Last weekend, Capri Shorter—a Baltimore-based brand strategist and artist manager—hosted and took part in the second edition of her rap-focused panel discussion series, The Exchange, at local bookstore and coffeehouse, Red Emma’s. Back in November, The Exchange’s (all-guy) first panel took on the history and state of hip-hop in Baltimore and as a panelist, I badly wanted a woman’s insight. Janae Griffin (Saturday’s moderator) penned an article for us leading up to the first installment, opening up about turning down an invitation to speak that night due to feelings of not being qualified to join the men who were asked to speak. And while I appreciated her honesty, it didn’t hold me back from the sadness I felt when she sent me that article’s draft. On a grand scale, I understood how feelings of inferiority can be internalized by women living in a patriarchal society but on a personal level, I kept asking myself “Why?!” No shade to the others who spoke at The Exchange back then, but what made them so qualified? Other than Scottie B and Labtekwon who’ve been putting in work before most of the panelists were born, the bulk of us are still trying to make a mark, no matter what we’ve accomplished so far. That’s why I was so happy to hit the all-female-focused second part of The Exchange last Saturday which featured Shorter, radio host and Baltimore Club DJ, Angelbaby, rapper TT The Artist, organizer Mia Loving, radio host Civ Jones, and event curator, Chin-Yer.
It didn’t take long at all for me to realize that I’m probably not half as strong as the panelists to repeatedly face the shit they do. “In the music business, men aren’t afraid to tell you they want to have sex with you,” Shorter answered to what some cons of being in a male-dominated industry are. “And that could be anyone from your boss to the artist you represent.” TT The Artist shared similar frustrations as she told stories of executives’ reasons for not investing in her were “we’re not attracted to you.” How to deal with those situations ranged from Civ Jones saying that she’s never had any incidents, to Chin-Yer asserting that “checking a man first to assure he doesn’t try again” to TT saying that she pretends she doesn’t even hear the sexual advances.
Sadly, mostly nothing I heard was particularly surprising that night. With an all-woman panel in this context, I expected to hear questions on how they were dealing with being a minority in the music business, I expected to learn about the pathetic shit men kick to them on the regular and I expected to hear them discuss what compromising situations they regularly faced. All that still didn’t fully prepare me for their stories. It’s like when you go into watching a gore-y film; you know people are gonna get whacked but that doesn’t always stop your reflexes when somebody’s chest gets opened up and you see their insides pop out. While being mostly enlightening, a lot of The Exchange II was numbing for that reason.
When the floor was first opened to the audience for questioning, many issues expressed by the panelists were manifested by bonehead inquiries and suggestions from too-out-of-touch male spectators. In reference to women nowadays wearing their shorts “up to here” (ugh), one asked: “If you can’t put a woman emcee on your level, then you won’t have respect for them. So what is being done by women in your industry to increase the respect level that men have for you?” With understandable frustration and anger, Shorter quickly snapped, “This event” before TT The Artist properly put things in perspective by expressing that the societal double standard in personal presentation should have no bearing on how much/little respect a woman garners. She also shared the trials she faced in her one year of teaching at the Baltimore Design School when her 6th and 7th graders caught wind of her “Pussy Ate” song and how she had to explain to both students and administrators that her art outside of her job was not to be compromised or used as ammunition for admonishing her as an educator. Soon after, another male audience member suggested women in the industry having “a coalition of men” to check men who step out of line, apparently not realizing that his advice was largely why we were all in attendance that night; a woman should not need a man’s protection while trying to complete her fucking job. Further, who’s to say that a member of this coalition wouldn't try a woman just as quickly as ones in her field?
Interestingly, Saturday's most heated and vital period was actually in response to topics not specific to women. In particular: are local artists doing enough in the community to redirect people from the detrimental happenings in society, especially in the inner city?
Other than Mia Loving's suggestion to start putting hip-hop back in the hands of children by encouraging them to create, getting funding to fuel organizations is what lit an explosive fire under the panel. Civ Jones expressed that instead of speaking on public issues, artists like Lil Wayne should put money into the communities that are "directly affected by the trash he talks about." Her sentiment here, while heartfelt, to me, was problematic and mirrored the double standard that the panelists spoke out against earlier in the program. Wayne—who's an entertainer first—has the right to speak on any issues he pleases and could very well be funding organizations in many communities. The lyrical content in his music doesn't have to reflect his political stances.
TT's "go fish for grant money" response led to justifiable kickbacks from other panelists who pointed out that grant money in Baltimore's art scene are rarely allocated to startups and organizations that have black progress as a priority. This is where shit got officially turnt to the point of TT's mic being cut off for being too overt and forceful in her conviction (I suppose), as she defended her suggestions by stating that no matter if you get the grant money or not (which she has tried and failed at repeatedly), you should still try. But after the explosion, Loving concisely stated: "If we don't try to continue to define the culture for ourselves and create mechanisms and institutions for ourselves, we'll continue to have these issues of segregation." No argument there.
An equal amount of passion was generated on the topic of local media's role in breaking new artists to which 92Q's Angel Baby asked, "Why are you coming to me for support?" Building a personal brand and a loyal following are what she urged underground artists to place as priorities, which Shorter responded with "92Q is not on our side." And while the audience clearly sided with Capri's rebuttal, this is a topic that will never be fully agreed on by anyone. The most important takeaway was Angel Baby and Civ sharing the knowledge that who they play on radio doesn't come down to what their personal preferences are; artists who are not backed by big corporations like SoundScan will probably never be played on local radio because there is no way to profit from them.
What was most refreshing about Saturday was the constant outpour of passion, no matter if it was synchronized claps for a "no shit" moment, explosive disagreement or just the willingness to show some fucking emotion; women, naturally, are better than men in that way. I don't know if vulnerability comes easier to feminine beings or if, at this point, it's just a might-as-well approach in response to being constantly tested by male counterparts. The male-donated first leg of The Exchange that I took part in, while insightful and informative, sorely lacked in FEELINGS. Stepping back and assessing both, I ask myself would men had even been questioned the way the female panelists were? How to conduct yourself, if compromising the grind is in your best interest for safety's sake, if I'm truly welcomed in this industry, etc. As a man, I don't ever HAVE to think about that shit. And also, as a man, I'm not constantly subjected to the self-marginalization that women all too often are. After I stepped out for a few minutes Saturday, some major pushback was given to a comment that Chin-Yer reportedly made in reference to the small presence woman have in hip-hop to which she said, there aren't as many good female rappers as there are male. A counterproductive comment? To say the very least, YES, but judging by the effects of oppression from women in hip-hop to people of color across the globe, it's not a complete surprise...just sad.
Hopefully, the efforts of Saturday's panel and others to come will start to reverse such mindsets and promote an overall awareness of women's worth—not only in rap, but in our society as a whole. For true progression, Baltimore could use more non-digital, cultural discourse within the arts community and The Exchange II showed how much can be learned and shared when we don't harbor our feelings.