“Women are the vertebrae of life.” – Black Girls Rock mentee at Saturday night’s ROCK Like a Girl event
Saturday evening’s music-as-empowerment organization Black Girls Rock-sponsored ROCK Like at Girl event at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage was one of those happy hip-hop moments wherein – as dark as the present may seem – having a glimpse of the past and future makes dealing with an unfortunate and difficult reality okay for just a few hours.
Hip-hop culture and progressive feminism have an intriguing (yet likely unintended) link in their lineage. Though not passed into law, the Equal Rights Amendment passed both houses of Congress in 1972. The groundbreaking law’s goal was to provide “Equality of rights under the law,” with those rights “not [being] denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Just one year later, in the Bronx, New York, DJ Kool Herc DJed a back-to-school party with his sister Cindy as the promoter. At this woman-promoted event, Herc extended the instrumental breaks of records like James Brown’s “Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose” and hip-hop culture was born.
Forty years later to be seated a mere three miles from the U.S. Capitol building at the Kennedy Center as one-time New York City based DJ/model and now Black Girls Rock CEO Beverly Bond DJ’ed a hip-hop based event, it felt like a synergy had been achieved. Progress and success now define both the aims of women and hip-hop as tools by which to create positive cultural progression in society had been reached. These are now the spaces for inspiration and celebration to occur.
From hip-hop being in the blood of a teenage Jamaican immigrant to being a significant creative force behind four American female emcees, an all-female go-go band, an Israeli violinist, a Chilean rapper and a model-turned-DJ is amazing (and only scratches the surface). We’re at a place in society though, where a rapid acceptance of globalism is rapidly replacing an understanding of racial and cultural differences in American society. Hip-hop may indeed be global, but it is inherently American, and inherently created in the cultural space where black people were once second-class American citizens. Thus, events like ROCK Like a Girl are doubly empowering. When New York-based (and fiercely independent) emcee Jean Grae’s can use the term “fuck” while throwing up a middle finger roughly fifteen minutes into the proceedings, and rap music being heard in a space meant for operas, plays and philharmonic orchestras, both black people and women can exhale and celebrate an arrival as first-class citizens in America.
It’s the acceptance of globalism and diversity of expression that needs to happen next for hip-hop that is at the core of the event’s ever so slight disconnect from a rabid crowd that was ready to party. Jamla Records-signed and top producer 9th Wonder-cosigned artist Rapsody’s butter-smooth flows were appreciated, but appeared to underwhelm. In a room filled with people wanting to exalt in praise of themselves and their culture, boisterous shouters like Jean Grae and special guests Nonchalant (DC-based heroine of 90s rap era one-hit wonder “5 O’Clock” fame) and throaty Grammy-nominated soul siren/rapper Maimouna Youssef (also DC based) shone. Rapsody’s gifted. At an event where the diversity of women in hip-hop culture is being celebrated, she should be there. But her style certainly did not fit what was the prevalent vibe.
Also notable was indie-beloved Chilean emcee Ana Tijoux representing for Latinos, who may be the least-remembered piece of the African-American, Carribean and Latino triumvirate that created hip-hop culture. Latinos are also on the cusp of being the most populous minority group in America, thus having a Latin emcee onstage at a Black Girls Rock event was wonderful. However, for as many Americans now are bi-lingual, the language barrier presented in hearing a Latina emcee is still tough terrain to traverse. Though her material is strong and flow is undeniable (by any ear, any where) we’re still at the cusp of what is a story that is merely at the beginning of the arc of the likely next evolution in hip-hop as a culture.
Now, let’s answer the question that you likely clicked on this article needing to know. Yes, Lauryn Hill performed, and yes, it was incredible. It’s an easy-to-argue point that Lauryn Hill is the grandmother of modern hip-hop culture. For as much as Beyonce and Rihanna are the twin mothers of the culture’s progression into pop music and mainstream notoriety, somewhere between belting Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” and delivering bars of universal female empowerment on “That Thing,” Lauryn assumed a role that was started twenty years prior to her by Kool Herc’s sister Cindy. 20 years later, just like event host MC Lyte and Black Girls Rock founder Beverly Bond (and so many others), she’s a survivor not just of the music industry, but the women’s movement, too. Thus, in deciding to perform free jazz meets reggae arrangements of all of her popular songs, it’s time that we stop berating this woman in the media and give her a break. Just like every great progressive black woman from Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, to Rosa Parks and Shirley Chisholm got tired, L. Boogie’s tired, too. We witnessed her musical relaxation.
Lauryn Hill’s performance aspired to be a unique expression of everything that proceeded and inspired hip-hop culture. Her set took hip-hop culture all the way back to Robert Johnson’s devil blues meandering through styles similar to Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Lyn Collins and Bob Marley back to herself. On Saturday night, Lauryn again jumped off the cliff and went a whole lot crazy. However, with what appears to be a tightening grip on a semblance of sanity, she made her classic songs not so much into something more, but something comfortable.
At a time when women in hip-hop are still dealing with issues of sexuality, perception and freedom, watching an ascendant and dominant group of female performers relax and be empowering made for a truly incredible night.