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“All the young women understand that this is a space where they don’t have to act like what they see on TV in order to get their message across,” says Teresita Ayala, one of the event's co-organizers.

For Women’s History Month in the Bronx, it’s all about rap

Kathleen Adams, far left, thanks the audience and holds up the official Momma's Hip Hop Kitchen Vol. 4 banner to close the March 5 women's rap event. (Photos by: Camilo H. Smith)

Brittany Barker had a tense look on her face as she walked out onto the stage. She looked elegant in a black dress ensemble, and in her eyes she had a seriousness that made her look like she was ready to take care of business. The 17-year-old took her time approaching the microphone and looked out into the crowd as she pulled it closer to her mouth. The crackle of cheers and applause that started when she was called out to perform had started to die down. She said the title of her poem, “Latina Woman,” and the crowd hushed.

“She is celibate and the old men touch her and watch how she squirms accordingly,” Barker said from memory, and several claps broke the audience silence. “To the colonial Latino mind, a woman’s role is to be three things: attractive, submissive, inferior.” The audience roared again with appreciation.

Barker was one of about 17 performers who participated in the reproductive rights, women’s health hip-hop concert called Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen, held in the South Bronx on March 5th. Her poetry was a fitting addition for the audience of mostly young Latina and black women who came to hear this kind of empowering verse, whether accompanied by a beat or delivered acapella.

Brittany Barker, 17, recites her poem, "Latina Woman," at the fourth annual Momma's Hip Hop Kitchen event at Hostos Community College.

Nearly 500 people turned out for the show that ran from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., the fourth event of its kind and the third held at the Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture, which helps support Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen through city arts grants. Recognized as part of Women’s History Month — celebrated every March — the free performance was developed to showcase the presence of women in the hip-hop world and to promote social activism for young women.

“It’s a pure space of transformation and expression in marginalized communities,” said DJ Chela, an artist-activist who has been part of every Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen event.  “Every year is powerful.”  Chela, who lives in Brooklyn, says she has an affiliation with the legendary Bronx hip-hop collective, the Universal Zulu Nation..

Bronx women face some of the worst health obstacles in the country due to high rates for women with HIV/AIDs, domestic violence against women and obesity — and all of these issues were part of the program at this year’s Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen. Its founders, rapper Teresita Ayala and Fordham University graduate student and political activist Kathleen Adams founded the event four years ago, after they met at a social forum in Atlanta in 2007, to address these problems in a public way through the spirit of hip-hop.

“If you think about women of color, we usually meet in the kitchen,” Ayala said,  explaining where the duo came up with the program’s name. “That’s the central location for us to talk, whether it’s about abortions, domestic violence, or good things. Everything happens in the kitchen.”

This year the event’s theme was: “Let’s Get Active!”  The slogan was meant to remind audiences of the importance of exercise and proper nutrition—a particularly timely message given that the Food Research and Action Center just this month named the South Bronx as one of the hungriest congressional districts in the nation.

Even show host Lucy Herrera encouraged the audience to stop drinking carbonated soft drinks, for example. “If you feel that necessity of that little fiz that soda gives you, switch to lemon and seltzer. It’s like lemon-aide, but without all that sugar-rrr,” she growled.

Rapper Maria Isa mentioned another problem, sometimes a fatal one, for women in the Bronx. “You have to stop and say no to domestic violence,” she said between songs, “Letting [abusers] know that you will have to be treated like a Queen and if they don’t, that’s fine. You go to another throne.”

According to the latest NYPD statistics women were the victims in 3,721 domestic violence cases, a total that was second to Brooklyn with 4,702.

Such statistics underscore the motivations of the group’s organizers, who want the yearly event to help women learn about social organizing and to give women a place to address the community issues that concern them.  Organizations that set up tables outside the theater had to fill out an online form at the event’s website and give a description of their group and its politics to be included in the event.

“All the young women understand that this is a space where they don’t have to act like what they see on TV in order to get their message across,” says Teresita Ayala, one of the event's co-organizers.

“This is pretty much like a ‘speak out,’  said Ayala, 30, who is from Chicago, but came to the Bronx to form the rap group Rebel Diaz.  “All the young women understand that this is a space where they don’t have to act like what they see on TV in order to get their message across.”

The images of female rappers in mainstream media usually carry highly sexualized themes. Not so for the performers at the show at Hostos.  And the audience appreciated the difference.

“I love seeing people, young women, walking tall, speaking proudly,” said queer activist Charles Rice-Gonzalez, the executive director of Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, during the first half of the performance. “Here, women are carving their space, putting their brand on the hip-hop world.”

Rice-Gonzales had set up a table outside of the theater to hand out fliers for his organization and collect signatures for the academy’s mailing list. Next to him, several other groups also gave  away information about rights organizations, abortion clinics, women’s health and other social activist issues. One group, Guerrilla Republik, sold politically militant t-shirts and hand-made poetry books. Another, Mic-Women’s Health Services offered information on medical abortions and the morning after pill as its members handed out pens shaped like microphones.

Kathleen Adams, the co-creator of the event, and a Fordham urban studies graduate student said this year’s show aimed also to educate the public on reproductive rights, especially at a time when the nation’s lawmakers recently voted to cut support for Planned Parenthood. Adams has been working as a women’s activist in the Bronx over the past four years. Originally from Ohio, she won a “Power of Woman” award from Planned Parenthood last year.

The anti-abortion movement is focused on the Bronx right now because of its high abortion numbers. Live births in the Bronx represent about 17 percent of the 126,774 live births in all of New York City, according to the most recent figures from the city. In 2009, abortions in the borough made up 23 percent of the 87,273 citywide total.

And with Congess voting to cut spending for Planned Parenthood and the recent  anti-abortion actions at the organization’s offices here, the borough has made it into the national headlines on the issue. State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr.’s recent public comments that linked abortion to “genocide” stirred the debate even more.

“With this event, we wanted to be political and organize people in the Bronx, especially with Ruben Diaz Sr.,” who, Adams said, “talks down to women.”

In her view, he does not care about the rights of women. “His political actions and mission is actually making the Bronx worse than better. We need to change this,” she said.

Diaz, the New York State Senator and church pastor responded to the remarks Adams made about him following the event. He told the Bronx Ink, “I am pro-life. I am anti-abortion and I am anti-gay marriage. If those three things makes me anti-women … that I talk down to women,” said Diaz, tossing the accusations aside, “I’m sorry for that. And I will not change.”

Despite the Diaz flap and the national debate, Adams didn’t blanket the event with pro-choice materials. “It’s not just straight about abortion,” she said. “We discuss abortion, but it doesn’t have to be as blatant as that.”

And it wasn’t. Back on the stage, the co-founder of the event Ayala was the last rapper to speak to the audience. She’s clearly proud of the event that she’s helped create at Hostos and how it helps her reach out to younger inner city lives with her rhymes.

“The only way that young women listen is through music,” she said. “Hip-hop is the soundtrack to the hood.”

Her closing message to the audience, delivered  in a powerful acapella rap repeated the uplifting refrain:  “You are who you’ve been waiting for.”

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