Sometimes It’s Where You’re from *and* Where You’re At: Bettina Love’s Hip Hop’s Li’l Sistas Speak

Love, Bettina. Hip Hop’s Li’l Sistas Speak: Negotiating Hip Hop Identities and Politics in the New South. Ed. Shirley R. Steinberg. 399 Vol. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. Print. Studies in the Postmodern Theory of Education.

hip-hop-s-li-l-sistas-speakBettina Love’s Hip Hop Li’l Sistas Speak shows that Black girls’ bodies are a major landscape of Southern Hip-hop music. In this ethnographic project born out of Love’s dissertation, she explores the lives of six teen-aged Black girls in Atlanta, Georgia (ATL), also known as the Motown of the South, and their relationship to Hip-hop music and culture. One of the most intriguing aspects of Love’s project is her focus on methodology and her positionality as a Black girl researcher from the North, from an earlier Hip-hop generation, who is also lesbian.

Black girls, positionality, agency, and identity

In chapter two: Hip Hop, Context, and Black Girlhood, Love demonstrated how age, geographic location, and sexuality necessarily play important roles in the context of her research as well as her and her research participants’ lives. She further explored the challenges and revelations that the Southern Hip-hop context and her positionality brought to the fore in chapter four: Starting with My Limitations: Positionality, Power, and Reflexivity. Love shared that she was able to recognize her internalized homophobia enforced by heteronormative spaces, such as schools and churches, and connect with the six girls in her study after facing her own preconceived notions about the girls, the South, and perceptions of sexuality in the Southern Black community:

“As I began to interview the girls more, I learned they cared less about me and their surrounding community’s homophobia and more about telling their story. As a result of the girls’ yearning to be heard, a funny thing began to occur: They had conversations around the issue of homosexuality with me in the room but never engaged me in the conversations.” (62)

This move on the part of the girls is fascinating to me, because it shows the girls both debunking the notion that the Black community is a monolithic group by asserting their own ways of being in the world and creating knowledge as well as demonstrating their agency. As Love highlighted, after noting her discomfort with disclosing aspects of her identity, the girls discursively created a safe space and let it be known that they accepted others who they knew were lesbian, and would also accept her. This demonstration of agency through indirection, a practice common in  African American Women’s Speech Communities, challenged and pushed back several boundaries, including Love’s position of authority as an adult, which she willingly set aside, and “appropriate” sexual identity and performance. In the process, the girls showed solidarity and fashioned their own identities as “li’l sistas” to Love in addition to transforming their community center, a heteronormative space, into a safe space for Love as a queer researcher.

Black girls, popular culture, and the need for critical literacies and pedagogies

As a result, of this more fluid relationship and Love’s continued interviews, Love was able to come to several conclusions. First, she found that despite the space between ages and geographic hometowns, she and the girls faced similar challenges navigating Hip-hop’s messages of social inequality, racism, body, sexism, politics, class, and gender. However, the girls in the study did not have as wide of a range of female representations in Hip-hop media. Love argued that the girls also had a lack of understanding for the biases reflected in mass media as well as the manipulations of corporate interests in the Hip-hop industry. She did not attribute blame for this ignorance to the youth, but to the adults:

“Their unawareness of the systems of racism and sexism within Hip Hop falls on us, myself included, as educators, who were also educated without critical examinations of the media. Therefore the primary reason students are unaware of the inequalities that exist in our racially charged media is because of us — adults in a position to engage students in conversations and class discussions who are unaware of the power of critical media literacy.” (77)

Love contended that educators and parents cannot ignore rap music and videos, because Black popular culture has an impact on Black girls’ “ideas of self, Black womanhood, racial perceptions, and society” (as well as the Black female body, standards of beauty, desirability, and dating (77). Like Elaine Richardson (2007), Love concluded that Black girls have special ways of critically analyzing and understanding problematic aspects of Hip-hop music and performance; however, Love asserted that girls need more spaces where they feel comfortable resisting that which demeans them. She asked that educators step up to the task by developing and implementing critical and culturally relevant pedagogies:

“The remarks of these Black girls about rap music reveal deeply rooted constructions of of racism, classism, essentialism, and White patriarchy that are impeding their natural resistance. Therefore, by refusing to employ critical pedagogy in our classrooms, we choose to fail our Black girls, and all youth, as they consume Black popular culture texts without educators, culturally relevant pedagogy, Hip-hop feminism, media literacy.” (111)

Where we enter today and clearing space

For me, this raises questions about ways we can address these gaps in pedagogy in the fields of Composition and Rhetoric and English education, especially when we look at Black popular culture through the lens of Black discourse and language. For example, how do these concerns regarding Black girls and critical literacy establish new exigence for policies like Students Rights to their Own Language, and the need for educators to know their students, their language, and culture? What kinds of spaces can we create or better yet, co-create with Black girls so that they are better able to recognize and resist oppression? Recently, the rapper Nelly stated that he regretted not enacting violence against the Black women of Atlanta’s Spelman College for protesting his “Tip Drill” video that blatantly objectified women. In light of this, how might educators help to “clear” spaces for Black girls to feel safe to express resistance? These are questions I hope to address in my research on Black girls, play, agency and digital identities going forward.

I represent Queens, but…

On a personal note, I was moved by Hip Hop’s Li’l Sistas Speak, because I could relate to Love’s role as the big sista-researcher and Hip-hop feminist confronting her own complicated relationship to Hip-hop music and culture. The book helped me to challenge my own biases against Southern Hip-hop, as well. While I had no idea who Plies was (I recognized his song “Shawty” after I did a search), I must confess that the first  “Southern” Hip-hop I danced to was from Uncle Luke and 2 Live Crew, and it probably wouldn’t take much for me and many in my generation to be “gone with the beat” (33) should a dj put it on today.

da bratSide note: I was shocked that one of my favorite “Southern” female rappers, Da Brat was not listed with other Southern female rappers in Chapter three. Perhaps she was not listed because she is a Chicago-native, however; I grouped Da Brat with Southern Hip-hop, because of her affiliation with the Atlanta-based record label, So So Def. As Rakim said, sometimes “it ain’t where ya from, it’s where ya at.”

In chapter three, Love stated:

“Rap and femininity have a contentious partnership, where sexism flourishes and female degradation is the norm. Within Hip Hop culture, Black female sexual agency is a slippery slope that manifests easily as exploitation” (46).

I definitely think that Da Brat complicates the notion of female sexual agency in Southern Hip-hop as well as Hip-hop across the board, because her music and physical presentation blurred the lines between femininity and masculinity while keeping it sexy and real at the same time. One of my favorite flows from Da Brat was on Mariah Carey’s Heartbreaker (Remix) featuring Da Brat and Missy Elliot: Not coincidentally, their remix samples and flipped West Coast rapper Snoop Dog’s Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None) remix featuring Nate Dogg, Kurupt, and Warren G., which rocked the beat of hegemony that Love explored and also ushered in its melody.


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