Southern Hip-Hop Feminists Got Something to Say: The Ms. Q&A on Hip-Hop’s Reverse Migration

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.

Our coverage of hip-hop feminists continues this week with a focus on two Southern hip-hop feminist scholars: Aisha Durham and Regina Bradley.

  • Aisha Durham is a cultural critic who writes on the subjects of Black feminism, hip-hop feminism and media representations. She is a professor at the University of South Florida and the author of the award-winning Home with Hip Hop Feminism: Performances in Communication and Culture.
  • Regina Bradley is a self-described Down South Georgia Girl and a chronicler of Southern hip-hop and Black American literature and culture. An associate professor of English and African diaspora studies at Kennesaw State University, Bradley is also the author of the critically acclaimed book Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip-Hop South.

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

Aisha Durham (left) and Regina Bradley are both hip-hop feminist scholars who focus on the South. (Courtesy)

Aisha Durham: ‘Women’s Voices Were Integral to the Expansion of Hip-Hop’

Janell Hobson: Do you call yourself a hip-hop scholar?

Aisha Durham: I am a hip-hop scholar, and I say that I’m a hip-hop feminist scholar because I want to talk about women of color from what we call the ‘post-civil rights generation.’

Now, some people think when we say hip-hop feminism that’s only talking about music, but if we really look at the ways in which early scholars—even Joan Morgan, who coined the term—talked about hip-hop feminism, it was really about a generation and what a particular generation was facing, in terms of deindustrialization and the like.

Hobson: Even though hip-hop is more than just the music, do you have a favorite hip-hop feminist anthem?

Durham: I have so many! ‘Ladies First’ and ‘Ladies Night Remix’ are well-documented songs in hip-hop feminism.

Durham: Thirty years since Queen Latifah’s anthem, though, my favorite song about Black women’s empowerment comes from the Southern emcee Rapsody.

Her uplifting, feminist-politicking track ‘Michelle’ is named for the former first lady. The track is featured on her critically-acclaimed concept album ‘Eve,’ which names songs after influential Black women artists, activists and political figures from antiquity to the contemporary. The fly girl—in booty, beauty and ‘boss attitude’—is affirmed in ‘Michelle.’

Rapsody recalls the hip-hop throwback party song from the likes of Salt-N-Pepa and Missy Elliott, who have centered and celebrated Black women as the b-girl, DJ, and emcee. The R&B refrain recalls ‘Ladies’ from Latifah and Lil’ Kim, which is important because the two emcees are often pitted against each other as the quintessential queen or ho in hip-hop. ‘Michelle’ brings them sonically in harmony by showing us our full humanity and by reminding us that a part of getting free is feeling (ourselves) carefree. It also helps that there is a shoutout to ‘Ayesha’ in the song!

Hobson: What does the 50th anniversary of hip-hop mean for you specifically?

Durham: I remember when I was studying women in hip-hop, or women *and* hip-hop, and observing how women’s voices were integral to the expansion of hip-hop. The ways in which we talk about hip-hop, the way in which we engage in politics, has really placed women at the center of the progressive aspects of hip-hop. I remember years ago when women were literally the backdrop, or if we had something to say, it was still marginalized in a particular way. To go from having no voice to some voice to being the voice – if we want to talk about how some of the highest selling records and albums are really from women of color in hip-hop – just shows you women’s contributions over the 50 years.

We don’t have to rely on the language of empire in order to talk about our own empowerment.

Aisha Durham

Hobson: What would you say to critics who think the evolution of women in hip-hop is not all that radical, given the prominent representations that we see are often sexualized?

Durham: I’m always going to have this push-pull reaction to hip-hop, because we can’t really think about the radical within a capitalist, heteropatriarchal white supremacist system. But we can talk about moments of rupture, so I’m always invested in what are those moments of rupture.

I mean, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion are both college-educated, they are both entrepreneurs, so to think about their sexual representation requires an expansion in the ways that we talk about women in hip-hop. I look for those moments of rupture as radical possibility.

Home with Hip Hop Feminism: Performances in Communication and Culture by Aisha Durham.

Hobson: You mention how hip-hop is connected to power, specifically capitalism. Could you say more about that?

Durham: I have issues, and this is one of the things that I bump up against more often than not. I mean, I want to divest of even using the idea of ‘Queen.’ I know some people use that for different reasons, but that suggests empire. That is a hierarchy in and of itself, so there are aspects of this idea, this kind of climbing—or inclusion within this broader American and even global dream of wealth—that doesn’t sit right with me. It’s not necessarily invested in egalitarianism or even a kind of communalism.

At the same time, I can look back in terms of Black cultural music and Black cultural work, of not being able to reap the benefits from one’s own cultural production, and to see Black artists of this generation—like Beyoncé and Jay-Z being a multi-billion-dollar couple—that is actually a little refreshing. But that is still caused by capitalism, which is exploitative. So, we have to also confront what that means. What does that mean in terms of Black liberation, which cannot be connected solely to capital?

Hobson: I think that’s still the struggle, and the discourse often comes from marginalized communities who assert many of the rules of empire, colonialism and capitalism. At the same time, I think there are, as you said, ruptures. Perhaps we should start thinking about how to decolonize “Yes, Queen!” and consider what that would look like.

Durham: Yes, yes! I’m all for it, but what does that mean? I remember even talking about Beyoncé and her “bow down” song. We’re actually using that language in order to talk about our own power. We have infinite possibilities in the ways in which we can reimagine the world.

We don’t have to rely on the language of empire in order to talk about our own empowerment.

Hobson: Do you think hip-hop has helped us or has it reinforced these power dynamics?

Durham: I think hip-hop does both, but that is the story of hip-hop.

On the one hand, it can be completely resistant in terms of speaking back to capitalism, heteropatriarchy, as well as white supremacy.

On the other hand, it can reinscribe power.

I mean, we do it with the language of colorism, we do it with the language of hustle. And the language of hustle is complicated since there is resistance in thinking about these formal ways of employment, but it also suggests that we should be working ourselves to death trying to get capital. That’s why hip-hop in cultural spaces is so intriguing to me, because it is rich enough to encompass these contradictions.

Hobson: That’s also the struggle of feminism. I really think hip-hop feminism has helped us to have these conversations.

Durham: We would not have these very conversations today without hip-hop feminism. We wouldn’t be able to name the misogynoir expressed against Megan Thee Stallion. We wouldn’t have had the conversation to even talk about abuse. I have visceral reactions when I see a logo for Doctor Dre and Beats audio. But, back in the day, we did not have those conversations about [his abused ex-partner] Michel’le. It was not like women were not discussing these issues, but they were completely dismissed.

The language of hustle is complicated since there is resistance in thinking about these formal ways of employment, but it also suggests that we should be working ourselves to death trying to get capital.

Aisha Durham

Hobson: You mentioned the word ‘misogynoir,’ and that reminds me of the Crunk Feminist Collective, which you were part of, including Moya Bailey, who coined the word, Brittney Cooper and Susanna Morris, among others.

What would you say is the legacy of Crunk Feminist Collective within hip-hop feminism?

Durham: When we first started blogging, we began to think about what we could do—as most of us were academics and/or activists. We had a generational perspective, especially from a Southern perspective, because so much of the conversation in hip-hop was really Northeast-based. We felt like “the South got something to say” [to quote OutKast].

We thought that we could make interventions in popular conversations. Crunk Feminists invited us to think about hip-hop not just in terms of a music byproduct, but as a whole culture, and to think about the people who make up that culture. I wrote stories about fertility; others wrote about sex and church. There was a range of conversations, but that just says that hip-hop is who we are. It’s not just about what the music is necessarily dictating. It’s about what we are experiencing as a people, particularly as women of color in the South doing activism and advocacy work.

Regina Bradley: ‘I Am the South All Day’

Janell Hobson: What’s your favorite hip-hop feminist anthem?

Regina Bradley: What? I have to pick a song from 50 years of hip-hop? That’s not fair! I mean, I have three favorites though.

I love Queen Latifah’s ‘U.N.I.T.Y.’ Absolutely love it!

Bradley: I also love the ‘Ladies’ Night’ anthem that Lil’ Kim did: That video was legendary! It was called ‘Not Tonight.’

Bradley: And my third favorite is pretty recent: the Meg Thee Stallion and Beyoncé remix of ‘Savage,’ and I just cannot stop listening to it. I mean, that was an iconic moment with Beyoncé rhyming pretty much better than anyone else right now. That ain’t a conversation we’re ready to have yet.

Hobson: What conversation? That Beyoncé is a rapper?

Bradley: Yeah! Beyoncé has more bars than a lot of these folks out here!

Hobson: Do you consider Beyoncé to be hip-hop?

Bradley: Yeah. One of the things that bothers me is when folks, even in the academy, think that hip-hop or hip-hop studies automatically must have a performance component. If you say you study hip-hop, folks ask, ‘Does that mean you spit?’ And I’m like, ‘No, but I’m in it!’

There is a disservice in contextualizing a culture where folks are restricted to one element. So, someone like Beyoncé is definitely part of the culture; she advances the culture because she reminds folks where she comes from. She reminds folks that Houston has a historic hip-hop scene [through her sampling], which is important for folks who might not listen to Houston hip-hop or to New Orleans artists. We hear Big Freedia’s voice—but we increasingly need to see them too, like what Myles Johnson has argued in his essay “The Ghost of Big Freedia.”

Hobson: I think that’s the controversy around her sampling, if we can even call it a controversy. It’s an art form in and of itself. That’s the main driving musical force of hip-hop, which has been sampling from its musical past and from different regional influences.

Bradley: I am the South all day. And the reason for that is because hip-hop plays a significant role in my coming of age growing up in in Georgia in the late 90s and early 2000s. Southern hip-hop culture was often a unique insight that was different from my dad, who grew up listening to funk, and my grandparents, who basically listened to gospel with blues on Saturday only.

We are conditioned and indoctrinated with the idea that the Bible is everything, but the Bible doesn’t prepare us for biology. And I feel like Southern hip-hop does prepare us for biology.

Regina Bradley

Hobson: So far, we haven’t seen too many of our 50th-anniversary celebrations focusing on the legacy of Southern hip-hop.

Bradley: I already ranted about this on Twitter. The lack of focus on Southern hip-hop’s contributions to the culture parallels what was happening earlier in the culture, especially in the academy.

I mean, New York is rightfully recognized as the mecca. But hip-hop hasn’t had a permanent or primary residency in New York for quite some time. You probably wouldn’t have a robust hip-hop scene today without the Southern sound, so why can’t we be part of the celebration? Why can’t we be part of the conversation?

And that’s me speaking as a Southerner. But I mean, I know that folks from the Midwest feel the same way.

Hobson: This anniversary celebration is based on the origin story of hip-hop starting in the Bronx, and I know different people have been pushing back against that.

What would you say is an origin story for Southern hip-hop?

Bradley: You wouldn’t have southern hip-hop without Luke Campbell. It’s not an accident that after 2 Live Crew went all the way to the Supreme Court to be able to be uncensored that you then have OutKast from Atlanta. And there were a lot of Southern artists who were coming out and emulating what they thought New York wanted to hear.

But when Andre Benjamin gave the rallying cry—‘The South got something to say!’—it was like, who cares what New York thinks?

Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip-Hop South by Regina Bradley. (UNC Press

Hobson: Since you brought up ‘Uncle Luke’ and 2 Live Crew, many have talked about that moment as introducing the fetishization of the booty, especially in music video culture. Is there a regional basis to that representation?

Bradley: That’s something that I’m working on in my current project: How does the idea of sexuality provide a space for liberating southern Black women and girls from these conservative expectations of personhood? Because let’s face it: The South is still a very conservative space, especially when it comes to sexuality within Black communities.

For me, growing up in the South with grandparents who were active Christians, I was also an active church girl. We never had conversations about safe sex. Sex was considered this thing that could destroy my life unless I was married! But the music I was listening to—like Trina and Missy Elliott—gave me permission to let loose just a little bit. It was an opportunity for me to think about these things, right?

We are conditioned and indoctrinated with the idea that the Bible is everything, but the Bible doesn’t prepare us for biology. And I feel like Southern hip-hop does prepare us for biology.

Hobson: That’s such a good point!

Bradley: Trina is following in the footsteps of a Ma Rainey. I think hip-hop is appreciating the genealogies that are associated with it. You wouldn’t have a Megan Thee Stallion without a Trina, and you wouldn’t have a Trina without the blues women. It’s important to document that.

All of that said, I think it’s equally important to have discussions about misogyny and misogynoir. But I think where the conversation falls flat is when folks just restrict conversations about sexuality and sexual pleasure to ideas of victimization. And that’s not the case. It’s much more nuanced and complicated than that.

I mean, you wouldn’t have a lot of Southern hip-hop if it didn’t break in strip clubs. So, it’s important to be able to have a more nuanced conversation about what pleasure and sexuality look like alongside articulations of misogyny and misogynoir.

Hip-hop started in New York but it didn’t end there. It got stamped, a passport full of stamps.

Regina Bradley

Hobson: Where do you think hip-hop is going? What direction is it headed in?

Bradley: Hip-hop started in New York but it didn’t end there. It got stamped, a passport full of stamps. I think that’s definitely going to continue. I have hopes, like the way that we’re seeing this explosion of documentaries, YouTube series, and podcasts about these historic and significant hip-hop moments. They need to move away from New York. I’m ready for those Midwest stories. I’m ready to hear about the story of Ohio, or the significance of trap—you know what I’m saying?

I’m ready to hear those stories. I want more women, I want more queer artists, documenting and talking about the culture. Also, in hip-hop studies, I’m sick of hearing from straight Black men about what it means to be hip-hop. That’s lazy scholarship to not include the voices of the different regions of hip-hop. And the world too!

Let folks tell their own stories. If hip-hop was supposed to let people speak their truth to power, then that power needs to be diversified.

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.