They're Not Talking About Me
They're Not Talking About Me
At the junior high school across the street from my Brooklyn apartment, girls still claim an empowered dominion over the spaces they occupy. At their desks, through the halls, along the tree-lined streets after 3:00, their voices rise in a resonant strength that usually makes the boys say "ooooohhhhh!" Boys - almost men, tall and broad - flinch, dip, duck, dive, swerve from female energy that ain't playin. Serene sisters - almost women, with steady eyes, glares that won't concede an emotional shift - strike calm that stills the boys and forces them to huddle,*bleep*their heads, wonder as they whisper. These girls so freely occupy their own bodies, their stop it a promise, their wild hair a crown of 13-year-old glory.
These boys don't try much. They tease their female classmates just as they torment other boys. There is no gender-specific way of addressing others yet. A girl can ball her fist and strike a boy in the arm. He'll grab the spot she just clocked, open his mouth, and, before he can say anything, his friends cut in. "Oooohhhh!" Maybe he'll squeeze in a "Dag, girl," before she rolls her eyes and turns away.
"All that cuz he grabbed your pencil?"
I know by high school this will start to change. For some of the young women, soft giggles will replace fierce commands. Their fists will unfurl, fingers pliable, vulnerable, ready to slap. Softly. Stooooop it. Like a song, like a singsong in the chorus of a song. Like a sigh.
These are the girls I worry about. These are the girls I worry about when I hear MCs claim dominion over spaces mostly men occupy. You can find me in the club... My junior high school girls sing, appropriating male lyrics, a gender-specific way of addressing women. I'm into having sex. I ain't into makin love, so come gimme a hug...
Which girls have sex? Which girls experience love?
When I ask them, the junior high school girls, what they think when they hear Hip Hop that denigrates women, that categorizes females as good or bad, they say they don't worry about it. They're not talking about me they say when I ask them about the songs and images that make our grandmothers suck their teeth in disgust. Songs and images that we click away from the youngest in our families. (Here, Penny Proud's on. Watch that.)
(Voice loud) I feel, like, if these girls dress like that and of course a boy's gonna respond to her, I mean she asked for whatever, although (voice lower) I do also feel that, (voice low) a boy should be partly responsible (chin on hand on desk). All in one breath, girls think about my questions as they answer them. And then, they think some more.
"We Don't Love Them Hoes"
- Snoop Dog
Some of our junior high school girls will retain a fierce sensibility and navigate male-dominated spaces with grace. Others will feel their hearts rip as they age, swinging through testosterone-driven territory, tearing from one space to the next. One club to the next. One man to the next. One way of being Black and female. To the next. For some of these girls - almost women - the words of the songs we listen to become the only voice speaking to them in the spaces that belong to men. In a finished basement or an hourly motel or on an empty rooftop or a parked car somewhere outside the party, the voice that tells them they ain't doin right will have turned so soft and so giggly that it will barely be heard over the bassline pumping under their young backs.
"I used to be scared of the di**. Now I throw lips to the sh**, handle it, like a real b***."
They will feel the split. Even as their bodies spread they will feel their souls sliced. Torn from their former power, they will begin to see much more clearly the full terrain for Black womanhood. They will begin to understand our dichotomous way of being Black girls in this country. Now, African American women either ride to die for cash and kicks or get wifed and make money as mothers. Baby's mammas who remain monogamous even when their men won't. For too many of our sistahs this world offers precious little alternative to the ho/hoochie - girl/wifey dichotomy. Sometimes it seems this world never did. The possibilities our girls confront when they're grown (or actin it) limit their acquisition of power to that derived from men.
Historically the patriarchal father delivered his daughter's intact hymen (and requisite baby-maker, food-cooker, house-cleaner to hold said hymen) to a husband. Now a patriarchal uncle or grandfather, or family of women or single woman with matriarchal authority, watches (or is looking the other way) as she skips over girlhood and into the arms of her baby's father. Sometimes the only father she'll ever know.
Now, good girls produce babies while bad girls produce fantasy. While the bad girl swings an ep in the back of the jeep, the good girl is supposed to "understand" her man and his polygamous behavior. She projects her rage at the split self, the dichotomous self, at the other woman, rather than on the male power that divides them both. From each other - and from their authentic selves.
"If your girlfriends see me with another chick, and I say it wasn't me, would you believe them? Is our bond that weak that it can be easily broken?"
"Is it?" the boy who once marveled at female power turns around and, now a man, full-grown, demands. Then he turns his back on her to walk out the door. Before he returns, the good girl thinks, fumes, cries, stops thinking, yearns, waits, hears his key, fixes her face, crosses her arms, sees him, opens her arms, accepts his gifts, fingers open, pliable, giving so much as they receive this thing "to make it up to you, girl."
What if women simply found such behavior intolerable?
[As woman]: I'm not phazed. I hang around big stars all day...
[As man]: Ooh yeah, girl, run that game.
Like the bad girl, the good girl uses her moneymaker. The lure of steady income over a lifetime forces many a wild child into a tamed girl role. Bad girls know their bodies will eventually betray them (and good girls know this, too), so getting wifed becomes the every girl goal. The supplement to a sistah's regular job is necessary. Successfully negotiating male space - male space that's paid - reaps great rewards. The lyrics promise "all the keys and security codes...the cheese." The seduction is seductive, too, promising deep (and rather swiftly achieved) love, followed by conflict (there's that other chick), reconciliation (also swifty), and a ceremony of some kind because "we ain't gettin' no younger." It rings like a Harlequin reads. Could it be that it's all so simple?
Could it be? Is Hip Hop this simple?
40-somethings birthed Hip Hop back when they were just out of junior high school themselves, a time that was much simpler. I fell in love with this child the first time his cry reached my own middle school cafeteria in Baltimore. The "hip hop hip it" everyone outside New York thought were his first words ever. We all raised him, strong, and fun and so decidedly proud to be Black and roaring and free. But by the earliest mid 90s our child was a good boy gone bad, like a bad seed on crack. Break your Mamma's back. Wack.
Like any drug addict Hip Hop is now in perpetual recovery, his hold on a good life - a family and stability and honor and a place of power and influence in our community - as delicate as a white cloud in a glass pipe. When Nas says, "save the music, ya'll" he's talking to us - and about us. Hip Hop could fall off the wagon any time, and Lord knows if he falls off now, this time, it's right into some young girl's lap.
There she is, right in the middle of the latest Elvis' song, lap clearly occupied, 'til the track comes to a stop. Is this sistah in Em's song a good girl gone bad? A bad girl running good girl game? Can Em tell which chick he's with? Can we? Can she?
These rhetoricals transform into particularly pertinent questions for Black girls. Middle class white women can go to college, enter wet t-shirt contests, lay back for jello booze shots, letting their bodies be used as bars, and full-tongue another bottle blond in full view of men. Someone will still marry her after all that. Set her up pretty in a suburb somewhere. She won't even have to work. Shoot, even a brother will marry her. It's different for Black girls. A Black girl gets out here and gets her booty slapped in eighth grade and she's through for life. The downward spiral begins because "them hoes don't mean nothin" to him. Or, seemingly, to our communities.
There is more than a compulsion, a desire, to widen the gulf between the average around the way good girl and the bad girls that live there too. There is a socio-economic need to protect, at all costs, the good girl self.
"We got to fight the powers that be. Lemme hear you say it!"
- Chuck D
Just as every Black woman's destiny is rooted in her school-aged past, the rhythms that reconfirm, that reestablish, the dichotomous self that is divided and conquered stretch back, past the time that was back in the days. The bassline is a drum, and these echoes from Africa our reverberating souls simply can't let go. But if somewhere in our glorious past the patriarchal structures that stratified our homeland communities were problematic, slavery just all-out sabotaged Black male-female relationships. Hip Hop lyrics regularly voice that violence, echo white male assault on Black female flesh. The possibilities of our shared future as Black people, if tethered to the realties of Black female pain, will continue to leash our communities, limiting our potential and power.
To justify his consumption of the darker other, massa labeled us every kind of sapphire jezebel, paraded us in high European fashion along 19th century New Orleans catwalks, dragged us through the canefields. Made our husbands watch. Black women fought for freedom and then fought the myth of the hypersexed self, forming clubs and coalitions and claiming truth. We've been fighting this fight since before a few folk jacked the power lines up in The Bronx.
Back then, back in the 70s, we felt so free. The music, the drum, so liberating. We were still freeing our minds and our behinds did follow. The utilitarian nature of African art - of a dance that initiates adulthood, of a mask that channels spirit, of a cloth pattern that conveys status, of a drum that talks, of an art that does something - formed the context within which Hip Hop was born. Hip Hop did something. It did something good. Like the sorrow songs and the spirituals and jazz and the blues, Hip Hop spoke to the totality of Black experience, gave us a language to communicate our plight - and our potential. And it was fun. Hip Hop did what it was supposed to do when it was just born, it loosened the leash. But we women still weren't completely free. The Black community was still not completely free and we sistahs were still the mules of the world. We still are. Our music, right now, is supposed to help move us all along the freedom march. Help us stand strong. Stay fresh. But something about Hip Hop feels so old, it's tired.
Just as slavery depended on the very Africans it dehumanized as slaves, this new system depends on the very women it denigrates as props for male bravado. We women have the same options our foremothers considered as they developed a plan of action. We can remove ourselves from this system altogether, just like the slave women that committed infanticide and suicide, crossing over to glory and depleting massa's wealth with one well-placed slit (but our ancestors didn't offer up everything - even their own bodies - for us to have to do the same self-sacrificing thing). We can refuse to listen to the music, rolling over it with big trucks in front of TV cameras (but it is ours, after all, and warrior women don't distance themselves from their own folk). We could work within the system (but it's too easy to be tommed in there). Or we could agitate from all sides (with words that do some cutting, and slice into the system controller's throat, silencing him for a switch). We could give voice to power against the normalization of negative behavior, of attitudes so dangerous to us all, in our communities. The system against which we must rail is the music industry itself, a new kind of plantation worked by neo-slaves, house slaves and field slaves, too. We gots to run away, ya'll. There is a promised land.
My sister, my sister, tell me what the trouble is.
- Monie Love
At the junior high school across the street from my Brooklyn apartment, the end-of-the-year party takes the last three periods of the last school day. In the gym, eighth graders crowd under lights fully blazed. The vice-principal works the CD's as clusters of students, girls in packs and boys in posses, shriek and smile and run through the crowd. Young people feel summer, smell it, in the hot air they breathe deep, feeling excited about tomorrow as they say goodbye to yesterday, dancing their own dance as they step away from childhood forever. As they dance, their arms stretch up, up to the ceiling above the gym, up to the sky above the building, up to the soul force above us all.
And the beat is nice.
To get that free feeling that is all about really being free, we have to free the women who were once girls and the girls coming up now. Allow them to simply be. We must question male privilege without male power just as we should question white privilege without white power. And as images of white hoods and horses and swastikas conjure in our minds, we should realize we can't want that kind of power at all. That male power without gender equality means pulled hoodies and slammed doors and bruised souls as men leave women - and women leave themselves.
It can't be about appropriating the props of the dominant other, cause we've been trying to get just a piece of that pie for a while now. And maybe it's time we baked our own. From scratch. Mamma's sweet potatoe tastes better anyway. It's sweeter. Where's that recipe?
Maybe the very first thing we need to do is face a certain truth. When they talk about wifeys and hoes they are talking to us. All of us. Maybe it's ok that a schoolgirl doesn't get this, but serious sistahs need to recognize with a quickness. No matter which script the brother flips he is, in fact always, my sister, talking to you - no matter which role you run, good girl or bad. They are talking about you.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen lives for the Hip Hop. She lives for the Hip Hop.