True history

This small book, published in 404 Ink’s ‘Inklings’ series, covers a subject close to my heart—since starting to listen heavily to hip-hop I’ve always been drawn to women MCs, mainly because the mainstream of the music has been dominated by such egregiously toxic patriarchal constructions of gender and sexuality. There have always been alternatives and exceptions of course, but an obvious shortcut to finding them is to listen to the women. Well-known artists like Queen Latifah and Missy Elliot have been hugely significant in the development of hip-hop, but in Flip The Script Arusa Qureshi goes deeper, in search of the hidden history of women’s place right at the heart of the music, from its earliest moments. She follows her own history with the music, which is that of a young British woman who grew up listening to hip-hop, valuing the prominence it gives to marginal identities, even if they’re not precisely aligned to her own, and discovering its history decades after the event. That process of discovery informs the historical narrative that she elucidates, for example in its focus on British rather than American music. Even there, however, she teases out little remembered aspects of the music’s history, such as Battersea-born Monie Love’s international success in the 1980s (albeit rapping in American).

The history of a genre as broad and deep as hip-hop is going to be represented by something of a whirlwind tour in a book as short as this one (the Inklings series are all close to twenty-thousand words). Qureshi maintains a sharp focus, however, on the specifics of her enquiry—which is not an exhaustive account of women in hip-hop, but an argument for their historical and ongoing centrality, especially to the British scene, or more importantly to its many regional scenes. Women have been organising, collaborating, promoting, as well as, of course, producing and rapping, for decades, and the reasons that their output is less well-known, for the most part, than that of men, barely need rehearsing. Suffice to say, it’s nothing to do with the quality. Qureshi is not setting out to say ‘hey, remember there are women in hip-hop too’, so much as ‘women make hip-hop, and here’s how they do it’. It’s a story that is starting to be told and appreciated, but the publication landscape on women’s hip-hop remains a small valley in a vast mountain range of writing focussed on men, or telling the story as though women’s involvement was incidental. Flip The Script is an important contribution, in spite of its modest scope, or maybe because of it, given that an interested reader can devour it in a couple of afternoons, as I did. The only thing that slowed me down was the amount of time I spent watching videos of the tunes and artists she mentions, most of which were at least vaguely known to me, but which included some excellent new encounters as well. Qureshi writes with lucid enthusiasm, and argues clearly for a version of hip-hop history that can only be of benefit to everyone in the genre. Her book is informative, intelligent, and tremendous fun to read.

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