Beyond Frank Ocean: La Peña takes a deeper look at hip-hop inclusivity

The many faces of hip-hop: La Peña's rad lineup of hip-hop artists pushing the genre's boundaries.

If I hear another journalist ask anyone involved in hip-hop incredulously, reverently, portentously about Frank Ocean and that Tumblr post someone may lose their digital recorder. Frank I love you, I love your ambiguous Internet warblings, your endearingly awful Grammy performances -- and kudos on Willy Carter, damn -- but obvs you're not the first queer person to be involved with your musical genre.

The Bay Area knows this -- in 2007 the PeaceOUT World Homo Hop Festival, already six years old at that point, took over deFremery Park with Oakland's Deep Dickollective and co. And like, Cazwell? Hey.

This list goes on -- but this post is more about future, specifically the Hip-Hop: Beyond Gender event series that kicks off at La Peña Cultural Center on Fri/15 with "Here Me Roar", a lineup of queer and feminist spoken word MCs set to wrecking speed. I caught up with a couple of the artists to talk about how hip-hop came to them, and where they want it to go.

Hopefully, their events in the La Peña series -- which include concerts, panel discussions, and breakdance battles -- will advance the conversation about hip-hop and gender-sexuality inclusivity that Le1f, Freedia, Nicky, Mykki, Double Duchess, Syd, YES Frank Ocean, and a bajillion other awesome artists are helping to create. 


Photo by Bethanie Hines

A child of Oakland, this playwright, poet, and author of Girls With Hips will perform at "Hear Me Roar" at La Peña on Fri/15.

First hip-hop album: The Roots, Illadelph Halflife. Up until that point, I'd just stolen hip-hop music from my parents. The first album of any genre that I learned all of the words to was Arrested Development's debut, 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of... 

First hip hop concert/party: Tough. Hmmm. There's an MC out of Oakland, originally from Queens, named Rico Pabon. When I was in high school, Rico was probably my favorite act. He used to headline a series of all-ages shows at La Peña called "Collective Soul", alongside Company of Prophets, Lunar Heights, a bunch of the indie staples in hip-hop at the time. I think those were probably my first parties. Glad to see we're coming full circle, and I'll get to rock the stage at La Peña this Friday -- I used to beg mom to let me attend back in the day.

First time I thought about what gender meant in hip-hop: Listening to Digable Planets. Everyone used to refer to Ladybug Mecca as "the girl" in the group. I saw that trope carry over as I listened to Blunted on Reality, the Fugees' first album. To me, sonically, I just identified Ladybug and Lauryn as the best of the three. It wasn't until older male relatives and friends pointed out gender that I first started to note and notice differences.

One question I'd like to see addressed "Hip-Hop: Beyond Gender": I'd like to see us address the issue of why female-identified emcees are consistently asked to talk about gender and sex -- both onstage and off -- when our male identified counterparts are not.


Photo by B Fresh

In addition to having their own music label -- Emergence Media -- this Michigan MC is active with Detroit Summer, an intergenational inner-city group that links up community members in projects to change the future of their neighborhood. Invincible's organizing the "Event Horizon" night on March 15, which promises "transcending the gender binary and entering parallel multiverses of holistic complex identities." Ooo.

First hip-hop album: First vinyl, Paid In Full (Eric B and Rakim). First tape, Check The Rhime (maxi single!) followed by Low End Theory (A Tribe Called Quest). First CD (in the tall cardboard package): Sleeping With The Enemy (Paris).

First hip hop concert/party: When I was 15 I had a secret knock at the back door of a few local clubs where bouncers got me in to watch shows and get on the open mic. I got caught one too many times so that led to the first show I threw, which was at an abandoned hotel that me and my first DJ transformed into an all-ages venue, 'til the cops broke it up at our second event. I think the first time I actually bought a ticket was for Xzibit and Big Pun but that show sadly got shot up and shut down too soon. 

First time I thought about what gender meant in hip-hop: I remember when "Ladies First" by [Queen] Latifah came out. It made an impression on me, but I was too young to understand the power of it. I first fully saw the role gender justice plays in reviving hip-hop when I met and joined the anti-misogyny all-elements hip hop collective ANOMOLIES. They made me reflect on all the hardships i had witnessed and experienced, and realize how important it is to support each other as people whose voices are marginalized in this culture.

One question I'd like to see addressed "Hip-Hop: Beyond Gender": How do we create space for more transgender and gender non-conforming hip-hop artists to develop skills, bring new perspectives, and be heard? How can gender justice in this music and culture benefit all marginalized voices in hip-hop?


Photo by Ruby Battacharya, logo by Maya el Helou

Tru Bloo started performing hip-hop when they were 11, played Angela Davis' induction into the La Peña hall of fame in 2011, and has dabbled in classical guitar and piano among a million other projects. They're curating the May 10 "Wo(MB) Manifest" night of breakdancing, graffiti, and performance at La Peña.

First hip-hop album: I found a 2 Live Crew rap tape on my school bus in fourth grade and memorized the entire album. Also danced a lot to Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock.

First hip hop concert/party: MC Hammer

First time I thought about what gender meant in hip-hop: When groups like TLC, Salt 'N Pepa and Queen Latifah's U.N.I.T.Y. anthem came out in late '80s/early '90s, I realized women had a different story to tell via hip-hop.

One question I'd like to see addressed "Hip-Hop: Beyond Gender": Do female, trans, and gender non-conforming hip-hop artists have the power to change the social discourse around patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia within our communities and mainstream pop culture, if given a voice?


No disrespect Caitlin,

But why of all places do you think hip hop would be where queer feminism thought and ethos would take root?
queer & feminist thought are hella marginalized in american culture at large.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 13, 2013 @ 1:51 pm

None taken! But hip-hop has the capacity for a lot of subversion. I'd never say that's THE PLACE where queer issues and feminism will be located in the future, but as you can see from the artists I interviewed and cited in the piece, we're in an exciting moment as far as the genre is concerned.

And for the love, can you tell me a musical genre that hasn't had its moments of utter sexism? Hip-hop gets called out on a lot of shit because it's explicit -- like literally, a lot more words get said, both transcendent and not. But most forms of art that make it to the level of saturation hip-hop has get real stupid sometimes (Justin Beiber's pro-life, for chrissakes.)

I guess the NFL would make a good metaphor -- there's pro football players making brave moves forward (Brendon Ayanbadejo) and folks who are falling back on tired tropes (sideye, Niners). I'm gonna focus on the heroes for a moment.

Posted by caitlin on Feb. 13, 2013 @ 2:27 pm

I don't think it's a very inclusive scene at all. Especially if you play another kind of music that is scorned by many hip hop fans like techno or trance. I've been bullied, marginalized and brutalized by closed minded hip hop fans time and time again. I actually think that scene has a lot of assholes. But of course there is cool stuff..mostly 90's and from the UK.

Posted by PK on Feb. 14, 2013 @ 11:09 am

We're talking about a vast genre. I'm sorry you had bad experience playing trance and techno -- out of curiosity, were you trying to blend those genres with hip-hop or was it that hip-hop fans diss the genres you're into?

Posted by caitlin on Feb. 15, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

Related articles

  • Candy crush

    THE YEAR IN NIGHTLIFE: Queer hip-hop, porn music, spruced-up venues, virtual techno, classical near-riots, and the '90s big-room revival ruled 2013

  • Baring all: Red Hots Burlesque presents “Burlesque and WHY”

  • GOLDIES 2012: Mica Sigourney

    Drag-rooted performance works that question the egotism of the artist and the role of the audience

  • Also from this author