What's an art form without women's voices? That's a question that kept popping in my mind as I sat mesmerized in a screening of BET's first-ever original music documentary, My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth about Women in Hip-hop, which premieres tonight on the network.
This film is brilliant. Directed and executive produced by Ava DuVernay, what's so seductive about this film is that it feels like how I would imagine a girls' night out would be. Here the women say what they want to, how they want to without feeling the need to censor themselves because the men are in the room. It's their game.
DuVernay, who made her directing debut with the 2008 critically-acclaimed hip-hop documentary This is the Life, lets us in on her conversations with many of the female icons of hip-hop: Salt-N-Pepa, Missy Elliot, MC Lyte, Eve, Yo-Yo, among others, who speak their minds about what it's like to be a woman in a controversial, male-dominated music genre in which many of the male stars have found success spiting out oftentimes toxic, misogynistic lyrics about Black women. These beautiful, intelligent, sexy, and witty women have their turn at the mic and they don't take it lightly.
But it's not that there're no men in the film. There are. There's Public Enemy's Chuck D, The Roots' Quest Love, journalist Smokey D. Fontaine, Def Jam founder Russell Simmons, producers Swizz Beatz and Jermaine DuPri, among others. And they're excellent. They offer context, enlightenment and their own truth about the challenges facing women in the business. But don't get it confused. This is the sorority of sorority meetings, folks. It's "Ladies Night." Men take the sidelines.
What I liked most about this film is its provocative, straight-forward commentary. Working with producer Shirley Salomon, cinematographer Bradford Young and editor Spence Averick, DuVernay has created a spicy, visually arresting work. It's a bold, soulful and colorful celebration of Black womanness.
That a man, who grew up with hip-hop or in any male-dominated arena (i.e. America), could have directed this film so adroitly, I'm not so sure. Of course, there are men who have the sensitivity to direct female stories. Ang Lee, for example, with Sense and Sensibility back in 1999, Forest Whitaker with 1995's Waiting to Exhale. And, yes, there are others. But...
I also certainly don't want to then suggest that women can't or shouldn't direct testosterone-heavy films. We know that's not true. Kathyrn Bigelow silenced many a critic when she took home the Oscar this year for best picture for the Iraqi drama The Hurt Locker.
But My Mic Sounds Nice is inherently different. It celebrates Black women in way I haven't seen a film do so in a very long time. That I am convinced has a lot to do with the fact that a woman with keen sensitivity to the subject matter sat in the director's chair. DuVernay knows the Black woman's walk. Her story. She sympathizes with the Black female MC without pitying her. She empowers her subjects to shine. There is a level of commitment in this piece that sparkles in every single gorgeous frame and every single line that I'm not sure a man might've hit given the issues on the table. A liberated guy? Maybe.
DuVernay, however, has an eye for the details. For pretty things, for bright hues (vibrant oranges, blues, and greens), carefully crafted lighting design, for the "girlie" --- albeit important --- stuff that can sometimes be missed, particularly, in documentaries where budgets and time can be tight and the approach to interviews can feel staid, newsroomy and flat. Not here. Here the women all look amazing: makeup is tight, hair is flawless. You want to look at them and hear what they have to say. After all, this is show biz. And in a competitive marketplace where content creators must fight for every eyeball, pretty ain't necessarily a bad thing as long as it's not at the expense of the female brain. DuVernay gets that. These women are far from objects. They're extraordinary storytellers.
What's particularly poignant about this film is its linear examination of the evolution of women in hip-hop. DuVernay takes us from the early days of the genre in the late 70s and early 80s when as journalist and author Joan Morgan, who wrote the book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost...My Life as a Hip-hop Feminist, points out in the film and in her book what it was like in the early days of the genre when it still belonged to the streets and women had a presence as empowered b-girls to the corporatization of the genre in the 1990s and the birth the hypersexualized MC in the likes of Lil Kim and Foxy Brown.
In watching this film, you get the sense that these women have been waiting to tell these stories for a very, very long time. It's like, "Hey, wow, thanks for asking. Yes, why have women all but disappeared from the hip-hop game? Yeah, why is it that there is no longer a female rap category for the Grammy awards? (It disappeared in 2005 because there aren't enough female rappers to compete.) Must we wait for Lauryn Hill, whose Miseducation of Lauryn Hill album rocked our entire world, or her clone to resurrect the female MC?"
It's somewhat of a coincidence that this film debuts just as the debate about Essence magazine hiring its first white fashion director continues --- even if less aggressively than its initial firestorm. Truth be told, Black women have long felt left out, placed in the perennial green room, silenced or made to feel invisible even as they've carried the loads of our society --- other people's children, their men's problems, their children's dramas, the church's problems. Even as they marched and fought for civil rights, some folks tried to quiet them.
That said, this films needs to be placed into the ring of the debate about the challenge Black women are facing in America in general from everything from inadequate health care to obesity to compensation to domestic violence. Black women need to be heard from the mic to the pulpit to the boardroom.
I hope this film brings to light how much we are indeed missing not having Black women at the mic.
But as the music industry itself fights for its very survival, I think it's probably going to take independent, entrepreneurial Black women to carve out that space for the Black female MC. It can happen. If the work that went into My Mic Sounds Nice is any indication of what's possible when Black women get the opportunity to step to center stage, it's only a matter of time before the Black female MC once again sits on her throne.