Ice T is not the first person you recall when you think of feminist men. But on January 21, 2012, Ice T empowered me and every woman in the room with him.
The Sundance Film Festival held a concert celebrating music and film (and Ice T’s directorial debut, Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap). Ice T, Chuck D, Grandmaster Caz et.al. talked candidly about the history of hip hop, told moving personal stories, and criticized the atrocity that mainstream rap has become. They performed with DJ Evil E on the ones and twos (stay with me here). However, at one point, Ice T began to give a lesson on the definition of “O.G.”:
Now, ‘O.G.’ means ‘original gangster.’
Gangster don’t mean you sell drugs.
My definition of gangster is: YOU DONT BACK UP.
Anonymous gangster, ‘Fuck what you said man, I’m living my life my motha fuckin’ way.’
(Pauses. Gestures to the audience)
A lot of these girls in here are gangsters.
You tell these chicks what they gotta do and they’ll say,
‘Hold up, cuz.’
I’m not overlooking calling women “chicks,” lyrics depicting violence against women, drug use, and prostitution, among other signs that Ice T may not have feminist theory on his mind. Nothing new here. However, Ice T is doing some redefining. He implies that he and his crew of mega-rich, platinum record holding, Ferrari-driving black male hip-hop artists are gangsters. He says a gangster is someone who “don’t back up.” Who lives their life the way they want to live. Who, when faced with someone criticizing them, telling them they can’t, they shouldn’t, they instead say “‘hold up, cuz,’ don’t tell me what I can and cannot do. Watch me do it.” And then he says to the women in the audience: you are gangsters too.
What just happened?
Born in Jersey, raised in Crenshaw, and orphaned at age 12, Ice T dealt drugs, fathered a child before he turned 18, stole car stereos, and got shot. Given his situation, he was a statistic waiting to happen. In a country where more black men were in jail than in college, Ice T had every card stacked against him.
But look at him now. He rewrote his black male narrative by “not backing up.” While he wasn’t the best rapper around, he says he focused on the content of his rhymes, and invented gangster rap in the process. Now he has albums and millions, an acting career, he’s directing…The man is the hero of his own journey and doing it how he wants to do it.
So when he points a finger at a room filled with female (arguable) filmmakers and says that there are chicks in here who are gangsters because they won’t back down, I feel like he’s talking straight to me; he’s empowering me to reverse the weak female narrative. Ice T took an ancestry of slavery and disempowerment, of vast inequality and staggering statistics, and reversed it, and then he said– the women here are doing that too. He didn’t let the life he was born into, and every person in the world who looked at him and said “you can’t,” stop him from living his dream. And neither will we.
And I say hell yes, Ice T. I will not be backing down from my dreams. I will be leading my life the way I want to. Thank you, Ice T., for empowering me to be a gangster.
Because if we’re going to play by Ice T’s rules, and live in a world where we have the freedom to be who we want to be, then I get to be the all-powerful, strong, emotional, nuanced, bleeding heart, female-executive producer who wont take shit from nobody. And he gets to be a gangster rapper and make his gangster rap documentary I can’t wait to see.
Unfortunately, we haven’t reached this equilibrium quite yet. Ice T may lead the way, but in the meantime, from the day we open our eyes on this earth we are inundated with signs that we cannot be who we want to be. Women should not do that, men cannot do that, be afraid of this and don’t EVER…let people see the real you. Vulnerability will only make you weak and susceptible to being more hurt than you already are, while being too empowered will make people reject you.
Life is a constant battle to overcome the limits we put on ourselves and instead rise above the prejudices to fulfill our unlimited potential for success. One woman who is fighting like hell and inspiring us all in the process. Find Joshunda Victoria Sanders on her blog, or read her brilliant article about hip-hop and how it feels to be a black woman both indelibly entitled to and degraded by it:
…I became enamored of hip hop because I wanted to be a part of anything that helped the black men I knew and loved and wanted a future with to do anything other than sell crack (or smoke it) or kill one another.
Her love of hip-hop runs deep. But to love something so tainted and disrespectful, specifically to black women, she finds lists of excuses, both conscious and unconscious, that we as women make to ignore or justify the plethora of disempowering elements in our culture. She continues,
…the misogynistic parts of it trouble me. The woman-hating that runs parallel to any other industry, to most religions and in our culture at large, throughout history in hip hop is a manifestation of America’s general woman-dismissing culture.
I am trying, then, from this point forward, to pay as much attention to good music, that lifts me up, that makes me feel good about my womanhood and all my ancestors who came before them, as possible, and disregard the rest – as good as it sounds, as much as it once meant to me. As long as these new horizons moving toward the history I want to make are not as broken – that’s all that matters; It’s all that ever did and all that ever does.
And I say ‘preach,’ Victoria, and I apologize to you and to women everywhere for every moment I don’t take a stand against music, media, and language that is degrading to women. As Ice T tells me, I WONT BACK UP on this anymore. Here’s a minor to-do list to get us started:
1. We aren’t girls. “Guys and girls” sounds like it’s parallel, BUT IT’S NOT. A female politician once lectured my friend who referred to her friend as a “girl.” “Do you know how hard we worked to be respected as women?” she said. “Calling each other ‘girl’ is remnant of a time when we could not be equal to the “men” in our lives. Are you calling your male 28 year old co-worker ‘boy?'” I’m a woman, she’s a woman, we are women. Well loved. Calling each other women is in important move toward reclaiming the strong femininity we are entitled to.
2. Gossip. I often find myself making excuses for my lack of a powerful female network. I hear it all the time, “I get along better with guys,” “girls are too much drama,” “we used to be friends but she’s crazy.” NO, we do not get along better with guys. Women have huge hearts, sympathy coming out their ears, and minds that can run circles around our men’s. Often our friendships fall apart because we don’t commit to making them work. We gossip, complain, and avoid issues that are emotionally complicated and loaded. We hide in the comfort of our love relationships with men, knowing full well what we’re we’ll be left with if that falls apart. We must commit to building and maintaining strong female friendships. It is scientifically proven that when women decide to work together to empower themselves we will change the world.
3. You aren’t crazy. Don’t let them say you are. Men are chocked full of language which posits women as inferior. Don’t stand for it. Just today my boyfriend described a female executive he was working with as a “cold, hardened, bitch,” until he later saw that she was a good mother and changed his mind. I know darn well that if SHE was a HE acting the exact same way, the executive would have at worst been described as a “hard ass” but probably just given the respect of a businessman.
It’s unfair to let double standards persist and its not okay to let the men we love say things that disempower us. I very recently learned to distinguish the difference between feeling irrationally jealous and disempowered. Hearing men talk about other women’s bodies in front of me, describe their celebrity crushes, or use words like ‘pussy’ and ‘gay’ as putdowns always made me uncomfortable. But I thought that complaining, especially in public or to groups of men would result in being told I’m overreacting or being a bitch. But this is something called GASLIGHTING and it is not okay. I recommend Yashar Ali’s article on it asap to end the trend of repressing our feelings in the name of mens discomfort TODAY.
Oh yeah…Obama. He’s a gangster. More on that tomorrow.