Dope Emcees: Women Have Something to Say

“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”
Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings

In my classroom, I take great care to care about who is present (or absent) and to reach out to let each one know I notice. I take great care to bring to each conversation a concept I first learned from Paul Gilroy’s book The Black Atlantic–an “ethics of antiphony”. Antiphony is a fancy word for call-and-response which is a highly complex phenomenon in music and in life. It can involve many voices (solo vs. chorus, small chorus vs. large chorus, one emcee vs another, one crew battling another, and much more than this short post can delve into).

The ethics of antiphony for me is inviting each and every student to speak to be heard by all not just the professor. To listen for what’s behind what someone says as well as what they are saying–listening for the unsaid. To respond to what another is speaking to vs. what you think about what they are speaking to. It’s also noticing when someone’s body language says “I want to speak” or say more before they are willing to admit it.  The body often speaks first. And I notice. That, too, is ethical. Having big ears and eyes and empowering each and every body/person to do the same. It makes the classroom as sustainable as well as ethical space and place you want to be in. Why? Cause you know you matter and you honor that others do, too.

I am training the students in my new Ropes, Rhymes and Women in Hip-hop course this winter intercession to be present and listen for the possibility of greatness and to speak to and challenge that which is not empowering or ethical or that which doesn’t really say anything and to be honest, not to front or pretend what someone said is ok when it is not. In essence to have compassion and courage.


Yesterday I had two guests visit via Skype. I like to offer Skype as an Toni Blackman Dovealternative to classroom visits cuz I know a lot of artists need to conserve their energy (mind + money) and I am the kind of facilitator even with Skype who can generate a great conversation and engage students in it. You can actually get students to the front of the room to ask questions and it’s so empowering for them and their peers.

I invited artist Toni Blackman to share. She blessed us with her mission to use the site of the “cipher” as place-making or as a way to build community. A cipher is essentially a space where everyone contributes to the creative experience even if to say “Unh” or “YYeah!!” to help build the communitas, the sense of community. The cipher, Toni said, “pulls people away from individualism.” It inspires “collective energy” and could be used by MTA to breed “civil dialogue.”

She brought along one of the emcees she’s been training. Her name is At’Las (think “at last” and the mythical character). The two of them shared so much deep knowledge. They spoke on vulnerability as an emcee. Being given the freedom to live the life that contributes to great emceeing which is full of humanity and vulnerability. Art heals. Let them live.

At”las shared:

Allow a boy to cry; allow a woman to connect to another women as opposed to “do you see what she had on?!?” A lot of people have to learn that your praise, what you receive, does not detract from them. The fact that I’m dope doesn’t make you any less dope.” Get rid of that comparison, allow an individual to be an individual.

and added:

Allow people to live. Emcees report it. Stop judging an artist for what they go through.

earlier she had said:

Nobody talks about the art of freestyle. It’s a pure place.

I love the way, in my view, women allow themselves to speak to vulnerability directly and in non-gendered ways that is inclusive of all genders and all that life brings to each individual including digging a Nikki Minaj or music that is not so conscious, if that’s your thing. 

At’Las urged, “Let people have their B side music!”

In hindsight, it reminded me of hearing Jean Grae on a panel at FIT 3 or 4 years ago. She was asked what she thought of another more mainstream women emcee. Remy was on the panel and she was being alluded to indirectly. Grae’s response was brilliant. “I ain’t knockin’ nobody’s hustle.” Plain and simple. None of that pitting black folks against each other. That ish was over in those five words.

Toni addressed a larger concern about women in rap by saying, “There are an incredible number of female emcees out there. We could probably name 100.” She said she couldn’t explain why we don’t know about them exactly. I said that sociology might give us a better understanding of how women and the feminine is stigmatized in hip-hop. I’ll be teaching my students about social role theory today.

Toni also mentioned something profound as someone interested in truth-telling. She said (and I paraphrase):

There’s a lot of lying in our culture. People front  [pretend] and withhold. But people forget that art is therapy. It’s ok to seek the knowledge but also seek out the Blues. The blues are a part of Hip-hop but we don’t acknowledge that.

Toni and At’Las dropped a lot of wisdom on us including why women need their own spaces, their own ciphers to be able to share about abuse and assault and not have that masculine energy limit vulnerability. She added that there is nothing wrong with the masculine energy being there. But “women need their own space to get open.”


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