Women in Hiphop

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janell hobson and r. dianne bartlow

Introduction
Representin’: Women, Hip-Hop, and Popular Music

As coeditors of this special issue of Meridians, we set out to provide a forum to enrich, challenge, and expand the present discourse regarding the representation of women in contemporary popular music, and particularly in hip-hop. This issue’s three organizing themes—“Hip-Hop (and) Feminism”; “Sight and Sound”; and “Rage against the Machine”—address the debates and intergenerational tensions regarding the liberatory potential of hip-hop, the global significance and transnational expression of popular music, and the implications of hip-hop as both a hegemonic (successful corporate commodity) and counter-hegemonic (“street” subculture) phenomenon, respectively. Taken together and placed in conversation with different musical genres, performances, and cultural practices, the works assembled here attempt a broadening and deepening of our knowledge of women’s roles and representations as they engage in music-making and image-shaping in lucrative and marginalized markets. An important goal for this issue is the expansion of critical lenses often used to study the complex category of women and music. Feminist musicologists who began to excavate the history of women composers and musicians in the early 1970s in the wake of the women’s movement were initially viewed with scorn in a discipline that had privileged male musical genius (McClary 1991). Moreover, other musical elements, such as women’s

[Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 2008, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 1–14] © 2008 by Smith College. All rights reserved.



vocal music and song lyrics, often ranked lower in scholarly and social prestige than men’s instrumental music skills (Becker 1990). Questions of artistic genius posed by feminists in the realm of music (McClary 1991; Citron 2000), art (Nochlin 1971; Wallace 1998), or literature (Woolf 1929; Lorde 1984; Walker 1984), remind us of material realities, class positions, and the limited but alternative ways that women have accessed opportunities to hone their creative skills. Such questions have led to a scholarly recovery of women’s “voices” (literally) and the genius of vocal music. Nowhere is this more strongly conveyed than in the critical reclamations of black women’s vocal music traditions, whether as singers or rappers. Recent publications in the field of black feminist music scholarship, including Tricia Rose’s Black Noise (1994), Angela Y. Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1998), Farah Jasmine Griffin’s biography of Billie Holiday, If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery (2002), and Gwendolyn Pough’s Check It While I Wreck It (2004), highlight these skills, even while individual black female vocalists of our present era, such as Alicia Keyes and India.Arie, emphasize in performances and promotional images their roles as musicians through their virtuosic performances on the piano or the guitar respectively. Such tensions between women’s vocal and instrumental music productions suggest that vocality is still a contested form of “art” or “genius,” or that women vocalists are less respected if they do not master instrumental music and, hence, the full music production process. Interestingly, most, if not all, of the contributions to this issue have focused on women and their vocal and corporeal performances. This primary representation of women in music might suggest that instrumentality—like vocality—is deeply gendered and sexualized but—unlike vocality—is still exclusionary. In light of women’s vocal access to music (or marginalized representation in popular instrumental music), they have nonetheless been able to utilize popular music as a site of expression and resistance. Other issues of concern include the ever-increasing global reach of the U.S. music industry—a multi-billion dollar business that markets music as a profitable entity while simultaneously inculcating worldwide audiences with...
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