Meeting Girls Where They Are


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!!!

– CF Chanel

crunktastic

27 thoughts on “Meeting Girls Where They Are

  1. Chanel,

    This was great! I was just lamenting my students love for Nicki Minaj the other day with one of my homegirls. But I think you are right, that this becomes a missed opportunity for critical engagement, and one that signals how easily it is for academics to get out of touch, particularly when we spend our time looking at the big picture of patriarchy, not recognizing that most young women have little access to this larger view. So I hear you, and in the future, I will definitely see this artist as an opportunity for feminist conversation rather than as someone who forecloses such possibilities.

    • One thing that constantly bothers me is the rigidity of feminism and how quick we criticize “mainstream feminism” as if the word mainstream is a curseword. These connections or entryways into the thought process of feminism is so necessary.

      All this talk about what she did to HER body… we as feminist sometimes need to learn to mind our business. Some women actually just want to appeal to their own senses, socialized or not. We for get how much Barbie played a role in our childhood. And might I mention, my Barbie was named Imani and she was black with kente cloth and braids. The male Barbie’s name was Malik.

      I scrutinized Niki when she first came out as I would any new artist. My verdict is I like her. Am I buying concert tickets? No. But I’m not sucking my teeth and the young girls who do.

  2. I’m sorry to make my first comment disagreeable, but this notion of women aping men’s shenanigans held up as progressive is, I offer respectfully, nonsense. Feminism, as I understand it, is about uprooting the male paradigm from its base (yanking it by the balls, so to speak) and replacing it with something new and distinctly feminine in perspective. They might not be using the same rhyme patterns or samples, but the female rappers you mentioned are using the same tired hip-hop idiom of self-inflation, narcissism and aggression which originate in a male perspective and target a male perspective. Show me a woman who takes the genre of hip-hop in a totally different direction regarding content (no more ranting about “my pussy is bigger than yours”), image (reflecting genuine self-esteem and security of identity in physical appearance and bearing) and mission (magnetizing and energizing listeners/viewers toward positive action), and only then will I tell you you have an innovative feminist on your hands. Until then we’re dealing with women still playing a man’s game.

    Smart blog; I’ll be watching!

    • Thanks for your support. I think your critique, however, is based on the erroneous assumption that CF Chanel understands Lil Kim or Nicki Minaj to be feminists. Her argument as I understand it is that young women find these figures compelling and they therefore provide an entry way for those of us who might otherwise reject these artists BECAUSE we ARE feminists to actually speak to young women about what is positive and problematic about these artists performances. If we want to use feminism to empower young women, in other words, then as feminists we had better figure out a better way to engage young folks in discussions of the artists they like without beginning from a premise of wholesale rejection. Hence the title, “meeting girls (or folk in general) where they are,” rather than where we think a feminist politic demands they should be.

      • It certainly seemed to me that that is what she is saying, if not directly then indirectly, but no worries. I’d also like to suggest that using performance artists to begin such a conversation might not be the best tack, if only because most girls do not actually know or interact with them in person, and their performance personae are constructed fantasies. Young women know and interact with women in their families and communities. Real, extant connections might be a better jumping-off point.

    • Thank you for your comments and I agree with many of your points, we definitely need more feminist representation in mainstream hip hop. However, Crunktastic is correct about the misreading of the piece. I am in no way suggesting that Nicki Minaj or Li’l Kim are feminists directly or indirectly. I am suggesting that they are important topics for feminist discourse. They provide teachable moments I would say. I am tired of these representations in hip-hop too. But I recognize that by turning the station and not engaging with these artists and the material they bring, we are missing prime moments to introduce feminism. We don’t have the luxury of ignoring these artists if we take anti-oppression as our focus. This is what I hold at the core of my definition of feminism and I am more concerned with uprooting patriarchy than a male perspective. I also don’t think feminism is or should be equated with feminine, though feminity is cool too.

      • O yeah Bijouxdejais, I think your right about talking about the interactions with the women in their families and communities but I wouldn’t separate popular culture from their real lives. Popular culture has real meaning in their daily lives. Besides beginnings don’t have to be linear! We know how to multi-task and have multiple beautiful beginnings.

  3. I’m reading this blog and I’m dismayed. Your point-of-entry into female Hip-Hop emcees was Lil’ Kim and you’re comparing her to the P-ridin’, self proclaimed Barbie Nikki Minaj?

    I agree there are a lot of similarities. History definitely repeats itself so it’s safe to assume, Nikki Minaj is not original AT all. But here we go; 1) Lone female in a crew of men. 2) Aggressive sexual lyrics. 3) Someone else WRITING their lyrics. (Biggie and Lil’ Wayne) 4) Countless cuts and alterations to their physical beauty…the list will go on and on.

    I guess I would like to know your definition of feminism? Seems like I need to know your definition of Hip-Hop too. You have so many women after Lil’ Kim who exemplified a strong feminist narrative. Albeit they were the “lone female” in a crew of men; but these women were lyricist. Rah Digga, Jean Grey, Bahamadia, Lady of Rage, Nonchalant, Eve, Da Brat, Missy et.al. Let’s not even talk about the women who came before Lil’ Kim.

    “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? ”

    Seems like you are trying to link sexuality to feminism? You can be a feminist and not be lesbian or bisexual. Your commentary is contradictory. Especially when the woman you celebrate had this to say about her sexuality http://bit.ly/aC2cCL .

    • Seems like you grossly misread CF Chanel. She did not argue that Nicki Minaj is a feminist. She argued that the insights offered by Hip Hop Feminism can be beneficial to young women attempting to grapple with the reality of trying to find useful self-portraits in Hip Hop. And yes, feminism is linked to the study of sexuality, upending as it does the biological connections between gender and sexuality. Connecting the two in no way acts as a tacit endorsement or rejection of any sexual identity. The CFC is composed of queer and straight women and we believe in a feminism that speaks to each of our experiences.

      • Thanx for your comments Reelaphro. I would say that the 4 distinctions that make to prove Nicki unorginality prove the point that we need to deal with these things as feminists. We need to ask questions about what being the lone female means? Why don’t we have all girl crews anymore? What are the obstacles? Why does it take Ludacris to organize all of “his” bad chicks for a song? What kind of ideologies get pushed through when someone is the only female? We should use this is an opportunity to ask if sexually aggressive lyrics are problematic when anyone says them or just when women speak them and interrogate what happens when different bodies speak this way. I also wonder why is it that we always question the authenticity of women artists when they write and we rarely do that with men. What does this say about what we think women are capable of? And we must talk about the cuts and alterations in terms of barbie and the relationship to hip hop (Li’l Kim was the “black barbie dressed in bvlgari.” before Nicki)
        I am not really interested in making these distinctions and separations between the few women artists, rather I want to focus on connections. We should force ourselves to resist this kind of division of who represents feminism or hip-hop. Not getting caught up in these conversations of what’s appropriate for hip hop or feminism. This is what we have to work with. Crunktastic’s articulation of my argument is correct in saying that I am interested in how feminists can aid in these discussions. Being Crunk requires us to move to spaces that no one else wants to go.

  4. I think the title of this post is central to why it’s such an important analysis. While there might be many intellectual and academic analyses of all that is wrong in Nicki’s “feminism,” it remains that many young women identify with her.

    I think the important argument in this post is not to equate Nicki’s perspective with feminism, but instead to look closely at what it might be that young women are relating to in her work.

    As a community organizer, I have found this to be my biggest and deepest lesson. To make political/social/cultural change requires an unequivocal respect for where people are, how they identify themselves and what that tells us about their aspirations. Often that’s the point at which we can find some traction, and move into a productive dialogue.

    Thank you Chanel, for your thoughtfulness.

    I loved this post, because it reflects that thoughtful approach to feminism and to feminist dialogue.

    • Okay, so I love Nicki Minaj and I’m excited about this topic because I actually brought this up to my WS professor a few days ago at this conference.

      Anyway, I think the original poster is right. Although Ms. Minaj may not be a feminist she is one of the hottest emcees out right now. (For those of you who think she is lyrically garbage, I’m speaking more in terms of popularity. Although her Beam Me Up Scotty mixtape is awesome.) Nicki is all over countdowns and believe it or not the girl has a cult following. Her “Barbies” go out in droves to see her and as of right now she is all we have in the MAINSTREAM.

      For the one who dropped names like Lady of Rage, Missy E, Eve, Rah Digga, and a few more my question for you is: “Where are they?” Not on the charts like Nicki. Unfortunately, we live in a world where amazing lyricists hardly ever crack the top 50 on countdowns and while I love some of those women (Latifah will ALWAYS be my queen) Nicki is who I see.

      For those reasons I think she is a great way to connect with girls now and talk about feminism.

      SN: She does write her own rhymes as well as Lil’ Kim and I actually did try to analyze her rhyme in Lil’Freak. My WS professor looked at me like I was a nutjob. It’s okay though…next time. Thanks for posting this!

  5. that was an Excellent article and shed a different light on “Minaj Mania” ! Dope ishhh Nels!!!

  6. Thank you all for your comments. Let’s keep the conversation going. Dialogue is key to liberation! Let’s go!!!

    • Chanel, I love this piece. I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I’m struck by how very evangelical it all sounds (what you originally wrote and many of the response comments). Crunktastic has called _Words of Fire_ and _Black Feminist Thought_ our sacred texts (I’ve since forgotten how she further broke it down)… If this is true, then we have to remember that the gospel is, after all, good news. When we use what we learn to divide the world into demons and angels (much like the misguided X-ministry brothers in the Christian realm), we miss the point that you made– that at the end of the day, we can’t devote more energy to criticism than to the attainment of tangible goals– goals which just happened to be attached to bodies that rock to Nicki Minaj. This is great work, Chanel. I’m still thinking your points through. Thank you.

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  8. Mm, I love this piece. I agree so hard that it’s important to meet girls where they are – both to give them tools for understanding that place, and because if you don’t, they’re going to be way less inclined to listen to you in the future. Plus, it’s important I think not to give girls the sense that what they like is “wrong” or something (especially given the way the taste of “tween girls” is spoken of with such scorn in this culture).

  9. I have never identified myself as a feminist because, I have always looked to artist like Lil Kim, Nicki Minaj, and others for empowerment. I wasn’t really sure how (if at all) that fit into feminism. Also, I felt like people would not understand my interpretations of their songs and how much they have influenced me. So, when I read this I was like YES THIS IS HOW I FEEL RIGHT HERE!

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  11. I wrote a piece similar to this. Often we older heads tend to look down upon the music the younglings listen to when our stuff was just as ignorant. (while we dis Lil Wayne, many of us listen to Kool G Rap)

    I agree, we miss opportunities to build bridges and ALLOW our children to express themselves.

    and just like our parents couldn’t understand why we listened to G Rap or Nas Or Big, we aren’t supposed to understand Nicki or LIl Wayne. If anything, we should give our children the room to express themselves just like our parents did to us.

  12. Hi Chanel,

    My name is Lisa Factora-Borchers and I am a sections editor for make/shift magazine, an independent publication that documents the shifting cultures of feminisms.

    I didn’t see an email address or contact information so I am hoping you find this in comments.

    I was hoping to include a quote from this piece in the upcoming issue of make/shift that will come out in our fall/winter 2010 issue.

    If you are interested, please email me:
    factora.borchers@gmail.com

    Or, anyone from the Crunk Feminist Collective would be great to hear from as well.

    Thanks for all your work and words.
    Lisa

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