Hip-hop, world peace, and the women of Seattle

Is hip-hop a man's world? These Seattle women are taking the stage, the mike, and the paint brush to create a progressive art supporting a culture of self-betterment.
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Is hip-hop a man's world? These Seattle women are taking the stage, the mike, and the paint brush to create a progressive art supporting a culture of self-betterment.

World peace — one beat at a time?

To those outside the world of political hip-hop, the phrase might seem naïve, even clichéd. Nevertheless, the idea that the practice and perpetuation of values rooted in hip-hop can help generate real political change is being embraced by a growing number of people in Seattle and worldwide.

Followers of political hip-hop believe that hip-hop is more than a genre of music, and even more than a cultural movement centered on the arts of break-dancing, emceeing (or rapping), deejaying, and graffiti writing that defined hip-hop's emergence in New York City in the 1970s and its spread worldwide. They believe that hip-hop, when practiced as a way of life, will nurture one's personal growth and bring like-minded individuals together, creating a community dedicated to spreading peace, love, and equality in all sectors of society.

Hip-hop, to them, is what one Seattle-based artist, Rogue Pinay, describes as a powerful vehicle for oppressed people all over the world to voice their frustrations.

"That's the power of it," explains Rogue Pinay. "Because it's so passionate and powerful and aggressive in a lot of ways, people connect with it." Hip-hop lets people believe they can do something to change their situation, "that anybody can have a voice." The main reason why Rogue Pinay writes and performs music is "to create change."

"Really," she says, "that'ꀙs the whole driving force behind what I do."

Rogue Pinay, who is known offstage as Katrina Pestano, a youth activities coordinator for the Filipino Community Center in Columbia City, will be one of several women taking part Friday in "What It Means To Be A B-Girl: A Celebration of Women in Hip-Hop," a reading, dance, and musical performance showcasing the work of Seattle female hip-hop artists. The show is part of a project I developed that highlights the role of women artists in Seattle'ꀙs political hip-hop community. As part of the event, I will read works I have developed through the project, and artists whom I have interviewed will share their work. The event, supported in part by a grant from the Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs and co-sponsored by the Department of Parks and Recreation, takes place at 7:30 p.m. at Garfield Community Center, 2323 East Cherry St., and is free.

I have been exploring the political dimension of hip-hop for three years. My interest in the presence of women in hip-hop was sparked in 2007 when I met Anna Beth Nagy, a Seattle break-dancer who performs and competes locally and nationwide as Naj. I was struck by Naj'ꀙs level of dedication to improving herself through dance, and I also was struck by the simple fact that she was a woman.

In my memories, break-dancing, stretching back to its popular heyday of the 1980s, was something done by teenage boys and young men. It was a fun, stimulating hobby — not an art to be taken seriously — and while it was not anti-woman, it was decidedly male.

Naj, 30, quickly dispelled the notion that break-dancing was a mere hobby. However, she has emphasized to me repeatedly the fact that while many women enjoy the music and dance of hip-hop, very few participate in it as working artists.

She began dancing about 10 years ago along with her sister, Mary Lee Nagy, known in break-dancing circles as Lee, and her best friend, Colleen Ross, known as Bean. When the three started dancing, they often were the only women training at male-organized practices. Now, Naj practices up to three hours a day, and spends many of her weekends performing or competing against some of the best male dancers in the nation at organized battles. Her work in break-dancing has taken her to cities throughout the United States and Canada, as well as Australia, Europe, and Asia.

While Naj, Lee, and Bean have earned much respect from their male counterparts for their dedication and skill, they all continue to point to the fact that no matter where they perform, the number of men considerably outweighs that of women.

Hip-hop began in the streets of the Bronx in the early 1970s. It spread via mass transit across New York City and then nationally and internationally via mass media. Over time, the Internet helped create the networks that have spread hip-hop music, art, and videos all over the world.

Despite its global appeal, hip-hop artists rely on local networks for support and for income. Many of Seattle's current hip-hop community leaders grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, and recall break-dancing after school at Westlake Center, writing graffiti in empty spaces, and rapping at the Pike Place Market. As they entered their twenties and thirties, they began to work as independent artists, creating record labels, clothing lines, and workshops and classes to earn income and to promote their work.

Seattle women artists help spread hip-hop in similar ways. The women I interviewed teach break-dancing in schools. They encourage young people to write and recite original verse, often organizing poetry slams and other competitions to motivate the young to better themselves through art. They improve by learning from and aiming to outdo rival poets and rappers.

They train musically inclined teenagers how to regard the record turntable — the device once used to play music stored on vinyl discs — as a musical instrument in and of itself to produce beats for fellow artists as well as their own original sounds. And they teach rebellious young artists to direct their interests in spray-painting graffiti at illegal sites to creating murals on large canvases and "permission walls" and painting T-shirts, sneakers, and caps to create wearable art.

Women rappers and poets perform in coffeehouses, all-ages clubs, bars, and dance venues all over Seattle. However, these women often work in environments that are dominated by men, often creating a feeling for women that they are going it alone.

"Because there's more men, you'll see, like a flower, one woman surrounded by a crew of dudes," says Seattle-based deejay and music producer Mia Beardsley, who is known as DJ B-Girl. "That was a realization I came to. I hadn't talked to another woman for a year, and all I'd been doing was hip-hop."

"It wasn't that there weren't women on the scene," she adds. "There were just no women in the venue where I was on a particular night, over and over and over again."

Determined to bring women together in a way that would break that sense of isolation, Beardsley founded a record label, B-Girl Media, and an organization known as B-Girl Bench. She uses these vehicles to help Seattle artists produce albums and promote their work, to learn deejay skills, and to break-dance in a space that strives to lessen the intimidation a woman might feel in a more male-dominated environment.

By building community, women support not only each other but a feminist goal of equality and justice for all. Is that world peace, one beat at a time?

Rogue Pinay laughs as she describes the difference between her stage presence and her "offstage" role as Katrina Pestano: "Rogue Pinay is more than just an artist; she's someone who's not afraid."

She added, "Everything that I feel oppressed by in my everyday life, I'm able to push that out, push that back on stage, in a way that really makes people think, in a way that also inspires them to create."


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