Hip-Hop Should Take A Few Notes From Sesali Bowen

The journalist's podcast “Purse First” is highlighting female and queer rappers in a way they rarely experience in major media.
Sesali Bowen is an entertainment journalist, scholar and host of the podcast "Purse First."
Sesali Bowen is an entertainment journalist, scholar and host of the podcast "Purse First."
Illustration: Benjamin Currie/HuffPost; Photo: Lazz Gen Photography

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You probably know Sesali Bowen for her TikToks breaking down who each rap girl makes music for. Or you might know her for coining “trap feminism” and writing her debut book on the term. If not, then surely you know her for her moniker and social media handle that sums up the intersections she proudly sits at, Bad Fat Black Girl.

She’s breaking ground for the way media covers Black femmes and queer artists in hip-hop. And with her podcast “Purse First,” she and co-host Pierre Phipps, of the gay rap duo Freaky Boiz, are making history with the first and only platform dedicated specifically to the girls and gays of rap.

The New Jersey-based journalist first had the idea for her podcast in 2020 while working on her book, “Bad Fat Black Girl: Notes From a Trap Feminist.” She saw a void in how female and queer rappers were being discussed in comparison to straight male rappers. There was clearly an opportunity being missed, especially considering the boom of female and queer rappers on the scene in recent years. And often when they were being discussed, it was either in a disrespectful or minimizing way.

Enter “Purse First.”

“I thought a lot about the disconnect between how I listen to hip-hop and how so many people around me listen to hip-hop,” Bowen said. “We only listening to mostly women because there was so much there, and having to get on the internet every day and find out about how the hosts of these other really popular hip-hop podcasts are problematic, even misogynistic, have hosts with sexual assault allegations or just generally disrespectful to women in general.”

She recruited Phipps as her co-host, and they launched their first season in early 2021. Bowen, who worked in publishing at Nylon and Refinery29′s Unbothered previously, knew her judgment around the worthiness of a show like “Purse First” was on point, despite an initial struggle to secure funding. She got confirmation of that when the Pussy Rap and All of That group, founded by Mikeisha Vaughn, Laja H, Robyn Mowatt and Kia Turner, gained a lot of interest at the height of Clubhouse, the social network based on audio only.

“Purse First” launched independently, and the hosts had to be scrappy about production, using their industry contacts and Bowen’s media knowledge to book guests and promote the show.

The episodes often include guest interviews with both newer and seasoned artists. Previous interviews include Kidd Kenn, Baby Tate, KenTheMan, BbyMutha and Trina. Bowen and Phipps also do historical dives, including an oral history of Phipp’s group Freaky Boiz. “Purse First” recently hit its 5,000-download mark, a milestone for the duo that records virtually on different coasts. This season, they’re hoping to lean into video content and live conversations to complement their show a lot more. This season, which premiered Aug. 12, features guests including Dai Burger and Kali.

“We hope to be just a very refreshing alternative,” Bowen said.

Bowen spoke with me about the importance of “Purse First,” her journey to coining trap feminism, stan culture and her hopes for the future of rap.

Sesali Bowen and Pierre Phipps are hosts of the hip-hop podcast "Purse First."
Sesali Bowen and Pierre Phipps are hosts of the hip-hop podcast "Purse First."
Lazz Gen Photography

Congratulations on this third season of “Purse First.” First of all, “Purse First” is very much history in the making, in the fact that you and Pierre are the first to break this ground in podcasting to shine a light on female and queer rappers.

Can we talk about it? All the girls that are out in rap right now and nobody thought to do this.

That void just speaks to how underrepresented women and queer people have been in hip-hop historically. Talk to me about how you came up with this idea and concept for a podcast.

I came up with the idea for “Purse First” in 2020. We were obviously in the pandemic. I was actually still in the process of writing my book on trap feminism. I talk about female rap in my book, so I had just been thinking a lot about the fact that we had so much female talent that was just constantly cropping up. I mean, Meg was dominating everything. We had Nicki, we had Cardi, we had Latto, KenTheMan, everybody. So I’m like, “OK, there is no show about this. There is no podcast.” That felt weird to me.

I thought a lot about the disconnect between how I listen to hip-hop and how so many people around me listen to hip-hop. We only listening to mostly women because there was so much there and having to get on the internet every day and find out about how the hosts of these other really popular hip-hop podcasts are problematic, even misogynistic, have hosts with sexual assault allegations or just generally disrespectful to women in general.

And I’m like, so you mean to tell me we got all of these bitches that’s making more money, making better music, doing bigger deals, and the only show that they’re supposed to respect and look up to, to go sit down and talk to people about their work is abusers and predators? I started to put together a pitch, and I felt really strongly about it and I knew that I wanted Pierre to co-host with me because, first of all, Pierre funny as hell, but also Pierre is legendary in his own right, as one of the Freaky Boiz.

Where does the name “Purse First” come from?

So that actually is so funny because a lot of people associate “Purse First” with… apparently Bob the Drag Queen has a song called “Purse First.” But the saying, the full saying is “purse first, ass last.” I thought it was just a popular Black colloquialism. It’s like some shit that your grandma will tell you when you get your first adult boyfriend. But apparently, it actually is a saying that originates in sex work, specifically pimp culture. Which makes sense that I grew up hearing that because I’m from Chicago. Chicago, Detroit, pimp culture is just a big thing there.

So, it was just like a Black colloquialism, purse first, ass last. So I liked that as a title for the show because I feel like that’s really the vibe of the femme rap that we’re getting. It’s really about being in your bag. It’s about putting the money first. It’s about just really getting to it. Also because we’re very intentional about not asking our guests about their relationships. We don’t ask those salacious-type questions. We don’t spend a lot of time doing that. We really do put the first purse first and the ass last.

I love that y’all make it a point to not ask these folks who they’re sleeping with or dating. Even the fact that y’all had episodes explicitly saying why y’all will not be covering any more of Megan’s shooting. Can you speak to the importance and goal of that?

I think about the fact that a show like “Purse First” not existing before we did it as being problematic and toxic. We hear all these stories about how women in the industry, these men feel like if they’re not going to sleep with them, they can’t get their features. So it comes to a point where you have to recognize how certain behaviors are actually contributing to a harmful and a toxic culture.

Megan has explicitly stated in so many ways, she literally just dropped an album called “Traumazine.” She is trying to tell us over and over again how traumatic it has been to not only have experienced violence from this person, but then to have to relive it constantly, to be basically flat-out called a liar because people don’t feel like she has given us enough detail about every single thing about her and Tory’s relationship or what happened that night for us to believe her. She specifically told us that it’s hurting her.

Also what she has specifically said is that a lot of the media coverage and tactics are originating from a specific plot to defame her character. So it gets to a point where if you jump on every news bite that comes out about the case, at what point are you contributing to her harm? So for us, and I think for me and Pierre, as it relates to the case, we are willing to maybe be wrong in the end but to do the right thing in the meantime if it means that we are not contributing to that noise.

Yeah. Especially considering how often we end up looking back on history and saying, “Damn, we fucked up this story. We should have listened to Robin Givens. We should have listened to Dee Barnes. We should have listened to so many people.”

Yes, exactly. But then on the flip side, I feel like one of the things that people notice on “Purse First” is that Pierre is the super Barb. But I’m more so a disgruntled Nicki fan. I have a lot of problems with a lot of the things that Nicki does and says, and how she handles things.

I’m very comfortable addressing the things that I don’t necessarily like about where Nicki’s career is going or some of the things, and I can say that, yeah, and I still think she is the queen of rap, and I still love her, and I still know what drew me to Nicki and I can still critique her. I feel like that’s what it really means to take female artists seriously. It’s not just stan culture. But it’s also not being dismissive of what their real experiences are, and there’s a space for us to hold them accountable. So I really appreciate that Pierre and I bring our honesty.

And I’ve been nervous about that because of the way stan culture is. So it’s like, the moment I say anything bad about Megan, then people think that I don’t like Megan, when I’m really an OG hottie. I’m the one who put a lot of you bitches on Megan.

What did you grow up listening to?

Trina, who we also had on Season 2. That was the honor of all honors.

I was definitely sneaking and listening to Lil’ Kim’s “Hard Core” album. I like Total a lot, but also I got to give a shoutout to the Spice Girls, because I feel like I was of that generation that was very set up to respect women who were a little rebellious, if that makes sense. Scary Spice was one of my first pop culture idols. Even somebody like Kelis owes a lot of their alt girl swag to Melanie B.

I listened to Destiny’s Child, of course. I actually really liked Missy a lot. Foxy Brown. I loved Foxy; that “Broken Silence” album was my shit.

You coined “trap feminism” and wrote a book about it, your debut book. What was your journey to the term like?

So the first time I ever actually said “trap feminism” was in 2012 on a road trip with my homegirl. We had stopped at a rest stop and saw the missing girl posters, and a lot of them were Black girls. We were talking about how what’s actually really crazy is that a lot of these girls are probably in the sex trade right now, probably working at the behest of a Black man. We were having an honest conversation about the fact that a lot of the abuse that Black women experience just in the world happens at the hands of Black men.

But we were also talking about how this idea of pimping is meant to look so sexy in certain contexts. We’re just chopping it up, but I had just finished college, I had a gender studies degree, so I had a feminist lens to think about things. I was a student of bell hooks, a student of Joan Morgan, a student of Audre Lorde. So as we were talking about all of this but literally while blasting Lil Wayne, “Where the Cash At.”

It was like, this is what we know the reality to be for Black women, and this is how we deal with that, and this is how we are conceptualizing and internalizing our experience at this very specific intersection of being young and Black and of a generation where trap music and trap culture is at the forefront. But also when people talk about Black womanhood, they’re not often talking about Black women from the hood. They’re usually talking about college-educated Blacks or Blacks that grew up around white folks.

As I started writing about it, I literally put it up against certain soundtracks. So it was like, OK, if you listen to this Yo Gotti song, is it possible that there’s a feminist theme in this song if you listen to it from a certain context? So it started with how can I recontextualize literally the music that I’m hearing because I’m thinking about the women in the songs instead of just listening to what the n***a is saying on the song. I’m thinking about the woman that he’s talking about and what her perspective would be versus just taking what he’s saying.

Then I started to understand it as a way to just validate the experiences of Black women from the hood because I think that oftentimes we only talk about them and we never talk to them. We observe the things that they do and sometimes culturally appropriate the things that they do. But we don’t see the value in actually how they live.

It’s not a coincidence that every year we have to have some conversation about how y’all are culturally appropriating, Black women aesthetics, Black women’s language.

Absolutely. It happened to your term, too.

Right. And let’s be clear on which Black women y’all are appropriating it from and let’s be clear about what it means to give somebody like JT, who was literally in jail for fraud, for her to be one of the biggest artists, but for us to still be doubting why the people who shot Breonna Taylor need to go to jail for it.

It was this dissonance where it’s like, the girls who are actually living in the hood, we don’t give a fuck about, but we want to look like that and we want to sound like them. We want to talk like them. But, yeah, so that was kind of the evolution of it. I mean, trap feminism has been at this point a 10-year project.

What has been your biggest observation that has been maybe surprising for you within the past five years or so of this rap girl renaissance that we’re in?

I guess it’s not surprising in retrospect, but the thing that stands out to me and is most disappointing, which is that it’s so obvious how we put female rappers out the hood but then as soon as they get a little bit of success, we want to throw them in a leotard and some performance tights and hurry up and make them a pop star.

They do that with women in a way that they don’t do with men. Nobody is forcing Lil Baby to learn no fucking choreography. Why y’all got these girls working so hard? And they lose their original sound. That’s the thing about it. Women can make hood music, too.

I see girls like Glorilla come up, and the first prayer I say is just let it cook a little bit. That’s literally just what I’m seeing with every rap girl when they start to cross that threshold, when they sign that dotted line that gets signed or really start getting those numbers, it’s an immediate transition into a pop lane.

I just wish more people would sit with what that means, that we are constantly trying to make Black women more palatable in a way that we do not do with Black men.

Season 3 of "Purse First" premiered Aug. 12.
Season 3 of "Purse First" premiered Aug. 12.
Lazz Gen Photography

What is your hope for hip-hop in general, especially when it comes to the Black women and Black queer folk in hip-hop?

I just want to see more of this. I want to not lose this momentum and also keep diversifying. Every rap girl don’t have to look the same way. Every rap girl don’t have to sound the same way, and they don’t all have to be pop stars. There’s value in hip-hop. Hip-hop is the global... the No. 1 genre for a reason. So we don’t have to all be doing the same thing.

Who are your top five right now?

Glorilla. KenTheMan. I’m a hottie, so I got to say Meg. I know what she’s capable of. Oh, I love Kidd Kenn. And I actually have to give a shout-out to Caresha, because I feel like the narrative when City Girls first came out was that everybody knows JT is the lyricist of the group, but I feel like Caresha has actually really been strengthening her craft. I feel like she really has been learning and trying to be like a better performer. It’s actually been really dope to see her evolve because Caresha actually is low-key an it girl, and she really has that star factor and I feel like she working for it.

If you were one of the rap girls, who would you make music for?

This is a trick question, which is funny because I low-key am a rap girl.

A lot of people don’t know I dropped a mixtape. It’s on Apple and Spotify. So I feel like I make music for the girls that had to make their dumb mistake so that they could earn their OG status. Really, I make music for the big sisters and the big cousins of the friend group.

And I make music for the girls that feel like, “I’m beyond that stage in life where you need validation from other people.” The girls who really feel like, “I don’t care how you feel about me. I know how I feel about me.”

With that said, why are you that girl?

Because I’ve been that girl and always will be. I’m really just that girl because I think that I have always had my own set of standards and my own goals, and I really stand on them. I just don’t let a lot of shit break me from that. I’m very unshakeable, and I don’t say that to be cocky or arrogant or cliché or anything like that, but I really feel unshakable.

I really learned that you really have to stand on your shit, and when you do that, you’re immovable. Who can tell you anything? When you know that you’ve done the work, when you know that you can stand on what you believe in and stand on how you was raised and stand on what your values and what your integrity is.

I’m that girl because I always prioritize being a real bitch over being a bad bitch. I can say that.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I hope that my legacy really involves just really championing and continuing to celebrate Black girls. You know what I mean? I hope that I play a part in normalizing that, that we really can just love Black girls where they at. We don’t have to ask them to go on a femininity journey. We don’t have to ask them to look a certain way, to be shaped a certain way. We don’t have to ask them to do nothing. We can really just love them where they at and appreciate them where they at and regard their humanity where they are. I hope that me being able to play any part in conversations that move us toward a world like that is a legacy that works for me.

For our series celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, HuffPost is featuring old and new stories about rap culture. Read the rest of our coverage here.


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