by Brooklyn White
Who is the queen of southern rap? That’s a loaded, borderline unfair question. In the early days of rap, up until the mid-nineties, rap was certainly a coastal game. That’s not to say women artists in the south weren’t making music - they just weren’t the face of it, nor was the overall culture even prepared to digest a southern male act. Women like Salt N Pepa, MC Lyte, and Lil Kim dominated, and it made sense. Hip-Hop was born and bred in New York, and crept over to the west for brutal and spirited perspectives. In 1995 the south was ready for its close up, with a young, freshly booed Andre 3000 proclaiming that “the south got something to say” at that year’s Source Awards.
The tides began to turn, and the music that was reserved for basements and hydraulicized whips went mainstream. But the question of which woman out of the South reigns supreme remains. Some say Trina, the Dominican/Bahamian vixen who entranced listeners with her sexually charged cuts. Others say Three Six Mafia’s first ladies Gangsta Boo and La Chat (who have begrudgingly observed a second wave of the sacreligious, horrifying sound they helped innovate). And others will argue that Virginia’s Afrofuturistic, fashion forward storyteller Missy Elliott is the true standout talent of the south. Truthfully, none of that matters. Choosing a singular monarch is both unnecessary and divisive. But if we are going to discuss the southern women who reconfigured rap, Mia X has to be a part of the conversation.
During my teen years, I would watch a now deleted YouTube clip of Master P’s “Make ‘Em Say Uhh!” The track’s lineup was incredible and filled with heroes from my home state, Louisiana. The video is five minutes of a superteam of dirty south rappers trying to make the crowd jump, while in the middle of a high energy basketball game. But who stood out to me the most was the lone female MC, a beautiful brown skinned woman with a slick hairstyle, long acrylic nails, impeccable makeup and a clover-green jersey set.
Here was a woman, in a music video, who wasn’t light skinned or a size two. Mia X was surrounded by several rowdy men, some of whom were off beat, and not only held her own lyrically, but also showed people that a woman who rapped didn’t have to look a certain way to be sexy, or successful. She was effortlessly both. And this transformative representation gave me the inspiration I needed to jump start a rap career of my own.
Mia began rapping in the mid 1980’s, as a member of a DJ crew with another 504 musician, Mannie Fresh. They would throw parties around the city as teenagers, and Mia would battle rap as well. Her debut project Da Payback would come in 1993. The title track was a nearly 8-minute-long bounce record, overflowing with advice for women who wanted to get the creme de la creme from poorly endowed tricks. It’s an easy listen, with Mia’s commanding voice remaining the track’s center, even as the beat endures several timely switch ups. Da Payback is reminiscent of what people envision when they think of New Orleans. Though it is a long-time land of poverty and site for natural disasters, people have this grand daydream of Mardi Gras parades on Bourbon Street, pressed up-do’s sitting atop smiling faces, and honey-colored bodies bouncing in the sunlight. It is the best of New Orleans, while being unafraid to talk about life in the hood.
Her cadence is Nola-fied through and through - “pay” becomes “peh” and and “away” loses it’s hard “y” as well. This vocal style allowed Mia to cultivate a following as she released her first full length album, 1995’s Good Girl Gone Bad, Unlady Like in 1997, and Mama Drama in 1998-the second and third of which have since gone platinum and double platinum, respectively. Mama Drama spawned a Charlie Wilson assisted classic “What’cha Wanna Do”, which made its way to the Billboard Hot 100. (Yes, before Wilson was rocking straight backs and habitually adding flavor to hip hop joints, he collaborated with Mia X.) Then at the height of her success, at age 29, X retired to take care of her family. She has since battled and defeated uterine cancer and dedicated time to another passion of hers: cooking.
Women in rap come in all sizes and shades, though the sad fact remains that fatphobia and colorism hinder some artists’ career trajectories. Nonetheless there are women rappers who are enjoying comfortable, respected careers. The southern half of America has been the soil for rappers like Asian Doll and Chika, who discuss their surroundings, upbringings and relationships with vivid detail. It’s not a stretch to say that a space for them would exist without Mia X. Her vivid rhymes, proximity to one of the biggest rap collectives of all time, and ability to meander between battle rap and charting singles are some of the reasons why she goes down in history as a matriarch of Hip-Hop. Her legacy is strong, after 35 years of sonning anyone who would dare step to her.