Before rapper Azizah could turn eyes to Cleveland's female MCs, she had to open her own.
"When I got onstage, I had a problem with closing my eyes," the twentysomething rhymer says, recalling her initial anxiety about performing. "Every time I go onstage, I'm nervous. I'm representing not only myself, but females, so I want to make sure that I come across good."
Bigger than Azizah's battle with the butterflies, though, has been her battle just to be heard. A rapper since her early teens, the Cleveland native has sharpened her skills over the years, despite having few opportunities to showcase them. That changed with Queens of the Iron Mic, a hip-hop showcase exclusively for women that's the creation of George "Pooh Man Chew" Goins (who also books the popular Kings of the Iron Mic, which spotlights the best male rhymers). Last held in 2001, Queens of the Iron Mic returns to action this Saturday at the Grog Shop, with Azizah leading the way.
A tough-talking, no-nonsense MC with the clipped cadence of a drill sergeant, Azizah rhymes about self-awareness and inner strength, staying true to hip-hop's origins as party music with a message. Her old-school aesthetic is the product of an early '80s upbringing, when hip-hop was equally madcap and political.
"I discovered hip-hop when I was five," says Azizah, recalling her preschool days, spinning her mother's copy of the Sugarhill Gang's debut record. "I was eight when I learned how to break dance. I had a cardboard box, had my little radio, and I was good to go. When I got older, I'd be walking around the neighborhood, bumping Kool Moe Dee. It was just that simple back then."
Two decades ago, it was also fairly simple for women to get their turn at the mic. The mid-'80s through early '90s saw plenty of strong, successful female rappers, who didn't have to flash the flesh in order to sell records. From MC Lyte's steely, cocksure flow to Queen Latifah's dashikis and "Ladies First" exhortations to Sista Soulja's fiery, unchecked sermonizing, female MCs were among the most powerful and relevant rhymers.
Since then, though, the few women rappers who have grabbed headlines are sharp-tongued sexpots like Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown -- rhymers who bare more backside than soul. Queens of the Iron Mic hopes to turn the spotlight back on the less libidinous, more outspoken lady rappers out there.
"It was something that I was missing doing," says Goins, who shelved Queens of the Iron Mic for two years when it became too difficult to assemble stable lineups. "It's Women's History Month, so let's take a crack at it. A lot of people don't even recognize Women's History Month, so this is our way of giving something back -- some respect."
More than a history lesson, Queens of the Iron Mic is a good time, where crowds -- usually a fairly equal mix of men and women -- can vibe to a variety of sounds: Though Queens focuses mainly on hip-hop, everyone from neo-soul sirens to R&B wailers to spoken-word poets are welcome. Each show closes with an open-mic session, during which performers and crowd members are encouraged to take the stage for a song or two, either with DJ accompaniment or a cappella.
The success of this week's show will help determine whether Queens of the Iron Mic becomes a fixture at the Grog. Either way, the series has already helped open the door for others to follow in Azizah's lead.
"I think it'll encourage a lot of other young ladies who are talented to be a part of the music scene," says Joi Cook, a.k.a. Jus Real, a soul singer taking part in this week's Queens show. "There's a lot of different shows for guys, and a lot of females don't really get the opportunity to do their thing, so I think it's really important."
Tuan Hodges, a former backup dancer for Men at Large and LeVert who is now a solo R&B singer, will also take the stage on Saturday. "With the music business being such a male-dominated industry," says Hodges, "me getting to perform with other females that have the same love for me -- that's important in itself."