“I would say the state of the female emcee, it’s very shaky. It’s been very shaky for years,” shares Miami rapper Trina, one of the few female rappers to enjoy a decade-plus career, to set up BET’s first documentary My Mic Sounds Nice.
That’s an understatement. The current state of the female emcee is beyond shaky; it’s buried underneath a mountain of rubble gasping for air, desperately awaiting rescue. Right now, the Lil Wayne-endorsed Nicki Minaj seems to be the only “femcee” capable of putting an “S” on her chest to save it. And, for some, that’s not a good sign. None of these issues are neglected in My Mic Sounds Nice.
Able to balance itself on various fronts, My Mic Sounds Nice covers a lot of ground. Speaking to numerous emcees including Missy Elliott, Eve, Yo-Yo, Salt-N-Pepa and MC Lyte in addition to well-known urban culture writers/editors Smokey Fontaine, Aliya S. King, Kim Osorio and Joan Morgan, My Mic Sounds Nice provides a historical context, giving props to early pioneers like Roxanne Shante, who also appears in the documentary, as well as Lady B and Sha Rock, the female member of Funky Four Plus One More, which formed in 1976. In fact, Funky Four Plus One More’s 1981 Saturday Night Live appearance is credited as the first by a hip-hop group on a national television show.
But it’s not all nostalgia and tribute-laden. Most of My Mic Sounds Nice is timely as it tries to pinpoint exactly when the female emcee began to disappear and why. Along the way, it provides a very thoughtful and nuanced overview of the female journey in hip-hop, noting the evolution from simple, around-the-way girl to glammed up sex kitten to just plain MIA. While the voices of Queen Latifah and Lauryn Hill would have added a lot, their impact is not ignored. Rappers like LA-based Medusa, Brooklyn’s Lil Mama and Atlanta’s Diamond chime in on Latifah’s influence while others like Roxanne Shante, Questlove from The Roots, producer Swizz Beatz, Public Enemy’s Chuck D and former Def Jam executive Kevin Liles marvel at Lauryn Hill’s incredible talent and her undeniable ability, when she actively rapped, to present the black woman as a multi-dimensional being.
Yo-Yo, Eve and Missy are candid about the pressure the hyper-sexualized personas of Lil Kim and Foxy Brown put on them and female emcees who followed them. The Lady of Rage, who was poised to be the female voice of Death Row, sheds light on how her golden opportunity went up in smoke. Underground femcees like Jean Grae and Tiye Phoenix speak up and let it be known that female emcees have not retreated. My Mic Sounds Nice_ is so not the Don Imus-inspired hip-hop town hall meeting, which featured the Spelman students who protested rapper Nelly and his sexually charged “Tip Drill” video, Russell Simmons and Al Sharpton that Oprah convened or Hip-Hop vs. America, BET’s own town hall meeting in response to both Don Imus and Oprah. With the multitude of voices, male and female, and the wonderful exchange of ideas, My Mic Sounds Nice comes across as a genuine conversation between black men and black women who don’t even necessarily agree. And, there’s no question that this is achieved by not having a head-to-head panel exchange. All participants, with the exception of Salt-N-Pepa, who are still rap’s dynamic female duo, are presented alone so that their ideas flow uninterrupted.
Executive producer/director Ava DuVernay, a former underground emcee herself and a very successful urban pr/marketing specialist for film and television for over a decade, deserves a lot of credit for not just delivering a solid and provocative look at the female emcee and her role in hip-hop but a stylized product as well. My Mic Sounds Nice is as sleek as any music video full of half-naked, rump-shaking beauties. All of the rappers are noticeably glammed up with hair and make-up but yet the focus is not on how good they look but what they have to say and My Mic Sounds Nice makes that just as appealing as any rhyme about that other brain.
Yes, in addition to the obvious missing voices of Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Queen Latifah and Lauryn Hill, it would have been great to also hear from Shawnna from Ludacris’s Disturbing Tha Peace crew, Mia X, the first lady of No Limit Records, Master P’s once-thriving New Orleans-based rap empire, Sheena Lester, the former editor of Rap Pages, and noted hip-hop writer/filmmaker Dream Hampton. Given the documentary’s short time frame, however, the depth and breadth of material and the insight shared is truly extraordinary.
My Mic Sounds Nice doesn’t just tell the story of female rappers in a vacuum. Instead, it puts that story in its proper context, acknowledging it as an essential part of the larger hip-hop narrative. Although referring specifically to Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Roxanne Shante and Salt-N-Pepa, Trina says “these are the icons of hip-hop . . .” and she’s absolutely right. My Mic Sounds Nice is not just some marginalized footnote. Instead, it’s the hip-hop generation’s When and Where I Enter reality check.