This is Part I of a two-part series. Part II is a roundtable discussion of the below interviews, featuring scholars working on these issues.
I. What Is There To Discuss?
A Prompt for Discussion by Bill Adler
As wonderful as it is, as impactful as it is, hip-hop music has never exactly embodied a model of civil discourse. On the contrary, it has often been—and remains—rough, rude, and heedless. Indeed, those very qualities are at least part of what makes the culture so appealing to so many folks.
Happily, hip-hop has also generated a body of exemplary critical commentary from the very beginning. For over thirty years now, critics and journalists who came of age as hip-hoppers have wrestled with the music’s sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and materialism… and have done so with love, from inside the culture.
Naturally, the music’s sexism has been particularly vexing to women, and doubly vexing to women of color. In a review for the Village Voice in 1990 of Amerikka’s Most Wanted, the first solo album by Ice Cube, the critic Joan Morgan quotes a girlfriend of hers as follows: “Joan, you know this motherfucka must be bad if he can scream ‘bitch’ at me ninety-nine times and make me want to sing it.”
To Chuck D, though, it wasn’t a problem—at least not then. Women had R&B, he argued. White men had rock. Rap was by and for Black men. End of discussion.
Discussion by Matt Strohl
I had the random opportunity at a friend’s wedding last year to meet the legendary Bill Adler.
Within a few minutes of being introduced he had gotten the DJ to put on Eric B. & Rakim and was regaling me with stories about Run-DMC and Public Enemy. Thinking about the productive collaboration last year between AFB and Washington Post music critic Chris Richards, I asked him if he would be interested in suggesting some prompts that we could use as the jumping off point for roundtable discussions about hip-hop. He generously suggested a number of topics and we decided to begin by confronting the one above—the elephant in the room, as it were. The issues identified in this prompt seem to be the largest barrier that holds philosophers of art back from serious engagement with rap music.
We are swimming in critiques of rap misogyny from the right and the left. It’s low-hanging fruit. It would be easy to compile a bunch of offensive lyrics and round up some writers to articulate what’s so offensive about them. Adler’s prompt suggests a way of approaching the issue that lovers of rap music may find more compelling. I would highlight three points:
- The transgressive, irreverent character of some rap music is an important part of what many of us love about it. Too much sanitization destroys something of value.
- Since the birth of hip-hop, critiques of the objectionable aspects of rap music have consistently emerged from within the culture. Unlike the Tipper Gore/Tucker Carlson style of critique that has dominated mainstream discourse, these insider critiques have been grounded in love and appreciation.
- Rap music was at one time perceived as a predominantly male enterprise. Even if this was true at the time, it’s certainly not true anymore. In thinking about this issue, we need to attend to the way hip-hop culture has changed over time, and to the testimony of rappers on the front lines of this cultural transformation.
As a white guy who listens to a lot of 21 Savage, this is not my prompt to respond to. I reached out to Lissa Skitolsky and asked her to collaborate on this project. Lissa is writing a book about hip-hop and has thought about these issues with as much depth and nuance as anyone I know. She suggested (and I agreed) that the best way to approach this prompt would be to start with firsthand testimony from female rappers. She suggested B.L. Shirelle as a rapper with a more irreverent attitude and Bates as an explicitly feminist counterpoint. I checked out B.L. Shirelle’s SoundCloud page and Bates’ album Strange Woman and I was an instant fan of both. Read their biographies below for more details, but suffice to say that they spit fire.
I am very grateful to them for giving us interviews. I’m just thrilled with the way they turned out. They’ve given us a lot to chew on. I also want to thanks Lissa for embracing this project and conducting the interviews. Alex King edited the B.L. Shirelle interview and this post, and Nic Bommarito did sound editing for the Bates interview. Many thanks to both of them for their hard work. And of course, thanks to Bill Adler for giving us an excellent prompt.
The two interviews below are the first stage. The next will be a roundtable discussion with philosophers who will discuss these issues in light of the interviews. Look out for that post in a few weeks.
II. Interview with BL Shirelle
About BL Shirelle
Monique Shirelle—who performs as BL Shirelle—is an underground rapper and a public speaker. Shirelle’s versatile sound mixes elements of Beanie Sigel, Meek Mill, and Talib Kweli. The result is, as she puts it, “a message from the hood,” and “a pride in never losing a battle and being able to compete toe-to-toe with any male artist.” She is also Deputy Director of Die Jim Crow Records, the first non-profit record label for incarcerated artists in the United States.
Shirelle began writing music when she was eight, but after dealing drugs, spent many years in the Pennsylvania prison system. During this time, she honed her musical skills and participated in a TedX event in which she helmed a prison band.
Since being released in 2015, Shirelle has released her debut mixtape Restricted Movement and a follow-up album Restricted Movement II, and has recorded dozens of other tracks. An outspoken critic of the US criminal justice system, she has spoken and performed to audiences at a variety of venues, including Stockton University, East Stroudsburg University, Texas Christian University, and the National Young Feminist Leadership Conference. She has also been featured in Rolling Stone and CNN’s digital platforms. She hopes that her story and her music will inspire and educate others.
Connect with BL Shirelle online on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and listen to her album Restricted Movement on SoundCloud. Donations to support her and her non-profit record label, Die Jim Crow, are always welcome.
Interviewer’s Note, by Lissa Skitolsky
When I read Bill Adler’s prompt for this forum on women and hip-hop, it was clear to me that Monique Shirelle offers an important, underground perspective on the question of sexism in hip-hop from the position of an artist who revels in its “rough, rude, and heedless” language as a Black woman and lesbian who served a decade in prison, and who performs as BL Shirelle—an allusion to the fact that she is a ‘bearded lady,’ or a woman with a full beard. We are both friends with the underground rapper Bates, who is also a Black woman and lesbian but—unlike Shirelle—has been sharply critical of the systemic sexism in hip-hop music and culture and its negative effects on Black women.
So it seemed natural to start the interview by asking Shirelle to situate her own view and experience in relation to the views expressed by Bates, and what followed was a free-form conversation about hip-hop and politics, hip-hop and gender, the underground and the mainstream that at times surprised me and at times reminded me that the underground scene is so diverse and anarchic, that it’s impossible to evaluate the gender politics of the present in the light of questions and criticisms forged in the past. At least, it’s hard—if not impossible—for me to understand and affirm BL Shirelle’s position in the underground through traditional, feminist expectations for how women MCs ought to act and talk and perform as women in a male-dominated genre of music that all-too-often ignored them and their contributions to hip-hop. I am grateful to Bill Adler for representing the relation between women and hip-hop as an ongoing question that demands our renewed attention in view of the shifting politics of hip-hop and gender within and against the crisis of the American present.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Warning: This interview contains explicit language, including the n-word.
LISSA SKITOLSKY: I want you to respond to a few things that Bates said to me in a conversation about women and hip-hop.
BL SHIRELLE: Okay, I like that. That’s my peoples, Bates.
LS: You’ve heard her speak to students about how she’s struggled emotionally and professionally with systemic sexism in hip-hop, which is in fact why she chose the name Bates—so when she started out, no one would know she was a woman. She’s also really offended by calling women ‘bitches’ or ‘females,’ and associates calling women ‘females’ with the popularity of the word ‘bitch’ in hip-hop.
BLS: She don’t like the word.
LS: She’s extremely offended by it, and in general by what she refers to as the misogyny of traditional hip-hop. I once asked her how she could listen to the older, “great” stuff, and she replied, “Well, a few tracks are so great, you just put up with it.” But she thinks there’s a direct correlation between the rising prevalence of the word ‘bitch’ in hip-hop and the erosion of healthy relationships between Black men and women. For Bates, as a Black woman who is also a lesbian, it’s really important to take a sharp political stance against what she reads as sexist language in hip-hop. This is why she organizes events like FemFest in St. Louis. And as a white woman, I can’t see or understand these issues in the same way, as I didn’t see those things happen in my neighborhood the way that she did. So I’m curious what your response is to all that, also in relation to your experience in the game, because—I don’t know how exactly you identify—
BLS: I’m a lesbian. I like pussy, that’s about it.
So on the one hand I understand what Bates is saying. The language in hip-hop reinforces a lot of stereotypes. We reinforce a lot of violence when we repeat that word ‘nigga nigga nigga’ constantly in songs. As far as ‘bitch’, I do believe it does some of the damage Bates is talking about. But with that being said, if I was going to take that stance across the board, I would kinda feel that way about a lot of things that we say. But because I love this art and because ignorance is bliss in my art, I can’t start picking and choosing language. This is freedom of speech. This is hip-hop.
But I also think the word ‘bitch’ is starting to change its narrative a bit. In music, when people say “bitch,” yeah, it’s still kind of derogatory. On the other hand, in real life when men say, “Oh she’s a fucking bitch,” or “She’s an evil bitch,” people are starting to interpret it as the woman just being a boss. She’s just a boss, and she moves like a boss! So in music, yes, it’s still derogatory but in real life I feel like when people call women bitches now it’s starting to imply more of an intimidation factor.
LS: On this topic, there are scholars in hip-hop studies who think that all use of the n-word is morally inexcusable and complicit in racism, but I’d like to know what you think of this view. I wonder if there’s a parallel between the way Black men co-opted the n-word in hip-hop as a sign of endearment and a political strategy against its negative force in their lives, and the way women in hip-hop have co-opted the term ‘bitch’ as a term of empowerment to offset its negative force.
BLS: Yes! That is a great analogy. These are words that just describe the way that you are, but are used to hurt. So ‘nigga’ means: you’re Black (and that’s a bad thing), and ‘bitch’ means: you are a female and better act like a fucking female. And so it makes sense that, if those words hurt, you might try to make them not hurt over time.
LS: I think that hip-hop language has been doing that from the beginning. In my book, I discuss [Thug Life], and Tupac’s re-appropriation and re-signification of what ‘thug’ means. I tell my students that “thug life” is really the stance of those marginalized by a system organized around their subordination and destruction. You can see this in one of Tupac’s examples of thug life, the founding fathers. So these denigrating words can actually mark the power of the marginalized.
BLS: I mean, I like saying way too many of these words. Honestly, I partake so much in the fuckery. I mean I Partake. In. The. Fuckery. And I admit I use the derogatory meanings, but I like the vocabulary. I want to be able to say whatever I want in rap. Of course I know it affects people, sometimes negatively, and that’s unfortunate. When I was growing up, that happened to me too! But everybody has their own life story and their own take on things. If we start telling people they can’t say certain words because that leads to listeners behaving badly, where does it end? If it wasn’t the language, it would be a movie or a video game or something else. The reality is that it’s everything—it’s not just these special words in a vocabulary. Those are just some words.
LS: So I was visiting once and we had a conversation in the car, and you kept saying the n-word over and over and over again in every single sentence—
BLS: Yeah, I love it!
LS: Then you all of a sudden became conscious of it and you said out loud “Damn I say that word a lot!” and then you said, “Maybe that’s something for me to think about.”
BLS: Yeah, but I only said that because I was around y’all and you’re white.
LS: But I’ve noticed that tonight you haven’t said it much at all.
BLS: Well, that’s just a coincidence.
BLS: Now I realize I was a tiny bit self-conscious around white people at the time. I’m not like that anymore. I don’t give a fuck.
LS: So what do you say when Black scholars and people like Bates say that’s really offensive and you shouldn’t use that word?
BLS: I respect their opinion and I understand it. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I understand it. It’s a social responsibility that I think Bates feels musicians have, but at the same time, they can only make music. I’m not saying that music isn’t powerful. It is, but what’s more powerful is what is happening in the streets.
LS: It almost like Bates assumes that you have the music influencing reality, but maybe it’s a more dynamic relationship.
BLS: The music reflects the reality, so if the reality changes, the music will change. This is the reality, and we’re speaking that reality. We’re not always rapping about who we want to be in the future. We’re sometimes expressing who and where we are right now.
LS: I agree, but Bates is saying that once rappers starting saying ‘bitch’ all the time, it changes the nature of that word and its effects.
BLS: I think it was happening in reverse. Music is a reflection of reality—at first. Then, those trends take off. Something will happen on the ground, in the streets, and then it spreads to everybody. So now white people say things like “Yasss bitch!” This tendency is especially apparent in hip-hop.
LS: One philosopher, Wittgenstein, had a famous theory of language that the meaning of a word is its use. For instance the meaning of the word ‘bitch’ depends on who is saying it and in what context—it doesn’t mean anything outside of the way it is used. So I think that critiques of hip-hop language as derogatory can overlook the power of hip-hop to shift meanings by co-opting, distorting, and re-signifying.
BLS: Well, it doesn’t matter. Music always evolves with time and reflects the times. ‘Nigga’ is the most painful word. It caused so much rage, but we still use it. Case closed. So why wouldn’t we still use other words like ‘bitch’? It’s the same trauma. And Black women get both—you can be both a nigga and a bitch, you can be a nigga bitch.
LS: On that note, what has your experience been as a woman in underground hip-hop? Do you feel the discrimination that Bates talks about all the time?
BLS: Um, discrimination? I haven’t really reached quite the level where Bates is in her career, so I can’t feel like I’ve related because I’m at the stage where people are embracing me, and it’s like dope. Because Bates is so successful, she is approaching the glass ceiling.
LS: Do you think your and Bates’ different approaches to hip-hop have to do with your different life experiences?
BLS: Yes. When I was twelve years old, I sold drugs with my family. It was a family business. I was raised with very distorted thinking, especially about women, but I was also presented with a reality that was brutal and unorthodox. I went to jail when I was 18 years old for a major crime. I did nine-and-a-half years of prison. I did an initial six-and-a-half and then I went back and I did three more, so I had a double dose. I don’t know how Bates was raised. I can hear in her music that she’s been through some shit, so she has her own story. But my story is a lot different than hers.
LS: Did you write hip-hop when you were in prison?
BLS: During the first stint I wrote a lot. During the second, I wrote almost nothing. I started like writing a little bit toward the end for a project that I’m working on called ‘Die Jim Crow’ about mass incarceration.
LS: Were you rapping before you went to prison?
BLS: Yeah, I’ve been rapping since I was six or seven. I was in a few different groups: Golden Rule, Teflon, and Major MOB. When I was growing up you had to have a crew, and a woman had to be the dope girl in the crew. There was a kind of discrimination here. As a woman, you had to be the hot chick in the group. There were different roles. One was the leader, and he can rap really well. Then there’s the cute boy, who’s all right but he’s cute. And then we got the girl that can rap—if she couldn’t she had to be hella cute. That’s how women had to slide in. Then I just started rapping by myself. I had a karaoke machine and recorded a little mixtape on that. And I was in studio maybe twice before I went to prison.
LS: So when did you become BL Shirelle?
BLS: That was at the end of the last bid, you really wanna know what my name was, on this interview? My name was ‘Crackk Baby’ up until that point! I came up with it when I was 13 or so. I still use it when I get gangsta! I used it until TedEx [ed. note: BL Shirelle participated in a TedEx event at Muncy Correctional Institution for Women in 2013 at which BL Shirelle performed with two other women.] BL Shirelle was our band’s name. But because I wrote and arranged the songs, it was my little thing.
LS: Did you come up with the name BL Shirelle?
BLS: No, we all sort of came up with it together, but it was about me. My middle name is Shirelle, and there was this funny inside joke where other people would call me the bearded lady, and that’s what BL stands for. It started as a funny inside joke, and then we named the band based on that. I’ve thought about changing it, but now I’m just stuck with it.
LS: So that’s beautiful. I didn’t know that, I thought you came up with it on your own, that makes it so cool. I thought the name was much more deliberate and political. But do you think you have a special role in hip-hop because you are actually a bearded lady? Correct me if I’m wrong, there are no other bearded ladies who are MCs that we know of.
BLS: Yeah, I don’t know nobody!
LS: Has that been an important part of your experience in hip-hop? Is it a thing? Do you get any comments about it from male rappers?
BLS: I would, but I’m very open about it and what the issues are. But I’m also very arrogant—I have the audacity to be walking around like this! It’s beyond bold. It’s rebellious, and I’ve always been very rebellious.
LS: Being authentic and going against norms in ways that make people uncomfortable takes a lot of courage! That boldness and rebelliousness seem so hip-hop to me—like, “Imma be me! Imma keep it real”—but do people in hip-hop see it that way? I ask because it goes against the grain of what a woman MC is supposed to look like. So has that been an issue for you in the underground hip-hop scene?
BLS: It does take courage! And I mean, I guess there have been issues. But I go where I’m wanted. I don’t force myself into spaces where I’m not wanted.
LS: You took one of my classes, and you’re both conscious and chill about all this stuff. I’d say that’s a pretty unique and radical role that you play in the underground.
BLS: Yeah, cause I kinda choose it. If I wanted to construct myself to social norms, I would just do it. If that’s what I wanted to do.
LS: Did you always have a beard?
BLS: Um, well I started growing mine at the same time my friends were growing theirs. So, like puberty.
LS: You know one thing that struck me pretty immediately when I went to Muncy for the first time was the fluidity of gender. There are so many different gender expressions, and it’s much more accurate for me, but it’s an unusual space.
BLS: It is. And a lot of those expressions are psychological defense mechanisms, not even always accurate. They are just what a person puts on to survive what may be a traumatic experience for them. And then once they get in societal norms and feel safe again, they just go back to societal norms which is also a weird thing.
LS: In my book I also talk about the fact that there’s always been a really close association between hip-hop culture and penal culture. And there’s more gender variation in penal culture, so it’s consistent with the history of hip-hop that you are now a presence in underground hip-hop and that you are bringing some variation to our image of women who are MCs.
BLS: I agree. In mainstream hip-hop, you’re forced to adjust to whatever is going on, but in the underground, you can just kind of do whatever you want. For me, it’s more about the passion of it, and I find my career actually going in a whole different way that I didn’t even expect. And I’m just going with the flow right now, because if this was meant to be my path, then so be it. I’ve been doing more educational things fused with art, and the intellectual, academic space is a lot different than the industry space. But interestingly enough, if you get enough acclaim in that academic space, you can make a very good living there. People are more accepting in those spaces. I don’t want to call those spaces ‘conscious’ exactly, because I’m definitely not ‘conscious’. But if you get in it, you can still live your life while making music. Then it becomes more about passion. It’s not about fitting all these different images, and instead it’s about the message that you’re trying to deliver. I’m very raw, but I’m raw in a psychoanalytical way, so for me it’s all about the streets and about the path we’re on—that’s how deep it is to me.
LS: So what do you mean by the underground? Do you just associate it with whatever is opposed to the industry? And what does it mean that you keep it raw?
BLS: I go so far into the street life and make you think. Let me think of one example:
We grown now
But every decision I have to question myself
Every assignment in life, I had a lesson of death
Every time I get it right, I gotta go to the left
Afraid of failure, or afraid of success?
That’s about how crazy my life is, how crazy I feel about what is going on, so I give it some reflection—not a solution. It’s street enough to just be a reflection, but intellectual enough to try to break it down on a deeper level.
LS: For me that reflection is itself political. But a lot of people want to critique that reflection as not presenting the best picture of people, as reinforcing negative views.
BLS: Right. That’s the problem. Mainstream hip-hop does reinforce stereotypes, and that’s what Bates is talking about. Mainstream music introduces it to regular people, and then there are people saying these words who are not being sincere, who ain’t even from this life.
LS: Do you think that’s one way to define the underground—that it doesn’t reinforce, but instead presents a reflection that is a critique? A reflection that acts like a call to arms, or like a call to wake the fuck up and see what’s happening?
BLS: It’s hard to say definitively because there are so many street people who aren’t thinking about that who love my music too. They’re still deep in the struggle. Their life is not right; they know they’re not treating their life with worth; they know they’re not treating their life with respect—but they feel my music too. So it is like a call to arms for some in the underground, but for others, it’s just a reflection (I hate to use that word constantly, but it’s the best one). It’s just like, “Damn, I feel this somewhere deep.”
LS: And I just think that reflection is political and provides a source of life-force for some people—it just keeps them going.
BLS: I agree.
LS: But why? And how is it political?
BLS: Well I have an issue with that word. When I think of the word ‘political,’ I think of the systematic ways that things impact people’s lives. When I think of music, I think of a social standpoint—how we’re treating each other, not necessarily how the powers are afflicting us. There are two different kinds of wounds happening: there are human-to-human wounds and system-to-humans wounds. My music contains human-to-human stuff to me, so I don’t really identify it as politics. But I understand why some people say that it is.
LS: It’s a reflection of a state of affairs brought about by white supremacy, and you capture that in the way the reflection is presented—in bars that convey the rage and mourning about it. And in that sense the reflection is political.
BLS: Yes, absolutely. But all communities have other things going on. For example, there are things going on that Black people are strong enough to change right now, within the Black space, period. We can change some shit right now if we really want to. Some of the problem is one hundred percent the establishment—and I know because I’ve experienced a lot of state-inflicted trauma. I am a state-inflicted trauma expert!
I am what you call a test-tube baby. My mother’s generation was the project. During my mother’s generation, the establishment thought, we’re going to test this out. So crack came out in ’87 or ’88, my mom was on it, and then I was born. She had her battles to fight, and being a child of that system made my life a fight. So I understand exactly what the establishment has afflicted.
But there are other things going on in lots of communities that members of those communities can change right now, and those people could just take the responsibility for that change. Not just Blacks, but everybody. But we choose not to change certain things just because of the culture of Black America. When I say “our culture,” I don’t mean music; I mean our heritage as Black Americans—not the people born in Ghana who left, and not the first or second generation. Contemporary Black Americans have a completely different position in life than any other Black person in the world.
LS: Do you think that hip-hop can play a role in shifting people’s consciousness?
BLS: It does. Especially the underground scene. There are so many different things to digest there—you’re not digesting the same things over and over again. Then you go back to mainstream artists. I’m guilty of it, I listen to them too. I eat junk food when I’m on the go, but when I need a home-cooked meal, I get a home cooked meal. I go to the underground scene and I get my home-cooked meal: I listen to some Bates, and I listen to some Freedom Writa.
LS: At the panel at SU, the discussion turned to Bates, who was critical of people who just listen to the newer, less ‘conscious’ hip-hop coming out of SoundCloud. You said something hilarious: “Shit. When I come home after a long day, I’m not putting on some fucking Common.”
BLS: I did say that, because that’s how I feel. But I listen to R&B so much too, so it’s not all about rap. It’s about music, all different sounds have different effects. I have experienced a lot of this stuff outside in my day-to-day life. I work in a business causal type of place where I have to go every day. So when I come home, I don’t feel like that sort of music. I want to hear some Kodak Black, but I can get both from Kodak or another artist like that. You can experience the pain or whatever, but also it’s a balance. I can get a vibe just to take my mind somewhere else. Life is about balance to me.
LS: Did you rap in prison?
BLS: Not the second time, the first time, yeah. I used to battle. There weren’t that many women MCs. Not that many who wanted to battle me.
LS: I don’t mean to offend you with this question, but did you win every battle?
BLS: Of course. I won every battle my whole life. Ever. I never lost a battle. I only have about 20. But I don’t consider myself primarily a battle rapper.
LS: So, do you have a certain sub-genre that you identify with? For instance, do you identify as underground, but not as ‘conscious’, or a battle rapper?
BLS: No, I identify as a songwriter. And it’s because I really don’t just write raps. So I’m constantly trying to show my versatility. I like traveling in different spaces.
LS: So what do you like about the trap beat in today’s music?
BLS: Well, Kodak for instance is a lyricist. He just has a different style, a different draw. He’s a very introspective kid. It gives me a blues vibe. Young Thug is sort of like this, too. What lyricists don’t want to acknowledge is that when you call yourself a ‘lyricist,’ you have so much space because you can rap so many words however you want to rap them. You have the vocabulary at your fingertips, and you can just go super-duper hard, as hard as you want. But when you decide to create melody on top of that, you’re trying to invoke similar feelings, but putting your vocabulary in a small box. That’s very challenging, and that’s what lyricists don’t want to acknowledge.
LS: That’s deep. Are there any women MCs who you listen to on a regular basis?
BLS: Of course. I love Remy Ma. That might be my favorite female rapper. I don’t know if I wanna put that on the record, because I don’t know, she’s crazy, and I might have to battle her or something like that.
LS: And you don’t want to lose the battle?
BLS: I mean, you know, I’ve got a shot! I also listen to a lot of female rappers from Philly: Rocky, Miss Porter, Shotta Montgomery, Rapsody, Nina Ross, Ms. Jade, Lady Caution. And I listen to Bates.
LS: Were you influenced by the earlier generation, like Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah?
BLS: Oh yeah. I still listen to Lauryn Hill. I wasn’t really around for Queen Latifah. I liked MC Lyte when I was a little kid, but Missy Elliott is like the G.O.A.T. to me. When I think about it, it’s probably Missy over everybody. Even—and this is about to sound so blasphemous—but even Lauryn Hill. And I say that because Lauryn Hill was phenomenal, amazing, hands down, beautiful, a queen, and all that, but she had that one classic album. She had the Fugees records, that was amazing, and she was the star. She carried that. But her catalogue… I can’t really put her against a person like Missy. I can go back to so many moments and eras and remember how many times Missy made me feel good. And she did it with feel-good music. She didn’t even do it by tapping into your psycho-trauma, she didn’t try to get you like that! She just made you feel good like a motherfucker. Over and over again. That’s hard to do! And that’s not even counting all the R&B songs she wrote.
LS: And she also wasn’t a girlie girl.
BLS: Yes! She didn’t do it using sex. That’s another thing. I have to put her over everybody, I’m sorry. Missy took that shit to a whole other level. And then her videos, her visuals. She was amazing. She still is amazing.
LS: And a lot of women also started out initially not-girlie girl, and then became really femme. Like Salt-N-Peppa and Queen Latifah.
BLS: And Da Brat switched it up for a minute, I remember that.
LS: And that’s what I like about Missy, she’s never done that.
BLS: No, she’s never done that. Yeah Missy, she’s the G.O.A.T to me of female hip-hop artists.
LS: There are these phrases I really like in hip-hop, like “I Am Hip-Hop,” “I Do It for Hip-Hop,” or “Hip-Hop Saved my Life.” Do you identify with phrases like that?
BLS: I’ve been rapping since I was five, and I started writing poetry when I was eight. At first I wasn’t rhyming, I was just a writer. And my teacher loved my poetry, and she got it published somewhere, in this poetry book. She put me in this competition, and I was in the running to win something like a savings bond for college. I came in third place, but that draw lasted for basically all of K-12th grade. One day, I wrote a poem that rhymed. And this teacher—she was an older white woman, but we had a little vibe—she looked at it and she said, “I hate it! Don’t ever do that again!” And I remember that my eyes filled with water. I was like, ‘Oh my god,’ because I thought she was really going to like it. It was something like: “the birds go tweet tweet tweet,” and something about “bread crumbs for them to eat,” and she was like “Nah, that ain’t it chief!” I’m surprised that that didn’t make me never do it again. But even though she made me cry that day, I kept doing it. And I still don’t hold it against her, when I think of her. I love her, you know? But I remember that moment.
LS: Why do you think she was so angry and dismissive?
BLS: I don’t know. She really geeked on me, and that incident hurt me so much that I almost cried. But all of my teachers, including you—you were my teacher too—always had some kind of relationship with me.
LS: It’s because you’re so smart!
BLS: I guess. I always had a good relationship with my teachers, which is weird, because I was going through a lot of stuff. I think I was just blessed to always have good teachers, good people.
LS: So the story with your teacher being mean, are you saying that that’s hip-hop?
BLS: Yeah, so my life has always been, ever since I’ve been able to articulate my feelings. My therapy has always been writing. It didn’t matter whether I was doing it for other people, as long as I was doing it. I don’t think I even made it known that I could rap until I was thirteen. So I can’t even tell you what my life would have been like if I hadn’t had that outlet throughout my life, because I was going through a lot of very real shit. So I can’t even grasp the question that you really asking, because I don’t remember not having it.
III. Interview with Bates
Bates is an award-winning, acclaimed rapper based in St. Louis, twice named Best Female Hip-Hop Artist by the St. Louis Underground Music Awards, and was the first woman to win Slumfest’s Artist of the Year award.
She was a member of groups H.A.R.D Asylum and Bates & the Strangers, and she writes and produces for various artists and for recording studio The Cheer Voice.
Among her releases are 2015’s The Great DeBates, a subject-by-subject mixtape that addressed everything from the commercialization of hip-hop radio stations, to the shooting death of Mike Brown at the hands of the Ferguson police. Her 2016 album For Colored Folk includes the track “Tell Jesus,” whose award-winning music video features a number of St. Louis artists and became a sensation in the St. Louis underground scene.
She has been praised by many media outlets, including the prominent music website HipHopDx, which hailed her 2017 LP Strange Woman as presenting “a fresh authenticity,” saying that Bates is “poised to take the rap world by storm.”
What follows is audio of an interview with Bates. She read through the above interview with BL Shirelle, and Lissa Skitolsky then asked her to comment on a number of points in that interview, as well as many of the issues that came up in Bill Adler’s prompt. See the notes below for major topics that come up.
00:35 – use of words like ‘bitch’ and the n-word:
“It really boils down to context.”
06:57 – sexism and the patriarchy in hip-hop:
“You’re under the thumb of these men all the time.”
08:24 – Black vs. white rappers using the n-word:
“Do I think that it’s less problematic for Black rappers to use the n-word in comparison to white rappers? Abso-motherfucking-lutely.”
12:21 – discrimination against women in the underground scene:
“What do I have to do?!”
17:15 – visibility of and rise of queer women in underground hip-hop culture, how it differently affects femmes and studs:
“They flat-out don’t like the LGBT community.”
21:31 – the history of FemFest and how Bates came to co-found it:
“A lot of people were like, we didn’t know, we didn’t know, we didn’t know…”
24:12 – writing poetry and writing rap, having her poetry published:
“I wrote poems way longer than I wrote rap.”
26:02 – the hustle and how to keep going:
“What keeps me going is knowing that I’m great at this.”
28:15 – back to words and their use, and the real difference she sees between ‘bitch’ and the n-word:
“We never use bitch for empowerment.”
40:15 – is music a reflection of culture, or is culture a reflection of music?
“Hip-hop is like a religion and the rappers are the gods.”
41:25 – What does Bates listen to? And how to listen to music conscientiously, even if we aren’t listening to “conscious” music:
“I don’t listen to no Common my damn self!”
Notes on the Interviewer
As an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Susquehanna University and an “official visitor” with the Pennsylvania Prison Society, Skitolsky spent years visiting women and teaching an introductory course in philosophy at Muncy prison. She has a forthcoming book with Lexington Books press titled Hip-Hop as Philosophical Text and Testimony: Can I Get a Witness? for their series in Philosophy of Race. She is currently the Simon and Riva Spatz Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Dalhousie University.
Read Part II of this two-part series, a roundtable discussion featuring scholars working on these issues.