The authors examine the spaces, cultural practices, and relational possibilities that exist in one particular context of community hip-hop, the Foundation. Arguing that it offers Black girlhood studies forms of political action through cultural production, the authors draw on four years of ethnographic work. After explicating key connections that the Foundation shares with Black girlhood studies, the authors showcase a sample of the cultural production that Foundation artists create. In performance and reflection, the authors reveal how Foundation artists theorize the perilous pressures and uplifting pleasures of Black girlhood.
Voices echo down the hallway of the 80-year-old classroom building on Wayne State University's campus. I hurry to make the last session of the Women in Hip-Hop track at this year's Allied Media Conference. Presenters and attendees from across the country are drawn to the conference to acquire skills, create, and absorb information about the various ways media can be put to use for social justice causes. Familiar voices command my attention. Piper Carter, the key organizer of the Women in Hip-Hop track, moves gracefully about the room holding a camera that pans across the audience. Mahogany Jones, 'Nique LoveRhodes, and Insite The Riot, three well-known Detroit, MI, emcees, instruct a packed room of women to “circle up.” They add, “We doing a cipher.”1 All four of these women are members of the Foundation—a Detroit-based, women-centered hip-hop collective. Speaking to the audience, Mahogany begins her remarks by shouting out thanks to her mentor Toni Blackman. Known for her work with Rhyme Like a Girl in New York City, Toni is regarded as the queen of the cipher and other forms of free styling. Following Mahogany's call, 35 women form a circle; some look excited, others look panicked.
Mahogany stages a quick lesson in flow; someone else spontaneously beat-boxes. We are instructed to follow one another, to rhyme without taking up too much time. In 15 minutes a nervous group of cipher virgins creates a collective composition; the verbal inventions capture statements about sisterhood, love, and power; a funky chatter that lands with the conclusion that “Black lives matter” fills the room with positive energy and the participants with confidence and strength. This was a space where hip-hop feminist pedagogy was at work. Three emcees and a photographer created a place where young women could be vulnerable, experts of their own narratives, and in charge of their performance.
Beginning in 2011, we, the authors, learned to navigate ciphers, open mics, beat battles, b-boy and b-girl crews, hip-hop organizations such as Hip Hop Nation and Universal Zulu Nation, and campaigns such as “What the Bleep Happened to Hip Hop?” and “Black Lives Matter” over years of entrenched engagement in Detroit's underground hip-hop scene. Our participation is still ongoing. The observations and experiences we share here are based on interviews and participation with the Foundation from 2011 to 2015. From our ethnographic hip-hop loving locations, as racially marked white women, we focus on spaces, cultural practices, and relational possibilities that exist in one particular context of community-based hip-hop, the Foundation. The Foundation is an answer to Tricia Rose's call and yearning for community-based hip-hop music and culture with revolutionary potential.2 The Foundation is a site where transformation of entire communities that consist of predominantly local others (marginalized, low-income communities of color in the United States) takes shape.3 We begin with our path to finding the Foundation; once in, we examine the methodological fields in which our work is grounded, reflecting on the stakes involved when white women engage in ethnographic work about predominately Black communities. After explicating some of the key connections that the Foundation shares with Black girlhood studies, we showcase a sample of the cultural production that Foundation artists create as well as their reflections about the value they place in the Foundation. In performance and reflection, we reveal how Foundation artists theorize the perilous pressures and uplifting pleasures of Black girlhood.
FINDING THE FOUNDATION
When we first crossed paths with the Foundation it was not only a women-centered collective, but also a thriving weekly event that moved across Detroit's Cass Corridor and Corktown neighborhoods (the former is centrally located in the city and the latter in Southwest Detroit). Since 2009, the Foundation has consisted of a loose collective of approximately a dozen women who crave spaces where women and youth can perform and experience the power and pleasures of community-based hip-hop culture. We use the word “loose” because while some members have been consistently involved from 2009 to 2014, others have fallen away, and some have been more active in some years than others.4 With the exception of the two of us who are white, the collective has consisted of mostly of African American and some Latina women. When we began this project in 2011, participants ranged in age from early 20s to early 40s. Some are college educated and others are not; many work in the non-profit sector and some at for-profit companies; for some, pursuing their artistry is the primary goal and for others it is secondary to different career aspirations.
The Foundation created multiple stages for women not only to perform as emcees, b-girls, DJs, and visual artists, but also to serve as organizers and social justice activists. During the first five years of the Foundation's history (2009–2014), it was a sister organization to the 5eGallery—Detroit's first alternative multidisciplinary hip-hop arts organization. Over the course of these years, the Foundation produced the only women-centered weekly open mic hip-hop event in the nation. Women emcees hosted the events, during which women, men, and youth performed original spoken word poetry, rap songs, instrumental solos, and participated in ciphers and beat battles. Only one social rule guided the Foundation's practice at these events: no misogyny. Emcees Nik Nak and Mahogany, the hosts at the time when we first began attending the event in 2011, would break down this concept for the audience by explaining that “there is no room for bitches and hos on our stage.”5
When she decided to organize the Foundation, Piper Carter was a co-owner of the 5eGallery. Many of the women and men who supported its launch were also entrenched in Detroit's social justice community and causes. They shared Christopher Malone and George Martinez Jr.'s belief that “hip hop, rooted in a movement culture, has been an artistic medium used to foster awareness, build and transform social institutions, and/or encourage political activism in local communities that have largely found themselves marginalized.”6 Thus, despite the doubt about the need for and potential sustainability of such an organization and open mic night, Piper persevered and succeeded. At its height, The Foundation's Tuesday nights drew 100–200 people, and even more for special events. Those who came witnessed women, their art, and their ideas take center stage for the night.
Foundation members are from multicultural and multigenerational backgrounds; members self-identify as Black, white, Latina, and/or Asian. They bring many forms of artistry as well as business skills—including marketing, branding, and public relations—to the collective. Piper occupies several roles: She is a Black-identified activist, a community-based organizer, a professional photographer, and an artist; she DJs under the moniker DJ Auset; she rhymes in Foundation ciphers; and she even gets in the free dance circles at b-girl/b-boy battles. It is her vision and enduring commitment that drives the Foundation. Along with Piper, a range of artists, activists, and academics keep the Foundation moving. The Foundation's mission statement is as pedagogical as it is political:
This weekly event as a movement focuses on redefining the vital role of women in hip hop. Our mission is to educate and empower the community through sharing love of the arts, inspire change and growth, build leadership, and influence the perceptions and roles of women in hip hop for current and future generations.7
While performance and pedagogy will always be at the heart of the Foundation, it is also a hip-hop movement that is articulated to many other collectives and networks of activists that are forging change in a city held hostage by corrupt state politics, forced bankruptcy, and urban planning that ignores the majority of the local population. Music is the pulse of the community but its work is aimed at creating a more inclusive Detroit.
ARTICULATIONS OF WHITENESS IN ETHNOGRAPHIC PRACTICE
For more than 20 years, ethnographers have addressed the stakes that exist when white researchers study non-white communities. In communication studies, the audience studies of Patrick D. Murphy, Vikki Mayer, and Radhika Parameswaran address the conscious and unconscious strategies in play when whiteness is examined and located in ethnographic fieldwork.8 After engaging a host of whiteness research grounded in ethnography, Mayer argues that “perhaps, then, the question for media audience scholars is not how to articulate whiteness but where to locate articulations of whiteness for their deconstruction.”9 She accomplishes deconstruction by using her field notes as a supplement and intervention into what she describes as logocentric interview data that was derived from spoken interactions with her research participants. We think that her approach is important and necessarily risky, though we do not accept the notion that articulating whiteness automatically lapses into a strategy of narcissism or defensiveness, practices that she puts under erasure in her own work. In other words, articulating whiteness does not have to be mutually exclusive from locating articulations of it for the purposes of deconstruction.
Our histories are tied to the macro social structures and the micro cultural practices through which we locate our relationships to whiteness. Banking, housing, medicine, law, policing, and media industries favor the representations and material lives of property owning, class privileged, male, white elites; however, owning this reality does not make our relationship to the Foundation a necessarily or strategically narcissistic “confessional tale.”10 'Fessing up and acknowledging whiteness is a crucial first step in documenting uneven conditions; the work is not over once white folk claim their articulation to social institutions underwritten by ideas, practices, and polices that favor white male elites. Whiteness has a structural face. Its skeleton commands ideological and material dominance. All of us in the Foundation articulate differently to the racial hierarchy built into whiteness. In the difference, Detroit's Foundation critiques the history of Black colonization; however, its members reject the subject position of victim. Identifying alternatively as agents, they openly confront race-, class-, gender-, and sexuality-based exploitation in their cultural work made on their terms.
NEW BODIES OF CULTURAL PRODUCTION
Ruth Nicole Brown defines Black girlhood studies as “the representations, memories, and lived experiences of being and becoming in a body marked as youthful, Black, and female.”11 This conceptualization is not dependent on age, physical maturity, or any essential category of identity. For Brown, Black girlhood studies is grounded in hip-hop feminist pedagogy, which she envisions as “the practice of engaging young people using the elements of hip-hop culture and feminist methodology for the purpose of transforming oppressive institutions, policies, relationships, and beliefs.”12 Beginning in the 2000s, there has been significant growth of research in the area of Black girlhood studies. This work focuses on the representation of Black girlhood in commercial popular culture; Black girls’ relationship to everyday music culture; and Black girls’ participation in the production of both public and private creative art and performances spaces.13 The thick, rich descriptions that Black girlhood scholars bring into focus provide a new lens for social citizenship.
Feminist pedagogy and cultural production intertwine within Black girlhood studies. They both reject silence and insist that Black girls’ lives matter. Aimee Meredith Cox examines the strategic and performative practices through which Black girls in Detroit and Newark, NJ, navigate public access and denial.14 She is one among many who believe that the lives of Black girls are under-examined in public and scholarly discourse. Hip-hop education scholars contribute to Black girlhood studies by tapping in to the ways Black girls acquire critical literacies in and through hip-hop. Elaine Richardson, a maverick in her field, refers to hip-hop literacy as the development of skills and expressive vernacular arts and crafts that help females advance and protect themselves and their loved ones in society. These make up the constellation of African American cultural identities, social locations, and social practices that influence how members of this discourse group make meaning and assert themselves sociopolitically in subordinate as well as official contexts. African American literacies include vernacular survival arts and cultural productions that carve out free spaces in oppressive locations, such as the streets, the workplace, the school, or the airwaves.15
Still other scholars articulate the dual oppositionality that women face in hip-hop studies, such as talking back to men in defense of women; demanding respect for women; women's empowerment, self-help, and solidarity; and the defense of Black men against the larger society. Identity issues this complex and conjunctural explain why Black girlhood studies address topics as varied as classroom spaces as safety zones, Black women's and girls’ bodies as sites of politics, and active community work with young people.16 No matter what scholarly form Black girlhood studies takes, all of it asserts that popular and public performances are important for empowering Black girls. In Brown's words:
The [ultimate] goal is to create a space that facilitates collective action, and then to organize that space so the girl with so much to say can say it, the girl with nothing to say can dance it, and the girl who wants to say it, but cannot write, will learn.17
CREATING COMMUNAL SPARKS
From the first open mic night to today's planning sessions, women in the Foundation collaborate on cultural productions such as making logos, forming bands, hosting the weekly open mic event and creating songs and videos. In 2011, a group of Foundation artists collectively wrote, performed, and recorded a track that spoke to their strength and motivations to work collectively. Aptly titled “The Foundation,” the track begins with a young girl's voice introducing the artists by name. In the excerpt below Nik Nak spits this rhyme before Jade sings the chorus that begins with the line “Ain't no stopping us”:
The power, strength, and solidarity that come through the lyrics speak to the creation of the kind of hip-hop that motivated Piper to launch the organization. Recalling her 2009 return to Detroit after a successful career as a fashion photographer in New York, she remarked,
When I went out to clubs and parties [in Detroit], I was like where the women at?…. After the event was over, we'd have these conversations and talk about how women don't wanna come. I don't wanna come and I love hip-hop! It would be two or three of the same women there. By me being friends with a lot of women in hip-hop in New York and having these conversations and debates I knew there were a lot of women doing a lot of things…. I just want to see some women rap and be around more women. I don't know if I could take on like this movement. But I really just want to see more women rapping around me. I'm used to being in New York where there are a lot of women…. Here it's like, where's the women?19
In 2009, women seemed to be absent from all sides of the local hip-hop scene in Detroit—on the production and consumption ends. At the time, this invisibilty served as a microcosm for women's absence as co-creators of hip-hop in most hip-hop spaces and histories.20 Every Tuesday night for five years (2009–2014), the Foundation celebrated women in hip-hop. Strategic from the beginning, Piper worked hard to draw women to the event and once they were there she encouraged them to get on stage for the open mic portion of the night. She educated the crowd and reinforced women's contributions to hip-hop both by recruiting women DJs and by playing videos and music from women emcees.
For some members, the Foundation is important because it provides a gathering space. Jaci Caprice moved to Detroit in 2013. She has a degree in sound engineering, sings, produces tracks, and hosts a radio show. For her,
coming to the Foundation was the spark, boom. I'm grounded right here. When you find where you're supposed to be things start opening up for you. Before I came here I didn't know what I was doing. I had all these things, all these talents, this and that. When I came here, everything started to consolidate. It started to make sense.21
For others, the formation of political consciousness is the hook. Reflecting on her experiences with the Foundation, Mahogany, who like her mentor Toni Blackman, is a hip-hop ambassador for the US Department of State, commented:
I think totally differently. I've learned so much more. I think being a part of the Foundation meetings, y'all totally shaped so much of my work and I remember being super resistant to the idea of identifying with my gender and now, totally embracing it and I was totally different. I see the difference now, and I see the effects like I didn't see before. Before I didn't see and now I'm like I get it.
I think before I had this man-hating thing in my mind that was shaped with what feminism was. Ya pop culture tells you that. Ya we hate men. No we hate men. No no no that's not right. Now that I see it's not that it's just a matter of making sure women are treated like humans. That we have the right to humanity, just like men do.22
Mahogany also noted Piper's influence and ability to jump-start a women-centered hip-hop community in the city:
I don't know if she'll recognize this but [Piper's] so smart. She made this a community. This was not a community. Women and hip-hop in Detroit was not a community before the Foundation. It was women who were doing hip-hop in Detroit and that's it. And I thank the Foundation. I hope people experience it the way I have.23
While the value of the personal–community connection is vital for members, the professional, networking support is also revered. 'Nique LoveRhodes is an emcee and one of the younger members of the Foundation. Over the past decade she has created her company NLR Dreams Inc., and gives herself the title of Everyday Revolutionary. She was in her early twenties when she discovered the collective in 2011:
For me the Foundation is for, kind of like connecting to other emcees and people. It's kind of like, more like a support unit more than anything. Especially with you guys coming on board, opportunities, and even the academic ramp, and so I think it's more like relationship building. I consider you guys my family, the Foundation family, also this networking and expanding.24
Also an emcee, Insite The Riot's experiences are similar:
I ended up going down the first night and I didn't perform because I had to go to work the next day. And they were running ridiculously behind; I think they were getting started at 11:30; it was like I'll come back a different time. But I ended up going back and ended up doing the open mic and I loved it. Like I loved the space, I loved the crowd. That kind of got me back into writing and performing and putting projects together and networking, so that was probably the catalyst for me probably doing it for the most consistent amount of time.25
Cye, who is a violinist, singer, and member of the Afropunk band Atoms and Ease, spoke about the camaraderie and fun she experiences at Foundation events. Below, she articulates the sheer surprise and amazement that she felt when she first witnessed women rocking the space:
When I first went to the Foundation, I didn't know what it was called. But I remember this: I walked in there, and I saw this all girl band! The girl DJ, I was like, “dooooope!” I was looking around like, “oh my god!” it was cool. It blew my mind a little bit. I sat there, took it all in, met people mingling, and I like to talk to people and see what they're all about.26
The space that the Foundation provided led to deep friendships and business partnerships grounded in cooperative economics. Whereas music, art, and a good time are at the heart of the Foundation's practice, it moves in a political body, one that demands progressive change for artists and local communities bent on reimaging post-emergency management in Detroit.27
REACHING FOR YOUTH
The Foundation exists so that women producing hip-hop culture can have somewhere to thrive. In all its activities, youth figure in prominently, from open mics and special events, to conferences and workshops. Nearly all of the artists we have come to know have written tribute tracks to youth, Black youth in particular. In 2012, 'Nique released her debut album Against All Odds: The Epic. Her song “Extraordinary” in particular speaks to the challenges and pressures that young people face. As she explains, “It's a song I made to empower youth and show them their self-worth.”28 A booming drum beat pounds as she cuts into its pocket and raps:
The music is faced-paced and upbeat; it is pulse-raising as the lyrics shout self-love.
Mahogany offers her own ode to “little brown girls” in her video and song “Skin Deep,” which features fellow Foundation artist Insite The Riot as well as singer Ozara Odé. The track questions the privileging of light skin and emphasizes the need for girls and women to love themselves unconditionally. Musically, it is somber from the start. Jazzy saxophone and piano melodies overlay a light and slow percussive beat throughout. From the opening measure, Ozara's deep, bluesy voice solidifies the song's melancholic timbral quality as she sings:
With little change to the musical qualities, Mahogany—also in a speech effusive rhyming style that in this case is characterized by an especially crisp delivery—raps:
The track's instrumentation and tempo, as well as Ozara's vocals, invoke the music of famous 1930s jazz musicians such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. The juxtaposition and layering of this jazzy sound with Mahogany's and Insite The Riot's rhymes create a multi-generational opening that signifies a new sensibility. The music and lyrics call on us to reflect on the history of whiteness and colonization and question its prolongation while illustrating the impacts of its continuation.
Mahogany explains the genesis of the track, saying:
“Skin Deep” is essential because it's important for people to take in different shades, shapes, configurations of what beauty is. “Skin Deep” exposes how as dark women struggle with colorism and how lighter complexioned women struggle as well with being pegged a certain way. So either you're dark and you're a mammie and undesirable or you are fair skinned and the object of every man's sexual fantasy. Both are unfair, not balanced, and [the role of “Skin Deep”] is to expose it and remember no matter where you are on the color wheel you are fearfully and wonderfully made by God—you are not less than.31
The artists in both tracks speak to vulnerability and self-confidence, a pairing that can lead to a subtle recognition of one's potential. Insite The Riot thinks “‘Skin Deep’ expresses the belief that vulnerability is a strength, self-confidence is a necessity, and recognizing our own beauty is vital.”32 What she contributes to and takes from this track places her in conversation with hip-hop pedagogy and Black girlhood studies.
A CONCLUDING RHYME
SOME CONCLUDING PROSE
Our stories, our practices of collaborative cultural production, and our time are articulated to the Foundation. The music, collective economics, organizing, grant-writing, and conferences that the Foundation makes possible embrace the goals of Black girlhood studies. The Foundation makes art that comes from the power of women who are carving out new spaces for themselves in a hip-hop world that expects men to perform while women dance in the background. Foundation artists grab the mic, spin, scratch, and cut; they break, produce visual art, and sponsor community events and concerts. Their efforts serve as an alternative discourse for both hip-hop and Black girlhood studies.
When white ethnographers explore Black cultural forms and arts movements, issues of inclusion, representation, appropriation, as well as storytellers’ rights are at stake. While we cannot speak for the women of color who belong to the Foundation, we can turn up their music, tweet about their political actions, and write about our engagement for an interdisciplinary community of scholars, performers, and practitioners who share an interest in building hip-hop pedagogy and Black girlhood studies. Our location in the discursive and material fields of whiteness grants us privilege, and yet those parts of our whiteness that slip though its normative cracks give us pause and cause to align with other women who love hip-hop but take exception to its corporate rules of production, gender role expectations, and problematic racial economy. The work of the Foundation gives all of its members an opportunity for growth, change, and sisterhood—an open stage on which girls and women are experts of hip-hop culture, front and center.