Bridget Gray takes on the orthodoxy of hip-hop
By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Derek Paiva
On stage and off, spoken-word artist Bridget Gray always has much on her mind.
Race and culture. Love. Lust. Hip-hop. And how all of the above (and more) moves her day-to-day existence as a fiercely intelligent, fiercely strong woman.
A popular guest at local First Thursday slam competitions and annual GiRL FeST celebrations, the Los Angeles-based Gray debuts her new Hawai'i-inspired one-woman show "Naked Words" this weekend with three performances.
A screening of "My Letter to Hip-Hop" — an award-winning short film of Gray performing one of her most famous pieces — precedes each performance. Written in 2000 from Gray's perspective as a disappointed longtime hip-hop fan, the earnest, powerful poem took apart the genre for, among other things, its misogyny and defamation of black males.
Already chilling in town last week, the multiple-slam-champion and HBO Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam veteran chatted about "Naked Words," the inspiration for those words and the current state of hip-hop.
Why the title "Naked Words" for your show?
I'm very outspoken and kind of fiery when it comes to racial issues, gender and even relationships. I'm often labeled as a revolutionary or a feminist. And though I do embody those things, I also have really vulnerable, really scary, really human experiences.
I don't often show that side of me. ... The stuff that people are afraid to show. And so "Naked Words" is kind of cutting open the guts and exposing the vulnerabilities.
You'll get a little bit of the fire. But you're also going to get a lot more of "Here's what I am like when I'm vulnerable." ... It's brand new material mixed in with a touch of the old.
What inspired you to take up spoken word, and the subjects you take on in your poetry?
(Spoken word) actually happened by accident. I had been writing poetry and things just for cathartic purposes. I went to an open mike one night. It was a slam venue. I had no idea what slam was. I just went to share a poem. ... I happened to win the slam. And I caught the bug.
I had had a couple of guest-starring roles on some major network (television shows), but I played very stereotypical roles for women of color. I was a basketball player. I was a prostitute. I was a gold digger. And none of those things represented me at all, or any of my friends.
I felt like I needed to still perform and be creative and be on stage, but I needed words that had some substance. ... Poetry just allowed me the luxury to be able to perform and use my own words. I think that's really why I connected and kept on doing it.
Is "My Letter to Hip-Hop" still in your live show?
I still do it. ... I tried to retire it for a year, and it made people mad ... because they still wanted to hear it. (Laughs)
The sad thing is that it's not a thing of the past. If you turn on the radio, it's still very, very relevant. ... I wrote it ... almost seven years ago now. I'd hoped at the time that there would be some kind of shift in hip-hop and some kind of shift in the consciousness of consumers. (But) it's pretty much the same thing. It's a little disappointing. But it is what it is. It's a money machine.
What disappoints you most about hip-hop currently?
I think that the thing that disappoints me the most about hip-hop is the lack of balance. I know there's so much argument that some of the (lyrics are) the artist's freedom of speech, creative license, some of it is real, about keeping it real, and that this is what it's like for our people. But there's so little of the flip side of the coin. We don't give consumers the option to hear more conscious lyrics.
I'm also just hungry for some female MCs. ... We have little sprinkles here and there. But hip-hop is definitely male-dominated. And I guess I'm sad that there aren't more women stepping out and spitting something for us to ingest just to give it balance.
Hip-hop, right now, hates women. It just feels like a lot of videos that I see and a lot of the lyrics that I hear feel like hip-hop hates women. And it's hard for me as a woman, because I still love hip-hop even though it hates me.
Have you not given up on it because you hope it will change?
I keep hoping. ...
There are some MCs that are really making efforts, but you also see their conflicts. Like Kanye West. One moment, he's singing about Jesus and then the next he's talking about gold diggers. In one moment, he's bringing awareness to the Sierra Leone situation with "Diamonds Are Forever," but then I see him on a show and he's wearing a big diamond-encrusted crucifix.
There are definitely artists — Common, Mos Def — that are infusing their stuff with some positivity and some consciousness. ... It's interesting that all the major labels and hip-hop (distributors) don't really support conscious music. They'll put a lot of money behind Ludacris and behind the Ying-Yang Twins. But you don't see them putting as much money into Jill Scott or Erykah Badu or India.Arie.
I stay hopeful. And I know that there are amazing artists, and hip-hop is not limited to what you hear on the radio.
Reach Derek Paiva at email@example.com.