Say My Name
First, a call to action: please watch Nirit Peled’s Say My Name. I caught the 2008 documentary during the film portion of 2009’s SXSW and it was definitely the highlight of the week. Women Make Movies are in the process of getting it out on DVD after the film completes its festival circuit. Save it to your Netflix queue. Lobby your local rental store or library to obtain a copy. Make it a priority to see it.
While by no means perfect, Say My Name fills an important void in hip hop and, hopefully, will inspire other documentary filmmakers to pick up cameras and production houses to bankroll these enterprises. Its subject is women in hip hop.
Before you dismiss the topic out of hand with a sneer, asking, “how long is it? Less than five minutes? A minute for each MC?” the documentary is quick to remind wrong-headed haters just how many women have rocked the mike right. In around 75 minutes, the film cuts between a little over 20 interviews across the United States and the UK. Impressively, these subjects were selected from a larger pool of the roughly 100 artists originally interviewed.
Unlike a traditional music documentary narrative, which would lean on the impulse to follow hip hop’s historical chronology, the documentary connects female MCs over time and space through shared personal experiences. You’ll hear Roxanne Shanté share giving birth to a child she didn’t know she was pregnant with at 14, alongside Chocolate Thai’s story of an unexpected pregnancy, Erykah Badu’s beatific remembrances of giving birth in her bed, and Trinie’s decision to have an abortion. You’ll hear stories of heartache, drug abuse, intimate partner violence, fatherly betrayals, failed record deals, and poverty.
However, these stories get woven in with tales of the first time Shanté heard her first single on the radio, Estelle, Mystic, and Remi Ma got record deals, and, my personal favorite, Monie Love talking about how her nerves activate her bowels before she performed “Ladies First” with Queen Latifah live for the first time.
You also get to see these women in their element—Jean Grae rehearsing and performing for a (predominantly white) audience at a festival, Detroit’s Invincible freestyling at a community event, Estelle laying down tracks in the studio, and Chocolate Thai jumping for joy when she hears the playback on a new anthem. Importantly, each MC is required to lay down a freestyle, a cappela, for the camera. As Monie mentions, she and her peers wanted to be respected as lyricists, and the impact of hearing these women lay down their favorite rhymes is powerful, no less felt my the diversity of locations in which they let it rip. Estelle lays down her flow on a London rooftop. Mystic spits it in her kitchen. Monie Love performs on her couch. Jazzy sister act Aaries sing in the middle of a McDonald’s. Invincible tears through a confessional rhyme in the middle of a bike garage. GTA Crew, an all-female grime act, let their intricate, confrontational flows out in the middle of an East London alleyway. That multiple MCs perform unaccompanied and demand that you say their name is a feminist message to hear and obey. Let them be heard.
You also get to see these women interact with one another, suggesting that these women, often isolated from one another in what many conceptualize as a man’s game, seek out friendship and allies. MC Lyte guest-deejays on Monie Love’s New York-based radio show. Jean Grae and Remy Ma speak with one another on a hip hop panel (though appear to share different views on the sexism in the industry debate). And, importantly, you get to see them interact with their surroundings. Atlanta-based Georgia Girls and New York-based Rah Digga are shown driving around their neighborhoods. Detroit’s Miz Korona sits on her stoop with her daughter. Shanté conducts her interview at the ice cream shop she owns in Queens. MC Lyte speaks at a book signing in New York. Sparky Dee, a lesser-known contemporary of Shanté’s gives a tour of her Brooklyn neighborhood. Invincible answers questions while sitting by the Detroit waterfront. Thus, these women are not seen just as industry professionals but as regular women, very much grounded in their present conditions and environments.
Importantly, this documentary makes no real distinctions between major label recording artist, indie MC, and unsigned talent. As a result, artists like MC Lyte and Jean Grae and the Georgia Girls are all in dialogue with one another, their experiences sometimes shared and drawn together, though at times very different from each other. However, little interrogation is made of industry conditions, apart from the connection between the overt sexual objectification artists like Lil Kim have employed or been complicit with and the measure of success it has afforded them.
Some mention is made of the difficulties of being a recording artist—Rah Digga mentions that she has been hailed by many as their favorite MC, but questions how that can be so when she hasn’t been able to put out a record since 2000. Yet many of the artists chalk this up to individual circumstances and not larger industrial practices of marginalization and sexism. And little emphasis is placed on genre-bending multimedia artists like Santigold and M.I.A., a lack the filmmakers themselves mentioned in the Q and A during the screening I attended.
That said, a discussion is started in this vital and necessary documentary; one that I encourage others to continue.