Beat Makers with Boobs: Hip Hop, Race, and Feminism
You may not have heard of hip hop producer Ebony Oshunrinde. Stop! Don't rush to Wikipedia because you feel out of touch. We often don't know the government names of many artists to whom we regularly listen and there's nothing wrong with that. What's surprising to me is that you may not have heard of Ms. Oshunrinde's nom de plume Wondagurl, either.
At just 16, this young woman has garnered production credits on Jay-Z's game-changing album "Magna Carta Holy Grail," a feat that men twice her age would gladly sell their souls to the illuminati to accomplish. Say what you want about Jigga, but producing anything for a multi-platinum recording artist is a big deal, especially if you're a woman.
Watch Wondagurl break down her creative process in this interview with Independent Muscle and check out her track "Uptown" with collaborator Travis Scott.
It is such a big deal that I was surprised at how little coverage Wondagurl has received in mainstream feminist media, except for Jezebel, which ran a short piece about Ms. Oshunrinde on the day that Jay-Z dropped MCHG. That's nothing new—popular feminist outlets have done a particularly poor job of highlighting the breadth of incredible contemporary female hip hop producers like Syd tha Kyd, TOKiMONSTA, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Ashley Okinawa, and Tasha the Amazon among others.
As a black woman and beat maker myself, I couldn't help but consider that certain assumptions may have played a role in the lack of mainstream feminist coverage of Wondagurl: From a safe distance it can be very easy to label most contemporary rap as vapid, materialistic, and misogynistic garbage (which I think a lot of it is) but does that make the entire culture unworthy of engagement by feminists who don't necessarily listen to hip hop?
A deeper exploration of hip hop and feminism is imperative now more than ever as the genre is growing to include a wide array of successful white female rappers who forget to check their privilege at the door—including V-Nasty and Iggy Azalea—and Miley Cyrus's appropriation of hip-hop moves and ratchet culture.
I grew up making beats in Ithaca, NY, and initially I didn't think I was doing something cool or special. I had been crafting songs on the keyboard and guitar from an early age, and by the time I was in high school I had begun composing instrumental tracks with the Playstation game "MTV Music Generator." When my older brother taught me how to use the digital audio workstation Reason, during the summer of my junior year in high school, I added "making music on the computer" to my list of hobbies and I left it at that. Some of my friends acted in school productions and played soccer. I played volleyball and made beats.
I didn't begin calling myself a producer until Kanye West released his debut album "The College Dropout" in 2004. The label "producer" is often confusing when it comes to music because it means many things to many people. But in the context of hip hop, the term is most commonly used to denote the person or team responsible for creating the beat over which a rapper spits. Prior to hearing Yeezy's "Through the Wire" one night on MTV, I called myself a "video game DJ" because most of my instrumentation resembled the sonic landscape of video games. For most of my adolescence I had eschewed hip hop in favor of Björk, Radiohead, and Weezer. But from the moment I first heard West's chipmunk soul, charming bravado, and deep reflections on everything from weed to Jesus I knew that I wanted to make music just like he did. He called himself a producer, so I began calling myself a producer too.
My beats weren't very good, but that didn't stop me from eventually rapping over them and showcasing my songs at any venue that would book me. At that point I had just graduated with my undergraduate degree and moved to Houston, TX to begin a career as an elementary school teacher, while moonlighting as a rapper. It was around that same time that I started to suspect that I was really doing something unique by making hip hop beats. After each of my shows, an audience member or two would be sure to tell me that they had never seen a female hip hop producer, before asking questions that insinuated I'd had assistance. I was interrogated so frequently that I began to think that perhaps I was the only woman in the world besides Missy Elliott producing sample-based beats, and certainly the only other woman producing such beats and rapping over them. I had been a huge fan of artists like Ellen Allien and Imogen Heap as a teen, but they didn't look like me and their music doesn't resemble hip hop beats. As I became well known around the local rap scene, the questions I continued to receive further confirmed my suspicions: "Wait, did you really produce that?" "Who helps you make your beats?" It got to the point that I began every set in the same way: "Hello! Everything you hear tonight I produced. That's right, produced by me!"
In retrospect, I suppose that this type of pushback was fitting. After all, the moniker that a friend had given me for my artistic exploits—Sammus—was a reference to Samus Aran, the main character of the classic sci-fi Nintendo game Metroid, who taught geeks everywhere never to judge a book by its cover. Spoiler alert: in the game, Ms. Aran traverses the planet Zebes, clad in an androgynous armor suit, in search of the evil Mother Brain and it is only at the end of the game that Samus is revealed to be a woman. I can recall with great clarity as my older brother first beat Metroid and my own assumptions about gender were thrown in my seven-year-old face. Still, I didn't think my ability to make beats would be so difficult for some people to accept. I never heard anyone asking my male producer friends who "helped them" with their beats. It was through these experiences that I began to wear my production skills as a badge of my feminism—a powerful gift that I could use to counter the assumption that women can't play with computers.
Stories like Wondagurl's illustrate that women are just as capable of producing bangers as men but the reality remains that beat making is very much considered to be a male endeavor. Nobody raised so much as an eyebrow in objection last May when beat making legend 9th Wonder proclaimed that producers are like a brotherhood. This is something I hope changes while I'm still on this earth.
The reasons behind the lack of female beat makers are varied and deep. In her book Sexing the Groove, musician and scholar Mavis Bayton argues that girls who want to play the electric guitar are conditioned to feel as though confidence in technical skills is a masculine trait, resulting in an overwhelmingly female technical illiteracy. Vi Subversa, the guitarist for the now defunct punk band Poison Girls, echoed this perspective, saying: "I think there is a tendency for us still to be scared of equipment: the 'black-box-with-chrome-knobs' syndrome…I still don't feel physically as at one with my equipment as I think most men do."
Bayton argues that the few women who are able to transcend a culture that encourages female technophobia, are further discouraged by harassment, isolation, and a certain degree of invisibility from their male counterparts. Although Bayton is primarily concerned with women guitarists, one can easily see how these issues could also arise for women who make hip hop music.
I certainly agree that the lack of female musicians in prominent positions is partially a problem of systemic harassment of women in male-dominated music fields and sexist bias against women's interest in tech, but I also think the internet is changing these systems in a big way. I suspect that there were a lot of women already making beats who didn't have a forum for sharing their music prior to the creation of sites like Bandcamp, YouTube, and Soundcloud. Thanks to social media, I have discovered many talented women who produce hip hop beats, as well as online communities and websites devoted solely to female beat makers. A lot of us are making exceptional hip hop music, but you would never know that by looking at mainstream music and women-centric publications.
I envision a world in which female rappers who want to develop an original track have the means to actually create the production over which they want to spit. This can only become a reality if more feminist outlets are willing to share stories like Wondagurl's particularly for those of us who desire to speak through hip-hop, a genre that continues to have a complex and often strained relationship with women and feminist objectives.
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