We Found Hip Hop offers safe space to help propel hip-hop careers for women and girls

No space fit until she built it. During off time from her fashion photography day job, Piper Carter often roamed New York, voyaging to hip-hop shows around the city, usually anonymously.

Nobody cared. Carter could blend into the massive music scene there, no matter how she looked, the time of day, or if she came with friends or alone, she says. Not so in her native Detroit, Carter discovered, when she moved home to care for her then-ailing mother in the late 2000s.

Back in Detroit, she sometimes represented a crowd’s lone woman. And a lone woman often becomes a magnet for male attention, wanted or not, Carter says. It often simply felt unsafe, and if not unsafe, a woman trying to enjoy music on her own appeared odd, or even inappropriate, without a male companion.

Sometimes she’d go to shows with more R&B tones, only to find she also stuck out when jamming solo there, too, the spaces often crowded with romantic couples unafraid of PDAs. Why couldn’t she just hang out and listen to music, she wondered? Why weren’t there more female performers?

Those experiences inspired Carter to host “no misogyny” open mic nights at Detroit’s 5E Gallery around 2011. Carter helped run the gallery then, filling up time not spent with her mother. She discovered many of the women who attended in the capacity of a male artist’s significant other had skills of their own. Skills they felt timid about sharing in person. Skills they told Carter they didn’t deserve to share.

The open mic nights slowly took off, and with it, meetings about how to carve out a safe space for women in hip-hop – something else inspired by Carter’s New York experiences. In New York, Carter had networked with and got inspired by groups of powerful women in the entertainment industry who were brainstorming ways to make it better for the young women coming up. The Detroit-based group working to fill the void of a safe place for women was collectively dubbed, “The Foundation of Women in Hip Hop.”

Despite success measured in increasing attendance, the events weren’t always well-received. Some felt focusing on just women, or certain types of lyrics, was restrictive. Carter, who began branching out and helping artists to book shows or offer advice on stuff like proper PR practices, says constructive criticism also wasn’t well-received by artists, who dismissed it as “hating.” The Foundation hosted its first wide-reaching event in June 2016, a women in hip-hop conference that culminated in a show that attracted a national artist along with local women, within the Allied Media Conference. The North Carolina native Rapsody headlined, the established poet, activist and author jessica Care moore hosted, and artists such as Flint’s Mama Sol and Mahagony Jones performed, too. Carter knew that adding a rising star like Rapsody would help up the profile of their group, but it increased tension for some who felt only Detroit-based artists should have performed.

Amid these happenings, Carter met Nina Payne, who had started her own events company, Foundation Management, after leaving the corporate world in 2004. Payne would often work with Carter on booking artists for Foundation events and more. They would eventually team up, creating We Found Hip Hop, a morphed version of the original incarnation from those initial open mic nights.

The name change came about for a couple of reasons. They felt it too similar to a group out of New York, and they also wanted a fresh start. Payne says Carter’s empathetic nature and desire to help people sometimes blinded her to people who may want to take advantage. After working with a lawyer, the new name and a focus were born.

A multifaceted mission

We Found Hip Hop is a social enterprise, meaning a for-profit entity, with a social justice mission.

“So, our social mission is to invest and support and uplift women and girls,” Carter, 47, says. “Our focus centrally is women and girls that are interested in pursuing hip-hop as their career.”

We Found Hip Hop’s mission is multifaceted. Payne and Carter aim to develop artists by investing in people and producing events that provide platforms to elevate or introduce new artists, as well as to educate women on staying safe in the industry. What does she mean by that?

“Safe is kind of a lot of things,” Carter says. “When you’re pursuing any career, right, if you just try to go like, out of college, per se, you’re gonna have a different experience if you don’t have a mentor or if you don’t have people helping you understand how the business works.”

“That’s one part of safety," she says, adding another part is "in music, in arts, in entertainment, it attracts a certain personality, a person that preys on people. Women get preyed on. There’s a huge ‘MeToo’ movement to make that right again, to correct what’s been happening.”

Carter says she and Payne, 50, each have 20-plus years in various aspects of the entertainment industry. They want to use their knowledge to help and support those who don’t, such as new artists who may not know how to navigate the hip-hop world from knowing the best way to release music in this digital era to conduct in studios.

Payne says women often don’t see the possibility of harassment coming in places like the laid-back atmosphere of studio life.

“You get high, you get drunk, you get violated,” Payne says. “I/we can provide another level of education and tools, whether you’re on stage or a business person, as a woman in the industry. We’re a haven of information.”

Carter agreed, saying some women haven’t been taught that it’s OK for them to keep their shirts on.

“That might sound like, ‘Oh, that’s basic knowledge,’ but this particular business is the type of business where a whole bunch of crazy stuff happens to people, because there is this power dynamic that happens. Where people have something that people need.”

We Found Hip Hop offers a variety of services based on a client’s needs. They may offer consulting for someone who just has questions on starting in the biz. Or they may help an artist book shows. They stress their intent is not to restrict but to offer safety. They support a woman artist who may “lead with her sexuality,” Carter says, but they just want women to know they don’t have to do that.

Pricing will vary depending on the prospective client’s path. The price may be per-project, for instance. They also intend to offer different levels of memberships for services. Those, too, will depend on the needs of the clients. An established artist who just wants to book more shows wouldn’t need as much work as someone who hasn’t performed in front of a crowd, for example. Or someone who hasn’t even sung outside of their living room with a hairbrush for a microphone.

Their services extend to all parts of the hip-hop industry, and there are more than an average listener may realize. Those unfamiliar with the genre’s range may hear the term hip-hop and immediately think of a rapper spitting bars on topics like guns, drugs, sex, and money.

“Hip-hop can be a lot of things,” says Payne as the women sat together for the interview at a long table flanked with retro-looking chairs at Submerge in Detroit, one of their two spaces curated for We Found Hip Hop. (For those who don’t know about Submerge, it must stay that way due to underground stuff.) They also have space at Bamboo near downtown’s Capitol Park area.

“The word hip-hop means a lot,” Payne adds. “It doesn’t have to be someone barking into a mic. It can be dancers, singers, a business person helping on the other side of things.”

Carter says encouraging people to be themselves is another form of entertainment safety, especially in hip-hop, which often comes with strong stereotypes. They’re not trying to shape people to fit the mainstream, per se, they’re trying to teach nontraditional artists how to package themselves to find success in avenues appropriate for them.

When helping to package and present the artists, they’ll also aim to offer realistic expectations based on an artist's goals, and help them maximize that effort. They’ll help clients whittle their desired level of success. Do they want to have a monthly show? Or do they want music as their only job?

Since Carter won a Knight Foundation grant a few years back, she and Payne, who still runs Foundation Management, teamed up with a lawyer to get everything from the name to the mission right. It’s all still fluid, they say, but they already have produced events.

They had a women in hip-hop retreat in September, with another on the horizon. They have released mixtapes featuring all women artists. They’ve hosted concerts, and they’re the driving force behind Dilla Youth Day, now an annual, sprawling event that takes place in the Charles H. Wright Museum. It runs in conjunction with Dilla Day(s) celebrated around the world that honor the late J Dilla, arguably the most prolific hip-hop artist to come out of the 313. His unique beat-making style, samples, and influence are heard in music from around the world. The Dilla celebrations take place in February, the month he was born and died in.

The youth event allows kids to learn through hip-hop — learning English, for example, feels more fun writing lyrics. The kids also learn technical sides, like how to make beats, to practice on open mics, and more. It keeps growing each year, and so far, they’ve been able to run the event on a nearly all-volunteer basis. They hope to procure more funding as the annual event evolves.

'They encourage everyone'

In-between major events, We Found Hip Hop will host smaller gatherings, like panel discussions, or even open mics – though they’ll do those less frequently to maximize their impact. They’ll soon hold auditions for an all-woman hip-hop house band for the organization, too. They want to reach as many aspiring artists as possible.

“They encourage everyone,” says Mary Mar, aka BGirl Mama. “We don’t have a lot of that around here.”

Mar, 37, does breaking, or breakdancing. The Eastpointe native says people sometimes are surprised to learn she’s a Muslim woman who breaks. She describes herself as kind of a cross between a client-type person and one of the original women around those initial Tuesday open mic nights when the Foundation began. She appreciated the safe space provided.

She says the rule of no misogyny at the open mics may seem restrictive, but “it felt good to me.”

Her faith touts modesty, but dancing and subsequently hip-hop, doesn’t have to have a negative connotation. For her, dancing helped build her self-confidence. It’s exercise.

“I’m using my God-given talent to make people happy,” Mar says. “I feel strong. I am confident.”

And that’s exactly how the founders of We Found Hip Hop want it.

The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that's working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.

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