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.

MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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