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The culture is ours

Women in Tulsa’s hip-hop scene are breaking ground, and they’re here to stay

Left to right: Ali Shaw, Sarah Short, TeAndrea Dyer, Shakera Simmons

Greg Bollinger

“To be a woman who loves hip-hop at times is to be in love with your abuser. Because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours.” —Ava DuVernay

Women have been major players in the hip-hop game since its inception. Artists such as MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, and Salt-N-Pepa worked to combat the misogyny that existed in the early days of hip-hop by forging their own path to success. The golden era of hip-hop fostered women rappers unafraid to be themselves and speak on social justice issues.

Ava DuVernay, director of the documentary “My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women and Hip Hop,” points out the fact that around 45 women hip-hop artists were signed to major labels in the early 90s compared to three women signed to major labels in 2010. Last year, Pitchfork reported on this disparity, finding only three out of 13 major labels with female rappers on their roster.

When Rick Ross was questioned on “The Breakfast Club” about not having any female artists signed to his Maybach Music Group (MMG) label. He responded: “I never [signed women] because I always thought, like, I would end up fucking a female rapper, fucking the business up […] if she’s lookin’ good and I’m spending so much money on her photoshoots, I gotta fuck her.”

Ross’ unabashed misogyny and apparent lack of control over his own body shines a glaring spotlight on the sexism deeply ingrained within the industry—and the men who run it. Another justification frequently offered by male executives as to their labels’ lack of women artists is the alleged amount of “upkeep” women require to keep them looking glamorous, cutting into profits (cue overly-dramatic eye roll).

In the current climate, women powerhouses like Nicki Minaj and Cardi B have risen to the top with record-breaking success. Yet, the two artists are constantly pitted against each other by the media and those hungry for rap beef. The tension between Minaj and Cardi underscores the fact that the industry creates very little room for more than one rap queen, while their male counterparts work within a space large enough for hundreds to enjoy commercial success.

In Tulsa, there have been very few, if any, women emcees recognized in the local rap scene—until recently. In September, a cypher video was released highlighting women rappers in Oklahoma. Shot downtown by King Spencer, Tulsa emcees Sarah Short (a.k.a. Ayilla), Shakera Simmons (Bambi), TeAndrea Dyer (Tizzi), TaNesha Rushing (Tea Rush), and Shiann Davis of OKC freestyle over instrumentals with the orange glow of the Tulsa skyline shimmering in the background.

After generating buzz with their freestyle video, the women featured have continued to rise up within the scene and make waves by releasing singles (see: “Mango Tree” by Tizzi and “Ms. Mary” by Ayilla), working on EPs, and making regular appearances on Tulsa stages.

I met with Bambi, Ayilla, Tizzi, and Tea Rush together at the home of 105.3 KJMM DJ and host Ali Shaw (a.k.a. Mama Tulsa) to learn more about their personal experiences navigating the scene. We gathered around Shaw’s dining room table as she prepared homemade chicken noodle soup.

Shaw began by sharing her mixed feelings about the title of the cypher video. “I didn’t really want to call it ‘Female Spittas,’” she said. Shaw points to the fact that women are not seen as equals within rap, labelled as “female emcees” rather than just “emcees.”

I sat back and listened as they shared their experiences, navigating a culture rife with double standards and unrealistic expectations of beauty.

“Our world is run by men, and it is also run by sex,” Ayilla said. She was once asked to appear in a music video wearing only a sports bra and underwear. “I’m just not a video vixen,” she said. “I do not judge any woman who does that; that’s just not me.”

“There are a lot of women out here doing it better than some men, but they have to fight a lot harder to get that recognition,” Shaw said. “Because most can’t get past the way we look or how we are dressed.”

The women began discussing their desire to express their sexuality in their music on their own terms, in a way that is comfortable to them. However, this sexual expression is often met with criticism or men interpreting it as an open invitation to be predatory.

“It’s controversial no matter what a woman does,” Tizzi said. “I posted this video of me wearing this wig and [got] a text saying, ‘If you want the image of being a slut, then here you go. Then I had somebody else email me a picture of their—ya know. . .”

“I’ll dress how I want for a performance no matter what,” Bambi added. “But men will make assumptions and take that as me wanting to get with them. Did you listen to what I was rapping about?”

While the experiences shared by these artists evoked feelings of rage and frustration, I managed to leave the interview feeling uplifted and encouraged by the fact that women like Ali Shaw exist in the scene. By using her hard-earned influence within the music industry to uplift and promote other women, she has helped create lanes and reduce barriers for women artists.

Shaw hopes to use her production skills in the near future by transforming her music room into a studio space, providing a safe place for women to record and receive feedback. In addition to promoting women emcees, Shaw promotes women DJs like Afistaface and DJ Kylie and is planning an all-female DJ event at Fassler Hall on Nov. 17.

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