Last April, A’nija Johnson walked into the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center auditorium ready to speak her truth at the Nine Pillars Hip Hop Cultural Fest’s freshman class competition. Wearing a floor-length skirt, a Tasmanian Devil “I need coffee” T-shirt and a pair of sunglasses, the local high schooler found herself in a room full of peers ready to take the mic—all of them boys.
“What are you doing in here?” asked one. “You’ll see,” she told him. By the end of the competition, Johnson, who goes by the moniker Legendary Goddess, had impressed the judges enough to nab second place.
The self-described “girly-girl” loves proving that she can rap—and about everything, from broken friendships to sexual violence. Legendary Goddess takes the mic on Thursday at the all-female Rugged Arts hip-hop showcase at the Music Resource Center as part of the weeklong Nine Pillars Hip Hop Cultural Festival.
The Rugged Arts series began in summer 2013, but organizers Cullen “Fellowman” Wade and Remy St. Clair are confident that this showcase is the first of its kind in Charlottesville, featuring five female artists (Legendary Goddess, MrsAmerica, Juice, Littlebird and Bonnie Cash), a female DJ (DJ Tova) and a female host (Destinee Wright).
“Hip-hop has a reputation for its misogyny and its disregard for women’s agency,” says Wright. “This showcase is a sort of reclamation. I’m hoping that this show will inspire a sense of sisterhood for the hip-hop heads in the community who are woman-identifying, and hopefully inspire other women artists to continue their work and participate in events such as this.”
It’s rare to see a woman on stage at a hip-hop show, says Lamicka “MrsAmerica” Adams. She suspects it’s because many women put their music on the backburner as they build a career, raise a family and take care of elderly family members. So, to shine a spotlight on female artists, “I think it’s really dope,” she says.
MrsAmerica was going through a lot when she wrote her 2017 album, Pain and Pageant—she was pregnant with her third child while taking care of her father, who was dying of cancer. MrsAmerica’s husband encouraged her to write, to put her thoughts to music. She thought, “How can I focus on music at a time like this?” But the more she wrote, the better she felt. “It’s music that would lift me up when I was going through” hell, she says, and she hopes it’ll motivate others, too.
Sierra “Juice” Stanton shares many of MrsAmerica’s reasons for making music. “I only write about what I know, what I’ve been through, what I go through, what I’m preparing for,” says Juice.
Her song “Pain” is about an accident in which she was hit by an SUV while crossing the street. Juice didn’t feel the impact; she remembers waking up on the ground, a paramedic telling her not to move while snapping a brace around her neck. She gets chills when she recites the song. “It’s my heart pouring out in the lyrics, over a beat,” she says, adding that as a woman—and especially as a black woman—she’s very aware of the message she puts out into the world.
“Even if we live what [men] have lived and talk about, it’s different, because we are [women],” says Juice, adding that everything from what women say to the way they carry themselves is watched, and often scrutinized closely.
Harrisonburg artist Kaiti “Littlebird” Crittenden is a self-described “100-pound white girl with blonde hair, a tomboy” clad in beat-up Timberland boots and cargo pants, who says she was initially “pretty intimidated” to start performing her rhymes, in part because she’s not what people typically see in their mind’s eye when they think of a rapper.
“Princess Peach on fleek temperamental / Insecurities plaguing my mental / When ya thin as a pencil / Criticism ain’t gentle / Couple that with the fact / Folks been judgmental,” Littlebird spits in one of her songs. She likes to talk about universal experiences such as love and relationships of all kinds, but she’s keen to point out that there’s substance and feeling underneath the surface.
Long before DJ Tova Roth had DJ equipment, she made mixtapes with a tape deck and a radio. As a teenager in California in the early 1990s, she listened religiously to hip-hop and often drove an hour and a half to Los Angeles where well-known DJs sold their mixtapes. She’d listen to them over and over, noting the artists’ moves so that she could mimic them—and rival them—once she got her own gear.
“I want the industry to realize that girls can bring the heat, and that we’re up for any challenge,” says Legendary Goddess, the high schooler who brought down the house at the Jefferson School just a year ago. And a hip-hop showcase spotlighting a group of talented women is a great place to start.
“We’re making history,” says Juice. “This is major.”