"Feminist AF" author on hip-hop and feminism today: "We're not playing nice anymore"

A new feminist handbook explores how "movements like feminism that are seen as no fun" can coexist with hip-hop

Published November 1, 2021 4:05PM (EDT)

Lizzo, Cardi B and Megan thee Stalion (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Lizzo, Cardi B and Megan thee Stalion (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The future — and present — of hip-hop music is feminist. Just take a page from Lizzo, the singer-rapper behind "Truth Hurts," which contains one of the most iconic feminist lyrics in modern history: "I just took a DNA test; turns out I'm 100% that b**ch."

Similarly, in "Good as Hell," Lizzo sings to women who have been played by men: "Boss up and change your life / You can have it all, no sacrifice." And in "Like A Girl," she raps: "Only exes I care about are in my f**king chromosomes." Talk about an empowering biology lesson!

Meanwhile, one of Lizzo's hip-hop contemporaries changing the game, Megan Thee Stallion has built her career around sex positivity and reclaiming traditionally male narratives about the kind of fun only straight men have been allowed to boast about for years. She is, after all, the architect of "Hot Girl Summer," a joyful movement encouraging women to have fun and embrace who they are, no matter what that may look like for them. 

It's with artists like these, and the women who paved the way for them, like Missy Elliott, Lil' Kim, and others, that co-authors Brittney Cooper, Susana M. Morris and Chanel Craft Tanner wrote "Feminist AF: A Guide to Crushing Girlhood." The self-described handbook helps young, Black women navigate smashing the patriarchy through a lens of hip-hop music, pop culture and lived experiences. The authors were inspired to write the book as they asked themselves what an intergenerational, multi-racial conversation between feminists could look like.

Cooper and Morris founded the Crunk Feminist Collective more than a decade ago to create a supportive space for feminists of color who were able to find themselves and their feminist identities with the help of the female hip-hop legends of their generation. Their handbook continues this work, demystifying feminism for the generations growing up with the body- and sex-positive soundtracks of female hip-hop artists of today like Lizzo, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, Nicki Minaj and Doja Cat.

RELATED: How to celebrate Megan Thee Stallion's Hot Girl summer

The feminism presented in "Feminist AF" isn't just a social, political and economic movement, but also one that's intimately connected to the personal lives — and certainly music tastes — of young women and girls of color. Through an intersectional lens that includes queer and trans youth and a wide range of marginalized experiences, "Feminist AF" poses and offers answers to questions that include: What's the difference between being kind and being nice, and why are girls of color always expected to be "nice" at the expense of their own needs? Why is it problematic to assume Black girls and girls of color will always be "strong" and resilient? What does it look like to have fun and set boundaries as you begin dating? Where do colorism, fatphobia, and "personal preferences" in dating and sex come from?

Cooper told Salon that she and her co-authors center girls of color, and especially Black girls, in their writing, but invite all young people to read it, and understand why when it comes to challenging rape culture and patriarchy, "we're not going to play nice anymore."

"Is there space for white girls to read and enjoy this book? What we hope for is a generational feminism that is multi-racial and inclusive, and so white girls can come to this, and everyone can learn another set of ideas about leadership, dating, friendship, bodies, sex, all of the stuff that matters for all of us," Cooper said. "It still has broad relevance even beyond the experiences of girls of color."

In an interview with Salon, Cooper talked today's leading ladies of hip-hop, why we shouldn't be teaching young girls to be "ladies," the feminist reasons young people should consider polyamory and more.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

How did you first connect with your co-authors, Chanel and Susana? Did you all bond over choosing the music, movies and shows you include in the book?

We know each other because for the last 11 years we've been part of the Crunk Feminist Collective, which Susana and I co-founded in 2010 and [of which] Chanel is a member. We've been previously known for our Crunk Feminist Collective blog, and we put out a book together, Susana and I and another collective member, called the "Crunk Feminist Collection," which came out with the Feminist Press. And then we had this opportunity to continue the work we've been doing over the past decade by putting out this book, which is really our attempt to have an intergenerational conversation with young feminists. 

We're absolutely all friends, we certainly came together both for a shared love of smashing the patriarchy and loving hip-hop music, and wanting to figure out a way to coexist with music that can also be problematic, with movements like feminism that are sometimes seen as no fun, or taking the joy out of everything.

Both the definitions in your introduction and the concepts introduced throughout the book are written in such an accessible way and are insightful even for people who have been feminists for years. One concept that really stands out is the difference between being kind versus being nice. What experiences in your life might have inspired you to draw that distinction, and why is it important for young women of color to learn?

That's a section we talked a lot about. We're not the kind of women who are invested in being "ladies." One of the things that's super interesting, particularly growing up as girls of color, is no one ever sees us as sweet or nice or kind, or any of those words. We're always seen as a problem. But the challenge is you can then overcompensate for that, where there's an imposition on all girls to be nice that's very much about not respecting their own boundaries, trying to accommodate other people and make others feel good even at your own expense. 

For me, that shows up in the challenge of having a problem saying no, because I never want anyone to think I'm mean or I'm a b***h. So, I'll go out of my way to accommodate other people. Some of my personal journey and for many women navigating these things, is recognizing you can be kind — which is to say, compassionate, empathetic, caring — without having to be nice to people or have the responsibility to sacrifice yourself to make everyone else feel good all the time. 

That's something we expect of girls, we expect them to be nice, to not be outspoken, to not speak up for their needs or wants or desires, and it starts when little girls are very young: "Be sweet." We never say to little boys, "Be sweet." It's a thing we say to girls, and it has long-term consequences that play into many things. So we wanted to disrupt this by saying we don't owe anyone niceness at our own expense. What we owe to everyone in a world that's about justice is a commitment to being kind.

That reminds me a lot of the recurring conversation about "civility" in political protests.

Right, we've come through the era of Black Lives Matter when I was an active participant in the first iteration of Black Lives Matter in 2013, 2014, and that call for civility is absolutely used in an oppressive way. You also saw this in feminist movements in the 2010s, like the Slut Walk, which I loved. There were conflicts about this reclaiming of "slut" like all of us could do it in the same way, since Black girls can't necessarily call themselves sluts without consequences. But I loved the idea that women all over the world said we're not going to play nice anymore with rape culture, and we will defiantly protest how it shows up in the world. That's the kind of thing you get when women are not invested in the idea that they owe anyone niceness. Nice protests? I don't know what a nice protest actually looks like.

In one chapter of your book, you and your co-authors address the burden of being expected to be resilient all the time as Black women. What are ways that stereotypes and tropes about strong Black women or women of color have actually been harmful? Why is it important to protect future generations from these expectations?

We talked a lot about this, as adult feminists who spent a lot of time talking to women of color and particularly Black women about going off the trope of strong Black womanhood, because it's false. None of us is strong all the time. The world is really hard right now, it has been especially hard over the pandemic and it's always been hard if you're a Black woman. We've never felt like there are any soft places to land, and the challenge of that is, we then recreate that with girls. 

I specifically talk about being a young girl who lost a parent early to violence, struggled with suicidal ideation because no one in my life knew how to help me process that grief, and I didn't know how to process it. And so I just kept going, and because I was doing so well in school, people thought I was just exceptionally resilient, when really, school had become my coping mechanism to deal with the grief, and it's a thing we miss a lot in girls of color. It's very much a part of our social discourse, where we continue to say girls are more resilient than boys, they don't act out as much. 

RELATED: She was guilty of being a black girl: The mundane terror of police violence in American schools

Meanwhile, when girls of color actually do say all is not well – here I'm thinking of Ma'Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl who was killed in Columbus, Ohio, earlier this year – when she called the police because she was being harassed and bullied by some folks in her neighborhood, she got shot four times and killed. That is incredibly heavy, and that is the conundrum. We're forced to be resilient even when our worlds are falling apart, and if we're not sufficiently resilient, sometimes we can lose our actual lives over our inability to suck it up and take it. 

What we wanted to do for girls in this book was to name that set of circumstances, and say, "You are not alone. We don't have all the answers, but you deserve to know it's not your responsibility to carry the weight of the world." 

Gender identity, chronic illness, ability, weight and other aspects of our identities have always shaped beauty standards. How did female hip-hop artists, both from today and earlier generations, help you address these beauty standards in the book?

We wanted to make sure we were as inclusive of all experiences as we possibly could, because we're intersectional feminists, so we want to talk to girls who have disabilities or chronic illnesses. I'm a fat girl, Susana identifies as a fat person as well, and we definitely wanted to shout out big girls. We came up in an era where Missy Elliott was a superstar. She was a big, big girl, and she has since lost weight, but when we were girls, Missy Elliott was this iconic big girl who embraced it in her art, and whose career wasn't constrained by body image. 

Today, big Black girls are out here shining. Megan Thee Stallion is a stallion — she's not a fat person, but she's certainly very tall and embodies it, and we have hip-hop icons all through this book, quoting them, citing them. We're talking about Cardi B, we're talking about Nicki Minaj, Lizzo, who also is a fat, feminist chick, a rapper and singer who embraces her body and is unapologetic about doing so. 

That's what's super exciting about hip-hop and feminism in the hip-hop space these days. We came up in an era where there were big female emcees, and it's really nice to see their rebirth again. That's one of the things we're trying to suggest, that feminism is fun. It has a beat you can bop to, and when you bring women to the party, whether we're talking about hip-hop or feminism, it does become a more inclusive conversation. We're nicer and kinder about bodies than our broader world is. We give girls who have all kinds of bodily experiences, including trans girls, nonbinary folks, a space to be themselves, however they experience and understand their bodies.

You also address colorism and preferences for some physical attributes in such a thoughtful way. As your book points out, there's this idea that individuals just have personal preferences for people with certain appearances that's long been used as an excuse for colorism, fatphobia, and white supremacy. Why has this been so widely allowed?

People just want an excuse to not interrogate themselves. There's this broader idea that desire is personal and it's not socially constructed like absolutely everything else. But just like hundreds of years ago during the Renaissance era, women with bigger bodies were seen as beautiful. We are the products of the social era in which we live. When we were little girls, big butts weren't it. Now they're all the rage. We've lived long enough to see the cultural attitudes around even that particular body part and type shift. 

Colorism is similar in that it's rooted in a history of racism and white supremacy, and we felt it was a feminist issue that would often not be addressed in mainstream feminism because mainstream feminism tends to work from the experiences of white women and move outward. But you can find this experience happening in Black communities, brown communities, South Asian communities, all kinds of communities of color. If you listen closely, folks talk about the way that dark-skinned women, or dark-skinned girls are seen as less beautiful than light-skinned girls, and that's about politics. That's not actually about personal preferences. 

We want to name that for girls who might be experiencing it from any side of the equation to give them the language to talk about it, and then to help them to understand that once we name the social conditions we live under, then we can actually begin to change those social conditions. Now you have a project to undo any ideas you might have had that darker skin means you're less beautiful, or worthy, even of protection and safety. That's our goal. Even for white girls who may be reading this book, and we do say the book is inclusive of all girls, it can help them to be better allies to their friends who are girls of color.

In the section of your book about relationships and love, you raise concepts like polyamory, having multiple significant relationships in your life, as well as concepts like setting boundaries, and gaslighting. How important is it for young people experimenting with dating to have this language and these ideas in their arsenal, to take care of themselves and also have fun at the same time?

Having fun is so key. We wondered if being pro-polyamory in this book would be mildly controversial. I don't think it's controversial for young people, but there are adults who might be reading it who might be like, "What are y'all doing?" Part of what we're saying is, have fun, and be ethical in how you're dating, but you don't have to do it in these traditional ways. For us, it's really the ethical non-monogamy piece. You can't just be out here running people and playing folks and not being honest about it, but if this is an open set of conversations, then by all means, have at it. 

Part of the reasoning for that is a culture of radical consent means we need to understand that none of us owns any one person. Nobody belongs to us. We don't belong to anyone but ourselves. It may be the case that one person can't fulfill all of your needs, or conversely, even if you're in a monogamous situation, what you still need is boundaries to respect everyone's individual needs. 

RELATED: Jealous of what? Solving polyamory's jealousy problem

As for the concept of boundaries, that's huge for us. Any woman, girl or femme person can recognize that part of the way patriarchy works in our everyday lives is by just letting people continually breach our boundaries, when you're on the train or someone is touching your body inappropriately, you're at work and have caretaking duties at home and someone is insisting that you stay later even though you said you had a hard out at a particular time, or you're at school and men are sexually harassing you. So, we're saying to girls very early, your boundaries are sacrosanct. The people who are in your life, whether as friends, partners or family, need to respect those boundaries, and we need to build a world that respects those boundaries. 

We want to bring home this idea that feminism is not some political movement solely outside of ourselves that doesn't affect our everyday lives. It's also about why we feel so uncomfortable sometimes when we tell other people no. This means quite often we are not respecting our own boundaries, putting other people's needs or concerns or wishes above our own, and that needs to stop.

"Feminist AF" emphasizes the importance of girls and young women of color preserving their intellectual labor, and not being obligated to teach other people at all times. Did this come from personal experience for you at all? Have you experienced or witnessed a lot of men feeling entitled to "debates" that treat a woman's lived experiences as intellectual hypotheticals?

Because we're both Black folks and women, this section about whether to teach or not teach, what kind of labor do you want to do, the terms and how you do it — that all comes out of the way we're asked to explain racism to our well-meaning white counterparts who want to be allies, but who are being problematic. It's also a thing that happens at the party for us, saying something like "I'm a professor," and having a dude come up and just interrogate you about your research, your work, as if he's the expert. 

Even my mother said this to me when I was a younger person dating, "Have you noticed that when men approach you, sometimes they come up and just start asking you a bunch of questions about yourself even before you can get a question in?" And it's this mode of interrogation that is very masculinist in its approach, and she's like, "What happens in that moment is, they walk away with lots of information, and you walk away with very little." It helped me begin to think about those kinds of dynamics. 

Also, Susana is a queer person, a queer femme, and she talks about what it means to always be teaching straight people about queer experiences, or queer lives and why queer folks don't actually owe that to straight folks. That also means trans folks don't owe cis folks teaching all the time. We hope as a group of writers who are all cisgender writers, we can emerge as teachers getting our people and giving them tools and access, so they're not always asking problematic questions of trans and nonbinary folks. We really do try as cisgender people to be good allies in this book, precisely for this reason.

You recommend some great shows and movies at the end of the book, like "Never Have I Ever," "Big Mouth," and "Sex Education." Have you watched all of these shows? Do they give you hope about the future of sex positive or diverse storytelling?

I haven't watched all these shows. It was really Chanel who was keeping us in the know! They're all in my Netflix queue, and I've read about them all. I do think this revolution in young adult television, and really pushing boundaries and saying the things all of us needed to hear as young people but adults in previous generations weren't willing to say. It all really matters. And to be quite honest, part of our posture in this book is knowing young people are ahead of us in many of these conversations. 

We don't see ourselves as the experts who are telling people things they don't already know. What we're really saying is, there are some experiences we've had that might be useful to you as you're figuring out what feminism is going to look like for you in your life right now. Mostly we're saying we see you, and we're in the struggle with you. This is our offering to you to say we want to be in conversation, with young people who are already in the streets, already figuring it out, or young people who are like, "I don't know what feminism means, but I'm interested in these girls of color on the cover of the book." It's a wide open, "Come to the table and let's talk about it."

More stories like this:

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

MORE FROM Kylie Cheung

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Brittney Cooper Crunk Feminist Collective Feminist Af Hip-hop Interview