At the closing conference keynote address, Alice Bag and Medusa engaged in a historic performance together. Alice read from her new memoir VIOLENCE GIRL. She is recognized by Mako Fitts as an “OG, a soldadera of punk music.” Alice and Medusa jam together on “Babylonian Gargoyle.” The world of the music hall is shrunk down to their musical exchange as they look at one another and sing with focus and intent. Medusa and Alice embody a full-on connection of presence, creating energy that bounces off the walls in the room, one feeding off of the other in a full volume energy-fest exemplifying Women Who Rock in action. As Fitts reminds us, their performance is a bridging of scenes and voices.
Alice Bags ends her set and Fitts introduces Medusa as a groundbreaking MC and foundational hip hop artist (see also her work in Cheryl Dunye’s film STRANGER INSIDE), the first hip to be featured with a live band: “When one thinks about The Roots and The Black Eyed-Peas, one has to acknowledge Medusa as someone who instilled the refocusing on live band presence in hip-hop. She is someone who is both a dope MC, an author, an actress, AND an artist who is archived at Harvard University.” Medusa and Alice Bags perform together again, and again their worlds converge.
After their keynote performance, Maylei Blackwell and Mako Fitts lead conversation between the artists and the audience:
Maylei Blackwell (MB): What inspired you both to pick up the mic?
Medusa: I was ispired by my Aunt Billy who was with the group The Undisputed Truth; she also wrote “Wishing on a Star” with Rolls Royce and toured with the Jackson Five. At an early age, I wrote a song, “Angel in the Sky,” and it was my aunt who gave me the opportunity for publishing my first song.
Alice: I was kind of a weird kid. The one bright moment in my school day was with the music teacher. Eventually she motivated me to sing on educational cartoons. Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) was making educational outreach cartoons, which I sang on as a fifth grader because I could sing bilingually; that was my first case of success.
Mako Fitts (MF): You are both known as innovations. Where does that come from?
Medusa: In the realm of the creative, you get a brew going, and its up to you to transform that energy into something else and to not be afraid of allowing that energy to flow through you. The work is to not fear allowing the many facets and energies to speak.
Alice: It’s not necessarily that you are creating that energy but harnessing it. You have to have no fear.
MB: You have both been characterized as fierce and sometimes angry. How do you characterize the feminie in your performance and bring elements of sexiness and the erotic into your work?
Medusa: In the world of hip hop, you have to compete with a lot of men. You have to challenge yourself to be agressive and pushy. In my work, I do that through my lyrics. Inside of me there is this piece of man, there is also a woman, a child, a stripper, a pimp, and a goddess. When I”m on stage, I allow them all to have their place and to have their way with me. I really believe your femininity is your strength. For a woman to deny part of her feminity is to deny God’s given gift. No matter how masculaine you find my attire, my energy is about my femininity. Recognizing this is the epitome of not judging a book by its cover.
Alice: I agree with Medusa. (You already know where my anger comes from.) The “sexy” comes from feeling grounded and self confident. I feel androgenous on stage and channel energy towards a point where one is not defined by gender. I dont feel male or female; I just feel my strength. We talk about tapping into an energy that’s bigger than oneself, and that’s what I am tapping into.
MF: One of the things that’s often talked about is the issue of women’s access to space, including spaces for women to hold their musicianship. What has changed since you entered the game in tems of women’s access to space?
Alice: I haven’t been around the entire time in the way that Medusa has been playing consistently for years. Somethimes I’ve been playing, other times I’ve been a teacher, and at other times the role of the parent has taken center stage. I see a lot more women playing and forming bands than when I was young. I see women empowering themselves to produce their own music, records, and touring. For a while, the scene I was a part of was ending, and I saw it being taken over by a very male patricarchal force that was excluding women. I think that’s a cyclical process where people try to take over your movmeent and you have to stand your ground.
Medusa: I come from a different world. Hip hop is not like R&B where women rule the mic and where men are trying to emulate that. Hip hop is different in that women have to take what they want and take a space within a space. Some females will get into that space, and you have to have the growl and hunger of a lion when you are there. Some will grab it with a daisy or a daffodil in a glitter kind of way. In an arena of lions, you have to agressively access the mic. If the daffodils and daisys are put center, they will get played to the backdrop. I’ve also epxerienced women at the mic who don’t belong at the mic. They are cute and want to try it, but in the space of lions, you have to really hone your craft and sharpen your tool in order to be the lionnes you need to be. It’s really hard to find a pack of aggressive lionesses from which to attack the space as an MC and make it your own. It seems a little easier with B-Girls because they bond and grow in a certain way and get to evolve and become strong but also more masculine. As an MC you have to be able to do those moves, too. Sometimes we get kicked out of a space becasue we don’t have sharp enough tools; that’s who gets to claim a space. Others need to recognize that they might be poets and writers. In hip hop, you don’t just have a space, you have to take a space.
MB: Both of you are from Los Angeles and talk alot in the media about the so called Black and Brown conflict. How do you draw on your culture to get to that fierceness that you bring to the mic?
Alice: In my experince in the early punk scene, I felt it was well integrated and reflected the broader LA scene composed of those who did not feel like they fit in, those who came to Hollywood and found a supportive community. I didn’t sense conflict in my creative environment, and that’s what made it successfull because it any judgement was about what you were bringing to the mix and not what you looked like. I didn’t realize at the time that in my work there was an influence of rancheras, Mexican movies, etc.; in such a supportive context, your ethnicity is able to come through in an organic way.
Audience Member: Medusa acknowledged the importance of harnessing different energies. I want to know where you find sources of support to sustain the various energies that inform your work. How do you get to that point? Did you have support from someone in your inner circle or family who supported your artistic sense of self?
Alice: That’s a really good question. “I am Who I am, and I am happy with who I am” is a powerful message to listen to as a kid. That’s a message I got from my father who told me I could be the President of the United States. So when I started doing things that were atypical for a kid my age in my neighborhood, I thought that everyone else was wrong and I was right. And that came from my supreme sense of confidence from my father’s teaching me those early lessons. Punk rock teaches that you don’t have to meet anyone else’s idea of competency; you are going to do what you need to do, and you need to trust and follow your instincts.
Medusa: Definitely in hip hop, I’ve seen those borders. I grew up in Ontario, Chino, and Alta Dena. In Buena Park, I was one of 5 blacks in a school that was predominantly Chicano. I had to make a pivotal decision in looking for a social life. I didn’t want to hang out with the white girls who were cheerleaders — that wasn’t my speed. I hung out with the Chicanos who wanted to jump me in but were wondering if I was too tough for that; they just embraced and accepted me, no questions. The only difference was language; that kept me out of certain conversations, but my energy made it okay and kept me in the mix. I became a chameleon who knew a lot of cultures and respected them for who them were. It’s really necesary to explore the different cultures because you realize they are all in you, innately. As far as translating them into music, it is apparent when I am around Hispanics in the scene when they call themselves nigga that they relate to the power of the word; they call themselves that in front of other cultures and feel empowered to use it. That is the power of being creators of lots of things. You often come across something that stands out and say, “Damn, they have a swag like no other!” You want a piece of that, and you connect by listening to the music. We influence one another across the board. It’s only the powers that be that segregate us in their building of neighborhoods. But we do want to know one another and do want to culturally create things together. I think the growth of music and realizing we are so one is what allows us to mix in powerful ways.
MF: I love stories and this opportunity to hear stories about your experiences. What is your most outrageous memory of performing?
Medusa: There’s a lot of them. but the most memorable was a time I performed in Frisco in the Bay. It was this incredible space, set up like an old-school theater where the stage was in the center and the chairs all around. It was beautiful. It was for a gay power movement event. There was a couple things that happened. My pants were a bit baggy. I’m rockin a bit to a beat that I’ve never heard before. I’m rocking back and forth and did a move in which my pants fell but I didn’t know ’cause I had on shorts under my pants. Everyone was into my rhymes and not letting me know. I went on for a while and then discovered my pants were down to the floor and was like, FOR REAL!?! No one was letting me know! Then, during that same performance, I said to the crowd, “If you are a lesbian couple, the world still deserves to see the children that would come out of you.” And I suggested in the free style that you find a king or a genetlemen that you both dig and one of you bear children. I’m just being myself, and a couple of claps happened. But afterwards, there were women who were just pissed at me. I couldn’t figure out the problem. They were pissed that they thought I said they needed a man. I had to clarify: what’s wrong with women wanting to reflect and carry forward themselves through their children and picking their own children’s father? My stance was: I love everybody and can say whatever the fuck I want.
Alice: I’ve never lost any clothing on stage. The only embarrrasing incident I can think of is the first time I stepped on stage. We played the first song, and the crowd wanted more music. I went on stage and said, “Play my body, it’s a musical instrument.” The band never let me forget that.
Audience Member: How often do you make efforts to see young new artists in the punk and hip hop scenes?
Medusa: I go to events to see new work all the time. I stand in the back of the room so that my presence is not a stigma for new artists. I want to see what’s happening and then provide feedback about what is needed for a new artist to be a better entertainer.
Alice: Medusa is so powerful, generous, and giving on stage. She was here for the soundcheck and telling my bandmates how to better things. Very generous. I don’t get to see a lot of bands often because I am in Sedona, Arizona, a very slow paced area without a music sene like in the big cities. I see women’s bands, and that inspires me and feeds my soul.
Audience Member: What is your shower jam? When considering your stage name, was there anything crazy you considered?
Medusa: [Sings a song: “….you remind me of a friend… oooh….ooooh…ooooh… I’m lost in time….da, da, da….”] That’s my shit! I have a mental Rolodex of songs, a juke box of things that I sing in my shower that goes from Aretha Franklin to Chaka Khan to Pheobe Snow. It runs the gamit depending on mood. Medusa is the only name I considered because I turn male MCs to stone. Once I dove a little deeper into the naming. A friend of mine had a dictionary and told me to look up Medusa: it’s the way a jelly fish swims in the ocoen, free flowing. I felt my rhymes were like that. I also found out Medusa was one of 5 sisters that had the power to shape shift, not just her body but events, and she could only use it for the positive. When she was being hunted by the kingdom of the land of Nod, they felt her power was in her hair, in her dreadlocks. If you didn ‘t know what her hair was, you would call it snakes. When they found her doing something horrific to men, her head was taken back to the kingdom and it actually destroyed the land. I took those things, made them my truth, and use them to this day.
Alice: [Sings “Our Love is Here is Stay.”] That’s my shower jam. I don’t have great stories of how I got my name because when the Ramones came out, everyone just called out their names: Joey Ramone, Johnny Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone. With the Bags, I was Alice Bag. Growing up, I hjad a teacher who didn’t pronounce my given name “Alicia” and instead called me Alice. Not as empowering of a story as Medusa’s, but that’s my truth.
MB: If you had a dream collaboration across space and time, who would you dream to collaborate with and why?
Medusa: Marvine Gaye. He is one of the most incredible producers. His vocal arranging is like no other, R&B, folk, funk, all of those things. I’ve spent hours, years, sitting and analyzing his music. Now I can hear. He’s the reason I can hear every instrument in every song. He made me appreciate music more. I can listen to Marvin Gaye and then Carole King and recognize her orchestration. And I would give him some too! I love that man. He was fine.
MF: That would be some beautiful children.
Alice: I would say Bessie Smith. And I would give her some, too. I don’t have a big explaination.
MB: She was an innovator.
Audience Member: I was wondering about the group Suicidal Tendencies’ influence and if you see a crossover betweeen punk and hip hop.
Alice: I’m not aware of that.
Medusa: The only thing I can think of that fit is in the 1980s, I would cruise down Sunset and as I passed by the clubs, look at the Mohawks, the color at the tips, all the scooters lined up. There would always be the select few black folks. There would be the gang bangers who liked diving into the mosh pit cause they could sock whoever they wanted to. They would dress punk on the weekend to get into the vibe.
MF: We are opening with Stephanie Hazelrigg.
Alice: Blondie and Sugar Hill represented early mixtures of styles.
Stephanie: What would you do instead if you didn’t have the mic.
Medusa: I would do a mean ass a capela. I would beat box the crowd, tap dance on the box like Queztal, find a percussionist, a chest beater. I don’t need a mic. I’d find a way to do what I need to do.
Alice: I interpret the question a different way. I think if I hadn’t had the creative outlet, I would have been an angry and dangerous person. For me, it is very important to support the creative arts in schools because young people need to have a creative outliet to express themselves and their frustrations.