Women Are Hip-Hop’s Culture Bearers: The Ms. Q&A With Elaine Richardson and Kyra Gaunt

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.

This week, in our continued coverage of hip-hop feminists, we highlight two important Black feminist scholars.

  • Elaine Richardson, a professor of literacy studies at the Ohio State University, founded the Hip-Hop Literacies Conference. She is professionally known as Dr. E.
  • Kyra Gaunt, an assistant professor of music and women’s, gender and sexuality Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York, is the author of the award-winning and groundbreaking The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop (2006). She is currently writing a book on the impact of YouTube and music technologies on the sexualization of young Black girls. 

Richardson and Gaunt spoke with Ms. contributing editor Janell Hobson to discuss the upcoming 50th anniversary of hip-hop.

Black feminist scholars Elaine Richardson (left) and Kyra Gaunt. (Courtesy)

Elaine Richardson: ‘Our History Is Really American History. We’re Still Here.’

Janell Hobson: What is your relationship to hip-hop?

Elaine Richardson: I’m from the first hip-hop generation, probably the generation before that generation… the people who are Gen X, millennials… But I count all generations because we have varying levels of how we see ourselves in hip-hop. I love teaching, and I teach a class called Hip-Hop Literacies. That’s how I learned what the younger hip-hop generations are interested in. I’m teaching them critical analysis, but they are giving me critical lenses, too, with their preferences and situatedness in the music they listen to and the culture they participate in.

Hobson: How do you define hip-hop literacies?

Richardson: The ways that people practice and live hip-hop, all the ways that they make meaning and advance their culture. I try to leave a broad definition because it’s just another way of being in the world.

Hobson: How would you describe hip-hop during its infancy versus how it is now that it is turning 50?

Richardson: In the early days, hip-hop was funky, somewhat Black Power-ish, as it came from Black Power and funk music. I still feel that funkiness. You know, the grittiness, the survival narratives, the joy when I’m on the dance floor. 

Hobson: What’s interesting is how you talk about culture and how it’s a feeling, a vibe. And this definitely crosses generations. But when you’re talking about hip-hop literacy, how does that inform scholarship and teaching?

Richardson: I think it helps us to understand our history and our creativity like this is why we’re still here. The creativity that we have in our culture has helped us to make it over.

We had to grow. We had to dance. We had to commune with a higher power in the face of slavery, Jim Crow, genocide and super-exploitation. Like, I can’t even decide if I want to have sex. I can’t even make that decision because somebody already made it for me. So, I have to figure out how to prioritize my humanity in the face of being dehumanized. And what can I draw from? What do I have? I still have creativity inside me, even though they tried to kill it.

When people sign up for my class, they don’t realize the depths of what hip-hop is. So, I try to situate it for them: our history, our journey, our soldiers, this is a part of us. You know, staying alive in a system where we’re just fodder for the system. 

We had to grow. We had to dance. We had to commune with a higher power in the face of slavery, Jim Crow, genocide and super-exploitation. … I still have creativity inside me, even though they tried to kill it.

Elaine Richardson
“Hip-hop is saturated in everything and is everywhere,” said Elaine Richardson. (Facebook)

Hobson: Most people think of hip-hop solely as music, not necessarily taking in the broader culture.

Richardson: Definitely, and I like to think about our dancing, even the different popular culture domains, like cinema, theater, and literature. Hip-hop is saturated in everything and is everywhere. It’s that thing that makes our people our people. And it’s so sad to me, sister, when those in power want to wipe us out. You’re just gonna wipe out the past? You don’t want us to teach or to learn anything about our history? And our history is really American history. We’re still here, and we’ve been trying to make y’all live up to what you claim: democracy, humanity, liberation, freedom.

Hobson: They don’t want our history, but they want the music!

Richardson: But, they always want to appropriate it. They want to appropriate, whitewash, and disconnect it from the mother. But, we are the mother of this mother!

Hobson: That’s how power works. First, you conquer, and then you colonize. And then you take over.

Richardson: That’s why I feel so committed to our collectivity. That’s what I’m passionate about when I’m teaching my hip-hop literacies class and talking about us having control over our narratives. God bless Jay-Z and Beyoncé, who have become billionaires and work behind the scenes to give money and empower and support Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform. But I’m struggling with racial capitalism because we must think about collective empowerment, not just individual empowerment. Capitalism is just one tool to help us get to the thing. And the thing is liberation.

Hobson: Most hip-hop music seems focused on individual empowerment rather than liberation. Are there any artists that you admire with a more liberatory message?

Richardson: I think Rapsody is so conscious and can speak to hip-hop feminism.

Hobson: Oh yes! She had that very impressive album Eve (2019). I wish it had gotten more recognition.

Richardson: That makes me mad! That’s exactly why Cardi B said what she said about how people are not giving artists attention if they’re not talking [about sex]. That’s why I like Cardi B; she always keeps it real, like how recently she spoke about the struggles with balancing performances and motherhood.

Hobson: Rihanna and other high-profile artists have talked about that struggle too.

Richardson: And they have the means to take care of their babies. That’s that capitalism again. What about those of us who had to work in and outside the home and tend to other people’s babies? We got to make money. We got to keep a roof over people’s heads. We got to put food in our stomachs.

Think of your mom and your grandmother and your aunt. I have felt like that ever since I’ve been in the academy. Because I had three small kids and was going through the academy at the same time, I feel like I neglected my girls at times when they really needed me. But you got to do what you got to do. I gotta write this dissertation. And then after that, I gotta write all these articles to make tenure. I got to teach all these classes and do all these things that keep you away from your family. But once you got the money, you can say, ‘Lay off now.’

Hobson: What do you hope to see in the next decade regarding hip-hop, especially its impact on women and their power and liberation?

Richardson: I would like to see more collective empowerment. I’m big on collective empowerment. I love to see someone like Cardi B shouting out younger women artists, trying to put them on. I love to see us work together. I’d like to see more institutionalization of us working together to further our culture. I’d like to see us scholars care about these issues and our community.

We sometimes get sidetracked by celebrity culture. But you don’t have to be a star by yourself. What really makes us shine is the constellation!

Kyra Gaunt: ‘There Has Been So Little Investment in Structural Power for Women in the Industry’

Hobson: Do you think women’s representations in hip-hop are improving, staying the same, or has it gotten worse?

Kyra Gaunt: I think on the surface, it feels like it’s improving because so many more female artists are receiving more attention. But it’s worse because there has been so little investment in structural power for women in the industry.

There is no union protecting women from the violence they experience in and outside of the industry so that more women can become producers and engineers. They’re still fighting the same kinds of battles behind the music and in the streets. Think of street harassment: We’re still struggling with the same things!

Sound alone cannot protect us. Sound and dancing can’t protect us, especially when primarily situated in a strip club culture.

Hobson: What would you hope to see in terms of change?

Gaunt: I really want to see little girls making their own beats on Garageband or their phone apps.

Hobson: What is your relationship to hip-hop culture?

Gaunt: Historically, I graduated high school in 1979, so I grew up in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area—the D.M.V.—and I remember when “Rapper’s Delight” came out.

I’m one of those people who was obsessed with radio and records and music; that is at the heart of hip-hop culture: funk, R&B, soul. And when “Rapper’s Delight” came out that year I graduated, I began my undergraduate career at a community college where people were denigrating (think of the anti-Blackness in that word!) Black music in every way, shape or form, or anything non-classical. I remember thinking, ‘Oh I’m not supposed to listen to this.’ But I knew all the lyrics to the music anyway!

Hobson: Of course, you did!

Gaunt: From “Rapper’s Delight” to “The Message.” Also, that era was a pivotal time as somebody who came through the bicentennial year of Roots, Alex Hailey’s Roots on Television, a mini-series, who evolved to this place where youth culture by Black people was making noise—literally and figuratively. 

Hobson: How did hip-hop shape your musical scholarship?

Gaunt: I went from being a classically trained singer who wanted to be Chaka Kahn and Minnie Riperton in my community college days to a point where I had such stage fright that I switched to ethnomusicology. But, I had never studied any Black American culture in college at all–never was exposed to it–and then I went on a mission to center Black people in every paper I wrote in grad school whenever I could. I took this 18th-century opera course, and the professor said, ‘You’ll never find any culture, any music by Black people,’ but I found a hundred operas by Black people! And the sad thing is, in hindsight, he never asked me to publish it; stuff no one knew about, he never encouraged me to publish. I still have all those cards in a four-by-six deck. Still, I moved on and became conscious of the absence of women in hip-hop. I knew I wanted my dissertation to be about women in hip-hop.

In my scholarship, I explore how women outline the rhythmic textures of music, change the beat, and lay out how things work with their bodies.

Kyra Gaunt

Hobson: Is this what led to your focus on Black girls and their games?

Gaunt: The girls’ game songs were a serendipitous find at an ethnomusicology conference. I heard two girls playing hand-clapping game songs. It was at the end of the conference, and it just snagged my ear, dragged me down the hallway, and I thought, ‘This sounds like hip-hop!’ They’re mixing beats, the chants they sampled between hand-clapping games, cheers, and Double-Dutch. I remember saying it to my dissertation advisor–and fortunately, I had this Buddhist advisor who didn’t care what I pursued–and it emerged and evolved from there. The book that I am known for, The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop, was the fruition of that little happenstance meeting with these seven-year-old girls playing ‘Down, down, baby, down, down the rollercoaster…’ 

Gaunt’s The Games Black Girls Play was awarded the 2007 Alan P. Merriam Prize for the outstanding English-speaking monograph by the Society for Ethnomusicology. 

Hobson: What strikes me about your work, even with your upcoming book, is how Black girls have become central to hip-hop. I’m also thinking about the legacy of hip-hop—for example, the party that started it all on Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx on Aug. 11, 1973, which Cindy Campbell, the sister of DJ Kool Herc, hosted. The whole point of the party was to raise money for returning to school. 

Gaunt: Yes, a back-to-school jam hosted by a woman. We’ve always been there. Because there are no parties in a heteronormative culture without women.

Hobson: Absolutely!

Gaunt: And you can see [Cindy’s] little handwritten three-by-five card invitations on the Google Images Archive today. But I want to give credit where it is due, and Jeff Chang questions at the beginning of his book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop this notion that hip-hop began with that party. Some people in Brooklyn claim it, and long before 1973, people were popping and locking in L.A., and graffiti was at least 10 years old.

Some say hip-hop was born on Aug. 11, 1973 at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. (Facebook)

Hobson: Not to mention rapping has been around for a long time!

Gaunt: Rapping has a long history dating back to African forms of griot performances in the Niger Delta region.

But, you could tell a very different, feminist-centric story of hip-hop in the 50 years that begins with Cindy Campbell. Then move to Sha-Rock, who claims to be the first female rapper.

There’s a timeline; there’s a feminist historiography of hip-hop: in 1993, Salt-N-Pepa released their album Very Necessary, which went five times platinum … Queen Latifah released Black Reign that same year, and we get ‘U.N.I.T.Y.’ from that album.

MC Lyte was the first female rapper to receive a gold single in 1993 for her song “Roughneck,” which sold 500,000 copies. In 1994, Da Brat’s album Funkdafied sold 1,000,000 copies, making her the first female solo rap artist to receive platinum certification. …

Lil Kim debuted with the album Hardcore and went certified double platinum.

Foxy Brown, who was more popular than Jay-Z then, released her album on Def Jam, Ill Na Na, and it’s certified platinum.

So, from 1990 through 1998, when Lauryn Hill emerged with her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 15 women were on the billboard charts. … In 2003, enough women were recording, touring and getting radio airplay that the Grammys took notice and created a new category as “female solo rap,” but that only lasted for two years. 

Hobson: That is so unfortunate, since it only encourages women’s marginalization in music.

Gaunt: The other day in my hip-hop class, I was making a case for why we don’t have more women producers, like Missy Elliot, why we don’t have women who make beats, and why there aren’t more engineers and producers. And this young man said, “I don’t believe women could make beats; they have to play an instrument.” 

I asked him what he meant by that. He said, ‘You gotta play piano,’ so I replied, ‘You do know that most producers in hip-hop don’t know how to read or play music,’ including the fact that Dr. Dre at the Super Bowl last year played piano for the first time in his life! The biggest producer in the game, and yet I said to this student: ‘Name me a female emcee of the same status as Dr. Dre.’ He was stumped. I suggested Missy Elliott, but he kept demanding that because women dance, they can’t be producers!

In my scholarship, I explore how women outline the rhythmic textures of music, change the beat, and lay out how things work with their bodies. That’s the kinetic orality that I talk about in my work. But he got so upset and flustered he left the classroom! 

Hobson: It’s amazing to me how we have a masculine culture that refuses to think of how women have contributed, much less could be central, to music.

Gaunt: I think that’s the dilemma that hip-hop still faces within Black culture, and popular culture still faces men’s fragility, which is hiding behind all this bravado. It’s been there since the start.

I think I, with my students, started the first intimate partner violence on the hip-hop page on Wikipedia. And when I make a list of Russell Simmons, the people who accused him [of sexual assault], it’s 20 different women! This is why I’m writing this book, about how music and tech orchestrate violence against Black girls and women, because they’re gaslighting us at a level where music must be remembered.

Dee Barnes says, “The music is forever.”

You’re groomed from girlhood by it, but we are trained to forget any mention of the people resisting violence against women. … The music industry does not allow or foster any real knowledge that would lead you to rethink what you’re rapping about and dance to and not just have your sexuality and your body be the primary vehicle for gaining attention in an industry that exploits girls and women left and right. 

Those moments where women get to speak their truth … are my favorite hip-hop moments.

Kyra Gaunt

Hobson: There’s this need to diminish what we do, right? Our influence is everywhere, but our genius is always questioned.

Gaunt: Yeah, and erased, and minimized, and co-opted.

I’m writing my book this morning, and Phyllis Hyman’s voice comes to me: ‘No one is wanted more than I want you…’ And I’m thinking, here’s this woman who took herself out, one of the most amazing R&B soul voices from when I was growing up. … I went to look at her lyrics, which led to me learning that her song has been sampled eight times in hip-hop! Her voice is sampled, minimized, turned, sped up and used to tell a male story in hip-hop. 

Hobson: This happens all the time—women’s voices are just another body part to be objectified, fetishized and fragmented.

Gaunt: No one is paying attention to this repeated linguistic violence.

Toni Morrison said linguistic violence is more dangerous than anything. It tells us how to think about the world. And there are so many aspects of taking us out of our physiological calmness and a hyper-aroused, angry, mad state or hypo-aroused, silencing, self-silencing, withholding or dissociating from the harms that we have to experience when we listen to music when we’re trying to entertain ourselves by shaking away the blues from our bodies.

It’s not just twerking; we’ve always used music to relieve stress and self-soothing. It’s resistive, but it also can mask—if we never speak about it—the traumas upon our bodies. The body keeps score.

Hobson: What would make the music more effective for addressing these struggles?

Gaunt: You’d have to be self-produced, first and foremost, and it’d have to be something like a #MeToo movement on record.

Hobson: What is your favorite hip-hop feminist anthem?

Gaunt: It’s ‘Freedom,’ the rap version. The movie Panther—now forgotten—about the Black Panther Party was a commercial feature, and Quincy Jones’s son produced this music video. It’s a black-and-white video; it opens with Patra and Meshell Ndegeocello in there, and all these women are not wearing makeup.

My favorite scene is when Lisa’ Left Eye’ Lopez with T.L.C. talks about Rosa Parks and how nothing is more important than my people, ‘that’s why I took away his freedom.’ She then shows the number she had tattooed of Andre Rison after she burned down his house. It’s our ‘Waiting to Exhale’ moment in hip-hop!

Also, the manifest verse by Lauryn Hill from The Fugees Score album, where she talks about: 

“Diamonds deserve diamonds, but he convinced me I was worth less, 

when my people would protest, I told them to mind their business 

because my shit was complex, more than just the sex.”

Gaunt: Those moments where women get to speak their truth … are my favorite hip-hop moments.

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.