Bechdel Test Canon: Nobody Knows My Name
It's kind of ridiculous that we've come so far in this series without talking about Women Make Movies. Established in 1972, WMM is a New York-based non-profit feminist organization devoted to the production and distribution of independent films by and about women and girls. Their contributions to preserving the work of documentarians and feature filmmakers are invaluable.
However, I hope that the relative difficulty in obtaining items from WMM's catalog doesn't deter folks from supporting their efforts. Given the relative scarcity and considerable labor involved, many DVD and VHS titles are expensive and hard to come by. I've only seen films from their collection at SXSW, libraries, or class screenings, as I can't afford rental costs and purchasing fees. While this may deter some from supporting WMM, I champion their work and advocate folks who are interested in securing copies to lobby their community centers, local libraries, and media literacy programs to host screenings, expand their AV holdings, and update their curriculum. I'd also recommend folks who are looking for professional experience or are able to donate to reach out.
As WMM houses over 500 titles, deciding on a selection was difficult. Ultimately, Rachel Raimist's 1998 documentary about women in hip hop, Nobody Knows My Name, had to be included. As a longtime hip hop fan, my feminist politics continue to be shaped by MCs like Roxanne Shanté, Monie Love, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Ladybug Mecca, Lauryn Hill, Bahamadia, Rah Digga, Jean Grae, Dessa, Psalm One, Invincible, Big Freedia, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Shunda K., and (with reservation) Nicki Minaj. It's also informed by instrumental hip hop artists like DJ Kuttin Kandi, TOKiMONSTA, DJ Rekha, and DJ Mutamassik. The last two gave great interviews in Tara Rodgers' Pink Noises, an essential book about women in electronic music.
There were also many documentaries I could have chosen, including Ava DuVernay's This Is the Life and My Mic Sounds Nice, which debuted on BET last summer. I could have also picked Nirit Peled's Say My Name, which is also a part of WMM's catalog. In terms of storytelling and narrative cohesion, they may actually be more satisfying. I only say this because their longer running times allow for greater exploration and connections between artists, which might have been a luxury for what I suspect was a documentary made on a tight budget. However, all of these titles must be at least partially influenced by Raimist's formidable efforts, if not completely energized by what this 58-minute film contributes in its primary focus on female involvement in the West Coast scene and how it represents something larger in what and who it's choosing to address as a documentary subject.
Taking its title from rapper T-Love's song, Name is about female participation of hip hop culture as MCs, DJs, breakers, and producers, despite being obscured by a recording industry that doesn't know how or care to figure out how to sell their product.
The vocabulary of capitalism is employed here deliberately, and in doing so makes clear how this business model keeps female media producers down by normalizing sexist, patriarchal practices. Unfortunately, this is still a problem in hop hop. Female MCs are vulnerable to getting dropped if their albums don't perform, even if they're represented by an independent label. These are familiar scenarios for T-Love, Medusa, and Leschea who had difficulty clearing and maintaining label support. Leschea, who was dropped from Warner Bros., also encountered difficulty because some believed a hip hop singer would be difficult to market. So even when they do get steady representation, their albums can get slept on if the promotional engine isn't well-oiled. As a result, it's actually pretty difficult to obtain their work. Sometimes, they have to rely upon a male crew to get noticed. This was somewhat true for Medusa. Easily one of the best MCs of her generation, Medusa has an inventive, dexterous flow that incorporates politically conscious spoken word, griot storytelling, and free association. If the American recording industry wasn't clearly terrified by a brilliant, self-possessed black woman demanding social justice, she'd be a major recording artist. Yet the industry didn't really seem to take notice until she guested on Ozomatli's "Vocal Artillery." Which is a shame, but Medusa clearly has too much integrity for that kind of chicanery.
Issues of exclusion and tokenism further impact DJ Symphony and b-girl Asia One, two elements of hip hop culture with even less female participation than rhyming. Both women vent their frustrations about how their gender and sex make them exceptional and how they hope for a rise in female participation so they can have practice and collaborate with other women instead of having no other option than to work with men. Symphony, who comes from the Beat Junkies crew, talks about fighting against being labelled a "female DJ" and to be judged on her own merits. Asia One wishes rap videos prioritized the craft of breakdancing--a form on the wane since a brief craze in the mid-1980s--over scantily-clad video vixens and exotic dancers.
Though Name is an important documentary that was especially groundbreaking in its time, it's disheartening how little critical and commercial response these women received. MCs like Medusa are still on their grind, but you have to seek out their work. T-Love and Symphony appear to have fallen off the radar, though I could just be not digging deep enough in the crates. However, I am excited by how many artists are bypassing label machinery and utilizing social media and releasing music independently. Prolific Tweeter Psalm One uses social media as a promotional tool and a way for fans to have immediate access to her. She also released her Woman @ Work series through Bandcamp earlier this year to ratchet up excitement for her forth-coming full-length, which Rhymesayers is slated to release next year. So while I may have hoped for a different future for the artists showcased in Name, the documentary's intent to showcase these under-the-radar talents unquestionably influences women's continued presence in hip hop.
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