As a rapper, as a female, Rachel James has run into a few problems. In studios, she has tried to get serious about her rhymes. She's approached producers—looking sexy, or not (it changes day-to-day)—with honest ambition, only to be met with offers for drinks and questions about her relationship status. But this 26-year-old woman (a simultaneous paralegal, novelist and graduate student) doesn't want to be your sex toy. She's not at the studio hoping you'll take her out for a drink. She doesn't want to be admired for her good looks. She's a woman, a damn good rapper, and she's serious about her music career.
MUSIC, NOT SEX
Today, James, or as fans know her, "The Black Pearl," is a successful rapper hoping to finish her album this summer. She found good producers after sifting through a host of come-ons disguised as track deals, and she isn't going to play dress-up in order to sell albums.
"Don't get me wrong, I dress sexy when I want to, but I don't feel like I should have to be sexy for people to take notice of me," she says.
She may go on stage in something low-cut one night, she says, but another night, she'll be up there, confident as ever, sporting a jogging suit. Either way, it's the music she's pushing.
And the music is good. Though her full-length album won't be out until the end of the summer, the three-song demo she gave me is solid. Each track has its own distinct flavor ("This is where Michigan meets Mississippi," she says on "Introduction"), and the lyrics are meaningful. She doesn't limit herself to "girly" topics. Growing up in Michigan, James saw one of her boyfriends die. She grew up surrounded by danger, and she doesn't hide that from her listeners. On "Introduction," she raps: "I said my boy was dead. His shirt was white and it turned red. I held him as he bled."
And she reminds listeners that she's her own woman. On "JimmyChoo" she raps, "You thought I'd dance for you … Oops, I feel bad for you. I'm way too much for you."
James has the attitude to stake her claim, but there hasn't always been a place for her. In fact, there wouldn't be one now if she wasn't so stubborn. When she moved to Mississippi in 1997 from Michigan, she found venues for herself. After DJ Phingaprint heard her spitting her raps with confidence and talent on the plaza at Jackson State University, he introduced her to Kamikaze and David Banner, then still together as Crooked Lettaz, and the three of them "basically adopted" her.
Though things were looking good for James—she was immediately signed on to Hourglass Records—she started to fall through the market. Before her album was even produced, James realized she was being pushed to the backburner. The studio didn't know how to market a woman, didn't know how to market someone without the "Mississippi sound." Coming from Michigan, James says she had more of an "East Coast sound" when people in Mississippi were producing more "slow crunk sounds."
But James is stubborn. She kept writing and, with the help of Charlie Braxton, Kamikaze and others, forged her way onto Jackson's hip-hop scene, rapping her mix of Mississippi and Michigan flavor.
Though James had help—she abandoned her album to focus on graduating from JSU, but when she graduated, Phingaprint reapproached her, encouraging her to finish her record—attitude is often needed for a woman to be successful in the Jackson music scene.
'TRAINED TO WAIT'
From rap to rock to folk, women musicians in Jackson agree that you have to have a certain attitude to succeed as a female musician here. Folk singer Laurel Isbister moved to Jackson in 2003, and with no previous contacts in the industry, had to begin working from the ground up contacting bookers and other musicians.
"You have to be really confident when you're promoting yourself," she explains. "People aren't going to buy it if you don't believe in yourself."
Though Isbister forged a place for herself in the Jackson music scene, many women don't possess the same force. "Women were trained to wait," she says.
Nationally acclaimed Betsy Roo got her start playing in Oxford and in Jackson after being almost accidentally discovered by Neilson Hubbard. The then-18-year-old had been singing backup for various records in Oxford when she shared a self-penned tune with Hubbard, who encouraged her to record an album.
But Roo, 23, had never thought of recording an album. She had seen family members let down by the music industry. She didn't have any local female musicians to look up to.
"I was just doing it because I figured out how to play guitar. In high school I didn't date much, so I just sat with my self-pity in a room and started trying to write songs," she remembers.
But a little pressing was all it took. Roo's 2004 album "… And Then It's Gone" has wowed audiences from Hal & Mal's to Liz Phair in a recent competition by Jane Magazine. The album is an 11-song smart combination of lush, complex catchy tracks and minimal, hauntingly beautiful tunes. The song that scored the approval of Liz Phair is "Valentine," a gets-stuck-in-your-head pop gem that tells a lost lover that it's too late to win her back. The electric guitar is a simple backing to Roo's effortlessly powerful voice on this track, but there's a beauty—a form of rock all its own—in that simplicity.
'IF I SUCKED, I SUCKED'
It took tough skin for Roo to accomplish this, though. "I thought if I sucked, I sucked," she relates, adding that several of her female friends have had talent but not pursued it due to lack of self-esteem.
"Dreams die pretty quickly," she explains. "You can have one person tell you that you suck, and, if you're not tough enough, you just quit."
Isbister agrees. Musicians are particularly vulnerable, she says, so a person has to overcome their self-esteem problems. She says: "I really think you have to open yourself up to write good music. Being more open makes you more vulnerable, but you just have to get out there and do it."
What about Mississippi requires women to be so tough just to get an album out, though? In a city happily crowded with new bands full of guys eager to contribute their own new sounds to the fans waiting in bars and clubs, why do the women have to supercede their gender just to schedule a real show?
Publicity, for one thing.
"The guys end up getting more publicity. When my record came out, this young guy who had just started a band got the cover of The Planet Weekly for just having his first show," Roo recalls.
WHERE DA ROLE MODELS?
The lack of publicity for female musicians leads to a lack of good music role models for younger girls, Isbister says. "The very absence is the biggest obstacle for new musicians," she says. "You don't know that you can go out there and do it, too, because there aren't many other women doing it." Isbister notes that even at music stores, most of the employees tend to be men.
Not having a lot of female musicians has actually had some benefits, too. Speaking from Nashville now, Roo admits that in Mississippi people knew who she was simply because she was a woman willing to rock. In Nashville, where almost every woman has a CD she's trying to get marketed, Roo's talent is almost swept under the rug compared to the recognition she had here.
James admits, too, that a lot of people have liked her music simply because she is a female rapper. Men have been impressed simply because her raps rhyme. But she doesn't want to have it easy. She wants people to notice her content, too. She wants to be measured by the same standards men are.
The emcee might get her wish soon.
"Kamikaze told me I'm going to have to step my game up because more women are becoming rappers now," she said. She may be used to being Jackson's hip-hop woman, but she wants more women on the scene. In fact, she joined the M.A.P. Coalition hoping to meet more women emcees and create more venues for women rappers.
'BOYS AND LOVE'?
Most female musicians agree that more women need to the rock the music scenes of Jackson. But Roo has some hesitations. Women too often limit themselves to singer-songwriter tunes, she says, explaining that many of these folk ballads revolve around boys and love.
She complains: "I can't stand listening to girls cry over lost love. I have sworn off the word 'love' in my lyrics for as long as I possibly can. I think I said it once on this record, but I was making fun of guys when I said it (In "Turn It Around," Roo sings, "Boys fall in love by accident.") "Seriously, girls, let's sing about something else."
Roo says she has always wanted to write more like a man. Though she thinks many women musicians are great songwriters, too many of them act "so needy in their music." She doesn't want to come across like she needs a man, she says.
Though Roo says she likes singer-songwriters, too, she adds that many women become folk singers out of fear of delving into something more rock-based. "The Southern thing is still working on them like they feel like they're not allowed to rock at all, and so they just become singer-songwriters."
CAN GIRLS ROCK?
Though Roo, last clad at Hal & Mal's in a very '80s-inspired shiny ruby-colored rock dress, sports an electric guitar in concert, she admits: "If you have ever seen me play, well, I am still scared sh*tless to be scrutinized. I guess a lot of that comes from thinking, 'I am a girl. Girls can't rock?!'"
But girls can rock, says Hanna Whitt. Though Isbister says she's never seen a female working at a guitar shop, Whitt held down the fort at Morrison Brothers for six years. The 24-year-old moved to Jackson from Alexandria, La., to do music production in 1999. She plays the saxophone, bass, guitar and, she hesitantly admits, drums.
"I just love rock 'n' roll," she says. "It's what I live for. I've got rock 'n' roll tattooed on my ass."
She limits most of her performances to the no-audience space of her living room, but not performing in public isn't a big deal to her. The good thing about music, she says, is "the way you feel when you're playing. It's finishing a piece of music and playing it exactly right all the way through."
The largest obstacle for female rockers in Jackson, she says, is a lack of venues. She hopes that the expansion of downtown will bring more rock venues, more places open to encouraging female musicians to really rock. As for her, she'll join a band when she finds people interested in playing her favorite style of music—'80s metal.
"A lot of people don't want to play that because I guess it's just not popular, but I don't care. I say do what you do for you, play what you want and screw everybody else."
'NOT JUST STRUMMING'
Though with a little less rock attitude, this is exactly what Isbister tells me when I meet her over coffee. Admitting that she isn't destined to be the next Alanis Morrissette—wouldn't want to be anyway—Isbister says what she is doing is what's important to her. Isbister's latest CD, "Nona Mae's Wishes" is a live recording of a house show she played in Oakland, Calif., three years ago. Her passion is echoed in the songs—whether it be a beautiful ballad or an upbeat, bongo-accompanied jam. And there's attitude. On "If You Want to Dance," she sings, "Well I gave him the finger / Because I don't think I should have to take that (from total strangers!)."
But there's no electric guitar.
Why are women afraid to rock, I ask her. For Isbister, there is a more subtle art of rocking with an acoustic. Though she concedes that women tend to flock to acoustics before approaching an electric guitar, there is something to be said for being a good folk singer.
"When I write, I go from an internal, intuitive place," she says. "It's not so much about 'rockin,' but I think I have some rhythms that you don't hear all over folk. I'm not just strumming. I have heard people say, 'She plays the #### out of that guitar.'"
In fact, she does. At her CD opening last weekend at Cups in Fondren, Isbister worked her guitar. Even sitting, she moved her body a bit like a rocker, moving her knees to the rhythm, dipping her body as she lost herself in chord progressions.
She doesn't really need an electric guitar. But even if an electric guitar might not be in Isbister's near future, she is encouraging other gals to pick it up. In fact, she may very well be training Jackson's youngest rocker—Bet McNeel. In addition to creating her own tunes, Isbister is a guitar teacher. Lately, she has been training 8-year-old McNeel on acoustic, but she wouldn't be surprised if McNeel picks up an electric Fender mini in the near future.
'CAN WE BE IN A BAND'?
At 8 years old, Bet McNeel is already a rock star. Sporting bellbottoms, a sparkly belt, a visor and one very rock 'n' roll tank top, McNeel stops our interview to play me a song she wrote. From the opening bar of "Can We Be in a Band?" McNeel seems like a cooler version of Courtney Love, more innocent but with that same weathered rock drawl that has made Love's band Hole famous. Keeping rhythm behind her, younger sister Emma may be the next female drum tour-de-force. Throw in another girl, and they could be the Sleater-Kinney of the future.
But they already have an extra girl—a handful of extra girls. Bet lists off almost a dozen names of people who'll be helping at their concert this weekend in her Fondren home. Her friend Zoe will be on piano, at least for the first two songs. Other friends are in charge of costumes and lights. Isbister is scheduled to sit in on a few songs, too. Together, they comprise the Go Cheetahs, perhaps Jackson's next big rock band.
Playing music is an obvious decision to both McNeel sisters. Bet offers, "I was always into making up songs, so I thought I should learn to write music to go with them."
Once Bet picked up the guitar and started singing, sister Emma was right behind, adding drums to the McNeel family music room.
It doesn't bother Bet or Emma that there aren't enough female musician role models. Bet says, "There are some girl musicians, so we just need to encourage more girls to play, and it'll get it better."
Bet, Emma and a slew of other girl rockers (electric, or not) will get that chance this Thursday night, June 9, at Hal & Mal's from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. when the JFP hosts its first annual Chick Ball—a benefit for the Center for Violence Prevention featuring all female musicians and artists. While the main goal is to raise money for the shelter and awareness about domestic violence, it is also pretty important to show off the artistic chick talent in Jackson. Tickets are $5, or $10 to be registered for a door prize. Please join the JFP to hear great chick music, buy some art by women and help raise awareness about a very important problem for Mississippi women.
Several of the musicians in this story will be playing at the Chick Ball Thursday night, including Rachel James, Laurel Isbister, Bet and Emma McNeel. Be there, or be squarer than you can possibly be. ;-)
Also, just for the record, all you guys need to show up and support these women musicians. I've seen plenty chicks out at your gigs! Let's get our women music scene going. You get to do TWO great things Thursday night: support Jackson women artists, and support a very vital and necessary cause. And it won't cost you a whole lot. Please join us for a very fun night.