If you love hip-hop, Thick Beats for Good Girls should be a show on your radar. But to be more specific: if you're a woman who is marginalised in some aspect of your life, and someone who loves hip-hop but has a complicated relationship with it, Thick Beats for Good Girls is a must-watch.
The forthcoming production is the brainchild of hip-hop heads Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy. Though both deal with words, both come from different backgrounds: Nansi is Singapore's first Youth Poet Ambassador, the author of poetry collection Love is an Empty Barstool and also the founder of the beloved and recently retired spoken word series Speakeasy. Bellamy is a playwright and performer whose recent play, Shabbat Dinner, was read in both Australia and Singapore. Nansi is an Indian Singaporean, and Bellamy a Jewish Australian. Both of them, though, profess that they would die for hip-hop.
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Nansi and Bellamy met in 2013 through a mutual friend, and hit it off immediately due to shared artistic interests and a similar sense of humour, which Nansi calls "kind of rude". One day they made lists of what they would like to make shows about, and hip-hop was, to their surprise, on both their lists. "That was something we did not expect to have in common, which is why that was immediately the most interesting thing to write about," Nansi told Bandwagon.
Thick Beats for Good Girls, which is directed and dramaturged by Huzir Sulaiman and presented by Checkpoint Theatre, will feature both the hip-hop of the 1990s to 2000s that inspired Nansi and Bellamy growing up, as well as hip-hop of the present day. We spoke to both Nansi and Bellamy about the hip-hop they love, how Singaporeans consume hip-hop and its culture, women in rap and more. The interview below has been edited and condensed for length.
Did you both grow up listening to the same kind or era of hip-hop?
Pooja Nansi: I discovered hip-hop by going to hip-hop clubs in Singapore between 1999 and 2006. It was at places like Kilimanjaro or Hendrix, and I can see that none of these names are registering on your face because you come from a different generation [laughs]. They were pretty seminal places for the kids of my generation who were listening to hip-hop. At the time it was a real subculture because you wouldn’t hear it via the mainstream channels.
The music that I heard at these clubs, I had never heard on the radio. And now, hip-hop has become really mainstream, like you’ll hear Kendrick [Lamar] and Drake song on the radio, but back then, you’d never hear a DMX song on the radio. I think the first hip-hop song that I had heard on the radio was Jennifer Lopez and Busta Rhymes, which was when it was kind of getting mainstream. The hip-hop that lives very deeply in my heart is that era of hip-hop but I think hip-hop now is different. I think it has evolved, it definitely has more complex sounds. You have things like mumble rap which wasn’t a thing back then. So yeah, I do listen to current hip-hop but I think there are big differences in the way hip-hop has changed.
Jessica Bellamy: My access to hip-hop was less a club environment and more so about the way that it would transport me through the streets, particularly when travelling. I would love having an album for that trip and it’d be something that I’d listen to and get to know the verses really well, the particularity of what that artist was thinking about. The major artist that I would write an entire play about if I could is the evolution of Kanye West.
The first album that got me was 808s & Heartbreak because it was really accessible, it did link to a lot of the music that was playing on the radio, a lot of love and heartbreak songs. And it tapped into that age when you were starting to experience grief, when you’d first experience the death of grandparents, or the tragic deaths that shouldn’t have happened and you start to realise that life can’t always be that fair. So that for me, it really allowed me to feel, while also allowing me to turn my brain on. So Kanye really started that journey for me, it was a bit later and I was less into the clubbing scene. As I’ve got to love the music more, I recognised that beyond the intellectual, there’s also this real impulsive part of this world, where you let loose on a dance floor, feeling whatever it is that you want to feel. It’s been liberating emotionally and intellectually in that way for me.
The description of the show is that it kind of explores the balancing act of being a woman and of ethnic/religious minority and hip-hop. What is that balancing act to each of you? What do you find yourself having to find the balance between?
Bellamy: It’s funny because we were talking about the fact that we both come from quite progressive parents and families but there’s always that sense in a minority community, and you come from a smaller religious or ethnic background, there’s a sense of being the “good girl” in the community. For me, it was like “how would a Jewish girl act?” They’re typically quiet, they’re not the center of attention, they don't act in ways that are viewed as lewd or rude.
For me, hip-hop gave me a way to tap into the potential that I didn’t know could be my life and that it didn’t just have to be my guilty pleasure, it could be a part of my everyday life. I might still be in a monogamous relationship, but I’m still going to hurl out rude lyrics about sexuality. I might wear whatever I want while also still recognising and accepting that other Jewish women might want to dress in ways that are more modest. For me, music that lets me realise that I’ve come from something and I might not be able to relate in every way, mean so much more to me than being a “good Jewish girl”. There’s so many versions of me that hip-hop allows me to be.
"There’s so many versions of me that hip-hop allows me to be." – Jessica Bellamy
Nansi: It’s kind of similar for me. I guess the balancing act for me is very interesting in a Singaporean context, and I talk about this a little bit in the show, because what the music does for me, it does for me on the level of being a minority. It’s music that comes from being invisible or being silenced and it’s so loud and in your face that it’s almost impossible to not feel recognised, especially when you come from any minority, even if it’s not a racial minority. The balancing act, which I think we have both been asked in many different ways is that the music is very misogynistic. Women are described as bitches and whores. I very staunchly identify with being a feminist. I would genuinely take a bullet for this music but at the same time, does some of that misogyny make me feel uncomfortable? If it does, what can I, as a feminist, do about it? I address this more in the show.
What are some of the questions you ask yourself while listening to this music to kind of draw that line if it’s something you can support or not? Especially given the fact that while women have always been in hip-hop, they’re really only standing out now, like Cardi B.
Nansi: Like you said, women in hip-hop was never an unheard thing, because if you look back, we’ve had Missy Elliot, TLC, Lil Kim and so many others. Of course we can't deny the successes of Cardi B and Nicki Minaj, but we have to remember the women who paved the way for them: TLC broke into the mainstream with ‘No Scrubs’, there was ‘Lady Marmalade’. There’s two different kinds of misogyny in hip-hop. For example, you have Rick Ross rapping about putting lean in a girl’s champagne and taking her home – that’s basically drugging someone and taking advantage of them.
And then, you have T.I’s ‘Whatever You Like’, where he’s rapping about getting a jet for a girl and buying her expensive designer stuff. We had a long discussion with Huzir about this song, and he was rather uncomfortable with it because he felt like it was encouraging the idea that men had to pay for women’s happiness and feeding into the stereotype that women only want rich men.
For Jess and I, we were really breaking everything down, and we saw it another way. We saw what T.I. was saying as a form of female empowerment, in the sense that he was telling women, “you can go wherever you like”, he wasn't saying “I’ll take you wherever you like”. There’s a difference between the two. By saying “You can go”, it’s a representation that women should have their own freedom.
Bellamy: That’s the thing, a lot of these songs are reflecting characters and personalities that show development. Like in the earlier songs that Kendrick Lamar put out, he’d rap about wanting money and power, and then as the years went on, you see him change and realise that there’s more to the whole swag and violence and gangster culture portion of rap that he had been fed when he was growing up. I do think discomfort within processing art is important, much like what Huzir experienced.
So we know that a lot of people think rap is all about black people in America and it’s all about guns and violence. How do you think Singaporeans consume rap, in terms of racial and cultural issues?
Nansi: It’s very fascinating for me to watch how Singaporeans consume rap. Like I mentioned earlier, I got into rap through the hip-hop clubs, and I didn’t realise it earlier but everyone there were either Malay or Indian, barring like maybe three Chinese people who were deemed cool enough by their friends for them to tag along. None of us realised that there were no Chinese people in the club. The first time I realised it, I was talking to a friend of mine, who had grown up with the clique I ran with. So I was talking about the place and our times there, and he had no idea what was going on, because he had never heard of the places we were going to. That’s when we realised that at that point, hip-hop was a subculture.
Now that has all changed, everyone can shout along to Drake and Kendrick but I guess I’m still very militant about the whole thing. If I’m at a party and there’s a room full of white people dancing to hip-hop, I feel deeply uncomfortable. Here’s the thing: I feel like people have to earn the right to consume the music, and people will disagree with me. Even if it’s playing on the radio, you can’t sing along to it the way you would sing along to a Miley Cyrus track. It’s different. You're casually singing about issues of identity and problems that you don’t have any experience with, you have not been oppressed, you have not had to deal with a whole generation of ancestors being treated horribly, you don’t have the right to be saying the things the rappers are saying. You definitely don’t have the right to say the N-word just because it’s in a song.
"Here’s the thing: I feel like people have to earn the right to consume the music, and people will disagree with me." – Pooja Nansi
I’ve seen a ton of people who aren't black shout the word out in a club. I’ve seen Chinese Singaporeans do it as well, and it’s deeply problematic. People from other countries have asked me if Chinese Singaporeans are considered people of colour and it’s kind of weird because the answer is yes and no. Yes, they are people of colour if you’re looking at the larger picture, if you include America and the rest of the world, then yes, Chinese Singaporeans are people of colour. They’re a minority. If you’re just talking solely about Singapore, then no, Chinese Singaporeans are the majority race and are not people of colour. I feel like wherever you are, if you’re a part of the majority race, it should be your duty to be more mindful and figure out how you can respectfully consume hip-hop.
There are a lot of people who do it well. I’ve listened to a few podcasts by white men who have done the right thing and straight out of the gates acknowledge that this is not their space. It’s a space that you’ve grown to love and want to participate in but you understand that it is not your right to be in that space. I’m not calling out any race, that’s the last thing I’m doing. No one should be saying the N-word. Not the Singaporean Indians or Malays. Not Australians. No one should say the word, except if you’re black. Only black people can say the word because they earned that right. I don’t think Singapore consumes hip-hop critically and responsibly.
Given your love for hip-hop, there’s definitely a need to present hip-hop’s culture, and this comes from the lived experience of black Americans. With the both of you being minorities, how are you planning to respectfully portray that aspect of hip-hop culture?
Nansi: We’ve had several conversations about this. For me, loving hip-hop also means loving the people that this music comes from. I think we’ve been extremely careful about portraying the struggle that they went through, even though the both of us have never had to deal with anything like that before. I think a part of it has to do with the fact that while hip-hop has been such a big part of our lives, we’ve also come to realise that it’s so much bigger than us, so we’re going to tackle this in the way we’re comfortable with, which is spinning it into situations that we have personally dealt with, given our backgrounds and upbringings.
In no way can we speak for the black community, in no way are we attempting to. At the same time, we will acknowledge their struggles and the pain that a lot of this music stems from. We will shed light on black culture, but in no way will we perform black coolness or black culture because that will be horrendous, that’ll be blackface in itself.
How does that come across within the context of the show, how has that affected the artistic decisions for the show?
Bellamy: Every day in rehearsals, every artistic decision made is bounced off everyone to make sure that it is in a context of responsibility and respect. I think the advertising for the show is a bit of a red herring in itself, because why would a good girl like rap music? But if you think about it, of course she would, why wouldn't she?
As far as the artistic direction of the show and how we negotiate that, we think quite critically about things like staging choices, how we move. There’s also things like accents. The room has been open enough for us to discuss if things have been portrayed responsibly and respectfully. We’re making it very clear that this is the story of our lives, with music as the driving force behind us. It’s a very loving testament to something that wasn’t made for us, but accepts us.
Thick Beats for Good Girls will run from 5 to 22 April 2018 at the Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets are on sale now at S$45. Get your tickets here.