Friday, April 30, 2010

What the hell is a "femcee?"

I recently heard a brother use the term "femcee" in a video blog. It's not the first time I heard the term, but it was the first time it "irked my soul" the way it did. The brother was attempting to give sistah emcees their props and to address the dismissal of sistahs in the rap game. The brother was trying his hand at feminism. I definitely won't knock him. I'm more interested in examining the term femcee.

The term femcee refers to women who in fact are emcees. From its connotation it seems to be used as a term of empowerment for sistahs whose gender is as much a part of their emcee identity as their hip hop persona. The term femcee suggests an acknowledgment of sistahs' status as an underrepresented group within hip hop. It is meant to acknowledge that one's gender is central to their experience as an emcee. But I think the term is deeper than that.

 In hip hop, male emcee is synonymous with emcee or at least this is the perception. It must be the perception if you have to differentiate between a male and female emcee. Does that make sense? When was the last time you heard 50 Cent referred to as a male emcee? How about Lil Wayne? Or what about Jay-Z?  Maybe we should call them "memcees" to make it even. Think that'll catch on? Not!

The term femcee highlights the presence of sexism in hip hop culture. That we emphasize gender in our description of one's profession speaks to our expectations. For instance, what do you call the dude that delivers your mail? The mailman. That suggests that we expect the person delivering our mail to be a male. How about the dude that picks up our garbage? We call him the garbage man. For a time, these professions were reserved for men, so we've had to reprogram our minds and change the language so that it is gender neutral. Mailmen are now referred to as postal workers; Garbage men are sanitation workers. But even if we change the language, our expectations still remain the same in some arenas.

In cases where the title of the profession is not gender-specific, the terms assigned to these professions connote our gender expectations. For instance, the term "beautician" is linked to women (or gay men, in which case homophobia prevented us from addressing the connotation of the term). But with a larger male presence in cosmetology, we've seen the term evolve. Beauticians are now called stylists. Still and all, name changes don't shift how we see a thing. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Maybe this one's better..."You can put lipstick on a pig..." (Aww, forget it). In other words, the names we call things don't change our expectations. Many people still expect beauticians (I mean stylists) to be female. So when a man enters the profession he is often referred to by derogatory names for women (e.g., that dude's a B***). WTH?

In fields in which we struggle to shift our gender expectations, we tend to identify one's gender when identifying their profession. Like nurses. The term connotes femininity. Don't tell me you haven't heard the joke about the "male nurse." Funny thing is, I don't get the sense that we doubt the skill of a "male nurse" in the same way we do a "femcee". A nurse who is also a male is not held to a different standard, nor is he compared to only male nurses. Within the nursing profession there is no room to differentiate the standards (or the title- the "male nurse" thing is the shortcoming of the general public). But somehow in the music business we find it necessary to have awards for  Best Female Rap Solo performance or Best Male Rap Solo Performance. WTH! Who knew genitalia impacted talent and skill?

Sistahs who are emcees by trade experience the same challenges faced by women in other fields of work. Many sistahs, no matter their walk of life, feel they have to emulate their male counterparts to be taken seriously and they have to work twice as hard to get half as far. Sistahs battle with the reality that men control many of the resources and opportunities they need to get ahead. Women in hip hop like women in engineering, information technology, and business have similar experiences. Even as an administrator in a female-dominated field I share some of these experiences.  However, I am called an educator; Not a female educator; Not a feducator; Just an educator.

Please don't think I've made my mind up about the term femcee. I get the concept that the term femcee could be empowering. It's kind of like the question of whether I am Black first or a woman first. In reality I am both all the time and always have been. Since my identity as woman and Black are equally important to me, I don't see a need to separate the two. In fact, I love this identity so much I want to acknowledge both my womaness and my blackness at all times. So maybe, just maybe, that same sentiment is true for the femcee.

This whole discussion reminds me of that scene in Love & Baskteball when Monica discusses the double standards in basketball. She proclaims, "I'm a ball player!" I submit that the so-called femcee is an emcee!

So, what's good folks? Are you down with the term femcee? Do you find it problematic or is the term empowering? I'm not sure where I stand on the matter, but I'm interested in what others think on this issue.

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