What Hip Hop Does for Half-Jewish White Lesbian Rappers
Jay-Z’s frank new memoir, Decoded, and Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois’ compendium of hip hop lyrics for Yale University Press, The Anthology of Rap, have been lauded by the New York Public Library and the New Yorker. Such praise leaves little doubt that hip hop has become a serious art form worthy of academic study and critical praise. In this tradition comes Sister Mischief, Laura Goode’s debut young adult novel about a group of girls gutsy enough to form a “Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos” group in their Minnesota high school.
Goode’s writing and that of her rhyme-scribbling heroines merge to form a memorable commentary on the social power of words. Like her characters, Goode grew up in Minneapolis and likes to wax poetic. She holds a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from Columbia University and her poems have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Cannibal, and in her chapbook, Narwhal.
Like her author, the novel’s whip-smart protagonist, Esme, is a young writer coming into her own. The book witnesses the pain and confusion of her perennial outsider status—as a strapped-for-cash, half-Jewish, lesbian, white rapper in love with an Indian girl in a well-off, Caucasian Christian community. The book examines the questions of race, gender, and class that her dilemma raises with authenticity and wit. Goode shows that such problems are far from just ones of an individual; these are universal issues that need to be scrutinized by society as a whole. And what better way to confront them than through art—in this case music and literature?
In an intriguing linguistic twist, Esme understands herself in spatial terms, painfully aware of her “own mournful borders.” She’s a keen observer of the world around her, and particularly that space that hovers just out of reach of traditional definitions, the “de facto boundaries that no one talks about.” Increasingly, she broaches this strange territory through writing—the act of internal, solitary composition—and rapping—the external group performance of that creation. By sharing her lyrics with an audience, she can merge the creative world inside of her with the outside world, thereby transcending her mournful borders and those of the people around her. Furthermore, Goode uses footnotes to interject the texts and tweets that Esme receives and the song lyrics she writes after each experience she has. The result is a technological-musical journal that conveys her thrills and growing pains to the reader in real time.
Goode excels at describing love in melodic terms and music in romantic ones. In their remix culture, the girls in the book can link different sectors of their lives through rhythm and words. As Esme’s best friend, Marcy, puts it, “Hip-hop is what happens when a bunch of disparate parts explode into a big swaggering corners-sticking out Technicolor whole.” Similarly, Goode’s ability to interweave Esme’s inner world of writing with her outer world of rap is one of the novel’s strong points.
In addition to its sophistication of thought, the searing beauty of certain sentences of Sister Mischief rescues it from the trenches of teen melodrama. In the way of many poetically crafted young ladies, like Longfellow,’s “Little Girl,” when Esme and Rowie are good, they are very good indeed, but when they are bad, they are horrid: When they first fall in love, Esme pens the following rhyme.
It twists me in thrushes
All flustered and hushing
The lushness of lusting
What a rush, wanna touch
Her luscious erupting
Her flush gets me gushing
We’re hushing, she’s blushing.
However, when Esme and Rowie face the painful reality of their existence as teen lesbians in a conservative community, they are not merely sad: They are “quiet sirens crying like the lostest of the lost, lonesome together in the severing hour.”
Perhaps the book’s most important work of activism is reminding us of words’ capacity to enact change—even of other verbal ills. As Esme recognizes, “The language hip-hop uses to describe women is really messed up, but don’t you think that if enough women rappers break through, it’s something that we can reclaim?” What constitutes the unlikely connection between Goode and artists like Jay-Z is their giving underrepresented people voice through the medium of language.
Like the best rappers and artists, Goode turns a challenging premise with ample potential for failure into a well-observed and at times poignantly beautiful outsider’s manifesto.
Despite brief detours into teen pulp, she gracefully maneuvers the contours of adolescence, sexuality, identity, feminism, love, and, above all, the importance of confronting all of this through language: To “celebrate the unexpected coupling, the sampled homage, the queer, subversive, multicolored, and mixed … to complicate, to investigate, to question everything.”