Sistas Ready to Rock for Female Respect

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 3, 2007

Bahamadia, the Philadelphia-born hip-hop artist who will kick off the third annual Can a Sista Rock a Mic? festival Wednesday at the Rock and Roll Hotel with 16-year-old local sensation Emoni Fela, calls it "unique in what it represents as far as the camaraderie between female artists and entrepreneurs . . . and the different energies all coming together. I haven't heard of anything similar in terms of the showcase aspects of it."

That's because the festival, held in several locations, is an embracing m ix of local and national talent, established artists and newcomers, singers and MCs, DJs and spoken-word artists. It also looks to highlight positive images of women, countering prevailing images in the mainstream media, where women are sexualized, made to appear as "hard" as their male counterparts or reduced to singing hooks on those artists' recordings. Lately, some female hip-hop artists have been more active in tabloids than in recording studios. (Can you say Remy Ma, Foxy Brown and Lil' Kim?)

Vocalist Afi, who has been with CASRAM since its origin as monthly B-Girl Manifesto shows, says, "From the beginning, we got sick and tired of females being represented in only one way. We felt there were so many other types of representations than what we saw on the videos or on TV, where there was a very low respect for females. We wanted to show that women are beautiful and women are sexy, but we can show ourselves in a positive manner and still get that same type of attention."

"Everybody has a right to express and represent themselves the way they want," Afi says. "My problem is when it's not an equal playing field where everyone is allowed to represent who they are. Fortunately, we have people like Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Angie Stone, Alicia Keyes, who are representing women in a positive manner, but when we started, a lot of those people weren't even getting played."

Bahamadia adds: "Everything has its place and its time. For me, the reality has been that women of substance, creating quality music and art overall, have always existed, but we haven't had as much media coverage consistently over time that our counterparts have had."

And that, says CASRAM founder Kimani Anku, "is my mission, my goal: to give that balance to anybody who wants to hear the good stuff as opposed to the junk. The key is try to save the kids; if they're listening to that stuff now, we're in bad shape. Music is my life, and I want to be able to give it back to the young people."

CASRAM's roots are in an Internet radio show hosted by Anku, who works for public access DCTV. "In 1999, I decided to do all female hip-hop artists for March because it was women's history month," he recalls, "and that was our biggest show ever. We got over a million hits to that page, and I thought maybe I should build something around that."

The following year, Anku and partner Brandon Felton organized B-Girl Manifesto, a series of monthly live shows at various locations, clearly inspired by Black Lily, the Philadelphia women's music showcase that launched Jill Scott, Jaguar Wright and Floetry.

"That first show, I was walking the streets looking for local female hip-hop artists," Anku admits. He found Lakisha McCoy (who has since moved to New York) and built a show around her at the then-empty Hechinger's building on Wisconsin Avenue as part of Artomatic. Anku publicized the free event via e-mail, posters and handouts.

"We had 500 people come out -- that was exciting. People said, 'We need this,' so I kept doing it. I didn't want to, but so many female MCs and singers and spoken-word artists and DJs kept coming up to me after the first event that I turned it into B-Girl Manifesto."

That was how Anku met then-10-year-old Fela. "A poet brought her to do a spoken-word show," Anku recalls, adding that "she is now a beast on the microphone. She opened for KRS-One at the Black Cat in May and tore it down with a live band."

"My most exciting moment, hands down," says Fela, who has shared stages with rapper Talib Kweli and spoken-word artist Ursula Rucker. "He already knew who I was, which was another overwhelming experience, and he actually took the time to talk to me and exchange info. It was really amazing."

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