‘We need you’: Danyel Smith talks women in hip-hop at Oakland Museum of California

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Emily Bi/Staff

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Danyel Smith loves Cardi B. When KPFA radio journalist Anita Johnson asked Smith, the Oakland-born-and-bred culture editor, what she’s listening to at the moment, Cardi was at the top of the list.

To Smith, Cardi B represents a new generation of women in hip-hop. Cardi is able to give herself the license to harness her own past and present and channel it into pure, undeniable star power — all while being true to herself. Even the biggest female hip-hop stars of years past — from Lauryn Hill to Queen Latifah — were never able to do the same, Smith claimed.

“As big of stars as we think those women are, can’t you think of twice as many male stars that aren’t half as dope as they are who are deemed way larger,” said Smith. That Saturday afternoon, Smith was the guest of honor at an event at the Oakland Museum of California titled “Women in Hip-Hop: A Conversation with Danyel Smith”

She offered up Whitney Houston as one of the biggest victims of the gendered double standard that plagues hip-hop stardom. Later in the evening, Johnson asked Smith about the album artwork for Pusha T’s latest album DAYTONA, for which Kanye West now-infamously paid $85,000 to use a tabloid photo that claims to show Whitney Houston’s bathroom a few years before her death. Smith was firm in her disgust toward the decision to use the image. She scorned both the artists behind the cover, who she said “need to have a conversation with themselves about where they are in their lives,” and the institutions that failed Houston during her lifetime.

“She sacrificed her entire life as a human to give us joy,” Smith said. “What if she could have had all that and been herself also?”

The latter half of the conversation was dedicated to Smith’s own experiences as a journalist and editor. A highlight reel of her life to date cycled behind her. From photos of her as a little girl, to pictures of champagne being poured for her on some glamorous night to even pictures of her with R&B group Boyz II Men, the slideshow spoke to the major triumphs of Smith’s near-legendary career.

And yet, these moments appeared merely as momentary glimmers in Smith’s stories that afternoon. She hardly boasted of her own considerable successes. Instead, she drew from her own life and from the world around her the types of stories that she believes need to be told most urgently to women entering the music business.

These were stories that spoke to the struggles and difficulties of being a woman in the music industry, stories that did not always have happy endings. There were stories about going backstage at an LL Cool J show and being treated like a fan rather than a reporter. There were stories about Smith being told she wasn’t on the list for an event until she stood her ground and insisted that she was. Above all, the stories spoke to the fact that women must be especially resilient to survive in the famously male-dominated entertainment and media industries.

Of course, even these cautionary tales weren’t delivered without doses of Smith’s signature brand of humor. The most memorable of these moments came when Smith detailed her experience entering meeting rooms and finding herself to be the only woman in the room.

“I just want to go out to the receptionist and say, ‘Girl, just come here for the optics,’” she laughed.

Naturally, given the focus of the conversation on the specific experiences of women within the music industry, the #MeToo movement proved especially relevant, coming up multiple times over the course of the afternoon. Most notably, an audience member asked Smith how, as an editor, she handled the coverage of work by high-profile abusers.

Smith’s answer was simple: it must be covered thoroughly and with care by someone with sensitivity to the situation at hand — someone with a thorough understanding of the music industry’s culture of sexual harassment and assault.

“It’s always a very fine line between covering a scene and instigating a situation,” she cautioned, referencing the idea that covering the art of persons accused of sexual violence can often be read as a dismissal of the allegations against them.

Each time she was asked about #MeToo, Smith reached out to the young women in the crowd. Despite the obstacles, despite the fact that music and media are male-dominated spaces, despite the uncertainty and danger, Smith said, she encouraged these women to find places for themselves within the industry. She told them to plant themselves within it in the long term.

“We need people who stay in the business long enough to become leaders who make decisions,” she said. “We need you.”

Sannidhi Shukla covers music. Contact her at [email protected].