No matter the era, the struggle over the coveted rap crown is all too often between would-be kings. While the brothers try to best one another, a sisterhood of queens takes center stage at the second Womyn In Hip-Hop Gathering in Santa Ana this weekend. The event showcases the four elements of the culture--emceeing, graffiti, breaking and deejaying--from a woman's practice and perspective.
All of the scheduled performers have dabbled in different aspects of hip-hop before honing in on their chosen craft. "It's part of our nature to try a little bit of everything," says West Coast underground legend and self-proclaimed "Gangsta Goddess" Medusa, as she sips coffee on the patio of the Gypsy Den in Costa Mesa. "In hip-hop, I started pop-locking, but even before that, I sang in a choir." The rapper counts her aunt Billie Rae Calvin, a vocalist with the Undisputed Truth, as a major songwriting inspiration; the '70s Motown group added a psychedelic flair to soul, complementing their sound with their unique fashion.
Medusa herself sports a modest Mohawk fin sculpted in her auburn Afro. She wears an unzipped sports sweater draped over a bikini top, and a four-fingered ring shines with her stage name. The passion for "word power," as Medusa puts it, led her to become an MC, but she spent a brief stint popping-and-locking as a student at Buena Park High School. "I was one of three black people [at the school]," Medusa says. "It just so happened two of them were pop-lockers. I fell in better with the cholas than I did with anybody else, so that's who I hung with. . . . We used to go to Knott's Berry Farm all the time. Every weekend, I was at Studio K!"
In her mid-20s, Medusa landed behind bars after hustling with falsified documents. Her fellow inmates were mostly locked up for drug and prostitution crimes. "Without tapping into your true passion, you'd end up doing anything just to survive," Medusa says. "When I got out of there, I decided that I'm going to be that voice and make a clear decision not to end up a statistic."
She found better surroundings when her cousin Coco took her to the Good Life Café, an early-'90s health-food center and cultural incubator of the West Coast's finest underground rappers. "We got a jazz track from a friend of ours and wrote the song 'Power of the P,' and we rocked one night," Medusa recalls. "The rest is kind of history. They gravitated to that song like it was pussy!"
After the Good Life Café came to an end, Medusa became more active in Project Blowed, its Leimert Park spinoff. During the past two decades, she has spread her legacy across the globe. Sharing the Santa Ana stage with Medusa this weekend will be Maya Jupiter, a Chicana rapper raised in Australia. A promoter friend of Jupiter's brought Project Blowed alums Aceyalone and Abstract Rude to tour Down Under starting in the late '90s, which is when she learned of Medusa. "I still want her to come to Australia," Jupiter says. "Trust me, it's a dream."
As a teenager in Sydney, Jupiter attended the Urban Expressions festival. "They had events all around town," Jupiter says. "They had breaking in the central park, exhibits on graffiti artists, cyphers and all kinds of things." She immediately started b-girling after that. "I also painted a wall once, and I was terrible," Jupiter admits.
Relying on the radio and record stores for imported albums, she jumped at chances to see U.S. rappers perform in her country. "Salt-N-Pepa was one of the first concerts I went to, and it made such an impression on me because I've never seen women so empowered, in control and free," she says. Jupiter was later signed to all-female hip-hop label Mother Tongues and put on events in Sydney much like Santa Ana's Womyn In Hip-Hop Gathering.
The Womyn In Hip-Hop Gathering isn't just to celebrate veterans such as Medusa and Maya Jupiter; it also brings them together with younger artists such as LilyBreeze. Inspired by her mambo-dancing father, LilyBreeze joined a hip-hop dance group in junior high. Versa-Style Dance co-founder Jackie Lopez took her under her wing soon after. She learned different styles but only started breaking three years ago. "I've always had an attraction to it, but I was too scared to try it because breaking culture is very male-dominated," LilyBreeze says. "At the same time, it motivated me to prove to myself and others that I can do it."
Rounding out the Womyn in Hip-Hop Gathering lineup is MC CHHOTI MAA, DJ J-Heart, and graffiti artists Cora One and Sivap. Organized by Zuleica Zepeda--a Santa Ana photographer, poet, artist and activist--this is more than just another gig. "I'm a huge hip-hop-head. I wanted to combine both hip-hop and bringing women [together] to create a space of empowerment," Zepeda says. "I feel like there was a need for that kind of space in my community. When there's a lack of [something], you've got to create it."
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"It's rare to see," Medusa says. "We're all different shades of light--MCs might be white, graff artists might be a purple light, the dancers might be a yellow--but when it all comes together, it becomes a rainbow collective of light!"
Womyn In Hip-Hop Gathering at El Centro Cultural de México, 313 N. Birch St., Santa Ana; elcentroculturaldemexico.org. Sat., 6 p.m. $10. All ages.