A Herstory Ghazal

History hurts women who weave word, sound and truth to brew story. 

Seen as lesser scribes, they fade from light. This ain’t a new story.

The house of Hip Hop belongs to all who live and love in it.

Divine residents build it brick by blessed beat through story.

From Godessa to Lee Kasumba, this black girl magic we

inhabit shatters each glass ceiling into debut story.

What’s a boys club to a god; to us? We birth worlds and verses

and rise to revise the lies and proclaim: this is true story!

Grateful for the glory of creation, Lebohang meets page.

In the beginning was the word. The world awaits. Cue: story.

— A Herstory Ghazal by Lebohang Masango

 

In “A Herstory Ghazal”, I use the upcoming #HipHopHerstory concert as a prompt to express my feelings on the creative power that most women hold, both biologically and artistically. The landmark event will host a selection of talents from South Africa and the US to celebrate women’s roles and achievements within the culture. While the introductory post to this series demonstrates multiple academic perspectives of women’s involvement in Hip Hop that appeal to my interests as a scholar, I use this week to continue that tradition of documentation in writing creatively, as a poet.

The ghazal honestly needs more flowers (while we can still smell ’em), which is to say, the ghazal is Top Two and I don’t mean number two. This underrated form of Arabic poetry has held me spellbound for a few years now. I find it so sad that I went through an entire high school career’s worth of poetry lessons, without encountering it among the usual classes about sonnets and iambic meter. When I first read Hip Hop Ghazal by Patricia Smith, my absolute fave, I was immediately delighted by the rhythms and its insistence on cleverly crafted repetition. I love how it has been a slow revelation; the more I savoured it, the more I realised how different parts have to exist in very particular ways to make it whole. It is an impressively simple-looking yet demanding piece of writing.

Read over my ghazal once more and see if you can identify the rules that dictate how a ghazal is constructed. Here is a short summary:

  1. Ghazal must consist of 5 – 15 couplets, that can each stand alone as separate poems.
  2. First two lines must end in rhyme – using the same word or phrase – this is called a refrain.
  3. The refrain should end the second line of every couplet that follows.
  4. Before each refrain, there has to be a word that rhymes consistently throughout the ghazal.
  5. The first line of the last couplet should contain the poets’s name, or a reference to the poet.
  6. Each line must contain the same number of syllables.

Do you see why I say it is not easy? It’s such a challenge! At the same time, I cannot explain how good it feels to know that when I apply myself, I too can write in one of my favourite forms. Today, my special contribution to the Hip Hop her story movement, also marks my second ghazal (ever!) and I am so excited that it exists. I love how writing this set a challenge for me to write a big story about the strides that women make each day and express it succinctly. I hope that you’ll be inspired to fall in love with the ghazal and to keep women’s stories well-recognised and alive in your own work, whatever it may be.

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Thank you Castle Lite for sponsoring this post!

The Syllabus: An Introduction to Essential Hip Hop Scholarship

Quiet as it’s kept, Hip Hop has had an immeasurable impact on my personhood. I’ve always been fascinated with the powerful self-affirmations that constitute rapper’s braggadocio bars. From Notorious BIG to The Score era’s Lauryn Hill and Rah Digga, my queen Lil Kim and even Jay Z, growing up while hearing how “I’m the best/ baddest/ hottest/ freshest/ dopest/ illest” on repeat has done some amazing things for my confidence and my insistence that I can make my dream life an everyday possibility. Through Hip Hop, this masterful tradition of weaving words, I continue to build and believe in the best ideas about myself.

As a baby Anthropologist, my life involves the deepest appreciation for knowledge production, particularly the scholars who respectfully theorise Black people’s vernaculars and art into the archive. Through the fruits of their intellectual labour in writing our herstories and stories, it is our collective hope that future generations will not have to endure the racist and existential drama that claims that we “didn’t have texts or science or complex political structures or knowledge”. For women and queer people especially, we hope to counter the lies of erasure that claim that “women made little contribution to Hip Hop” or that “there are no queer people in Hip Hop”.

Over the next few weeks, I will explore what Hip Hop means to me and, of course, I will use my words. To start, I’ve compiled some critical texts in Hip Hop scholarship to highlight women as producers, consumers, scholars, political agents and critical thinkers of the culture. I hope you read and engage with this work as we all open our minds and learn more about how difference has played such an important role in making the culture what it is.

1. Hip Hop Feminism

Read this because it is a discussion of the political sensibility that emerges from a generation that grew up with Hip Hop, an art form that has been simultaneously affirming yet marginalising, especially for women and queer people. Hip Hop Feminism aims to go beyond the gains of feminism’s second wave by doing the additional work of interrogating norms and the intersecting ways that representations and images are constructed in order to empower women to participate, critique, counter, enjoy and claim full ownership of the culture.

Peoples, Whitney A. (2008) “Under construction’: Identifying foundations of hip-hop feminism and exploring bridges between Black second-wave and hip-hop feminisms.” Meridians 8:1, 19-52. Read it here.

2. The Role of South Africa in the Origin of Hip Hop.

Read this because the work and life of South Africa’s Poet Laureate, the late Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile is examined to illuminate the golden, diasporic thread that runs between Hip Hop’s founding, through The Last Poets engagement with Prof. Kgositsile’s poetry as a freedom fighter exiled to the United States. Of course, Prof. Kgositsile was not just a brilliant intellectual and writer, he is also the father of Earl Sweatshirt. I have had the pleasure of reading and listening to Dr Phalafala, who is also his biographer. I love that she has taken it upon herself to document his immense contributions to scholarship and Hip Hop music.
Uhuru Portia Phalafala (2017)Black music and pan-African solidarity in Keorapetse Kgositsile’s poetry“, The Journal of South African and American Studies, 18:4, pp. 307-326. Read it here.

3. The Aesthetics of Black Women’s Sexuality

Read this because one of the most contentious debates is whether the misogyny inherent within Hip Hop is responsible for the hyper-sexualisation of women and the extents to which women’s agency in our own sexualised representations contribute to aspects ranging from the full ownership of our bodies, commercial viability and further marginalisation.

White, Theresa Renee. (2013) “Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott and Nicki Minaj: Fashionistin ’Black Female Sexuality in Hip-Hop Culture—Girl Power or Overpowered?.” Journal of Black Studies 44.6, pp. 607-626.

Read it here.

4. Queering Hip Hop

Read it because in the same way that supposedly straight women have an equal stake in Hip Hop, it is necessary to know that queer people have contributed to this culture too. We know that Hip Hop is dynamic and multidimensional, so it cannot only emerge from black heteromasculinity with straight women as its relational figures. Hip Hop is comprised of many fluid and intersecting sexualities. According to Rinaldo Walcott (2013),

…a case could be made plausibly that hip hop is queer, always has been, and always will be... I would argue that it is precisely in the context of a straightened out hip hop that a queer sociality and definitely a homosociality animates some of hip hop’s most excited moments as the soundtrack of contemporary urban life and beyond.

Walcott, Rinaldo. (2013) “Boyfriends with Clits and Girlfriends with Dicks: Hip Hop’s Queer Future.” Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International, 2:2, vol. 2 pp. 168 – 173. Read it here.

5. Representations of Women in South African Hip Hop Videos

Read this because it is a comparative analysis of how women are represented in a selection of music videos by Hip Hop Pantsula, Slikour and Zuluboy – artists who have been recognised as making music that acknowledges the disparities in society and would therefore be assumed to portray women in a progressive manner.

Nyirenda, Zgagula (2014) “Analysis of gender construction in South African hip-hop music and videos”. MA Thesis. Read it here.

Please note that some of these articles may be difficult to access. Please try to log in to your institution of higher education or consider signing up to the sites to read the work.

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Thank you to Castle Lite for sponsoring this blog post!

#ComeSeeMe: Youth Day Roundtable

Technically, you won’t be “coming” to see me because you’ll be viewing me from your couch. I’ll be on 1Magic (DStv channel 103) on Friday, 15 June at 19.00. I’ll be in conversation with Sho Madjozi, Sjava and Frypan/Mpumelelo about the state of youth in our country. Tune in!

(In)Fighting For A Cause

Graphic by Leigh Luna

Fighting for justice must undoubtedly remain a priority, but we should try, as much as possible, to not allow the injustices of the world to harden us to the extent of behaving in toxic ways to the people with whom we claim community. Like intersectionality, worthiness of empathy shouldn’t be ranked on a scale. I totally get why empathy isn’t a person’s first priority when confronting injustices, but we gain nothing by seemingly aiming to misunderstand one another.

We should remember, especially in our communities within the larger global movement of feminism, how easy it is to ignore someone’s humanity and relate to them as the representative of an ideology.

Rookie Mag’s theme for May is “Growing Pains.” Please head over there to read my latest essay on intersectional feminism, online conflicts and the lessons I’ve learned about how we hold each other through the difficulties of our politics. I am really proud of this.

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Thank you, Tavi Gevinson. Your patience and thoughtful critique while editing this really challenged me in the best ways.

Thank You, Dear Reader.

I spent this past Saturday morning at the Johannesburg Family Gathering, a monthly event organised by Ashley Whitfield at the Museum Africa that centres on children and families. (The details are on the poster and I encourage everyone to get their babies involved in cultural activities outside of school.) This time, we got together for story time with Mpumi’s Magic Beads.

One of the best parts about what I do is engaging with little readers and their parents. I am so grateful each time a child let’s me know that they have hair like Mpumi or when parents share what this story means for their families. I’ve had a mom tell me that the book is her son’s favourite nightly read and that something about the rhyming in the book and reading it aloud together has also helped with his speech issues. I’ve had a kiddies hair salon owner reach out because there’s a little girl who came in with my book and requested the style on the cover. I’ve had mom’s send me videos of their children reading. Each time this happens, my heart absolutely beams to know that this book is doing what I hoped it would do in the world. Little children love this story just as I loved so many stories when I was a child. Beyond that, little children feel at home in this story, and isn’t that just the best thing?

I’m always in awe when I see children who are super confident with asserting themselves with adults and peers, alike. I always make a mental note that I would love to be the kind of parent who nurtures that in a child. I think it’s quite a remarkable thing to see a child who owns their space and articulates themselves boldly. The portrait above was drawn by one such a special little girl. While I was “performing” the story, she was reading along loudly with me and afterwards everyone drew some self portraits and she came over to give me hers. I was so touched by her gift, I’m going to be framing it soon.

The part that will always stay with me is how her mother shared with me that ever since she got the book, she draws herself with this hairstyle. We also spoke about how she will be challenging the school’s hair policy using the book as an illustration of the kind of cultural awareness that the school should be seeking to foster in how they move forward in creating an inclusive environment for all their learners. Considering that this book is partly inspired by my own academic work in the sleight of hand employed by schools: using neutral language in hair codes of conduct yet clearly being discriminatory in implementation – I am really all for parents furthering that conversation, especially at a young age so less children have to suffer the trauma of being vilified by the school system for the way they look.

So, the portrait here, by a very special girl is a reminder of all the people who continue to give this dream wings. I have always wanted to do my part to make it just a little better for children in this world and I’m so grateful that this work, by Masego and I, is adding a little sprinkle of magic, confidence and self-love in your lives. You keep my heart full.

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Thank you to all the parents and guardians who reach out in person and online to share with me how the story continues to move in your lives, beyond the book.