By Thembisa S. Mshaka
You may know my byline as a journalist for the original Honey, essence.com, and as editors for GAVIN, BLAZE, and TheHotness.com. If not, hopefully you will get to know me as the author of Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business–a comprehensive guide to entertainment careers from women’s points of view.
As a journalist-turned-author who was reluctant to blog, I had every intention of doing a nice blog intro. That was until I saw the story that broke the camel’s back on female rappers going to jail. I’m new at the image uploading and all that so bear with the layout…
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This book is ‘Mentorship In A Bottle’ for the entertainment industry
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Just when my head slowed from spinning over all these tragic run-ins with the law resulting in substantial convictions (oh, yeah I forgot Eve’s DUI arrest because she served no hard time) Da Brat,
a/k/a Shawntee Harris, the first woman to score a platinum-selling album, catches a case for hitting a cheerleader over the head with a bottle of rum after what amounts to bumping into her at a club, permanently injuring her. With the Brat-ta-tat-tat of the gavel, she’s outta here for three long years.
What are these women DOING?!m
When women rappers end up in handcuffs, it strangles the livelihoods of their entourages and play with the bottom line of their record labels. It reinforces the idea that a woman rapper’s success is temporary instead of sustainable. It may even make it harder for the Missy Elliotts, Bahamadias, and Jean Graes of the world to get the resources they need to win in the marketplace. Meanwhile, it becomes easier for their R&B singing counterparts to hi-jack their producers and flavor to great effect. Where Foxy and Kim used to rhyme with Jay-Z, Rihanna and Beyonce’ now fill those slots. They love working with their producers too; and I don’t blame Swizz one bit, probably pays better.
Should all the blame be laid at the feet of these ladies or are the labels and/or management partly responsible? Could it have been the decline of artist development, etiquette and media training at the labels? To what degree were these women left to work it out on their own? Was guidance offered or just not heeded? Are female rap artists really that disposable? How long are we collectively going to let this continue to happen? Are we waiting for the other shoes of drug addiction and surviving multiple bullet wounds to drop as they have for their male counterparts? How very unsexy.
I also wonder, ‘where was the mentorship’? I conducted a Handle Your [music] Business Survey, to which close to 80% of repsondents stated mentorship as a huge missing in their careers. Are female rappers too grown to listen to those older and wiser? Or could the mentors no longer get through to them once they achieved fame and fortune? Would these ladies be where they are now had mentorship been a constant in their careers? I personally have leaned on more than one mentor for counsel on my career moves. And I’ve been better off for leaning on their shoulder, sopping up some game from them, be they female or male.
I feel a connection to these women because hip-hop grew us all up. I’m clear that I would not have a significant part of my career without them. I’d MUCH rather be reviewing their rap albums than their rap sheets. Where and how did things take a turn for the worst? Our footing slides and our industry’s women are all negatively impacted when rap chicks break the law. As a hip-hop journalist and someone with a stake in their futures (unlike most of mainstream media), I would love to offer any one of these women this forum to talk about their childhoods, possible abuses, abandonment, family, challenges, triumphs and why they chose music as their platform for personal expression.
Maybe they thought their actions would make sales jump or give them more street cred. Maybe they thought their lawyers and feminine wiles would get them off. Maybe they wanted even more attention than they were already getting? What, magazine covers, cosmetic campaigns, tours and videos not enough? Perhaps a search for self-esteem and self-respect is critical to this journey. Kim’s friend and fellow artist Mary J. Blige got to the heart of her issues through her music in front of and alongside her fans. In contrasting where these two women stand in their careers today, it occurs to me that unlike female singers like Mary, Lil’ Mo’, and Keyshia Cole, who can be tatted up while they wail their hearts out in song, women rappers might be afraid of–or be steered away from being vulnerable on record, given the cues they receive to be ‘hard’ as emcees. Ironically, as women, they have the market cornered on the ability to be vulnerable because they are female.
I write this with a mix of anger and sadness. I watched these women rise to the top of the charts and to prominence in the rap game. I contributed to the success of Kim and Foxy while at Gavin, and wrote the ad campaign for Brat’s Unrestricted CD in 2000. I was lovin’ Remy Ma for coming as hard as she did on MOP’s “Ante Up (Remix)” and The Terror Squad’s “Lean Back”. But are the lyrics about toting heat, riding Upstate, and being, as Eve once proclaimed–“a pitbull in a skirt” going to the heads of these talented emcees? Maybe they saw how being criminals worked for their male counterparts and decided to step into the dressing room-er-holding cell-and try it on.
Going to jail might make some male emcees credible, but for rap chicks, it just ain’t sexy. And now, trials and prison are an even more delicate dance for the guys. T.I. is arrested and charged with gun possession just before the BET Hip-Hop Awards in ’07, only to lose his Chevy contract and plot a hard road for a return to endoresements. Will the gender gap allow The KING to bounce back? Or will the ill-fated risk Chevy took resonante with other corporations? The fans may forget, but the corporate sponsors can’t afford to.
DMX has seen his promising multi-platinum career, that included a hit BET reality show, screech to a halt after repeated arrests. You can’t tell me Snoop wasn’t sweating while Murder Was The Case for him in real life way back in the ’90s. News flash: the days of beating the case upping one’s stock are numbered–if they haven’t gone out all together with the fresh-out multiplatinum success of 2pac’s All Eyez On Me. Time will tell if the law catches up with Lil Wayne; they are watching Cash Money like a vultures hovering over a fresh kill.
In my view, this string of criminal rap chicks has done more to impede the progress of hip-hop than we realize. It took Girl Power off the streets, screens and airwaves, leaving a void of self-definition and a wide open door for misogyny to pimp-walk through. It sends the message to labels that women emcees are riskier than than dudes with rap sheets. If four out of five of recent memory’s most successful chicks in the game wind up behind bars, the return on investment looks shaky at best–and in this climate of sluggish sales, ROI is top of mind. Fulfilling the vicious cycle of a smaller number of new female voices emerging.
Thanks goodness for M.I.A. Lady Sovereign of the UK, and here at home, Lil’ Mama, Kid Sister and multi-format conqueror Santogold. Mystic has a new album coming, which will be a breath of fresh air to be sure. What’s uncertain is how much support they and others like them who put lyrics before looks and message before materialism will receive.
The good news is that everyone can clean up their messes and outlive their mistakes. Perhaps time served, anger management, therapy, community service hours and the sweet taste of freedom will make a difference for our embattled lady convicts.
Perhaps the women emcees waiting in the wings will learn from the ones awaiting probation or parole, and be what Latifah, Monie, Shante, Lyte, and Yo-Yo embody: Ladies First. Props to Missy Elliott for keeping her clothes on and keeping out of trouble. She’s proof you can sustain a career and be credible without winding up in an orange jumpsuit. And she preaches self-respect to young girls, which is in short supply in hip-hop these days. We’re long overdue for good music–and good behavior. Now, where my gurls at?!
17-year industry vet and award-winning journalist/advertising executive Thembisa S. Mshaka is the author of Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business, (Grand Central Publishing, April 2009).