Lady Essence Speaks on Women, Hip Hop, Misogyny
Connection Point Director Yasmina Mrabet interviewed rapper Lady Essence about her work and experience as a woman breaking into the male-dominated world of hip hop. Her answers are below.
Can you tell us a little about your personal background? How did you become interested in hip hop, and what inspired you to begin rapping?
I began rapping when I was 13 years old. It was really on a whim. I didn’t think rap music required talent and felt that it was too easy just to write some silly rhymes and have it be considered artistic. With that logic I thought, well, if it is that easy, I should be able to do it myself, no problem, right? So I tried it, and quickly realized how wrong I was. However, as time passed by, I still didn’t stop writing rhymes. The hobby proved to be a great emotional outlet as well as a fun challenge for my brain. I always enjoyed word puzzles and such and found writing raps to be pretty similar in a strange sense. I learned to appreciate hip hop and an artist’s ability to put together clever rhyme schemes and fresh wordplay.
What has been your experience as a woman breaking into the male-dominated world of hip hop?
As a woman, I’ve definitely endured sexist comments. Most of the time it’s said online, where people feel bravest. But once in a while in person I’ll hear, “Oh, you’re dope, I just can’t get into the whole women rapping thing.” At that point I just have to hope that their ignorance will fix itself in time. Overall though, I wouldn’t change being a woman in hip hop for anything. I enjoy the challenge and turning people’s heads because, based on my gender and appearance, they assume I suck. It’s fun to step on stage and see everyone’s initial reaction before the beat comes on. I do hope to see more women enter the hip hop sphere and I have to say, the numbers are rising and the amount of incredibly skilled women getting into rap is amazing.
What are your thoughts on the prevalence of misogyny in hip hop, and what do you think it would it take to change that?
Whenever you have 20 dudes in a room and only one woman, masculine/macho culture is going to prevail and there isn’t much that can be done about it until the numbers are even. Misogyny is inescapable in hip hop because you have a large number of 20-30-year-old men in the same genre, glorifying how many bitches they can bag in a night. The change in this is numbers. However, there is a catch. If more women enter hip hop mimicking masculine culture just to gain male approval (by this I mean, calling other female rappers bitches and hoes and joining in on other male chauvinist activities) then numbers are irrelevant because masculine/macho culture will be upheld even by the oppressed (albeit unknowingly). Solidarity and education are critical in changing a culture of misogyny, as is the number of women willing to break through barriers and work together.
You collaborated with Alyssa Marie, a Lebanese rapper who grew up in Brockton. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the songs “Trigger Finger” and “Push”? What messages did you want to get across through those songs?
I found out about Alyssa through another artist I had collaborated with a few years ago. After hearing her music I was blown away. The way she puts rhyme schemes together while saying some of the most intelligent things I’ve ever heard really grabbed my ear. I reached out to her on a whim hoping to get a collaboration and she responded. I wanted the track to be perfect so I waited a while before sending anything. Then I heard this JakeOne “Scared” beat and went in. I wrote about the unfairness of hip hop not just in terms of gender, but also in terms of how mediocrity is now celebrated in hip hop. Alyssa could lyrically body some of the top people in the industry right now, but she certainly isn’t raking in millions like they are, you know? I got my friend Kristina Kentigian on the hook and she really just spelled the track out for us. I sent Alyssa the reference and she absolutely nailed it. Her last lines captured the essence of the song: “But they’re caught up in the gender, so focused on anatomy- they’re missing what’s supposed to matter, solely what the rapper speaks.” And that really sums up the message in “Push.”
Trigger Finger came about after producer Teddy Roxpin sent us a phenomenal beat. The beat was hard and I wanted us to showcase a more edgy side of our lyricism. Something we could go all out on in terms of flow. In turned out she wanted to do the same thing. What was incredible about Trigger Finger though was that we wrote the verses completely separately without hearing one another’s, and subliminally managed to write about the same topic. I wrote, “Alyssa, pull the trigger, they rather you be my enemy.” And she wrote, “Finger twitching on the trigger, tried sitting to the side.” So, after we heard our verses, Alyssa realized we had a theme going, and the whole track ended up being about how external forces want to pit us against each other, simply for the fact that we are both women. The music video stresses this message greatly. And the solidarity factor is really shown at the end of the video when we’re working in the studio together. She and I just have love and respect for one another and it’s really refreshing to be a part of.
The song “Right Now” addressed the issue of Islamophobia in the United States. Tell us, why did you write that, and how do you see hip hop playing a role in increasing cross-cultural and interfaith understanding?
That song came about through a class I was taking called Politics of Difference. On the anniversary of 9/11, a local newspaper did a story on Ramadan and there was a huge uproar over it. People were calling the newspaper insensitive and heartless for having a story on Ramadan, as if to say, “Don’t you know all Muslims are terrorists?” It was absolutely ridiculous. What if they ran a story about Christians on April 19th? Would people call the newspaper insensitive because of Timothy Mcveigh’s Oklahoma City bombing? Not at all. Islamophobia is really no different then communist-phobia during the McCarthy scare. The media has an incredible ability to make us fear (which we all know leads to hate) an entity we know next to nothing about. Are there fundamentalists in the Muslim religion? Certainly. Does that mean there aren’t any in every other religion (Westboro Baptist)? Of course not – and that was the message I was trying to get across in Right Now.
Finally, what women rappers have we not heard about that the world should start listening to? And if you could offer one piece of advice for women interested in breaking into the world of hip hop, what would it be?
As far as women rappers go, I would say: Alyssa Marie, Jean Grae, Invincible, Tiye Phoenix, Snow Tha Product, Phoenix Pagliacci, and Lex Leosis. Also, follow The Illest Female Rappers on Facebook or Twitter. They always keep me current on who’s putting out dope material.
As far as advice goes, I would say work with other female rappers and please don’t focus on competition to the point where you form hostility with other rappers, female or not. Use the art as just that, art. If you’re angry let it out, definitely, but don’t direct the anger towards other rappers. That’s regressive and a waste of time. Focus on a message/goal and do your thing. Also, keep your head up. If you get a video posted on WorldstarHipHop you’re going to see a lot of terrible comments. Use that as ammo to create change.
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.