By Jabari Asim
Upon her return from jail on a perjury conviction, the rapper Lil’ Kim almost made us believe that imprisonment had afforded her time to reflect upon the demeaning portrayal of women in the rap genre. Almost.
WASHINGTON—Although I’ve never been an admirer of Lil’ Kim, I haven’t found her particularly annoying either. True, she’s not someone I’d want my daughter to emulate, but beyond that she’s never provoked me in the way that other seemingly irresponsible public figures manage to do.
I’ve read that she has sold lots of records, but I can’t recall a single one. I tend to think of her of as one of those folks who’s primarily famous for being famous, like Anna Kournikova or Paris Hilton. I knew Lil’ Kim had once been romantically linked with Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls, the late rap superstar, and that she’d parlayed that connection into a long dance in the spotlight that other flavor-of-the-minute wannabes no doubt envy. With her fondness for porn-star couture and her adventures in plastic surgery, she came off as a pop-culture curiosity, a party girl whose flare for self-promotion knew no limits. At the same time, she always seemed to cast a knowing wink at her tabloid-fodder behavior. “I’m not taking myself entirely seriously,’’ she seemed to suggest, “so why should you?’‘
So it was that I watched Lil’ Kim’s public reentry with more than my usual interest. Her emergence from federal prison, where she had served nearly a year for lying to a grand jury, seemed an opportunity to engage in some serious image overhauling and maybe even win a little public sympathy as well. If ever there was a time to show the world that she was more than a hip-hop centerfold who rhymed on the side, this was it.
An interview with The New York Times provided the perfect chance, and Lil’ Kim handled it like a pro. She’d been reading in prison, she said. Her mention of books such as “The Purpose-Driven Life” and “The Da Vinci Code” added to her tale of resurgence and redemption. I thought maybe she’d also peeked at the work of Alice Walker, especially “You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down,’’ an early collection of stories about women rising above their circumstances. Why did I think so? Lil’ Kim had survived in prison, she told the Times, because she wanted to show her detractors “that y’all cannot hold a good woman down.’’ The phrase made me more sympathetic toward the diminutive rapper, and not just because it echoed a classic work of African-American fiction. It also seemed to offer a nice jumping-off point from which to promote a newer, wiser image. But apparently that was too much to hope for.
Onstage at the MTV Awards, Lil’ Kim twisted that lofty assertion of female strength into a brazen celebration of vulgarity. She entered in an orange prison jumpsuit flanked by two men dressed as prison guards, but soon stripped off that costume to show off a black-and-gold pantsuit underneath. After a few remarks and enthusiastic applause, she told the crowd, “you can’t keep a good bitch down.’‘
I know that some feminists have claimed the b-word as an emblem of self-empowerment. I know that a pair of female pop-culture critics use the epithet as the title of an Oakland, Calif.-based progressive quarterly. And yes, I recall singer Meredith Brook’s 1997 hit of the same name, proclaiming her bitchiness as an important aspect of her identity. Call me old-fashioned, but I still stutter when I have to say the word and I have just as much difficulty typing it. I’m also troubled that Lil’ Kim called herself a woman in a print interview but then apparently felt she had to go to extremes in the glare of the television lights. I wasn’t surprised, just disappointed that the rapper passed up an opportunity to strike out in a bold new direction. That rap music, the genre that made her famous, often demeans women—and especially black women—only magnifies Lil’ Kim’s misstep.
Her words didn’t strike me as thoughtless, mind you, but calculated to confirm her carefully constructed authenticity before the vigilant eyes of the MTV audience. “Real recognizes real,’’ she said in that same newspaper interview, “and respect is the name of the game.’’
I wonder where self-respect fits in there.