St. Louis area rapper Bates has no problem making her voice heard.
In the past two years she's worked in a variety of ways to address unequal representation of women in the city’s musical landscape. Bates lead protests against radio station Hot 104.1 for claiming to represent the city’s hip-hop culture with the music they play — but not doing enough for emerging artists. She’s also challenged area publications like the Riverfront Times for not highlighting enough female hip-hop musicians and engaged underground hip-hop organization SLUMFest to improve their support of female musicians. On top of all of this, Bates also helped launch the group FEMCEE Nation.
“We just want to provide outlets for female artists to give them even playing ground in a male dominated industry,” Bates said.
Bates, born Tamara Dodd, started writing rhymes in high school to compete with a bully that she’d heard rapping after class one week. She’s been taking a critical approach to music ever since. In 2015, the 33-year-old released an album titled "The Great DeBates" which examined specific topics that often appear in cultural debates. This spring she intends to release the album "For Colored Folk," named to confront and intrigue listeners through its use of a heavily-loaded phrase. Bates said the key to developing equal interest in the city’s music scene stems from women’s support of each other and demanding respect.
“If everybody came together there would start being a demand for us all the time where they would always want to put a female on the bill because it’s going to bring about this – cause they know we’re all rocking together,” Bates said.
So far, Bates’ approach seems to be working. Although Hot 104.1 largely ignored her criticisms, other outlets appear to have taken note. In a recent issue, the RFT named Bates one of the top ten local acts to watch this year. SLUMFest organizers decided to partner with Bates and produce FEMFEST, a showcase featuring all female hip-hop performers. Given Bates’ growing influence, St. Louis Public Radio’s Willis Ryder Arnold sat down with the performer at La Vallesana on Cherokee St. to discuss the themes that run through her music and her future goals.
The media included below may include language inappropriate for children or be offensive to some.
On being a female musician in St. Louis –
“Women have it a little harder. A lot of black women are single mothers. So they have to find babysitters. A lot of the time they’re not given the same amount of [studio] time. If a producer has 10 beats they’re not going to give her the best beats. They’re going to give her the backwash, basically. Sometimes people only dealing with you so that they can make a pass at you. If that blows up now you don’t have a rap career and you have to start all over again.”
On hip-hop radio in St. Louis –
“They’re taking hip-hop culture and made it a commodity, which is a problem because it’s always for the poor people. What we hear on the radio isn’t what’s happening on the streets. And even the artists that are on the radio are responsible for the culture that comes from that.”
On working with the history of black music –
“The point is to bring back some elements that have been lost with the commodification of black music. Like singing groups, especially female singing groups and voices blended together. The black group started a lot of stuff. Like The Temptations, all the greats were in groups.”
On FEMCEE Nation –
“We started basically inducting, almost like a union of femcees [female emcees].”
In 2013 Bates lived with four other female artists. The group decided to launch a collective that would support each other and other female musicians in the area. This collective became FEMCEE Nation. “I’m hoping people still see those female voices and still say that she’s still moving to the female collective at all times. Everything I do still has a female on it, that’s not just me.”
On future goals –
Bates would like FEMCEE Nation to grow into a national network of like-minded artists. She’d like to see FEMCEE events held in cities throughout the Midwest and eventually the country.
Follow Willis on Twitter: @WillisRarnold