Feminist Studies

Received: 4 October 2015 Revised: 2 November 2015 Accepted: 17November 2015

DOI: 10.1111/jpms.12191


Sexual knowledge and practiced feminisms: Onmoral panic, black girlhoods, and hip hop

Christina Carney1 Jillian Hernandez2 AnyaM.Wallace3

1University ofMissouri, Columbia

2University of California, SanDiego

3Pennsylvania StateUniversity

I’m a boss ass bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch

I’m a boss ass bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch

These are the bold refrains that made P.T.A.F.—an emerging performance group of young Black women from Cren-

shaw, Los Angeles—a popular music phenomenon. They entered popular music culture as teenagers through the viral

circulation of their do-it-yourself (d.i.y) music video “Boss Ass Bitch,” which was posted on YouTube in May 2012 and

had amassed over 13,000,000 hits by September 2016.1 The lyrics of P.T.A.F.’s “Boss Ass Bitch” are explicit and demon-

strate that the young performers are aware of their sexual selves through language that vigorously describes the cor-

poreal pleasure they seek. “If you use your tongue I’ma like that/ Pin my arms to the bed I’ma fight back… Before you eat the pussy you gon’ bite my neck/ Bendme over the bed, make me soakin’ wet.” These vivid directives center on their enjoyment

and gratification. The rhythms of “Boss Ass Bitch” are infectious, the video simple, but dynamic in its demonstration of

the girls’ commitment to ingenuity. The quality of their production—evidenced by its smooth edits, steady shots, and

on-point rhymedelivery—show that this projectwas not entered into thoughtlessly. Their erotic authority is expressed

through their lyricism, and they summon respect as emcees through direct eye contact with the camera. We are com-

pelled by the self-actualization they embody in this vulnerable display of worldwide reach. The video is tangible proof

of P.T.A.F.’s bossness.

EmceesAlizé, Kandii, andK’Duceyyymet in high school and fomented a friendship born from turning their everyday

experiences (like dealingwith other girls talking behind their backs) into the art of Hip Hop. They improvised lyrics and

created beats by banging on school desks. The infectious hook to “Boss Ass Bitch” was initially “I don’t like that bitch,

bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch.” Their group name means that they are pretty and take all fades: they will never

turn down the opportunity to defend themselves, even if it means fighting.2 In “Boss Ass Bitch” the girls express both

their erotic, and, when necessary, violent selves, thus merging two of themost dominant, negative tropes of Black girl-

hood. Scholar/artist RuthNicole Brown,whose praxis is based amongBlack girls inUrbana-Champaign, Illinois through

Saving Our Lives, Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT), has heard many fight stories from the girls she has worked with. In the-

orizing the troubling commonality of violence in their lives she writes that, “If power were transformed on a structural

level, fighting would not take up as much space as it does in the personal lives of Black girls. If power were the target

of change, rather than individual Black girls, they would not have to service their body as the site of change on which

everyone else inscribes their ownversion of justice and survival” (Brown, 2013, p. 146). Black girlhood is often a deplet-

ing struggle, but, in owning the aspects of themselves that fight and fuck, while highlighting their close connection to

Journal of Popular Music Studies 2016; 28: 412–426 wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/jpms c⃝ 2016Wiley Periodicals, Inc. 412


F IGURE 1 Still from P.T.A.F.’s “Boss Ass Bitch” YouTube video

each other, as evidenced by their body language throughout the “Boss Ass Bitch” YouTube video, P.T.A.F. stages unsani-

tized truths about Black girlhood with joy andmelody. Ruth Nicole Brownwould describe their approach as wreckless


Brown (2014) has found that Black girls define “wreckless” as a performative mode that is “dramatic, semi-

confrontational, and passionately argued even in the case of inevitable defeat” (35). Drawing from the insights of the

girls she works with, Brown offers a concept of wreckless theatrics as a method of inquiry that would foreground “the

motions and emotions of Black girls attempting to live their lives”; “value the cultural resources and performances of

Black girlhood”; allow for the “creation, presentation and representations of culturally embodied knowledge of import

to particular communities of practice”; and, lastly, “share stories of Black girlhood as told by Black girls and those who

love them as ameans of collective action dedicated to the survival of Black girls everywhere” (37). Brown viewswreck-

less theatrics as disrupting academic norms by acknowledging Black girls as producers of knowledge and privileging

collaborative and organic practices of knowledge production.

We are compelled by Dr. Brown to view the passionate, dramatic, and confrontational stances assumed in P.T.A.F.’s

“Boss Ass Bitch” as a performance of wreckless theatrics that displays the girls’ embodied sexual knowledge, butmany

have read it as evidencing aberrant Black girl recklessness. This has been evidenced by how, despite their popularity,

the group has been subjected to vicious assaults that continue to accumulate on YouTube:

“These are the type of sluts giving blacks everywhere a bad name.”

“Imust be getting behind onmyghetto slang. So ‘boss ass bitch’mustmean ‘ugly ass dirty hoe.’ I’ll try to remember


“When the gorilla in the black shirt started rapping, my eyes began to twitch rapidly. Then when I understood

what she was saying, I felt my puke crawl up my throat.”

“lol these must be the ugliest ghetto cunts they could find to sing an embarrassing song like this.”

The girls are framed as grotesque and depraved in these comments due to their sexually marked disavowals of

respectable heteronormativity. They are deemed unworthy of support or celebration.

In her analysis of YouTube videos Black girls have posted of themselves twerking, Kyra D. Gaunt has observed how

“context collapse,” a phenomenon in which viewers are detached from a “locally-shared context and meaning,” has


resulted in “trolling, race-baiting, and slut-shaming inmany [of the] comments” onYouTube (252, 245).Gauntnotes that

in contrast, nonblack performers who appropriate twerking are rewarded culturally and economically, as in the case of

Miley Cyrus, whowas tapped as a finalist in Timemagazine’s Person of the Year (2013) as a result of her twerking in the

music video “We Can’t Stop.” While YouTube and similar social media platforms have been imagined as disrupting the

digital divide, Gaunt suggests that the continued exploitation of black cultural performances in popular music culture

is reflective of “earlier patterns… by oldmedia” (254). Given the backlash that attends the cultural circulation of Black girls’ self-authored sexual performances, Gaunt

asks “So why would black girls continue to play along on YouTube?” (251). At one point, P.T.A.F actually considered

quitting their musical pursuits due to the hostile responses they received to their music and videos. As Alizé explained,

“We wasn’t really excited about the video at first because it was more negative comments. The negative comments

kinda pushed us away.”3 Gaunt argues that Black girls may be incapable of understanding how their self-presentation

could be interpreted (252).While she acknowledges her past participation in erotic self-presentation as a young Black

girl, Gaunt now expresses her discomfort in watching young Black girls twerk on YouTube:

After watching over 50 hours of twerking videos, even as an African-American woman who once actively par-

ticipated in similar adolescent and college dance parties, doing this research has meant constantly reminding

myself that outsiders –myself included –may not be comfortable nor may they have the cultural conditioning to

recognize black erotic social dancing as something other than hypersexual adolescent play linked to some kind

of moral panic which has always been associated with youth music (260).

Without a “shared history in real life,” Gaunt posits, Black girls and women are inevitability vulnerable to degrada-

tion by outsiders (262). By acknowledging how their vilification prompted them to them consider abandoning their

music making, P.T.A.F.’s decision to continue to perform despite it demonstrates their commitment to expressing

themselves and making culture. In so doing they answer Gaunt’s question: they continue to play along because to be

silencedwouldmean to be erased and to deny their pleasure in their craft.

Inspired byP.T.A.F., and in response to the dynamics ofmoral panic andBlack girl pleasure that attend contemporary

Hip Hop music and its cultural reception, we bring our collective voices together to ask: How are Black girls expressing

their sexual knowledge through Hip Hop? Where are the moral panics concerning Black girls’ consumption of Hip Hop music

circulating?What does the space of popular culture music production offer to girls that standard pedagogical and social service

spaces do not? Together we draw upon our work with Black girls through community arts outreach, analysis of music

created by Black girls, and engagement in debates about Hip Hop and feminism to trouble the widespreadmoral panic

regarding Hip Hop’s danger to a contrived notion of “respectable” Black girlhood.

We suggest that the realm of popular culture offers both pleasures and perils for the expression of Black girls’ com-

plex sexual knowledges. Unlike classrooms andmainstream “girls’ empowerment” projects, which implicitly and explic-

itly police girls’ sexuality in the project of “renovating” them, the space of popular culture allows for uncensored, cre-

ative, sexual expressionwhile simultaneouslymaking thegirls subject topublic denigration throughdiscoursesofmoral

panic, racialized/gendered hypersexuality, and respectability politics.4 Nevertheless, wefind that theDIYunderground

production of Black girls’ sexually explicit Hip Hop allows for an erotic self-determination that has cultural impact and

refuses to be suppressed.

We begin by reflecting on how we found ourselves implicated in moral panic during an unexpectedly contentious

panel discussion we participated in on “Locating Power and Empowerment in Hip Hop” that took place in May 2014

at the University of California, San Diego. Next, we discuss pedagogies and research we have implemented to engage

Black girls in discussions on sexual pleasure and Hip Hop. Lastly, we examine how the moralistic policing of Black girls’

sexuality and consumption of Hip Hop is elaborated via memes in social media in addition to mainstream music and

critical commentary by men of color who seek to protect Black girls while utilizing sexist rhetoric. We conclude with a

meditation on how the space of Hip Hop can be generative of intergenerational connections between girls andwomen

of color.



The event that drove us to write this article was a panel discussion that Christina Carney organized in 2014 titled

“Locating Power and Empowerment in Hip Hop.” The panel was a community-based extension of the graduate

conference FAQ: Feminist and Queer of Color Critique held at the University of California, San Diego. Christina’s aimwas

to generate a space for exploring the intersections of race, gender, and respectability politics. She invited Miki Vale, a

San Diego-based emcee and LGBT nightlife promoter for queer/lesbian women, who had established a local following

by organizing Hip Hop shows that catered to gender-specific audiences. Vale was joined on the panel by her copresen-

ter, KwayeraWilson. Christina also invited JillianHernandez and AnyaWallace due to their workwith and about Black

girls andHipHop. She hoped to prompt conversation around theways Black girls engageHipHop for pleasure and sur-

vival. However, the volatile debate sparked in the panel was not at all what Christina or any of the other participants

could have predicted.

Anya and Jillian were the first to present, and they gave an overview of their research on P.T.A.F and Nicki Minaj,

which appeared in an article on the website Feminist Wire. They screened P.T.A.F.’s original “Boss Ass Bitch” video that

was released on YouTube in 2012 and the subsequent video they created after landing a deal with Capitol Records in

2014, which had higher production values. In highlighting the continued vilification of the P.T.A.F girls, despite their

industry endorsement, Anya and Jillian displayed a video from an onlinemusic show called The Drop in which the hosts

referred to the girls as “ratchet,” meaning low-class, embarrassing, and unattractive.5 Vale and Wilson pointed to the

image of the P.T.A.F. performers and said, “This creates a problem for us,” meaning that the representation of Black girl-

hood P.T.A.F. performed reflected poorly upon them as Blackwomen, and upon Black communitiesmore broadly. There

weremuted expressions of both agreement and dispute among those in the audience, which consisted of UCSDunder-

graduates, graduate students, faculty, and those from other institutions whowere on campus for the FAQ conference.

Vale and Wilson did not engage with Anya and Jillian’s discussion of P.T.A.F.’s ownership of their sexuality, nor the

racist, sexist, and classist disapproval they have beenmet with. Instead, they followed their attack on P.T.A.F. with neg-

ative commentary on Nicki Minaj, such as juxtaposing the lyrics of her 2012 song “Stupid Hoe” to those of “Doo-Wop

(That Thing)” by Hip Hop artist Lauryn Hill, from her 1998 album TheMiseducation of Lauryn Hill. Vale particularly cited

the chorus fromMinaj’s confrontational diss-track “Stupid Hoe,” “you a stupid hoe, you a, you a stupid hoe,” along with

lyrics from “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” such as, “Showing off your ass ’cause you’re thinking it’s a trend / Girlfriend, let me

break it down for you again / You know I only say it `cause I’m truly genuine / Don’t be a hardrock when you’re really

a gem.” They positioned Lauryn Hill’s music as a form of feminist of color uplift and presentedMinaj’s as simplistic and

fomenting conflict amongwomen.

What their discussion ignored was how Hill’s “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” judges other women of color who enjoy

promiscuity andwear hairweaves and long nails, thus creating amoral standard throughwhich they can be denigrated.

In addition, Vale andWilson’s juxtaposition of the two artists disregarded LaurynHill’s later description of some of the

thoughts shaping The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill album as simplistic, arrogant, and one-sided, such as presenting her

decision aboutwhether or not to abort the pregnancy of her first-born son Zion as one devoid of personal doubt. In the

track titled “Zion” she sings, “Look at your career they said / Lauryn baby use your head / but instead I chose to use my

heart.” In an interviewwith Essence (2002) magazine, Hill revealed,

Sometimes I had very selfish, rottenmotives. So, for example, Iwouldwrite a song about other people encouraging

me to consider an abortion beforemy son Zionwas born, but not confess any doubts onmy part because it might

make people think differently about me. So even if I spoke some truth about myself in one of my songs, I had to

package it in a way that would make me look kinda fly, you understand? (Cleage, 94).

Vale and Wilson’s commentary also disregarded songs in which Nicki Minaj challenges male domination and pro-

motes the power of women and girls, such as “Lookin Ass” (2014) and “I’m the Best” (2010), where she raps, “That I’m

fighting for the girls, that never thought they could win / `Cause before they could begin you told ’em it was the end /

But I am here to reverse the curse that they live in.”


In becoming a site where the binary between respectable and disreputable Black femininity was staged, the “Locat-

ing Power and Empowerment in Hip-Hop” discussion elicited the same response that P.T.A.F. received: degradation

of Black girls due to their performances of overt sexuality. Unlike Vale and Wilson, Jillian and Anya did not want

to label any woman as nonrespectable or deviant. Instead, they were calling for a contextualization of why girls and

women choose to label themselves “boss bitches,” arguing that they are not trying to degrade themselves; quite the

opposite: their modes of self-expression challenge heterosexism by asserting sexual power outside the confines of

normative, middle-class gender paradigms. When girls and women attempt to be strong and confident, they are often

labeled bitches. Thus, many use the term with a sense of pride, precisely because they know their actions are con-

testing the sexual passivity that girls and women are expected to embody and perform. Furthermore, Anya and Jillian

stressed that girls’ identity practices are complex and dynamic. For instance, girls might not always identify with the

“boss bitch” label; it is contextual and varies between particular spaces and relationships (family vs. school, lovers vs.

other girlfriends). Manymay not relate to the term at all. As Ruth Nicole Brown notes in her discussion of recalling and

embracing her teen girl “hoochie history,” “Now, when I work with a girl who calls herself ‘a bad bitch,’ for example, I

ask questions. I do not condemn. I wonder how her beloved affiliation produces what she feels as joy” (46). Similarly,

Jillian andAnya did not aim to upholdMinaj and P.T.A.F. as the standard bearers of girl/woman of color feminism, but as

examples of practiced feminisms, among many others, that should be engaged with complexity because they produce

forms of pleasure that are so often vilified.

In contrast to the moralistic responses we have discussed above, we understand “Boss Ass Bitch” as a learner-

constructed educational space informed by the knowledge and desires of the performers—a safe and healthy explo-

ration of sexuality by Black girls. When such spaces are crafted by youth they are often delegitimized in mainstream

discourse. Heteronormativy dictates that sexual education for youth be rooted in fear and center on the prevention

of situations that are not respected (i.e., parenting children out of wedlock, contracting disease, enjoying promis-

cuity). This framework unduly targets Black women and girls because it is assumed that they are at higher risk for

unplannedpregnancy anddisease transmission than theirwhite counterparts; this is underpinnedby a chronic urgency

to tame a perceived hypersexual nature. Alternative sex education pedagogies focusing on pleasure are scarce among

Black women and girls because they conflict with a longstanding assumption that their sexuality must be constrained.

P.T.A.F.’s performance of sexual nonconformity and knowledge, which we understand as a practiced feminism, trou-

bles this construct and consequently elicited rabid retaliation by the entities they challenge—white supremacy and

the patriarchal, heteronormative respectability politics operative in both the larger culture and communities of color.

Aimee Meredith Cox has described how Black girls encounter these respectability politics in schools, social service

offices, andwithin their own families and larger communities in the form of discourses that center on “sexuality as vio-

lence, sexuality as victimization, and sexuality as individualmorality. There is a fourth discourse, thediscourse of desire,

that has been silenced in this setting” (165). Recognizing the silence these spaces demand encourages an understand-

ing of how DIY underground Hip Hop production serves as a necessary and affirming site for the articulation of Black

girls’ desires that are treated by the adults in their lives as taboo.

Although Kyra Gaunt and Aimee Meredith Cox recognize how respectability politics discipline Black girls’ sexual

expressions, their work nevertheless reinforces the notion that explicit expressions of Black girls’ desires are perilous.

In Cox’s discussion of how one of her Black girl participants from a homeless shelter in Detroit read a sexually explicit

poem and bounced her booty while pregnant at an open mic night at a local café, Cox acknowledges that although the

girl received negative responses from both audience members and the other girls in her group, she appeared to feel

neither shame nor regret. Yet, Cox posits that, “Like her young, pregnant body, LaT’s public performance of sexuality—

regardless of her feelings of esteem or power related to it—can be used against her in making and enforcing social

welfare policies, program guidelines, resource allocation, and employment practices” (163). Cox is right to note that no

expression of sexuality is ever divorced from networks of power, but her assertion ignores theways in which such poli-

cies are enforced upon Black girls regardless of their actual performances of sexuality, as the history of Black feminine

sexual inscription is rooted in racist biases concerningwhat is perceived as their always already aberrant sexuality and



Hazel Carby has documented how the Great Migration occasioned a moral panic regarding Black girls entering sex

work uponmoving to big cities in the north as away to avoid hardwork inmore traditional jobs. She argues that this dis-

course emerged from a fear of the new freedoms that Black migrant women found in urban settings, which resulted in

acute surveillance of their bodies and sexualities. Both white and Black bourgeois communities sought to reformwhat

they perceived as Black girls’ sexual aberrance and laziness while ignoring their very limited and exploitative employ-

ment options. As Carby notes, “On the eve of the depression black women who had migrated to urban areas were still

overwhelmingly limited to employment in domestic service and as laundresses” (752). In this restrictive racist/sexist

context, Carby argues that the space of the Blues became pivotal for Black women, as it allowed for the expression

of their newfound agency in the midst of profound social change. “In doing so they inspired other women to claim the

freedom [they] so ardently desired” (755). Carby notes that performing music was a form of labor that provided Black

women more power and money when compared to domestic work, and that it was often disreputable Black women

such as prostitutes who provided support to struggling Black girls, such as the sex worker who looked after the young

EthelWaters, as described in her autobiography.

[Ethel] Waters reveals a consciousness of being part of a world in which women were under surveillance and

has little hesitation in declaring her allegiance [with prostitutes]. The images and figures of the sources of both

exploitation andnurturance in the lives of these young blackwomenare in direct contrast to and, indeed, in direct

conflict with the attempts of the black middle class to police and discipline female sexuality (753).

Drawing fromCarby, we situate P.T.A.F. within the longer genealogy of Black women crafting sexually explicit music

and challenging gender and racial norms in the cultural sphere.6

Contemporary moral panics regarding Black girls’ sexualities and Hip Hop also recall the early 20th century white

slavery panics that centered on how an increasingly urban and diverse US society was leading to the moral downfall

of girls through sexual trafficking, participation in the workplace, and engagement in emerging youth cultures such as

dance halls (Odem; Knupfer; Chatelain). This rhetoric was dramatically revived decades later in girls’ studies scholar-

ship with the publication, in 2007, of the “American Psychological Association’s Report of the APA Task Force on the

Sexualization of Girls” and was reiterated in books that soon followed, including So Sexy, So Soon: The New Sexualized

Childhood and What Parents Can Do About It (Levin & Kilbourne) and The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young

Girls and What We Can Do About It (Durham). These texts linked mass media, and often Hip Hop in particular, to the

sexual abuse and low self-esteem of girls. For instance, in a list of five examples of sexually problematic lyrics compiled

by the APA Task Force, three featured Black Hip Hop performers. In So Sexy So Soon, the sexual innuendo conveyed by

performers such as Elvis (referenced as a historical comparison) and Britney Spears is contrasted with the impropri-

ety of Black Hip Hop artists. The authors juxtapose Elvis’s playful hip-shaking to the sexually explicit lyrics of Ludacris,

and Britney Spears, a performer known for mobilizing sexuality as part of her act, is considered to be “tame though,

comparedwith Lil’ Kimwho sings ‘I’ll do it anywhere, anyhow / I’m down for anything” (145).

Black modes of sexual expression occupy an untenable position on the rigid continuum of “normal” sexuality that

undergirds the arguments of these texts, reflecting sociologist Janice Irvine’s contention that “the white middle class

has routinely justified oppression by casting people of color as sexually deviant” (11). This is evidenced in the way

the sexual moral panics driving these studies have centered on middle-class white girls as the subjects of primary

concern, as Black girls are thought to be deviant and therefore incapable of “correction” (Knupfer). As subjects who

are marginalized and made vulnerable by their positions relative to race, gender, and status as youth, Black girls are

“thought to be morally wanting by both dominant society and other indigenous group members” (Cohen, 29). Such

discourses compel the contemporary circulation of moralistic memes on social media by some Black communities, as

they attempt to deem Black girls valuable by articulating notions of their sexual purity through respectability poli-

tics. This purity, however, is nevertheless positioned in such images as tenuous and susceptible to trouble through

Black girls’ exposure to popularHipHopmusic, thus unwittingly reinforcing the very racialized stereotype they seek to





Dangerous! Conniving! Evil! Black women Hip Hop and R&B artists in popular culture are often framed as depraved

Jezebels who bring about the moral downfall of Black girls, in particular due to their sexual body presentations, lyrics,

and video productions. Memes such as these circulate on the social media feeds of communities of color online, often

among people who claim to be invested in progressive race and gender politics. The one in Fig. 2 portrays a young

Black girl fighting off monsters that represent artists such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj. These Black women

celebrities are charged with attacking “Black daughters” through their presence in mainstream media. The meme in

Fig. 3 utilizes a still image ofNickiMinaj appearingmaniacal to convey themessage that parentswho do not invest time

in properly “training” their daughters will leave them in the hands of these purportedly deviant figures.

F IGURE 2 Black Daughters Under Attackmeme

Social media has been a site where the Minaj/Hill dichotomy has also been staged. The memes below circu-

lated following the release of Minaj’s “Anaconda,” two months after our debate during the “Locating Power and

Empowerment in Hip Hop” panel at UCSD (Figure 4). They declare that Minaj, unlike Lauryn Hill, indeed promotes

the miseducation of people of color. Social texts such as these encapsulate the either/or framework of empow-

ered/respectable versus deviant/denigrated Black girl- and womanhood. These paradigms refuse to situate artists like

Minaj and Hill along a continuum of women’s Hip Hop practices that embraces variety of expressive modes without

creating hierarchical valuations between them. Along with many other women and girls of color, we love and relate

to the music of both artists. Sesali Bowen has analyzed a similar meme that juxtaposes the recording artists Erykah

Badu and Beyoncé, arguing that to “‘be a Badu in a world full of Beyonceś’ is to be respectable and discretionary or

passively engaged with your sexuality, while other women publicly or explicitly express theirs” (42). The popularity of

such memes exposes a widespread investment in shaming Black women pop culture performers who embrace sexual

self-presentation. Memes are effective tools of communication because their economical and precise juxtaposition of

text and imagemakes them easy to circulate and digest in minimal time. According to Bowen, memes provide “archival

evidenceof howBlackwomenare constructed, represented, and approachedwithin the current digital landscape” (35).


F IGURE 3 Don’t Let NickiMinaj Train Your Daughters meme

F IGURE 4 Lauryn Hill versus Nicki Minaj memes

The memes illustrated here convey an address to Black parents, and likely mothers specifically, to take up arms

against popular music in order to protect their daughters’ sexual respectability. Knowledge is referenced as a weapon

with which to fight against this “sexualization,” but what kind of knowledge would provide the solution to this moral

panic is less clear. It appears, according to the logic of these memes, that girls must either be protected from exposure

to this media, or, alternatively, be encouraged to take an oppositional stance against it.

For example, the meme in Fig. 5 depicts a young Black girl lying in bed in her room drawing a self-portrait. On the

wall behind her hangs a large poster bearing the likeness of celebrated BlackMexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o

grinning while holding the Oscar she was awarded in 2014. The foreground displays, among dolls and other childhood

relics, posters and other Nicki Minaj fan paraphilia that have been torn down and thrown in a trash bin. The image

conveys the impression that the child once admired Nicki Minaj, but learned that she is no longer praise-worthy when


F IGURE 5 Lupita Nyong’o versus Nicki Minaj meme

compared to the respectable, elegantly dressed, and culturally exalted Academy Award-winning Nyong’o. The meme

not only polarizes the artistic crafts of Minaj and Nyong’o, but pits one Black woman against the other, reinforcing

the notion that for Black girls there is a right and wrong version of Black womanhood to aspire to. This point is most

clearly expressed in how thememeportrays the girl creating her own “positive” self-image that is inspired byNyong’o’s

example. The meme denies a complex understanding of the women being portrayed and disregards the evolving Black

girlhoods in question. It strictly assigns each artist to the role of a literal poster child—one respectable, and the other

disgraceful—thus imposing on Black girls the impossible expectation of making the right choice for their own well-


Mainstream Hip Hop artists such as Lupe Fiasco have repeated such sentiments by addressing the need for the

proper “training” of Black girls and boys by their mothers. His video “Bitch Bad” (2012), which critiques the use

of “bad bitch” as a self-referential term of empowerment by Black women, features a scene in which a young boy

rides in a car with his mother while she happily sings along to rap music that addresses women as bitches. The

video frames this as a moment of parental miseducation that has the effect of teaching her son to be a misogynist

who eventually grows to disrespect women. Another scene features young girls—whom Lupe Fiasco describes in

the song as ages 9–12—watching Hip Hop videos on the Internet. Fiasco’s lyrics tell the story of the girls consum-

ing the image of a woman succumbing to the sexual desires of a male rapper. The video depicts a Black woman in a

thong and bikini top rubbing her body against a rapper as a young Black girl imitates her on stage while sucking on a

lollipop (Figure 6).

The word also appeared in an open letter addressed to Nicki Minaj by Chuck Creekmur, owner of the website All-

HipHop.com, which often features rap with sexually explicit content, following the release of the promotional image

for her 2014 hit song “Anaconda.”

In the chorus, Fiasco offers contrasting models of femininity: “Bitch bad, woman good / Lady better, theymisunder-

stood / (I’m killin’ these bitches).” Fiasco presents the figure of the “lady” as a corrective to the sexually deviant “bad

bitch” hewishes to “kill” throughhis song. The term “lady” is oftendeployed in social discourse and school/family spaces

to discipline girls into performances of sexual respectability and gender normativity.


F IGURE 6 Still from Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch Bad” video (Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3m3t_PxiUI)

The “Anaconda” single art features the artist photographed from behind in a spread-eagled squat position, wearing

a pink thong, pink bra, and sneakers, with her head turned around to face the camera with a steady and commanding

gaze. The image prompted a backlash in the media, with critics calling it vulgar and hypersexual. The artist responded

via Instagram posts that juxtaposed her image with the then-current issue of Sports Illustrated, which featured three

thin topless youngwhitewomen in thongsphotographed from the rear at a beach. Byplacing the accompanying caption

“Angelic, acceptable, lol” on her post of the young women from the Sports Illustrated cover and “UNACCEPTABLE” with

the post of her “Anaconda” photo, the artist directly criticized thedouble standard that sanctionswhitewomen’s sexual

display in mainstream spaces, such as the neighborhood supermarket, while vilifying that of a Black woman in popular

culture as inappropriate, dangerous to youth, and excessive.

Creekmur’s letter, however, takes no account of this double standard as he admonishes Minaj for being a negative

influence on his young daughter due to her sexual self-presentation. In an open display of heteronormative male priv-

ilege, Creekur sanctions the artist for her self-display while simultaneously expressing his own sexual delight in her


Not only do I run AllHipHop, I’m a father, too. For a moment there, I felt like I had briefly peered into the deepest

recesses of Nicki Minaj’s true inner self, a being that cares how this ratchet s**t affects my kid. I said to myself,

“Self, how cool is this? Nicki is already evolving into somebody thatmy daughtermay get to listen to onmywatch.

Maybe.” I’ve been in themusic game aminute now, so I know how it goes. So, when I peeped the artwork for your

latest single, I wasn’t even shocked, I was just disappointed. The song: “Anaconda.” The art: your booty in a thong.

As a man, I can appreciate the virtues of your perfect posterior. The dad guy is not a happy camper, particularly

now that his lil’ girl is transitioning into a young lady.

Rather than point to the manner in which heteronormativity and male privilege oppress girls, these discourses on

popularmusic, and inparticular theharmthe “badbitch” inflicts onBlack girls, lay the responsibility of upholdingproper

womanhood on women and girls themselves. Adult Black women must perform respectability and Black girls must

deny themselves exposure to and indulgence in popular culture, while men such as Creekmur get to both enjoy the

visual display of women’s bodies and occupy the high ground of moral righteousness. This narrative about “Anaconda”

proliferated through other online media as well, as in a story published by Financial Juneteenth, which centers on con-

tent that promotes financial literacy for Black communities, titled “Nicki Minaj is so talented, She might teach your

daughter to be a hooker.”

Disconcertingly, we find that women of color feminists sometimes employ discourses similar to these patriar-

chal narratives, especially on the topic of girls and popular music. In the wake of “Anaconda,” our social media feeds

featured status updates and tweets in which fellow feminists described their disgust at witnessing mothers listen to


the song with daughters in their cars, or seeing girls consume it on their own on smart phones and tablets in public

spaces. Iconic pop cultural works such as “Anaconda” become flashpoints that reveal the struggles over and invest-

ments in the meanings and performances of gender and racialized sexuality, particularly for girls. These moral panics

often employ hyperbolic imagery and language to convey the urgency and high stakes of these conflicts over represen-

tation for marginalized communities of color.

In crafting a popular culture space for the expression of Black girl/woman sexual knowledge and desire unfettered

by moral panic, Nicki Minaj created a remix version of “Boss Ass Bitch” that she used for a freestyle rap.7 Like P.T.A.F.’s

original,Minaj’s iterationof the songengages sexual explicitness and troubles heteronormativitywith lyrics like, “Pussy

like girls, damn, is my pussy gay? / It’s a holiday—play with my pussy day / Pussy this, pussy that, pussy cakin’ / Pussy

ride dick like she a Jamaican.” This queer narrationof sexual pleasure andplay is a complex expressionof female erotics.

Minaj’s recognition and endorsement of P.T.A.F.’s work through the free circulation of the freestyle rap online, as it was

not an official release by her label YoungMoney, dreweven broader attention to the group and landed themadealwith

Capitol Records in 2014. They released an EP in the same year titled 3 the HardWay.

We view the intergenerational musical relationship of P.T.A.F. andMinaj via Hip Hop as an expression of the erotics

of feminist solidarity (Hernandez&Wallace, 2014)—a forging of alliances grounded in radical sexual politics and atten-

tiveness to the affective and corporeal dimensions of conducting feminist work, even when it is not defined as such.

Thus, although neither Nicki Minaj nor P.T.A.F. frame their work through a discourse of feminism, we nevertheless

locate politics in their gender nonconforming declarations of erotic self-determination. Through our work with girls

we also recognize that they locate feminism in thework of pop cultureHipHop artists likeMinaj, even and if only to say

whether or notMinaj is a feminist and/or to articulate their own refusal or embrace of feminism.

For example, the spontaneous and passionate conversations the Black girls that Jillian and Anya have worked with

through theWomen on the Rise! art outreach project inMiami, Florida inspired Jillian to make it a focus of her ethno-

graphic research.8 In discussingMinaj, participants made statements such as:

She’s trying to be a girly girl but then again she tryna show that girls can be in the rap game too.

She kills them [male rappers]–OFF! Just like, the stuff she says, people be like, “Wow, a girl said that.”

You listen to her music and she’s like, “I fuck, but I got more bank than you. You don’t have to take care of me,

I could do my own. I don’t have to worry about the bullshit, I can do what the fuck I want and not give three

flying fucks.” That’s her attitude. “Yes, I can dress however I want because I don’t care. I got bank—I can dowhat I

want.” She’s not like these other females who are under different rappers because they still need to get their fame

or whatever. Nicki has her spot in Cash Money,9 she doesn’t need to worry about that so she’s like, “I’m gonna

just do me.”

I think that she’s going against males. It’s like, “I’m dressed like Barbie and I’m still getting attention.” She’s show-

ing girls can do it too—girls can rap too.

These statements illustrate how the girls locate a feminist ethics in Minaj’s music and body presentations through

her economic independence, rap skill, gender nonconformity in employing a hardcore style, and simultaneous ability to

retain her femininity in amainstream cultural realm of Hip Hop that is dominated by hypermasculinity.

In discussing the feminist politics of HipHop created by BlackwomenGwendolynD. Pough has noted that “asmuch

as we champion and claim certain women rappers for their lyrics, their outreach activities, their ‘positive’ messages,

or their ‘pro-woman’ messages, very few women rappers will go on record saying that they are feminist” (viii). Pough

argues that although women emcees may not identify as feminists, their work can nevertheless be activated to incite

social change. In thinking of a “practiced feminism,” we aim to draw attention to how the musical practices of Black

girl emcees who do not identify as feminists nevertheless expand representations of Black girlhood sexuality that oth-

erwise tend to focus on danger and deviance through an unabashed emphasis on pleasure. By giving voice to their

sexual knowledge, Black girl emcees practice feminism. The memes and critical commentary we analyze above set

the context for a normative respectability politics that is consistently challenged by the girls themselves, and by femi-

nist and cultural workers of color. Our work disrupts the rigid boundaries of “respectable” Black girlhood sexuality by


thinking through Black girlhood in ways that bring together celebrity artists like Nicki Minaj and Lauryn Hill, under-

ground artists like P.T.A.F and cultural workers/scholars such as ourselves in order to facilitate a rich and multilayered



Girls, teachers, law enforcement, prison guards, counselors, and the place of any given program itself. All things con-

densing together, or all things conjuring chaos, generate this space and time. In the space, performing connectivity with

the space, incites an infinite cycle of call and response. This cycle of connectivity is what we recognize as art. Art is the

dialogue that occurs in response to the happenings of the space. Art is what and how we write and rap. Just Because

I’m a scholar, doesn’t mean I’m not an artist. My name is Anya, and I am creating.10 Ultimately, art is what we make—in the

space, of the space, in remembering the space. Art is the present, and art is also memory. All of these things working in

conjunction with one another and in opposition to one another generate the girlhood spaces to which we refer. In our

practice of work with girl subjects, in the practice of generating space as artists and educators with and for Black girls,

our scholarship promotes a reciprocal bearing witness to the experiences of Black female youth andwomanhood. This

practice of work re-envisions pleasure and desire in girlhood space(s) that are crafted by one’s ownwitnessing, and that

is imagined outside of her own perceived trappings.

July 2015, Miami, in one of the spaces were such art, chaos, and pleasure are generated, Jillian and Anya facilitated

an art workshop engaging a classroom of predominantly Black girls in a conversation about pleasure. Anya shared her

photographywork and talked about howher research onBlack girls andpleasure stemmed fromher experienceswork-

ing with girls in Savannah through the Girl Scouts. She found that the girls would become pregnant despite the sexual

education they received, and that they often did not enjoy the sex that resulted in the pregnancy. After this framing

discussion, Anya employed her pedagogy of the pleasure timeline, which prompts girls tomap their experiences of plea-

sure and give them visual form.

The pleasure timeline (or map) is an art project and exercise in memory exploration that invites each participant to

examine her past and make connections with experiences of pleasure from as far back as she can recall. The focus

on pleasure relies on the concept of physical/sexual pleasure but is not restricted to this idea. Thus, girls can also

recall moments of joy in experiences such as spending time with a close family member or friend. Participants are

provided with watercolor paints, markers, and clay to depict their timeline, and projects can take on both two- and

three-dimensional forms. Using an identified memory of pleasure as a starting point, each girl is instructed to map a

timeline that includes experiences that both precede and follow her chosenmemory. By using the concept of “timeline”

freely, shemaymove backwards or forwards along this framework to highlight significantmoments of pleasure she has

marked in her life thus far. Ultimately, participants are supported in sharing their finished pieces in a presentation to

the group at-large. Pleasure timelines can be created onmultiple occasions, and in amyriad of ways.

F IGURE 7 Artwork by participant in the Pleasure Timeline workshop


Thegirls’works and responses in theworkshop revealedhowthe context of space significantly determineshowthey

negotiate their erotic self-expression. For example, one girl in the July 2015 pleasure timeline workshop created an

image of a voluptuousBlackwoman’s bodywith a thinwaist and large, rounded ass. Shewas painting it a rich, chocolate

brown. The body was also decorated with red flower tattoos. Above the female form she drew ominous black clouds

that represented how her body has been remarked upon by boys and men in her community: “You aint nuthin but

ASS!,” “My turn?,” “Ion [I don’t] wan’t to see your face, it’s your ASSETS!,” and “You better tat[too] my name!”Wewere

compelled andmoved by her piece, but in conversingwith her about it asked, “Where is the aspect of pleasure?We see

it on the body—it’s beautiful—but the clouds seem to overtake that.” She responded, “I know youwanted us to express

howwe feel pleasure, but no one really wants to see that.”

We immediately understoodwhat shemeant. Given that wewere guest facilitators whowould eventually leave her

girls-only alternative school, the stakes of her narrating her complex experiences of pleasure among peers, teachers,

and administrators in the context of the classroom were just too high. It is much more acceptable for Black girls to

narrate their sexualities through pain. In Hip Hop feminist scholar Jessica Robinson’s essay “Can we be for Black girls

and against their sexuality?” she writes, “Black girls can have agency and control over their bodies if we would just

believe that they are capable of doing so” (223). Our experience in the pleasure timelineworkshops demonstrates that

Black girls are keenly aware of how their sexuality is surveilled and policed by the adults in their lives and by social

discourse circulated via memes on social media. The cost of being marked as sexually deviant is so high that even the

space of a sex-positive workshop offered by Anya did not feel safe enough for the girls.

F IGURE 8 Twitter exchange between authors Anya M. Wallace and Jillian Hernandez with Alizé Sorrell of P.T.A.F. (September 15, 2014)


Juxtaposing our workshop participant’s strategic silence against P.T.A.F.’s raw and free-flowing sexual expression

underscores the significant role that space plays in determining Black girls’ ability to articulate erotic desires. Black

feminist poet and theorist Audre Lorde’s views “the erotic as power.” She writes, “When I speak of the erotic, then,

I speak of it as an assertion of the life force of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of

whichwearenowreclaiming inour language, ourhistory, ourdancing, our loving, ourwork, our lives” (55). Lordeasserts

that women’s erotic power has been suppressed under patriarchy, making it appear dangerous and deviant when not

in the service of men. P.T.A.F.’s raunchy Hip Hop is the creative energy empowered that Lorde identifies as part of the

erotic.11 In engaging the work of artists such as the P.T.A.F. girls, we hope to generate an archive of Black girlhood

that is unbound by restrictive notions of respectability, and which documents their music as fodder for the continued

elaboration of “Black girl genius” (Brown, 2013) and pleasure. Such “wreckless theatrics,” which bridge scholarship,

popular culture, and on-the-ground work with girls, can promote cross-generational solidarities among women and

girls of color, such as the one forged between P.T.A.F., Anya, and Jillian following the publication of their article, “Nicki

Minaj and P.T.A.F.: Performing the Erotics of Feminist Solidarity.” In response to a tweet in which Anya (@NYNFSuper-

star) tagged P.T.A.F. in a share of the article, emcee Alizé (@AlizeSorrell) of the groupwrote, “thanks by the way.”


The authors thank Ruth Nicole Brown and the editors for their feedback.

NOTES 1 “Boss Ass Bitch” video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6ihCQZK-r0. 2 This is documented in an interviewwith the group on YouTube, https://youtu.be/H56tHDMcZ_U.

3 As stated in P.T.A.F. interview, http://www.thefader.com/2014/01/31/nicki-minaj-boss-ass-bitch-remix-ptaf-interview.

4 Our use of the term renovation here draws fromAimeeMeredith Cox’s description of howBlack girls’ bodies and subjectivi- ties are often viewed by social service and educational organizations as being in need of “renovation” in order for them to be productive, respectable citizens (143).

5 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ayLcWzYMBsg&feature=youtu.be 6 Angela Davis has also made arguments about the Blues offering a critical space for Black women to express their new, post- emancipation sexual freedoms (1998).

7 Although P.T.A.F. initially questioned Minaj’s use of their song, and stated they were not fans of her work, they did express appreciation for her raising their visibility. When asked about their response in an interview, Minaj did not attack the girls, but defended them as young performers who perhaps were not yet familiar with how the crafting of freestyles in professional hip hop works, where it is common to use someone else’s beat. See http://www.youngmoneyhq.com/ 2014/02/15/nicki-minaj-talks-to-dj-drama-about-her-boss-ass-bitch-danny-glover-freestyles/.

8 Jillian conducted group conversations and ethnographic research on popular culturewith 61Black and Latina youngwomen in Miami, Florida from 2011 to 2013. The girls were participants in Women on the Rise!, a gender-specific art outreach project Jillian established at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami in 2004. This research appears in her book manuscript Aesthetics of Excess: The Art and Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment, which is currently under review at a uni- versity press.

9 CashMoney is the parent company of the YoungMoney label that representsMinaj.

10 “Just Because” is an ice-breaker activity used in our arts-based programming. The activity is borrowed fromDr. Ruth Nicole Brown’s Black girl project, SavingOur Lives HearingOur Truths (SOLHOT).

11 Jillian discusses how her Black and Latina youth participants theorize raunchy Hip Hop created by Black women and how this music transmits queer and feminist pedagogies in her 2014 article “Carnal Teachings.”


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