Move over Nicki Minaj, meet the women making queer hip hop their own

Forget homohop, meet lesbo hop.

You haven't lived until you've seen a lesbian hip hop duo rap about best pussy eating technique to three hundred excited women. Best known for their appearance on lesbo-drama TV series The L Word, hip hop act God Des and She enchanted the crowd at long-standing London queer night Bar Wotever last week. Bringing a signature mix of rapped swagger and ovaries-busting soul - “You and me together we got that vibe/Plus I'm a ten and your girl is a five” -  they ensured there wasn't a dry seat in the house. 

Yet despite being regarded as queer hip hop “pioneers” by EvOn, another lesbian rapper and writer of the LGBT Underground blog, many in the audience of dykes, queers and assorted misfits had only vaguely heard of them before the show. 

Lesbian hip hop isn't a new phenomenon, but you might be forgiven for thinking so. The enthused critical reception queer male rapper Le1f's booty-shaking, undeniably catchy number “Wut” received last summer spawned an excited flurry of articles on the increasing recognition of “homohop” – homosexual hip hop – within mainstream hip hop. But a few token references to Nicki Minaj aside, the queer rappers heralded as an innovative new wave in hip hop were almost invariably men. Their experiments with feminine gender expression and re-reclamation of the word “cunt” (“CUNTspiracy”, “cunty”) were sexy and clever, but also highlighted the lack of queer women rappers with an equal hold on the public.  

“This is a guy's world so you know, people are writing about queer guys. I don't think that a really butch dyke, a super butch dyke, no matter how good she was, could be successful in the mainstream,” God Des, the slick haired, sparkly-eyed, 'rap' half of the duo tells me. Though commercial hip hop star Azealia Banks is openly bisexual, she denies that her sexuality is a feature of her music. And even if female bisexuality is accepted as titillating, few popular women musicians have yet been able to proclaim their sexual unavailability to men. “We need some ugly girls to make it coz they're dope and that's why people like them,” God Des adds, “you know there's a lot of ugly dude rappers that are famous as hell.” 

Hip hop gets a bad rap. So over-used that they're part of the scenery, “bitch”, “ho”, “faggot” and “slut” are the lyrical bread and butter of a multitude of commercially successful male rappers. Perhaps it's unsurprising that some lesbian rap draws on the same tired tradition. In the mouths of probably the best known lesbian hip hop group, the aggressively macho, influential Yo Majesty, similar lyrics feel fresher – if just because spoken by women – but do little to subvert stereotypical norms. The line: “Bootylicious very yummy/In my dictionary honey/Get down on the floor/Now drop it down low,” from the innovatively titled “Booty Clap”, wouldn't be out of place on any Ludacris album. 

But other queer women hip hop artists have found newer voices, carving unconventional tracks into a genre that also holds room for challenges to its own established order. Self-described pansexual rapper Angel Haze's raw take (trigger warning) on Eminem's “Cleaning Out My Closet” puts the original version of the song to shame. Haze's devastating, challenging overdub gives her side of the story – the other side of the world-view that sees women as commodities. It's the version of events that usually goes untold, silenced by the mass of gyrating asses and tits that create a figurative MTV-branded cultural smokescreen. She warns: “Disgusting right? Now let that feeling ring through your guts.” In doing so, Haze demonstrates the kind of impact that hip hop can have when done well.

“We're kind of like hip hop for people that normally don't like it,” says She, the self-appointed diva, femme and singing half of God Des and She. “We have the capability to make a 45 year old white lesbian who would never ever listen to rap music now feel like, this is my shit.” Their ability to reel in women who are more Tegan and Sara than Snoop Lion may be partly about race  – both are white – but it is also to do with the breadth and accessibility of their music, which combines pop, soul and disco to create a hip hop fusion.

They're also funny. Like many male rappers, God Des and She have bravado, but it's non-violent and machismo-free, poking fun at the genre's conventions. “Lick It”, God Des and She's most (in)famous song, is a homage to cunnilingus (“We were teaching straight guys to lick pussy, because they're really the ones that need help”). Set in a regrettably imaginary “pussy eating 101” classroom, the video features a giant dancing tongue, drag king Murray Hill, an ice cream van, a synchronised dance routine and a game of “find the G spot”.  

Video aside, the lyrics are memorable enough on their own, somehow managing to communicate the merits of a holistic approach to oral, the extensive possibilities for women's sexual pleasure and the agency of all involved. Directions like: “Don't be bland, better act creative/Be on top of your game and be innovative/Experiment a bit and change it up/Lick a little lower then put it in her butt”, are simultaneously words of wisdom (depending on your preference)  and an antidote to musicians of all genres who take themselves too seriously. 

The use of humour isn't exclusive to God Des and She, of course. Yo Majesty member Shunda K's single “It's time to get paid” takes on the broader music industry's culture of conspicuous consumption; an ideology which dictates that prestige lays in purchase-power. The video tracks Shunda K and “fist-funk” musician Snax as they shop for groceries in the aisles of a supermarket, complete with shopping trolley and obnoxiously played-up wads of cash. There's also a delightful cameo appearance from electroclash artist Peaches as a bitchy cloakroom attendant. Shunda K's light mixture of rap, electro and funk acts as a fun, musical categories-melding vehicle for the song's self-deprecating message. 

A similar experimental approach to genre can be found in the neo-soul of Seattle-based duo THEESatisfaction and soft spoken-word of “anti-swagger political queer” Egyptian-Canadian rapper MC Jazz. In “Pause”, THEESatisfaction, who are also lovers, challenge the homophobic hip hop convention of using the words “pause” or “no homo” to distance the speaker from homosexuality: “Homo/and you pause/hetero/and you pause/homo/coz they say/oh no!” The off-beat, minimalist vibe enables THEESatisfaction to convey a defiantly political message without proselytising.  Equally relaxed and sparse, MC Jazz's “Lay Down” – also her debut video – makes lesbianism sexy without losing authenticity. In a sultry, rhythmic undertone MC Jazz confidently articulates the trajectory of a same-sex sexual encounter: “This is how we make love”. 

Artists making niche or counter-cultural hip hop face an uphill fight: against both the racism of wider culture and the dominant voices within the scene itself. Queer women doing hip hop contend with the homophobia, misogyny and racism that still dictate the ways women are allowed to make it in music: almost anything goes as long as it's sexy – and men get to decide what sexy is. But as God Des and She finish their set with shouts of “do that pussy right”, the cheers from the dancing, flush-cheeked audience are resounding. It's easy to put the struggle to one side and get on with enjoying the music. Forget homohop. If lesbo hop isn't it's own, standalone scene yet, it damn well should be.

God Des and She have just released their fourth album, United States of God Des and She. It can be heard at www.god-desandshe.com.

God Des and She.

Ray Filar is a freelance journalist and an editor at openDemocracy. Her website is here.

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster