As Lil’ Kim celebrated her 36th birthday yesterday, her legacy remains to be a subject of much debate. In the October 2000 issue of Essence, writer Akissi Britton penned a letter to the Brooklyn emcee adressing the feminist title that had been assigned to her and countering that her ‘”pussy power” content was actually more harmful than it was ’empowering’. Take a trip back in the Clutch DeLorean and check out how one of our big sisters was examining women, sex and Hip-Hop just over a decade ago.
As a young Black feminist, I felt it was time to clear a few things up. Now, Ma, I’m not hating on you. In fact, I love you. I love your flow and I love your energy. You have a skill that cannot be denied. No question, you are partially responsible for the strong feminine presence in hip-hop right now. It wasn’t so long ago when female rappers couldn’t even go gold. Your debut album, Hard Core, went multiplatinum. When you stepped up to the mike, you commanded money, power and economic respect from the industry and consumers alike. Female artists have topped the charts, raked in sales and even have big Hollywood types, socialites and top designers dying for you all to show them some love. There’s no doubt that many of you have made your mark in this music biz. With your rhymes and attitudes, you and your sista emcees represent every facet of a Black girl’s life–the ghetto, thugged-out shorty, the God-blessed, scripture-spittin’ sister and everything in between. In each of you we see a piece of us. You’ve become the voices that let the masses know our generation of young Black women will not be ignored.
But I’m having a problem when all these voices are being classified as empowering and feminist. While your lyrics may speak the truth of some young women’s realities–hard-core sex, drugs and the rough street life–they don’t empower women in these situations to get out. I know the word feminist gets thrown around a lot in hip-hop these days, but let’s not get it twisted. Just because a voice is feminine doesn’t mean it’s feminist. To carry that label means that you are engaged in the battle to fight political, economic and social sexism. And these days we have so many things threatening to consume us–Black women are dying of AIDS at a growing rate; our presence in the prison system is increasing, due in part to our intimate involvement with men in the drug game, a role that you’ve often glamorized and glorified in your music; and we are still experiencing forced single parenthood, domestic violence, police brutality and the complete breakdown of our families.
Feminism is about embracing our power without reducing it to what’s between our legs. And this so-called pussy power that you portray, the literal or figurative use of what’s between your legs to get the material things you want, completely defeats this. Besides biggin’ up every female who slept her way to the top, it perpetuates the gold-digging, highly sexualized, whorish image that Black women have been trying to kill since slavery. Even throughout hip-hop’s brief history, women have fought to be respected as real emcees without reducing themselves to tits and ass. Rap is pregnant with lyrics that will make the average listener think male rappers have some serious anger, if not outright hatred, for us. We are bombarded with images that show women as only token pieces, to be sported like jewelry. For too many years we female fans who lived, breathed and died hip-hop have had to grapple with this ugly contradiction: How can we love the music that only sees us as bitches and hoes? And now you’ve come on the scene calling yourself a queen bitch, professing in your lyrics that the ultimate way to “get yours” is to be a supreme bitch and make men pay for a taste. No matter how you define it, Kim, a bitch is a bitch. And sex equals money equals power is not a feminist principle. What are we telling young girls, that the only way they can escape abuse, neglect and hard living–all by-products of sexism–is to use their bodies? That’s praising prostitution.
Remember, sis, there have been women in this biz who didn’t have to resort to pussy power. MC Lyte was one of the strongest lyricists in her day, and she did it without showing her ass. And when Queen Latifah came on the scene, she brought back the cultural legacy that we, the children of the Black Power Movement, grew up on. Power was being a female hip-hop fan ten years ago, back when we were sporting Africa medallions, waving red, black and green flags and singing songs like Latifah’s “Ladies First.” Sistah Souljah stood right up there with Public Enemy and shouted “We Are at War.” Back then we wore the armor of self-love, self-respect and self-actualization, standing together with our men while we all did what it took to “Fight the Power.” Word, that felt like power. Like love.
Today we’ve traded in our shields for Gucci sandals and Vicky thongs. We now stand across from our men pointing hypocritical fingers at their sexism while letting them know that it will cost a large fee to get a piece. This is empowering, ma? You can’t be serious. We’ve abandoned our self-esteem and self-respect for the iced-out carrots society keeps dangling in our faces. But what did we expect? We are the generation that was spoon-fed Dynasty dreams financed with the trickle-down economics of the Reagan-Bush administrations. The slogan of the eighties was “No Romance Without Finance,” so it’s no wonder we’ve computed sex equals money equals power. Business fact of the day: Sex sells. But understand this, Kim: so does your soul. Ask yourself if you really felt empowered when you did an ad for your first album with your legs spread wide wearing only a thong and a bra. Did you feel empowered wearing absolutely nothing but a hat and boots during the photo shoot for a promo poster for your second album, The Notorious K.I.M. ? If that image wasn’t so profitable would you have done it? Money doesn’t change the feeling of exploitation, does it? It just allows you to dress it up in furs, diamonds and designer clothes. But you can’t hide from your fans, Kim–not the ones who truly love you anyway. We see a scared little girl who has told us in countless interviews that she is not happy. We see a little girl who’s in pain but hides it well behind her blue contact lenses. But I also see a woman, one who will eventually have to face reality and conquer the demons that haunt her. Because you can’t hide from yourself, ma. I want you to come out of this hell with your dignity intact. To finally know that real power stems from what’s in a woman’s heart, mind and soul. Now that will be empowering. Cuz that’s real. That’s love.