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 West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era