Reflecting on Soraya Chemaly’s “6 Reasons Female Nudity Can Be Powerful,” and How I Got Nearly Naked to Get Real About Sexism in Hip Hop

thieves - lady xxx

in character as Emcee Lady XXX-Rated in my 2004 show “Thieves in the Temple: the Reclaiming of Hip Hop.”

I loved Soraya Chemaly’s article “6 Reasons Female Nudity Can Be Powerful.”   The moment I started reading, I began to reflect on my own experiences of semi-nudity as a plus-sized woman of color performer.

In March 2004, I debuted the full-length version of my one-woman show, “Thieves in the Temple:  The Reclaiming of Hip Hop.”  The show was a spoken word and hip hop theater battle cry against sexism and commercialism in hip hop.  One character in particular, Lady XXX-Rated, explored the sexualized female emcee, and presented the most emotionally charged moment of the show.

Unfortunately, the audio cuts out on the 2nd half of the video (below), but you’ll get the idea.  As I said, I wasn’t expecting to write about this today, so I haven’t figured out how to fix the clip.  But I was so moved to write about the subject, even if my video isn’t perfect.

The show grew out of several spoken word and hip hop pieces criticizing misogynist emcees in hip hop, but at some point, I realized I would need to include an analysis of the women involved.  It became immediately clear that I could easily offer a critique of the women, but it was a cop out.  It’s one thing to talk about what’s problematic about women sexualizing themselves to sell records.  It’s quite another thing to walk a mile in that woman’s platform boots and daisy dukes.  I developed the character’s monologue and prepared to perform the piece in a blonde wig, skimpy top and skintight leggings.  My original director, Roger Bonair-Agard shook his head.  He explained that I would need to perform in “booty shorts,” or as they call them in the West Indies, “batty riders.”  Initially, I was uncomfortable about it.  I am a plus-sized woman, at the time a size 12, and while I am comfortable in form-fitting clothes, it was different to have my flesh out onstage.  However, I knew he was right, and I did the first version of the piece onstage at a slam, in a strappy turquoise cleavage showing top, and some floral boy-short bikini bottoms.

Eventually, the costume evolved into black boy-shorts and a tube top, and then had a strappy black one-piece custom made for the full-length show.  After a while, I became very comfortable, even though I had gone up the scale to about a size 16.  In fact, part of what worked about the scene was the juxtaposition of my plus-sized body with the fetishized gear of a blonde wig, platform boots, and skimpy clothes that showed my cleavage and the bottoms of my butt cheeks.  The combination of the conditioned sexy cues of the clothes and the conditioned aversion cues of the larger body had people already feeling uncomfortable even before I opened my mouth.

But if they were uneasy with the visuals, they had even more reason to be so when the song began.  I developed the lyrics to the song “Shaking My Ass” after reading the work of bell hooks, Joan Morgan, and other African American feminist scholars on Lil Kim and Foxy Brown.  In the late 90s, there was a great deal of controversy about these two sexualized female emcees in rap, and as to whether or not they were feminist.  I tended to believe they were not.  And not because they were sexualized and thwarted the politics of respectability, but rather because, through interviews, and feminist analysis of their lives and their work, they seemed not to have integrated their sexual power into in a holistic way.  In looking at different aspects of their lives, the different traumas in their early lives, their personal relationships, how they moved in the world offstage, and how their home lives were organized, each woman seemed to have a more vulnerable self that didn’t quite know how to handle all the sexual attention, even as the lyrics of the rap insisted that she was in charge and knew exactly what she was doing.  I identified with this disconnect.  As a young adult woman, I knew what to do to get men sexually interested and it felt powerful, but I would sometimes get into situations where I felt vulnerable and didn’t know how to find and enforce my sexual limits or to get a more sustained connection that I also craved.

With the two emcees, I read stories about Foxy Brown being shocked that her body was grabbed by a male fan in an airport, or Lil Kim, who at the time, apparently lived with a number of men whom she was supporting but not in a romantic or sexual relationship with any of them.  I worried about their apparent lack of integration, when their music proclaimed all sex all good all the time.  Ultimately, Kim and Foxy were functioning very much on a continuum of sex work, and it was the sexual content that that many critics objected to.  But I was more concerned about the ways that their sexualization made them vulnerable without an adequate support system.  Because I write about sex work, I’m in real-time and virtual conversations with sex workers much of the time.  Stigma, lack of support, and the inability to integrate one’s life is considered a very big hazard of the trade, and these two artists seemed to be struggling with it.  In portraying a sexy emcee character, I decided to focus on the lack of integration between trauma, vulnerability, and the need to be loved on the one hand, and the urgency to demonstrate one’s sexual power in a cool and detached persona on the other.

I be shaking my ass

do you think I’m hot

I be shaking my ass

like what? nigga what?

 

My mama started early & my daddy left quick

I was twelve years old when I sucked my first dick

It made me sick (cough!) but I learned fast

I could climb out of the ghetto on my tits and ass

 

& I be shaking my ass

do you think I’m hot

 

I don’t always use a condom or birth control

I had my first abortion at thirteen years old

I’m not sure who’s the daddy of my daughter Ashley

all I know is she wants to be just like me

 

I be shaking my ass

I get paid a lot

 

I’m the gangsta bitch

the video hoe

the freaky deaky chick who’s always ready to go

I’m the centerfold

I’m the porno star

& twenty years from now I might be wasted in the bar

 

I talk big shit

I know you want it

I be servicing the brothers

ain’t discovered my clit

I make big money

Bought a phat ass home

I can have any nigga

I ain’t neva alone

 

& I be shaking my ass

do you think I’m hot

I be shaking my ass

like what? nigga what?

I be shaking my ass

I get paid a lot

I be shaking my ass

cause it’s all I got

In effect, the performance took the single narrative of all sex all good all the time, and interjected the parallel narrative of trauma and vulnerability.  So if audiences weren’t already uncomfortable with the plus-size body and the sexy clothing, they now also had to contend with a dual narrative of sexual posing, and sexual trauma.  So after the rap, at the end of the scene when the character eventually breaks down under the weight of the contradictions, it makes sense.

The piece wouldn’t have worked if I had been more clothed.  Only by engaging in the semi-nudity of the character could I embody all the contradictions of sexual objectification, sexual trauma.  And then I held them all in character, but in my own body.  That was the final ingredient—my size 16 body.  I had the body of a woman who had gotten comfortable in her own skin, who had worked through sexual trauma and vulnerability.  I stood on the stage not needing the audience to like my body, but using my body in solidarity with other women whom I didn’t perceive as having yet had the space or support to explore their body’s power beyond the power of objectification.  Self-care tips for sex workers suggest that they need to take a vacation from sex work, sometimes to avoid burnout.  But top-selling female emcees never get a vacation from performing their brand in public until they’re dead, in jail, or no longer marketable.

I was completely presumptuous in the development of the piece that I knew how either of these women felt or any woman in their position would feel.  With the help of Ellen Sebastian-Chang, the brilliant director who shaped the final full-length version of the show, part of the piece was the character talking back to feminists like me, and cussing us out.  Before she even begins her rap, the character says:

Bitches wanna picket me?  Shit, you don’t like the concert bee-yotch, then stay ya ugly ass at home.  These intellectual hoes talking about some bullshit that don’t have nothing to do with reality.  These feminists is really just a bunch of fat ugly bitches playa hatin, cuz they don’t look half as good as me.

 

And they seem to have a lot of fucking free time on they hands if they spend it worrying about me and wanna fucking “critique the image I’m portraying.”  Yeah, a bitch can read.  Surprise!  So this is for all you “image critic bitches.”   When yall are ready to pay my bills, I’ll wear whatever the fuck you want me to wear, and I’ll say whatever you btiches want me to say.  But until you trying to get up off some cash, shut the fuck up and stay yo stank ass in the ivory tower cuz you can’t do shit for me.  Niggas got the money, and I got something niggas want.

 

So before you write your next dissertation saying what bitches like me are about, let me tell you exactly what I’m all about.

I still have my booty shorts, my costume, my blonde wig, and my platform boots.  I haven’t worn them in years, and some of them might not even fit anymore since I had a baby.  But I keep them.  As Soraya Chemaly said, there’s great power in female nudity, and they are souveneirs of a time when I put on next to nothing to say something about women’s bodies utilizing my own skin.


One Comment on “Reflecting on Soraya Chemaly’s “6 Reasons Female Nudity Can Be Powerful,” and How I Got Nearly Naked to Get Real About Sexism in Hip Hop”

  1. alm383 says:

    Reblogged this on alm383 and commented:
    اخر من يتحدث عن النساء ابناء محاكم التفتيش الزين استعبدو الشعوب اما النساء حدث ولاحرج الصورالعارية وافلام السكس والعاهرات وحتي تفشا كفيرس ثم يتشدقون بحريت المرئة


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