Detroit has an unquestionable influence on modern music, from the era of Motown, to the birth of techno, to the distinctly punctuated beats of Motor City hip hop. Throughout the decades, women have helped shape the changing Detroit sound — but their contributions to genres’ evolution are sometimes sidelined or invisible.
“Despite their involvement from the culture’s inception, women’s contributions are routinely marginalized if not altogether written out of hip hop histories,” write Rebekah Farrugia and Kellie D. Hay in the book “Women Rapping Revolution,” published in May.
In the book, Farrugia, an associate professor for media studies at Oakland University, and Hay, a professor of cultural studies at OU, document women’s place in Detroit hip hop — and how the work of creating a space for women in the male-dominated scene connects to community activism. From 2011 to 2018, they followed the Foundation of Women in Hip Hop, conducting interviews with artists like Will See and Miz Korona, attending open nights, copaneling at conferences and even performing. The book is set in the crowded performances that have been put on hold during the pandemic, but rooted in the community building and movement work that continues off-stage.
“Women Rapping Revolution” tracks the way that hip hop is aligned with the ever-changing history and state of political Detroit. The book examines the relationship between underground hip hop and the environment, asserting that local women rappers influence their environment through aesthetics and breaking down conventional rap norms in their work as they push back against the neoliberal forces transforming Detroit.
“The Foundation’s music and cultural organizing challenge dominant ideologies, particularly those that presuppose that Detroit’s revival requires the erasure of working-class Black people,” write Farrugia and Hays. “Hip hop’s phallocentric/male identified worldview is also wrenched open.”
Featured heavily in the book is Piper Carter, a self proclaimed culture curator, activist and podcast host, who has steadily combined hip hop and social justice. Carter founded the Foundation and its latest iteration, We Found Hip Hop.
“When you make a space safe for Black women, it’s safe for everyone.”Piper Carter
The collective offers a “no misogyny” platform for artists who fit into hip hop culture: graffiting, emceeing, b-girling, beatboxing and DJing; while still making space for other community events like Dilla Youth Day.
“The artists’ beats, rhymes, and processes of production offer an alternative framework for understanding how women create spaces for themselves in hip hop culture,” write Farrugia and Hays.
“We did all the things that folks needed,” Carter told The Blend.
Beyond her journey in hip hop, Piper Carter has shot fashion photography for BET, Def Jam, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, photographing music greats like Erykah Badu. Carter also hosts “The Piper Carter Podcast” with Brittany March and Deja Gray, where they share their takes on current events in entertainment. Carter said the podcast lets her combine her environmental justice activism with her love for hearing people’s stories, inquisition and just talking.
Carter spoke with The Blend about how We Found Hip Hop is doing the work of activism in art. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Blend: Describe the journey into creating We Found Hip Hop.
Carter: When I got back into the hip hop industry [in 2008] after caring for my sick mother, I started using a space in the daytime and I started becoming familiar with the community at meetings, and then just kind of really learning about how to be in community. Then I started meeting some of the youth that were kind of hanging around. And so I realized that this space could actually be a space for community, you know, something that people needed.
We had produced Detroit’s first B-girl battle in 2015. We also produced Detroit’s first women in hip hop conference and concert in which we introduced Rapsody to the Detroit audience in 2016, at the Garden Theater, which is a Black woman-owned venue. And so much of what we do is support women of color-owned businesses. What we learned is that when you make a space safe for Black women, it’s safe for everyone.
In this age of revolution and activism many artists may feel compelled to contribute their art to movements. How do you fit activism into hip hop culture?
So I’m actually a member of the Movement for Black Lives, which Black Lives Matter is. That is a united front. It’s different from a coalition, different from an alliance, different from an organization; a united front is where you get to be you, I get to be me, but we aligned on this thing together.
Detroit, Michigan is a city with about an 80% Black population, one of the highest in the country. If you live in Detroit, you’re used to seeing Black leadership. We have a Black police chief, we have lots of Black police. So when you’re trying to have a conversation in a city like Detroit, about being on the left, or being radical, it’s very difficult. And the reason is difficult is because a lot of Black people in Detroit have been very comfortable for a long time. Black people in Detroit have been empowered, right, you’ll see Black judges, you’ll see, you know, Black people, Black politicians, and so, but the system is the system, right? And so if we’re talking about the system, they’re really just Black bodies. upholding this same system of white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy. And that’s a very difficult conversation to have.
You’re a creative in many different realms as a photographer, event planner, podcast host and music consumer. How does your experience as a Detroiter influence your art?
When I grew up, we had a lot of different programs and things in Detroit in the city. I’d studied dance most of my life. And we had a summer youth program, Detroit Festival of the Arts, that taught us how to be professional artists. It was through the city of Detroit that you got paid but you learn from actual Motown veterans. And so you really learned how to be a professional in the field of art. And it was all these different workshops… And so most of the people who had graduated from that are now world renowned artists, you know, like musician James Carter and choreographer Lisa McCall. That particular experience was my Detroit experience.
And so to come back from New York in 2008 and see Detroit was stripped of all this arts education, was stripped of all the resources that we enjoyed as youth in the city as Detroiters, I felt like something needed to be done. So I just started doing things in the building that I missed — having gatherings, having artists submissions that featured Detroit artists, that featured local graffiti artists, hip hop artists and having showcases.
What should we expect from hip hop artists during those times of crisis?
We would hope that our artists would want to say things, right? I think that that’s super powerful. I think artists, even if artists don’t make new music, they should use their platform, to speak on different issues. It’s wonderful if they make the music. I’d love for their music to be reflective of their values.
I think a lot of hip hop artists, you know, try to make us think that they think that they’re so cool. But a lot of hip hop artists are very insecure and you can hear it in their lyrics. You can hear it in their music, you can hear it in them constantly trying to have this competitive me over you.
What kind of artists does We Found Hip Hop look for?
The artists that we work with like Brea Miles and Mahogany Jones — and that we choose to work with — they’re all in the community.
They’re either farming or working with youth, or doing something; their artistry speaks to different issues. And so that’s a part of the center of our work in addition to that we center our women and women’s voices.
Music is a vibration. And it lives on. And what do you want the vibration that you put into the universe to be ? We need to have more conversations about what is the content that we want to put forth? I’m like, you can do hot beats that have really powerful, uplifting messages.
Who are some women in modern hip hop that you admire today?
I love Noname. Noname is one of those artists who is just about her writing her poetry. She has a book club. She’s one of the artists I look to like, that’s the type of artist that is a 21st century artist; or Rapsody who was making a whole album dedicated to Black women and naming each song after Black women and doing multiple collaborations with Black women and uplifting you know, history and culture. Or Missy Elliott, using her platform for joy, and celebrating other women, bringing other women into the fold and always uplifting other women. And we have examples, the artists H.E.R. She’s really amazing. She’s been on her platform during COVID, doing all these collaborations on her guitar with different people. And it’s a lot of fun. The music is very beautiful and uplifting. I mean, we have a lot of examples of those who are doing great stuff. And so yeah, I really appreciate this moment that we’re in right now.
Want to hear more? listen to the full interview with Carter on the Culture 2 Culture podcast.
Zaria is a reporting intern for Detour Detroit. As a recent journalism graduate from Michigan State University, her love for journalism stems from a desire to bring more visibility to the truths of Black, brown, queer folks and individuals with disabilities in mainstream media. She has published work in newspapers across the state including Deadline Detroit, The Lansing City Pulse and the Grand Rapids Business Journal. She is the host and producer of Culture 2 Culture podcast and former reporter Michigan Radio, Focal Point News and Capital News Service.