Live at Studio Z
Reviewed by Rachel Swan
Sunday, October 5 2003, 4:39 PM
Performing on the eve of the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade, Medusa is a picture-perfect gay icon, the love child of Angela Davis and Shug Avery, with an expert swagger, clamorous arias about gangster pussies, and unsurpassed moxie. That night, as emancipated queers thronged nearby in the Castro District, the unofficial queen of underground hip-hop performed at StudioZ for a sparse crowd of Dyke March stragglers and modish True Skool regulars.
Gloomy, cavernous, and emanating an arty and gothic warehouse vibe, StudioZ combined activist swank with a tawdry sense of the macabre. The club's walls were plastered with black-and-white photos and searing, graf-style paintings by East Bay artist Loushana Roybal-Rose. One wall flanking the stage had slides of death row gas chambers, lethal-injection gurneys, inmates in dishwater-gray uniforms from Marino Colmano's film Life Without Possibility of Parole.
Against this grisly backdrop, the opening performers seemed brash and devil-may-care. Kaya Power - with a space-cowboy bassist who might have been plucked from the original Ocean's Eleven - turned the place out with their blend of rap pyrotechnics and didgeridoo. Neb Love delivered her fast-talking and furious flows, in which she compared herself to Rage Against the Machine's anarchic front person, Zack de la Rocha.
But Medusa's female mack-style razzle-dazzle made even the didgeridoo dude and Love's mordant sense of humor seem tame. She took the stage with her seven-piece band, Feline Science (seven cats clad in Stetsons and scullies, with appropriately catty names like Felix, Tiger, and Cat-illac), and they kicked off the set with a zippy freestyle and moved straight into "I'm Gonna Make Your Neck Lock," a song so unabashedly bad-tempered that it verged on camp.
If you've got an exalted voice, a pimped-out fro, and the MC name Medusa, the world of proud black woman-oriented hip-hop is your oyster. At a glance, Medusa looks like a world-weary version of Toni Morrison's Sethe, or a pissed-off India.arie except she doesn't have the time or audacity to write songs about leg shaving and market them as girl power. In fact, after you've gone to a couple Medusa shows, neo-soul divas such as India.arie and Erykah Badu seem bland and safe. They begin to resemble the Thoroughly Modern Millies of R&B.
The show's coup de grace was Medusa's operatic number "My Pussy Is a Gangsta," belted by the three female vocalists of Feline Science. When Medusa hit the last high note of "Gangsta," two dudes in the front row collapsed in feigned ecstasy while two women pretended to fan them.
With an album and a music video for "My Momma Raised a G" on the horizon, Medusa is finally getting props outside her niche following of O.G. heads and Lexington clubgoers. Which is encouraging for female hip-hop fans because, with the exception of a couple sensitive-guy songs from Asheru and KRS-One, male rappers are as notorious for denigrating feminism as soccer moms are for dissing hip-hop. It's a shortcoming we often put up with, as former Source editor Bakari Kitwana notes in his new book, The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture, for the sake of highlighting hip-hop's contributions to pop culture and ensuring that African American men's voices resonate in the public space. And many feminist hip-hop fans find themselves in the awkward position of having to bump tinny joints by Northern State or resorting to old-school Queen Latifah, just to make a point.
It's tempting to shoehorn Medusa into a burgeoning genre of feminist hip-hop, which traces back to MC Lyte's "roughneck" anthems yet also includes the anemic ciphers of Live 105 darlings Hestah Prynn and Guinea Love. While the feminist label bears noble political intentions, it's also nominal. It wouldn't be fair to align an underground queen like Medusa with girl-power cheese, over-the-top surliness, or, in a friend's words, those "practitioners of the un-funk." At the end of the day, Medusa is more of a hip-hop Ma Rainey than a with-it Ani diFranco, and with cuts like "I Pimp My Lyrics" and "Always up in Mine," she's apparently more interested in trumping the playa hatas than in crashing the mainstream.
This article was originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.