MC Melina Jones represents everything that's right with hip-hop. She's female, she's socially conscious, her lyrics are tight, and she's fully clothed onstage. You won't see the MC from "Sucka Free" (i.e., San Francisco) in any metal bustiers or stripper attire, à la raunch rappers Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown, who, along with their thug-rap male counterparts, helped hypersexualize hip-hop to the point where it's become nearly inhospitable for self-respecting females.
She is a perfect fit for Girl Fest Bay Area, now in its second year. The event aims to promote female empowerment and prevent violence against women and girls through art and education. Fortunately, the festival organizers have chosen appropriately fierce artists to represent this noble endeavor, including some of the illest up-and-coming voices in hip-hop, neosoul, and spoken word: homegrown talents Jennifer Johns, Femi, Mystic, and Aya de Leon, as well as legendary Los Angeles rapper Medusa. These ladies of the underground are worlds away from the willowy, lily white womyn artists who feathered girl-power gynopaloozas such as Lilith Fair in the '90s. I mean, how much of a cultural impact did Jewel really have?
Jones, in contrast, is quick to clown anyone for making too much of the fact that she's a woman who raps or for dismissing hip-hop wholesale. She often checks people for describing her as a "female MC," because "I wouldn't classify Mos Def as a male MC. I would just classify him as an MC and a really dope artist," Jones tells me at Cafe Abir. "So as soon as you say, 'female MC,' that already kind of diminishes some of the respect and some of the value of a woman that happens to be an MC."
To Jones, it shouldn't be much of an issue that "one of Sucka Free's flowest got mammary glands," as she proclaims on "Picket Fences," the opening track of her first full-length, Swearing Off Busters (Female Fun). She painstakingly crafted the album over the past several years so that it would be "beautiful without being pretty, meaning that I wanted ... each song to be really lovely but edgy at the same time. I don't like things that are too shiny or ... too cute or too easy on the ears."
Jones achieves this balance, showcasing her poetic skill in diverse musical settings, from smoky ballads such as "Love in Progress" and "Wrap You Up" to cipherworthy battle-rap tracks like "Rock with Fire" and "Knock Ya Block Off." Jones's musical partner, DJ-producer Deedot, furnishes lush, loungy instrumentation that complements her lyrics, whether he's drawing inspiration from cool jazz, trip-hop, or stanky West Coast funk.
In classical hip-hop style, Jones brings a sense of bravado to her songwriting and performing. She doesn't shy away from criticizing wack MCs or, for that matter, anyone else who brings disrespect to the temple of hip-hop, while her hard work recording and gigging has begun to pay off with brisk sales on iTunes and bubbling word of mouth. Yet she's motivated more by love of the form than an egotistical need to get over on competitors. In another line, she professes to have "heart and hella soul. I rock from my colon. Like Olivia Newton-John, I'm hopelessly devoted. Making average MCs feel mighty crunchy and corroded."
Tapping masculine and feminine energies, Jones is a fighter and a nurturer in her approach to rap, calling out music industry busters in order to protect hip-hop, to keep it healthy and vital. In the song "Tunnel Vision," she reflects how hip-hop "got took" by corporate interests, "but now we taking back the spot. Won't get got another millisecond on the clock. The next time around, no chance of shutting us down. No option but to follow, submit to the underground."
If there's a hint of the maternal in Jones's attitude toward hip-hop she is, after all, the mother of an 11-year-old ("I'm constantly putting that boy in check," she jokes) she's anything but matronly. Nor is the stylish MC afraid to reveal her glam-y, girly side, a move that hip-hop's hardcore and most highly respected female rappers were hesitant to make in the beginning of their careers (think MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, Eve). Jones, who professes to "love to play dress-up" and "invest in hella makeup," acknowledges how difficult it is to be taken seriously as a woman in the rap game and how a lot of her peers "kind of grime themselves out."
"When I spit," she explains, "I'm really not interested in trying to make my voice sound like a dude or even taking the place or the role [of a man]. I'm not trying to bust anyone's balls, unless you take me there ..."
Given her cover-girl good looks, the MC likely has to go there fairly often. She recounts one time when she had to deflect a cheesy come-on by a club-owner type behavior that in any other professional field would clearly be defined as sexual harassment. "I definitely get challenged by men all the time who are in the game," she confesses. "[It's] nuance[ed]; it's not like somebody just coming right out.... It's those little tiny inflections of body language that tell me [they're] sexualiz[ing] me."
Jones doesn't waste too much time playing the victim, however, or complaining about misogyny in hip-hop to the point where there's no joy in it or room to maneuver. "These clowns can say what they want," she defiantly proclaims. "I'm gonna do my thing. There's a power in that."*
Appearing at "Women Re-Birthing Justice"
Sun/22, 15 p.m., free
Dolores and 18th St., SF
For other events at Girl Fest Bay Area, July 1922, go to www.girlfestbayarea.org .