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We run this: smashing misogyny in Romanian hip-hop

We run this: smashing misogyny in Romanian hip-hop
Romanian rapper Gani in 2019.

11 August 2020

Enveloped in green neon lights in a half-full underground club, nine artists take the stage for the biggest female cypher in the history of Romanian rap. Some of the scene’s most prominent names — Dana Marijuana, Miru, Gani, Liry, Undercover, ENERGIA, Max Konstant, MGee, and BeBBe— have come together for the informal jam in Bucharest’s Old Town.

Behind the turntables, scratch DJ Pussycutz fuels the electric vibe with iconic freestyle beats. In front of the stage, the small yet supportive crowd throws their hands in the air and cheers. From local female pioneers to current up-and-coming rappers, each femcee spits her best bars, passes the mic, and hypes up the other women. The atmosphere is one of mutual love, support, and respect — an empowering connection they’ve fostered both on and off stage. After all, they know all too well that if they don’t back each other up, few others will.

All-female rap cypher at the “Fetele cu care cant” (“The Girls I Sing With”)  album release concert in 2019. Image: Bogdan Duna

All-female rap cypher at the “Fetele cu care cant” (“The Girls I Sing With”) album release concert in 2019. Image: Bogdan Duna

The cold hard truth is that the Romanian music industry is riddled with misogyny. Especially when you step underground.

“She raps alright — for a bitch.”

“Why aren’t you in the kitchen?”

“She looks like a stripper with Parkinson’s.”

“Go hang yourself, slut.”

The sexist comments which Romanian female rappers receive online are both predictable and overwhelming. But it hasn’t always been this way.

Prior to the rise of social media and faceless YouTube accounts, the first generation of local femcees endured a different tide of misogyny — from industry players and the press.

Dana Marijuana, the well-respected first female rapper in Romania and a highly publicised figure in the late 90s and early 2000s, has consistently been an unfair target for tabloid media outlets. In her biography, Poveste de Cartier (A Hood Story), she recalls the torrent of atrocious, dishonest headlines:

“Dana the junkie, Dana the drunkard, Dana (...) who is irresponsible and a slut, Dana who dressed this way, Dana who went crazy because of her success and, obviously, the drugs. What drugs? I’d overcome that problem long before becoming famous. What success? The success in which I didn’t earn anything?”

“The press destroyed me, my parents, my family — they completely destroyed me psychologically,” she explains in a private conversation with The Calvert Journal.

In addition to abuse in the press, Dana also had a brief run-in with sexist TV show bosses in 2000, who encouraged her to “dumb down” when she hosted a rap show for one ratings-hungry TV station.

“They wanted to paint me as an airhead. Well, that isn’t going to happen while an entire audience of rappers and hip-hop supporters just like me are watching. If you chose me as the host, let me communicate with my fanbase,” Dana says, with an independence that has defined her entire career.

“They wanted to paint me as an airhead. Well, that isn’t going to happen while an entire audience of rappers and hip-hop supporters just like me are watching”

But aside from these spotlight-driven experiences, Dana Marijuana and Romania’s first wave of female rappers didn’t undergo that much gender-based scrutiny within local hip-hop culture.

“To be honest, throughout the years, all I felt was respect on behalf of people from all walks of life, regardless of age or gender”, Dana explains when asked about misogyny from hip-hop fans. And with rap music in heavy rotation on TV and radio stations at the time, it’s natural that the few female MCs on the scene received continuous support from a respectful distance. Concerts and tours were the only way that listeners could interact with artists, and nobody dared to disrespect a rapper face to face.

Community-rooted misogyny and the subsequent resilience developed would come with the second generation of femcees — and the internet.

Gani, the country’s first female battle rapper, a judge for the Battle MC Romania tournament, and the most prolific Romanian femcee to date, witnessed the transition first-hand.

Back when she was on scene circa 2004, “cell phones weren’t smart,” Gani says. “They had no camera, and YouTube hadn’t been invented yet, so people were just paying attention to the stage.” The community in Romania was, in the words of rapper KRS-One, about “peace, love, unity, havin’ fun”, and most importantly, sharing vibes in Griffins, then Bucharest’s only hip-hop club.

Shortly after, however, the aforementioned video-sharing giant made its appearance — and changed everything. Rappers no longer required a record label to put their music out. In the years that followed, the digital age witnessed an explosion of indie MCs, who all experienced an unprecedented relationship of intimacy with listeners from behind keyboards and computer screens.

While this forged fan-artist connections stronger than ever before, it also meant that audience entitlement, inappropriate familiarity, and stomach-churning misogyny protected by anonymity were now the norm.

Read more How battle rap and streaming platforms are bridging Kyrgyz hip-hop’s elders and youth

In Gani’s case, as it was with most femcees in the early and mid-2010s, the constant tirade of online comments ranged from “false suppositions that I fucked the whole industry (despite having been in a high-profile, long-term relationship)” to “sleazy comments from married men who admitted to masturbating to our fully-dressed videos while in bed with their sleeping wives.”

Women in post-YouTube Romanian rap were forced to quickly develop a resilience bordering immunity in the face of sexist commentary. After six albums and nearly 150 songs released, Gani now laughs it off and continues her lyrically-driven boom bap work unfazed.

However, what worried local femcees more than misogynistic trolls in the underground scene was how their attitudes reflected a bigger problem at hand — the country’s horrendous sexual violence issue. Romania has long demonstrated ongoing ignorance towards gender-based harassment, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, to the point of justifying rape. Now, female rappers were face-to-face with the problem like never before.

But the backlash has also pushed many female MCs forward to act. The harrowing statistics compelled feminist rappers like Liry to become the voice of countless victims throughout the country.

In 2015, she penned and performed the anthem for the national awareness campaign #NUinseamnaNU (#NOmeansNO). Ploaia (The Rain), tells the real-life, gut-wrenching story of a teenage girl who was beaten up and gang raped by seven boys in a Romanian village the previous year.

“From that moment on, I became highly invested in Romania’s sexual violence problem,” Liry says. In 2019, The Rain would again become a definitive anthem in the context of the Caracal cases, when two teenage girls were kidnapped, raped, and murdered in a small southern town.

Liry also partnered with prestigious indie publication Decat o Revista to adapt a rough poem into another rap song, Cerul Știe (The Sky Knows). The poem was signed by Matilda, a woman who had been sexually abused by her father as a child.

“It’s challenging to make a song about such an excruciating experience re-listenable, which is why I invited a warm voice, MGee, to sing parts of it, to soften its harsh impact,” Liry says. “I was humbled by the trust I was given; it made me realise, yet again, that this is what my focus in music needs to be.”

“Like I say on ‘The Rain’, numerous voices can erode, drop by drop, step by step, even the most deeply rooted preconceptions.”

Both Gani and Liry were at the forefront of female firsts within the local hip-hop community in the 2010s. Not only did they form the premier Romanian rap girl group in 2012, but a few years later, in 2015, they were both among the founding members of what is currently the largest and only all-women rap crew in Romania, MUZE.

“Curiosity for both projects existed, but I doubt we were convincing enough. This is because the Romanian mentality is still predominantly patriarchal, which leaves room for prejudice and contradictory opinions on what a successful female rap artist in Romania actually means,” Liry says.

From left to right, ENERGIA, Max Konstant, Gani, Brugner, Dana Marijuana, BeBBe, Miru, Undercover, representing the “Fetele cu care cant” project at Urban Groove - TANANANA Radio. Image: Daniel Radu/Marpha Hip Hop

From left to right, ENERGIA, Max Konstant, Gani, Brugner, Dana Marijuana, BeBBe, Miru, Undercover, representing the “Fetele cu care cant” project at Urban Groove - TANANANA Radio. Image: Daniel Radu/Marpha Hip Hop

As for guiding female rappers who are yet to appear on the local scene, Dana Marijuana, Gani, and Liry all agree that practice, knowledge, a powerful message, and preparing to make sacrifices, are key to developing the necessary confidence, determination, and resilience on the Romanian hip-hop scene.

While Marijuana and Gani continue to work on new singles, music videos, or albums, and other MCs, like Liry, have set aside music to focus on traditional writing, they all share a common hope — that more and more girls in the country will have the courage to pursue rap as a creative outlet in the near future. As clearly seen in the all-women cypher in 2019 and the number of collaborative efforts throughout the years, the local female community has long been defined by solidarity. Welcoming new artists and uplifting their peers should remain a priority.

When all is said and done, the onslaught of media, industry, and community misogyny has been nothing less than a source of bulletproof motivation, grit, and empowerment for Romanian femcees in the past 25 years. It certainly will continue to be so for the strong generations to come.

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