm gonna do what the fuck I want to do."

Khalilah Ali - JOEFF DAVIS

As I listened to these women talk, it struck me: Perhaps the reason why there's such a dearth of female voices within the mainstream is because most emerging artists aren't willing to sacrifice the integrity necessary to get there.

Lyric: I want to be able to get to a mainstream level and do what the fuck I wanna do.

staHHr: When you get mainstream, you are not gonna have more control. Because if that was the case then why would all these mainstream rappers still keep doing the same regurgitated thing?

Boog: I will say as artists, like if you look at Erykah Badu, she does what the fuck she wants to do.

Khalilah: But she came out like that. That's how she started. So you've gotta figure out who you're going to be.

Boog: She started with the headwrap and the locs and everything, and then next thing you know she's walking down Houston Street with her ass out.

Going mainstream for female rappers almost always means a commoditization of sexuality. Males only have to be willing to barter in aggression and misogyny — stereotypes that tend to amp up their perceived masculinity in the marketplace.

"Hip-hop eats its young and disrespects its elders," said staHHr, who's been active in the scene the longest. "That's just my opinion. Maybe I'm a little bit older, maybe I might be a little bit bitter. I just think as an indie artist I have way more leeway than I would ever have as a mainstream artist."

For women, the stakes are much higher. There's a damn good reason why Nicki Minaj is frequently criticized for being a carbon copy of the sexually explicit queen bees before her. Now she's modeling the same role for a future generation of female wordsmiths.

But I know three little girls on a rooftop deck that could stand to hear something different.

More: Transcript: A roundtable between the indie scene's female MCs
The MCs' vital stats and songs

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