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Tuesday, February 07, 2006
A LITTLE BIT OF SHHHH (SMALLSTARS REMIX BY AD ROCK)
Chocolate Industries : 2005
Xl/Beggars : 2005
COLD ROCK A PARTY
Bad As I Wanna B
Elektra : 1996
London : 1993
Elektra : 2002
But, you may say, why should a short, white, female MC from a London ghetto make me feel like everything might be okay after all? I will try to explain. The first time I heard the "Random" single, from the Lady Sovereign (aka The White Midget's) Vertically Challenged EP, I was jolted. Back to the days when I listened to MCs like Roxanne Shante and the Real Roxanne battle it out with each other (and U.T.F.O.) and in the process insert the imago of a new, thrilling post-feminist woman into the realm of pop culture: Tough, talented, angry, funny, good-looking, full of appetites - for success, food, and sex - and demanding to be taken seriously by her male peers. Women MCs like MC Lyte (as in "the light that illuminates," not "lite as in diet cola"), Monie Love, and Salt-N-Pepa offered me a revolutionary concept of who I could be, not what I had to be.
I was always left cold by the music of the white chicks of rock: Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan and Liz Phair and others who locked themselves in a patchouli-scented ghetto and sang about being dumped by boys, or suffering from psychiatric disorders, or the cutter/anorexia (Kim Gordon is the patron saint of the latter group). Singers who suffer from an affliction that seems to hit a disproportionate number of smart, bookish white girls when they bump up against themselves: The denial of physical desire. The girl who is so angry about women being sex objects in popular culture (or whatever it is that she thinks she's angry about) that she won't eat. The iconography of the Starved Woman Singer says: You desire me but I don't desire anything. She is the heiress of women like St. Theresa (the Little Flower) - and of nuns in general who derive moral authority from denying themselves the pleasures of the body. Just think about how Kim Gordon spent the '90s fetishizing her skinny-as-Nicole-Ritchie body on stage and in Sonic Youth's publicity photos. Yuck.
I was so hungry for the lady MCs who followed in the footsteps of the Roxannes. Not only for their music, which celebrates being in the world with your body and mind, but for them. For the message they rapped over their beats. That you don't need to be depressive to be cool; that you are allowed to have just as much sexual desire as the man you desire; that you can be angry at the world and express it at the world instead of starving yourself or swallowing a bottle of pills; and that you can demand to be taken seriously by your peers (of both genders) while looking cute. In fact, you're supposed to look cute. However it is that you define cute.
Maybe it didn't seem revolutionary at the time, but Salt-N-Pepa's 1993 ode to sex, "Shoop," mapped out the terrain of a radically altered female subjectivity. It was fun to dance to, to listen to - whatever - but it also held out the ecstasy-inducing possibility that we could stop pretending to be objects of desire, and acknowledge our own lust, and that men wouldn't go running from us, screaming in fear. Think of the bit when Otwane "Big Twan Lov-Her" Roberts (who, earlier in the song, murmurs to Pepa: " Yo, Sandy, I wanna like taste you"), raps a Walt Whitman-esque (well, if Walt liked girls) celebration of sex with women:
I hit the skins for the hell of it
Just for the yell I get
Mmm Mmm Mmm for the smell of it
And a decade later, the women MCs following in Salt-N-Pepa's footsteps were still issuing explicit instructions on how to please them. Take Khia's "My Neck, My Back (Lick It)":
My neck, my back
lick my pussy and my crack
Or Missy Elliott's "Work It":
Phone before you come, I need to shave my chocha
You do or you don't or you will or won't ya
Go downtown and eat it like a vulture
But back to Lady Sovereign's liberation. She's only 19 and bursting with talent; to me her work on "Random," "Ch Ching," "Fiddle With the Volume" and "A Little Bit of Shhh" (especialy Adam Horovitz's Smallstars remix) is as exciting as anything put out by the best women MCs. But, funnily enough, one of the subjects that pops up over and again (aside from teenage stuff like McDonalds and smoking cigarettes) in her so-far small body of work is the topic of gender equality.
I'm the best thing since sliced bread
Naw, Ms. Sovereign
I can confirm that
the white midget feminist is sane
A feminist? I haven't heard an interesting musician of any color or creed in the past twenty years identify her or himself as a feminist. (Okay, while I was thrilled about the Riot Grrrls and Slater-Kinney et al , their existence felt to me more like the opening salvo in a political struggle than a pure artistic experience.) But, unlike Liz Phair's "Fuck and Run" brand of dumped-girlfriend anger, Lady Sovereign's anger comes from her desire to be taken seriously as an MC. In a recent U.K. interview when she was asked why there aren't more girl MCs she answered: "It's just a man thing about domination. They don't let us through. When we try they get all vexed and jealous." When the interviewer corrected her and said "Naw, naw it's all about talent," she demurred. No doubt a harbinger of things to come: I'm sure that as soon as Jay Z and the folks at Def Jam bring out her new album this year we'll see Lady Sovereign on places like the cover of Lucky magazine in a Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress talking about her favorite places to shop for beauty products in New York and London. But until then....
The most amazing song on Vertically Challenged is "The Battle" - a literal battle-of-the-sexes, staring Sovereign and three other MCs from the U.K. grime scene: Frost P, Zuz Rock and Shystie. It's as exhilarating to listen to as "Shoop," and in a sense feels like a bookend to that earlier song, for as fast and ferocious as "The Battle" gets, with the four rappers spitting at a whirlwind pace, the MCs are always equals. Four talented MCs fighting it out. Two men taking two women seriously enough to engage with them in an artistic argument.
It was when I heard Shystie and Lady Sovereign rap lyrics like:
don't be fucked up
I go through PMS
I'll spread my knickers
In your face like mace
that I realized why it was (aside from its funky, funky sound) that Vertically Challenged puts me in such a good mood. Who knows - it could all go south - but right now it feels like the White Midget might one day make sublime music. And listening to her (and Shystie) rap you get a sense of the freedom they feel to be creative and playful and serious and angry and lyrical and just-plain-good. Their creative work isn't poisoned by resentment, their vision isn't narrowed by bitterness. They are, maybe, just maybe, the kind of women artists that Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own predicted would eventually appear: "Shakespeare's sister... drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners... will be born."
And just the thought that I live in an era where that might happen makes me fiddle with the volume.
. . . . . . . . . .
Samantha Gillison is the author of the novels, The Undiscovered Country and The King of America. She lives in Brooklyn.
Labels: samantha gillison, writer's week
posted by Alex