by Zoe Samudzi
“Don’t you ever in your fucking life play with me” — Hood philosopher Remy Ma
Saturday February 25, 2017 was a momentous day: it was the day that Remy Ma released her diss track “shETHER,” a 7-minute annihilation of Nicki Minaj overlaid atop the instrumental of Nas’ iconic “Ether” directed at Jay-Z back in 2001. It was a response to Nicki’s verse on Gucci Mane’s “Make Love.” It quite nearly derailed my entire day. It was beautiful. I was unashamedly part of the Black Twitter chorus rejoicing Remy’s battle rapping.
“Rap is basically a locker room with a beat,” Tricia Rose said. Black masculine braggadocio is intrinsic to the masculine-characterized genre that so often tells the stories of Black men navigating the industry, the streets, the trap, the prison system, and all of the things each space entails. And where braggadocious personalities clash, beefs necessarily follow. The genre would be incomplete without the incitement, lyrical exchange, and some kind of closure of beef, whether it be between crews/groups, coasts, or individuals.
Because the beef is an inextricable part of the rap game, participation is not gendered, and female MCs beef is also part of the mix. MC Lyte came for MC Antoinette back in 1988, Foxy Brown and Lil Kim came for each other in the 90s, Roxanne Shante came for pretty much every working female MC in 1991’s “Big Mama,” Queen Latifah took aim at Foxy Brown in 1998’s “Name Calling, Pt. 2,” Khia re-recorded Tupac's diss track “Hit Em’ Up” for her rebuttal to Trina in 2006, and so on.
But the difference between male and female rappers and their beefs and disagreements are the misogynistic essentialist obligations and supposed abilities that women have to keep peace amongst themselves.
White feminism is about niceties: it is about preserving the mythology of female genteelness, a mythology that ultimately revolves around the standards of “decency” set by Virtuous White Women™. But black feminism and hood feminism abide by no such politic of racialized respectability, particularly when the experiences, classed narratives, or womanhood writ large of Black women in the rap game are not recognized as valid by cishetero middle class white woman-centered gender politics. Look, for example, at the reception of the declarations of queerness by Amandla Stenberg compared to Love & Hip-Hop’s Joseline Hernandez. Where Amandla was hailed as brave and trailblazing for their announcement, Joseline’s announcement of bisexuality went relatively ignored because, as Ashleigh Shackelford critically noted, “her platform was limited through the gaze of Black femme ratchetry and hyper-sexualization.”
While Nicki Minaj still teeters on the brink of this Black femme ratchetry, she has by and large become respectable, particularly since toning down her aesthetic and producing more pop rap tunes. And while white women quickly reminded her of her “place” when she questioned her “Anaconda” video’s snub for the MTV VMAs video of the year nomination, she was ultimately vindicated by Taylor’s apology (and then later when Taylor was whose entire career was made by a narrative of self-victimization, but that’s another story). Nicki, again, remains respectable in the wake of this disproportionate — but still fairly mild by Remy’s standards — response. Between the gunshots, lyrics like “they told you your whole career I’d come home and kill you right?” and “I send a fucking headshot, you dead, bitch!” and her previous incarceration, Remy becomes the aggressive and not-so-respectable and flatout scary Black woman.
No one would ever write an article about how "hyping beef won’t help men in hip-hop” the way that Affinity Magazine did about this Nicki/Remy beef (though, admittedly, it is a magazine run by and for teenagers). Nicki and Remy are being pitted against one another outside of the context of the rap game: they are not two rappers doing what rappers do and have been doing, but rather individual women fighting and eroding “women’s unity” within a male-dominated industry where female MC existence is constructed as a zero-sum game. It is a beef almost reduced to women’s pettiness or bickering whereas male MCs are allowed to posture for dominance and superiority because “that’s what men/rappers do.” Black female MCs defy the ultimately respectable softnesses of “carefree Black girls” and “Black girl magic.” Rather, they are Black women dealing and communicating in social and creative currencies and capital traditionally associated with Black men, currencies alienating them even more from the womanhood from which Black women are broadly excluded.
But hood feminism and complementary Black feminisms defy the destructively self-sacrificial demand for women to be nice to women that disrespect them in the name of contrived “unity.” Sesali Bowen characterizes hood feminism as a “love child between hip-hop feminism and working class feminism." Mikki Kendall and Jamie Nesbitt Golden created hoodfeminisms to speak to the absence of a feminist politic for the girls from the hood who navigate and understand the world, who dress and articulate themselves in ways deemed "not respectable enough” by mainstream white feminism and also respectable middle class feminisms by Black women. It is a feminism that facilitates the often messy raced-classed navigations of colorism, gender, fatphobia, aesthetics, [sexual] violence, sex work, disability, sexuality, homophobia and transmisogyny, and everything else.
A number of the lyrics of “shETHER” are admittedly misogynistic, and unfortunately that is the nature of the diss: it is often the most artful stream of low blows an artist can muster. But larger than the attempt to force women in hip-hop — or any Black woman — into a politic of passive respectability, is the Golden Rule: “Run up, get done up.” “Feminism” is not the obligation to be nice to women because why are white women so deeply antagonistic towards women of color? It is not about turning the other cheek when other women come for you, particularly within the context of hip-hop culture and white supremacist expectations of Black women to subdue themselves and their expressions of anything remotely confrontational or combative. Beef is beef, and if you don’t understand how it works, it may behoove you to learn about it before authoritatively commenting on or profiting from your opinions about it.
Remy came out of prison ready to love up on her husband, fight for prison reform and the rights of incarcerated Black women, make her money, and refuse to be disrespected. If that’s not “feminist,” I’m not sure what is.
Zoe Samudzi is a queer Black woman whose work is dedicated to reclaiming and reframing narratives both within the academy and outside of it. Wielding Black feminist & womanist epistemologies, she interrogates structural whiteness and theorizes on decolonizing ways of knowing and truth-telling.