January 18, 1998 New York Times

A Feisty Female Rapper Breaks a Hip-Hop Taboo


photo caption: PROVOCATEUR In ``Girlfriend,'' Queen Pen brags about luring a woman away from her boyfriend. In person, she dances around the issue of her own sexuality. (photo by Mike Kamber for the New York Times)

The lyrics alone don't distinguish "Girlfriend," a track on the new album by the rapper Queen Pen, from other rap songs. After all, bragging about luring a woman away from her boyfriend is practically de rigueur on a hip-hop album. "If that's your girlfriend, she wasn't last night," Queen Pen taunts a cuckolded beau.

What makes this rap song different is that the girlfriend stealer in it is a woman. Queen Pen, a.k.a. Lynise Walters, who in conversation remains coy about her sexual orientation, is perhaps the first recording artist to use rap, a genre known for the misogyny and homophobia of its lyrics, to depict lesbian life. Openly lesbian or bisexual artists, including K.D. Lang, Melissa Etheridge and Me'Shell Ndege'Ocello, have cropped up in other musical forms, but aside from the occasional derogatory reference, rap has largely stayed away from homosexuality.

"Girlfriend" has yet to be released as a single, and the album, "My Melody," has sold only 40,000 copies since it was released on Dec. 16, but the song is being played on radio and in dance clubs in New York and Miami. And Queen Pen, 25, says she is frequently asked about the song, by colleagues and interviewers alike. "This song is buggin' everyone out right now," she said, settling down at the dining room table in her apartment in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. "You got Ellen, you got K.D. Lang. Why shouldn't urban lesbians go to a girl club and hear their own thing?"

"Girlfriend" is a milestone for rap, says Michael Eric Dyson, author of the book "Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture." He calls the genre "notoriously homophobic." But he said it was not surprising that the first to address homosexuality in rap was a woman. "This is still going to be a bomb she's dropping," he said. "But the real thing is going to be when you get some brother coming out."

Queen Pen's producer, Teddy Riley, concurs. "I can only tell you the street mentality," he said. "It's all right for a woman. But a man?" He doubts whether a largely male rap audience "would welcome that."

Nonetheless, he views the lyrics of "Girlfriend" as a challenge to males. The song's underlying message, he says, can be interpreted as a threat issued by a woman to a man: "Straighten up and fly right or I'll go the other way." At the same time, Queen Pen aligns herself with male rappers by often adopting their language and attitude. She calls women "bitches," for example, and expresses detached amusement: "She slid by me four or five times/wantin' me to notice the rhythm of her thighs/Girls are just so funny to me."

"I think she's chosen that route because she thinks it will get her over with the urban audience," said Sheena Lester, music editor at Vibe magazine. "But I also think the hard language and all that is real to her. I don't think she's just putting it on."

Growing up in Crown Heights and Flatbush, also in Brooklyn, Queen Pen became a single mother at 16. (She has two sons, ages 8 and 9.) "I got public assistance, and I was hustling," she said, declining to elaborate on what she meant by hustling except to say that she was not referring to prostitution.

She also mentioned that after a magazine published an interview that displeased her, "I had to get real ghetto on them," making angry telephone calls to an editor. Moreover, she said that she had just lost $5,000 earrings in a fight. Queen Pen had been performing around New York for years when Mr. Riley asked her last year to perform as a guest on the single "No Diggity" by his group Blackstreet (the song has since gone platinum). Days after Queen Pen recorded her part, Mr. Riley signed her to his new label, Lil' Man, a division of Interscope. "Ten years of paying my dues and one night in the studio with Teddy Riley, I got my record deal," she said. 

Songs on "My Melody" range from domestic violence to a first crush on a boy. "Girlfriend," based on the chorus of "Boyfriend," a 1993 song by Ms. Ndege'Ocello (who plays bass on "Girlfriend"), is the only song about lesbianism on the album.

Queen Pen says that Mr. Riley didn't balk when she proposed the song. "I told Teddy, 'I want to do a song talking about girls,'" she recalled. "He said, 'Dissing a girl?' I said: 'No, two girls. Lesbians. He said, 'If that's what you want to do, let's do it.'"

Mr. Riley remembers hesitating -- because he was nervous about broaching the subject with his partners at Interscope -- but not for long. "I respect her for it," he said of "Girlfriend." "It's not gangsta rap. It's not telling you to kill yourself. She is teaching women to be what they want to be. It's another level for the rap game."

The song includes a reference to an "ex" named Beverly, and in conversation Queen Pen speaks of frequenting "girl clubs." But realizing the potential publicity value, she is, at least for the time being, dancing around the issue of her own sexuality.

"I'm black," she said. "I'm a female rapper. I couldn't even go out of my way to pick up a new form of discrimination.

People are waiting for this hip-hop Ellen to come out of the closet. I'd rather be a mystery for a minute."

She added: "Even if I sat here and said, 'I'm straight,' I could be lying. If I said, 'I'm gay,' it could be a publicity stunt." (Asked if she dates women, Queen Pen asked how big this article was going to be. A little later, she said that she would talk only "in depth" about her sexuality for a front-page article.)

"Two or three years from now, people will say Queen Pen was the first female to bring the lesbian life to light on wax," she said. Then she added, seemingly having forgotten her own caginess on the issue: "It's reality. What's the problem?"

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