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

God Des and She.

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

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Matches made in heaven: Carol and Bridge of Spies

Todd Haynes' Carol is as tantalising as hearing a tender ballad on a tinpot transistor. Plus: Bridge of Spies.

“No Excessive Noise” reads the prominent sign in a prison yard in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, the cool retelling of a real-life Cold War stand-off. It’s a warning adhered to not only by Spielberg, who knows how to increase tension without any corresponding spike in volume, but also by the director Todd Haynes in his love story Carol. There are other similarities beyond a preference for the back burner over the pressure cooker. Both show people whom society decrees should not be together undergoing a slow dawning of fascination and affection for one another. Both films function as acting duets. And both take place during an uncertain time for the world and specifically for America: the 1950s. Carol is set at the start of that decade, Bridge of Spies towards the end, with the hangover of the Second World War palpable in a light dusting of soot and instability.

Carol begins deceptively with a noirish tracking shot following a fellow along a New York street and into his favourite haunt, where he banters with the bartender. The score by Carter Burwell, laced with a snake charmer’s seductiveness, swells and swoops. Who is this man? What is his secret? It turns out that he is here to hand over the point of view of the film to two women: the petite Therese (Rooney Mara) and her older, elegant drinking companion, Carol (Cate Blanchett). Much has been written in film theory about the “male gaze” – the masculine prism through which almost every film is shot. But even before we see Therese’s work as a budding photographer, this off-kilter prologue passes the baton explicitly from male to female. It’s their story now, not his.

They first meet in a department store. Carol is buying a Christmas present for her daughter. Therese, who works there, recommends a spiffy train set. Carol agrees to have it delivered but leaves little doubt that she would also like to find Therese gift-wrapped in her Christmas stocking. The order placed, she sweeps off without her gloves. This is no innocent act. In Hitchcock’s 1929 thriller Blackmail, a woman’s mislaid gloves incriminate her in a murder. In Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, a lost glove is the catalyst for infidelity and death. Here, the gloves provide a reason to meet again. When Carol takes Therese to lunch, the film’s palette of pale mints and pinks is disrupted by the plump red banquettes. The erotic charge of the encounter is deepened by the impression that the women are seated on giant, shiny lips.

Red, a colour associated with Carol, becomes a kind of contagion in the film. When Therese places a plush red sweater in her suitcase for their first holiday together, it is more than just prudent packing: she is throwing in her lot with her new identity. In a film that avoids orchestrated crescendos of incident, any moments of transformation can easily become the job of the costume department. (Take a bow, Sandy Powell.)

The cinematographer Edward Lachman is also responsible for showing how these characters are boxed in. He shoots through doorways and windows and traffic, so that we are always conscious of obstacles and interference. Watching the film can be as tantalising as hearing a tender ballad on a tinpot transistor.

The nearest that the movie gets to melodrama is when Carol’s relationship with Therese antagonises the custody dispute with her estranged husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). Even here, though, Haynes and the screenwriter Phyllis Nagy (the film is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt) play nice. We feel the reluctance of people who have only recently survived a world war to stampede once more into combat. For all their disharmony, Carol and Harge cling to their humanity. “We’re not ugly people,” she tells him. It’s true in both senses.

Blanchett and Mara seem visibly to be enhancing and encouraging the other’s work, never more so than in the final scene, which depends for its intensity, like so much of the film, on the exchange of eye contact. Structured as an extended flashback, Carol loops back to the start. And it is true that circles, such as the train track Carol sets up for her daughter, are a recurring motif. But the film doesn’t quite conform to the circular. Though it returns to where it began, the tentative ending makes the narrative Q-shaped. That’s Q for quiet, questioning and queer.

The love in Bridge of Spies is platonic but no less electrifying. The Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) has been arrested in Brooklyn in 1957. He’s going down, no doubt about that, and may even be executed but the appearance of fairness is paramount to the US government. Hence its hiring of James B Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer and a safe pair of hands, to defend Abel. Donovan is really only an intermediary. As the case gives way to a deal to exchange Abel for a US soldier imprisoned in Russia, his effectiveness as a backstage negotiator becomes vital. “We need to have the conversations our governments can’t,” he tells a colleague. The movie keeps diminishing Donovan’s place in the frame, or elbowing him off to the side, even making him ridiculous when he is mugged in sub-zero Berlin. (“How did you lose your coat?” someone asks. “Spy stuff,” he bluffs.)

This is all as playfully disingenuous as the first meeting between Abel and Donovan, which is shot against a glaring light that reduces them both to virtual silhouettes. Spielberg knows he could have Hanks and Rylance with buckets on their heads and they would still act anyone else off the screen. Bridge of Spies, which includes the Coen brothers among its screenwriters, is about the value of empathy as a defence against discord, a subject of unending pertinence. But it is also a blatant celebration of what actors do. When Donovan makes a persuasive argument in court, the judge says: “Nice speech.” He’s enjoying it as much as we are.

The genius of the casting is in the contrast: Hanks, the richly sympathetic screen actor, and Rylance, no less colossal a talent but one comparatively untried in cinema. (He has 11 films to Hanks’s 50-plus.) As an unknown quantity but also a veteran, Rylance imbues Abel with both humility and an enigmatic gravitas. His quizzical eyes are framed by horn-rimmed glasses but his mouth seems horn-rimmed, too; he has the knack of being able to smile and frown at the same time and you could run a train along the furrows in his brow. The opening shot pulls back from him scrutinising himself in the mirror to reveal that he is studying his face, brush in hand, for a self-portrait. Rylance’s mastery of stillness is renowned. Even so, I swear I saw the painting blink first. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State