3XL: Bryn Mawr rappers Introduce Philly to hip-hop with a feminist attitude

Posted January 31st, 2008 at 6:05 pm.

Shayna Israel and Menda Franchise-Francois performing

Shayna Israel ’08, a performance poet and sociology major, says she’s been a poet since she was six years old. She grew up in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, and in elementary school a lot of her friends wrote poetry, too. Around middle school, though, Israel noticed a rift in the way her fellow poets were evolving as artists.

“It was like one day, all the boys started rapping, filling up notebooks with rhymes and passing them back and forth. But all the girls remained poets,” she says.

It puzzled her then, and she’s thought about it a lot since. In September, Israel and two other Bryn Mawr students founded the 3 X A Lady Crew (out loud, it’s “three times a lady”), a feminist rap collective that’s already had successful shows in Philadelphia and Brooklyn.

photo: Shayna Israel

Shayna Israel

Looking back, Israel says there were differences in the way kids were allowed to play in her neighborhood. While boys were allowed to hang out on the sidewalk and in the park, she recalls, girls usually were told to stay in the house.

“Girls are kept inside, isolated and guarded, and that’s an ideal environment for a more solitary pursuit, like poetry. But rap is about back-and-forth. Rappers tend to form patronage relationships with each other. On the street, older rappers mentor the younger generation. Because they’re kept inside, girls are denied that kind of sounding board,” she says.

Israel decided to create that sounding board at Bryn Mawr. From the start, her vision involved a “crew,” or collective of rappers, instead of her hitting the stage solo. She says female collaborations are rare in hip-hop.

“Maybe because there are so few women rappers, they might resist working together due to competition. I came up with the idea of being sort of like Wu-Tang,” she says, referencing the highly successful group from Staten Island that claims some 300 “affiliates”—producers, MCs, industry execs—in its sprawling family. “They have a collective unit but its rappers have their own highly individual identities,” she says. “I thought it could be a nice medium.”

photo: Menda Franchise-Francois

Menda Franchise-Francois

Israel didn’t need to look far to find female poets curious about rap. She’d heard Menda Franchise Francois ’09 perform her poetry at Sisterhood open-mike nights and was intrigued by Francois’s vocal style.

“I thought, ‘Her diction seems like she could rap.’ When she read her poetry, for example, sometimes her cadence would really speed up. There weren’t a lot of pauses in her pieces. She used a lot of rhyming couplets. ” It turned out Francois was also an aspiring rapper—she immediately agreed to join.

“I have been rhyming forever,” Francois says. “Because I gre up in a community where hip-hop is the primary art form of expression, rapping comes naturally to me. So with 3XL you get the best of both worlds—rappers and poets, who sometimes combine the two or blur the boundaries; we call this: rapoetry.”

phot: Nikki Lopez

Nikki Lopez

With the addition of Nikki López ’10, the 3x a Lady Crew was founded. Lopez’ spoken-word performances have wowed audiences not only at Bryn Mawr, but at the celebrated Nuyorican Poets Café.

Unlike any other hip-hop crew Israel is aware of, 3 X A Lady is based on feminist politics. Their Myspace page declares, “Battling sexism & the patriarchy, they are some of the first women rappers to explicitly use the F-word: Feminist.” Their lyrics confront racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Israel dreams of 3 X A Lady attracting a Wu-Tang-style roster of affiliates.

“Our crew could include not only rappers but b-boys, b-girls, and taggers. We can also include all types of people in the movement. I’m hoping for queer people, transwomen, and feminists of various genders.”

Working with Haverford student Rob Korobkin, who manages an independent label called Black Squirrel Records, 3 X A Lady has compiled a handful of tracks, some of which are posted on the group’s Myspace page. Israel is determined to learn the technical side of music production so the group can eventually record on their own.

“You do not traditionally find women behind the boards, and I think it’s important that we own every aspect of our production,” she says. Besides production, she says the hardest part so far has been learning to collaborate.

“We are all poets first, so we’re used to doing things by ourselves in silent spaces. It’s wierd when another person is in your space writing with you. As a poet, I have control over everything. But I know there are things that I want to say to a particular population that need to be said this way to be heard.”

3 X A Lady’s first show was on New Year’s Eve at a queer-performance event held at Bubble House in University City hosted by a Philadelphia-based group called Make Your Breaks. “The other groups rapped about gay identity and politics. When we came out saying ‘We are all about feminism,’ we found out that women are thirsty for that,” says Israel. “They were screaming, thanking us, saying they have been looking for this kind of hip-hop. It was amazing.”

3x a Lady’s next show is on Friday, Feb. 1, at Haverford College’s Lunt Basement, at 9 p.m. The show is free.

—by Tasneem Paghdiwala ’04

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