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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism