Histories and "Her Stories" from the Bronx: Excavating Hidden Hip Hop Narratives

By LaBennett, Oneka | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 2009 | Go to article overview
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Histories and "Her Stories" from the Bronx: Excavating Hidden Hip Hop Narratives


LaBennett, Oneka, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Popular and academic understandings of the cultural production of hip hop tend to focus on the music as a site of misogyny, aggressive masculinity and rampant consumerism. Historical accounts of hip hop have privileged male narratives, stifling women's stories and their valuable contributions to hip hop music and culture. This paper utilizes oral history interviews from the Bronx African-American History Project (BAAHP) to shed light on hidden hip hop narratives constructed by female Bronx-based artists who reside at the margins of the music industry and are peripheral to the dominant discourses surrounding hip hop music. Utilizing an anthropological approach to oral history research, I explore the unexpected, complex and often contradictory ways in which women's "creation narratives" figure into their use of hip hop as an educational tool, as a mechanism for political activism and as a springboard for articulating feminist ideologies. I argue that for contemporary Bronx female artists, hip-hop represents a means for demonstrating a feminist consciousness and for claiming racialized belonging. I further assert that women's hip hop narratives generate critical understandings of how Diasporic Blackness is (re) conceptualized in relation to local and global racializations (Thomas and Clarke 2006).

My title "Histories and 'Her Stories' from the Bronx: Excavating Hidden Hip hop Narratives," borrows from a long-standing tradition in feminist oral history research and is inspired by a collaboration between the pioneering feminist oral historian, Sherna Gluck (whose work began in the 1970s) and her students. That paper was entitled, "Whose Feminism, Whose History? Reflections on Excavating the History of (the) U.S. Women's Movement(s)" (Gluck et al.: 1998). The notion of "hidden narratives" is related to James Scott's concept of "hidden transcripts" which he characterizes as "discourse that takes place ... beyond the observation of power holders" (Scott 1990: 4). In his framework, "the hidden transcript is produced for a different audience and under different constraints of power than the public transcript" (Scott 1990: 5). Scott sees such hidden transcripts as "represent[ations] of power spoken behind the back of the dominant" (Scott 1990: xii). I aim to illustrate how Bronx women's oral histories reveal hidden narratives surrounding women's critical oral traditions and their ways of defying social norms that de-legitimize women's role in hip hop. In this paper, 1 wish to uncover or excavate what is valuable about women's narratives--narratives that often remain obscured from the public realm but which are vital contestations of how women are represented in mainstream hip hop. In turn, I will also emphasize the usefulness of oral history research for uncovering a second, related hidden narrative--the ways in which Puerto Rican and Dominican women use hip hop to claim local and global notions of African Diasporic belonging.

THE HISTORY AND "HER" STORY OF HIP HOP

  So get ready to learn the truth about your hip-hop heritage. The
  Mercedes Ladies may not have reaped the monetary benefits or the
  glitz that "the game" soon delivered. But one thing we do have is the
  title of being the first all-female DJ and MC crew from the Bronx.
  Nobody can ever take that away from us. We will forever be a part of
  history. Wait a minute--let me rephrase that. Not just "His" story.
  That is "Her" story. Our story.--Sheri Sher, Mercedes Ladies: A
  Novel

Before turning to the three women whose oral histories inspired this paper, 1 must say a bit about the larger research project and the history of Bronx hip hop. I began working on a hip hop history initiative for the BAAHP in September of 2007. Although a number of the Project's now 200 plus interviews had centered on hip hop even before I formally began this initiative, much of the Project's early work focused on recording oral histories of Bronx residents who grew up in the borough in the 1940s and 1950s.

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