Resisting Erasure: The Ms. Q&A With Dee Barnes, Hip-Hop Legend

“No one’s going to protect or lift up our legacy,” said Dee Barnes, the first Black woman hip-hop journalist and a member of the duo Body and Soul. “We can’t wait on the men.”

For hip-hop’s 50th anniversary this year, “Turning 50: Looking Back at the Women in Hip-Hop” recognizes the women who shaped the genre. The series includes articles in print and online, a public syllabus highlighting women and hip-hop, and digital conversations with “hip-hop feminists” in music, journalism and academics.

Host Dee Barnes (aka Sista D) performs at the “Sisters In The Name Of Rap” concert and television special at The Ritz on Oct. 8, 1991, in New York City. (Al Pereira / Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives)

Over the summer, Janell Hobson spoke with key figures in hip-hop feminism to address the significance of women shaping the culture over its 50-year history.

First up in our conversation series is Dee Barnes, a hip-hop veteran—both in terms of her rap duo Body and Soul (with Rose Hutchinson) and her three-year stint as the first Black woman hip-hop journalist and late-night TV show host for Fox’s Pump It Up!, which aired from 1989 to 1991.

Most infamously, Barnes survived a brutal assault at the hands of former NWA member and hip-hop producer, Dr. Dre, back in 1991—she had featured an interview with former NWA bandmate Ice Cube, who was perceived as having insulted Dr. Dre on her show—and has since broken the silence on her experience with hip-hop’s misogyny and misogynoir.

Lately, Barnes has continued in her role of preserving and archiving women’s hip-hop history and writing her memoir. She currently hosts a new podcast, The Frequency, focused on women and the Black community.

Janell Hobson: Here we are, in a culture that has witnessed hip-hop’s survival for 50 years!

Dee Barnes: Hip-hop turning 50 is very exciting to me. It’s overwhelming. I can’t believe it’s been around this long, which I knew it would be, but many people thought it was a fad. They didn’t think it was something that was going to last. Hip-hop wasn’t even accepted as something real or legitimate. And now, it’s the number one global genre of music that everyone loves. It surpassed even rock-and-roll status, pop status, it’s ingrained into everything.

Hobson: What is your own contribution to hip-hop culture?

Barnes: I grew up in it. I saw the beginning of it in New York, and I saw the beginnings of it in Los Angeles. So, I was privy to both beginnings.

I went through all of the elements of hip hop: DJing, graffiti, breakdancing, emceeing. I was influenced by the women. Sugar Hill records was run by a woman, Sylvia Robinson. And there was MC Sha-Rock, also Roxanne Shante, Sparky D. I started emulating women like Roxanne Shante in terms of battle rap freestyle.

While I was trying to get a record deal, I was also going to school for journalism, because I wanted to be a writer. I always thought too that I would be an entertainment lawyer, or I would be a reporter. And that was the basis for me when I ended up interviewing different artists. That led to me hosting a show called Pump It Up!

Hobson: How did that show get started?

Barnes: It was on the Fox Network. The show came out in September of 1989. It launched a month or two after The Simpsons, back when The Simpsons was on The Tracy Ullman Show. I believe Joan Rivers had the late-night show at the time. Married with Children was also on. Also, America’s Most Wanted and Cops.

Actually, our show was modeled after Cops, just based on our location and the type of guerilla-style of filming we were doing. That’s kind of interesting, isn’t it: The parallel between law enforcement and the community and hip-hop. It started in the West Coast on Fox Television. And this was before In Living Color came on, maybe the year after I was there. The show lasted three years. It ended in 1991, which had a lot to do with the incident.

I felt like ‘Girl, Interrupted,’ who was stopped in the middle of the progression I was making.

Dee Barnes

Hobson: I was going to ask about that.

Barnes: I want people to remember the show and not just the incident, which has taken over the conversation, and it really shouldn’t. But many people remember that. I also hear comments all the time [diminishing my legacy]: “She just interviewed a couple of rappers.” “It was a local show.” “She’s a failed rapper.” So, I often think of Girl, Interrupted. It’s one of my favorite books and movies. I felt like “Girl, Interrupted,” who was stopped in the middle of the progression I was making.

Hobson: Of course. This took place when you were still in your early 20s?

Barnes: Yeah, it happened right before my 23rd birthday. It always triggered me with what happened between Rihanna and Chris Brown, right before she turned 22. So, when that happened to her, I tried to reach out to her to offer support but didn’t know how to get in touch with her.

One of the differences, too, between her situation and mine, is the photograph [of her battered face]. Her photograph is going to be on the internet forever. And I still say it’s fortunate that my own photographs are not on the internet. They won’t be seen, and I don’t want to see them.

Hobson: This assault occurred in 1991, and yet you still suffer from the physical pain of it?

Barnes: My problem is with the migraines. That’s the physical pain that I get, right on the side where my head was smashed repeatedly against a brick wall. … It’s hard when you’re living paycheck to paycheck and you don’t have the proper insurance. So, I can’t go to a doctor and have my head scanned… But yeah, I do suffer from migraines. Now, I won’t say they’re consistent, thank God. Even though there have been times where I felt like it’s been consistent, but I’ve been experiencing them from years ago to now.

Hobson: Wow! And to think some people say you should ‘move on’ from the incident!

Barnes: I think of the song “Guilty Conscience” that he produced with Eminem, which came out eight years after the incident. So, he clearly didn’t let go, didn’t ‘move on.’ He was not questioned for that line in the song. And I don’t care that it’s just one line.

I’m not the only woman who was assaulted. So why is my name the one made into a punch line? This is punishment. This is emotional abuse. And to make it even more egregious, adding insult to injury, is that it’s a lie. I never was slapped. I was brutally attacked.

Dee Barnes in conversation with Dawn Richard at Hip Hop Caucus.

Hobson: I’m struck by how there’s the physical assault, then there’s the lyrical assault in the music.

Barnes: So, would you call it a lyrical gangbang? It’s very vicious to have other rappers echoing that lie in like eight different songs. And the music is forever. So, even though the song came out years ago, we hear that song, and they profited off of that song.

Hobson: Would you say this violent interaction, as well as the controversies behind Dr. Dre and his group, the NWA, were a turning point for hip-hop? I mean, not just for your own life, but for the culture overall?

Barnes: There were so many elements involved in hip-hop’s violent culture. It’s not just them, but they definitely planted seeds. … But if they had put some activists behind ‘F— the Police!,” where would we be right now? Without activism, it was just a controversy.

Rodney King’s beating happened the same year my incident happened. But their record, which came out years before, was about the conditions that led to Rodney King. Everybody had their own experience with police brutality. Even I did. It was wild because I didn’t really have that until I came out to Los Angeles, which is a whole different ballgame out there. It was the first time I’d seen cops that were militarized. And I interviewed people during the L.A. riots, because I had never seen anything like this in my life. And I had to document this because that is the journalist in me: to document everything!

Rodney King’s beating happened the same year my incident happened. … And I had to document this because that is the journalist in me: to document everything!

Dee Barnes

Hobson: And rightly so! Otherwise, we slowly forget the history. That’s why legacy matters.

This year, we’re seeing some heartwarming tributes to hip-hop’s anniversary, including the Grammy Awards show earlier this year, which managed to include women pioneers like Salt-n-Pepa, Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott. But, I think audiences still came away with a sense that women artists are still marginalized in the culture.

If you were to do a hip-hop tribute, grounded in founding mothers instead of the founding fathers, who would you include?

Barnes: Definitely Mercedes Ladies. Lady B. Sparky, Roxanne Shante, Nikki B. I would include JJ Fad because they represent the West Coast and were instrumental in the early success of Ruthless Records.

I’d have a tribute within the tribute for the women we lost in the culture. I mean, we recently lost Gangsta Boo, who wasn’t remembered in the Grammy’s In Memoriam. I think that’s just reflective of society in general, that women are not only marginalized but forgotten. So those are just some of the women that I would include.

Of course, my own group Body and Soul would be there, even though we were never nationally recognized, and that’s because our album was never released, which had to do with so many things, including the incident.

Hobson: What are your thoughts on representations of women in hip-hop?

Barnes: I believe that we still have a long way to go. Yes, we’re here because there have always been women rappers. I came up with a whole bunch of them. They’ve always been there. And what’s happening now, which is different to me, is that we’re more vocal about our legacy. No one’s going to protect or lift up our legacy. We can’t wait on the men. I mean, some of them do acknowledge us. And when you force their hands, they do acknowledge us. But, I think more women are becoming more vocal about their legacy. And I think that is what’s important. And when women help elevate other women, that helps too.

So, we’re at a turning point, I believe, finally, where we’re not going to wait on anyone to elevate us or to give us our flowers. We are going to give ourselves our flowers. And we’re going to pass that on to the next generation.

Join Ms. for a special plenary, “Surviving Hip-Hop: A 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Women Who Shaped the Culture” (featuring Joan MorganDee BarnesDrew DixonToni Blackman and Monie Love), set for Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, at the annual National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Baltimore, Md.   

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.