A cursory glance at Boston’s hip-hop community reveals a gender stratification not unlike those found in other cities: a small group of women fighting for their piece of the spotlight among a male-dominated rap scene. Among them, Dutch ReBelle isn’t the first to set her sights on transcending the perception of being just good enough “for a girl,” but in a short time she’s established herself as the best hope for expelling such notions from the city altogether.
Such a task isn’t for the faint of heart, but ReBelle, who performs at Church next Wednesday, has shown herself more than capable of taking on the challenge. The rapper, born Vanda Bernadeau in Haiti and raised by an extended immigrant family in different neighborhoods before settling in Milton, earned herself a deal with East Boston-based digital imprint Amalgam (its first female signing) barely a year after beginning to pursue music full time after graduating from Penn State. Her first release, “Married to the Music,” showcased her not just as a sharp lyricist, but as someone who stood apart from typical female rapper categorization.
“Music couldn’t tell me anything about people,” she says, lounging on a chair at sneaker boutique Laced in the South End. “My mother is like a thug. She’s very smart, but she’s very aggressive. She’s the one in the middle of like 15 guys playing dominoes. She used to run with them and fight with them. I have a lot of women in my family, so female rappers couldn’t tell me anything about people. As far as how women were, I wasn’t influenced by the female rappers, I just liked the chicks I liked.”
Inflections of female influences such as Lauryn Hill and Rah Digga can be heard within her, but ReBelle’s music stays grounded in a Boston state of mind. Living and going to school in Milton while maintaining ties with family and friends in Mattapan and other neighborhoods provided a range of experiences to write about during her adolescence.
“In high school just talking to my boys, especially in Milton talking to white boys about your weekend, I’m just talking to them and telling them what happened with crazy cousin Nina and they’re like, ‘Whoa, you tell the best stories,’ ” she says. “That’s honestly how I knew I could rap. But they never saw me rap because that was something I did at home with my family. I didn’t do that in school, there was no reason for it.”
She continues: “Haitians don’t do emotions well, until they’re older and then it’s a religious type of thing. It’s shunned upon as a sign of weakness. I talked about stuff like that. I’m writing raps about my boy who just got locked up or what happened to my homegirl whose boyfriend beat her up. I wasn’t about that type of stuff, but it was everything that was around me. Being judged wrong is really a lot of what I would write about because people often did that to me.”
Songs on “Married to the Music” reflect an artist eager to break out of the typical female hip-hop mold, which often casts them as either hypersexualized tomboys (a la Lil Kim) or passive nurturers. “Freddie (Set It Off)” offers a menacing stickup vignette, while “Runaway Bride” constructs an extended metaphor of a strained relationship to illustrate her struggle to stay true to her hip-hop dreams amid personal strife.
Outside of the recording booth, ReBelle has worked equally hard to establish herself as a viable artist in Boston and beyond, having performed at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival and with an upcoming date at AC3, one of the largest hip-hop festivals in the country, taking place this weekend in Atlanta. Alongside Real Politikz and Chris Brook, she’s a member of the group Famous Nobodies and has also founded her own network of female entrepreneurs and artists called the Black Roses.
“We didn’t sign Dutch because she’s a female, we signed her because she’s an artist who we respect what she’s doing,” says DJ Next, CEO of Amalgam, who started working with ReBelle after her performance at SXSW in 2010. “Talking to Dutch about concepts and stuff, I’m impressed about what she’s wanting to write about. Her music, her work ethic, and her organizational skills are a rare combination of elements you don’t always find in artists male or female.”
Her forthcoming first official release, “Voodou,” should further separate ReBelle from her peers, as it molds her aggressive, direct style with Caribbean and Haitian musical influences. By the time it comes out sometime next year, ReBelle will likely have proved a few more skeptics wrong along the way.
“It’s not always what you think,” she says, repeating the phrase twice more for emphasis. “That’s the story of my life. ‘Voodoo’ is the TV microwaved version of what lives in New Orleans — ‘voodou’ is the correct version of that. That whole aspect is a combination of religious beliefs that are centered around serving the spirits. I feel like if this is going to be my first real go into national exposure, I’m going to start with serving the spirits. ‘You have to go there to know there.’ That’s a Zora Neale Hurston quote. So I have to take you there for you to understand what kind of music I’m trying to make.”
The annual “Business of Hip-Hop” symposium returns to Berklee on Monday, featuring various guests including producer Noah “40” Shebib, Grammy-winning composer/arranger Rob Lewis, and a talent showcase. The keynote speaker will be former Def Jam President Kevin Liles. . . . Akrobatik continues his impressive comeback with the release of the single “Alive,” a vivid retelling of his near-fatal heart attack in 2011. He’ll mark the occasion with a release party at Church next Friday. The song is available on iTunes. . . . Lawrence-based rapper Termanology’s prodigious work ethic hasn’t slowed at all recently, despite extensive touring and the release of his second full-length collaboration with Statik Selektah as 1982. This time he’s recorded an album produced entirely by Lil Fame (of M.O.P.), titled “Fizzyology,” dropping Nov. 6, with a release party at the Middle East Downstairs on Nov. 1.
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