With ‘Labor,’ RyanNicole Uplifts Black Women’s Invisible Work

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In her poem and short film "Labor," RyanNicole pays homage to Breonna Taylor, motherhood and Black women. (Niema Jordan)

Poised, funny and lyrically razor-sharp, Oakland rapper RyanNicole is a force for good.

Like most artists in the Bay Area, she wears many hats. She’s the founder of the housing justice group the HAVEN Project, an actress, a muse and a mommy—rap just happens to be one of her many weapons in the fight against injustice. And this year has seen its fair share of turmoil.

The paradox of being a Black woman in America is to be both highly visible and invisible in the same breath. Women rappers had the most successful year on record. At the same time, the pandemic has had a catastrophic economic impact on women, especially Black mothers.

After we performed together in a cypher for The Black Woman is God virtual exhibition, RyanNicole spoke to me about these contradictions as well as her recent collaboration, “Labor.” The short film—directed by Niema Jordan, shot by JJ Harris and commissioned by the Center for Cultural Power—is a poetic homage to the work Black mothers do to birth radical visions for the future.

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You’re a rapper, but, of course, you do so many other things. What has being a rapper taught you about life?

Rap has taught me about bravery, first and foremost. It is not an arena where I was necessarily welcomed with open arms. You know this, so I'm preaching to the choir, but when I came around it was just a bunch of guys. The whole culture was dominated by men. While some of them were friendly, welcoming, and encouraging even, many of them met me with a lot of ire. And the better I got, the more I was challenged, the more I was a threat, the more problematic I became in those circles. And so to continue to push my way through I had to deal with fear in a real way.

It’s still an arena where there are definitely challenges. I’ve got to deal with this just palpable fear. And so I continue to do it because there are other areas of my life that fear shows up and becomes a roadblock. And I have a practice now of encountering that roadblock, surmounting that roadblock or knocking it down through rap.

I love that! You just explained it in such a succinct way, the way that Black women are distanced from the culture we helped create. How do you think that might be connected? When you’re having to be brave, do you think about that when you’re in those spaces?

The way that I approach it is with a certain entitlement. It gives me fuel. It gives me energy. I'm about rematriation. I'm about reclaiming space that was ours to begin with, even if it wasn't entirely ours. I'm just here for balance. And we all know that the culture, the music, deserves more of a balance than it currently has.

Perfect segue. Dad rap is practically it’s own genre. I’ve always wondered, what are the parallels between rapping and mastering the ceremony of motherhood?

There are real parallels because hip-hop wants to be this young art form, just completely entrenched in youthfulness. This is a misperception of what is precious and valued in life, period. The ability to age is an honor.

[Sometimes when people say] “dad rap,” it’s a shunning of older men sharing their perspectives. But these are the men who birthed all these young boys who are currently in the game, trying to define it. We should see the full breadth of their experience. The time when they was blinged-out and rapping about being with all the women. And now, the time when they're like, “Actually my wife is what I want” or you know, “I've survived this game.”

Yeah, survived the post-Civil Rights era of the ’80s and ’90s.

Yeah, and the crack era, all of that.

I think those older men have a right to speak about that and I'm grateful for it. Our presence is a bit more anemic. I'm not going to outgrow hip-hop, but what I will outgrow, what I have outgrown, is the expression of a certain age group. It’s just real. I don't want to necessarily graduate to a whole new genre because I've outgrown the conversation that is prevalent in my genre. So, I think then there is space and necessity for expressions of women who have aged. And what's also unfortunate is that there are women who are mothers who are young too. They don't even talk about that aspect of their lives, which is such a defining aspect.

Mom rap is needed in the same way that dad rap is needed. What I’m really saying is that an older perspective is important. We have to age with the genre or else the genre will die. Don't nobody want to hear about the kind of vapid things that we were interested in in our early teens or early 20s.

RyanNicole Austin performing on stage at the 2020 Black Joy Parade in Oakland. (@jmalphotography)

OK, so you’ve released a powerful piece called, “Labor.” What are some of the ways in which Black women’s labor is invisibilized? How can your art make it visible?

The piece was inspired by Breonna Taylor. I hadn't really talked about Breonna the whole time that the situation was going on. The piece came to pass because all I could think about was her being somebody's child.

I don't know what the opposite of precious is, but how much of a mortal sin is it to take somebody's child? Knowing, personally knowing, just the time it took to gestate, and then the time it took…and the care…to eat the right things, to work out, to drink water, to sit down, to listen to my body and to listen to the body of the universe surrounding.

The first time I could really hear Mother Earth with clarity was when I was pregnant.

So, there's a level of sublime preciousness in gestating a life and then the process of birthing that life. It’s a microcosm of our entire lived experience. You have to surrender at a level that you've never surrendered before, you have to believe in yourself in a way—you have to deal with fear. It's one of the most precious lessons we learn in this life, laboring through having these children. And this is not to take away from anybody who has not, but it's such a precious experience.

And so, to know that life is taken kind of haphazardly. People can kill anybody, but in particular, bust down the doors, shoot aimlessly, come through with droves of people and then go on to cover up that murder—it is just such an affront to my sensibility, not just as a human being, but as a life-giving human being.

So, as I was developing “Labor,” all I could think about is how we as women, but particularly as Black women, have mothered so much. We have mothered the culture, have mothered literal lives, have mothered this nation, have mothered this whole thing. Like you're saying, that labor is invisibilized. But more than that—I don't know what the opposite word of precious is—trivialized? Not even, it's worse. It's so much worse.

Demonized?

It’s the process of not just throwing something away, but shitting on it and setting it on fire, you know what I mean? It’s not just enough to discard us. It's not enough to discard our effort. It's to discard the effort and entirely ruin it. It’s not just a physical harm, but a soul-harm. And so when I was writing “Labor,” it was embedded with all of that angst and all of that incredulousness. I can't believe that humanity, that people who call themselves human, can enact such harm on other human beings.

Birthing humanity in its full existence is a Black woman’s work that has been ignored. So really that piece is just like a part of that disdain, that sadness… the profound sadness I feel for humanity that can’t see our divinity.

So what can the challenges Black women face teach people about what needs to change in society overall? 

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I mean, this is a time when so many people are actually able to empathize a bit more because they're experiencing some of the things that we experience on a daily basis. Black women who have been impacted by COVID aren't making a lot of noise about it because we know how to pivot. We know how to make something out of nothing. It's not to say that the struggle doesn't need to be acknowledged—it absolutely does—but I think oftentimes we don't have time to scream and holler about our condition. We have to survive it. So we don’t have the opportunity to advocate for ourselves or champion an issue or cause that is most affecting us. More segments of the population are experiencing the lack of Black women in the workforce...I hope they’re able to zero in on what a day without a Black woman is like on some level.

Also, I think society can learn from the Black woman about resilience. I say “resilience” and then like, I'm having this internal fight against this word because I don't want to have to always be resilient. I want to luxuriate. I don't even know what that is, but I'd like to have it. Yet life will throw things at you regardless of who you are. You'll have to survive and you'll have to contend with that. I think if the country is to learn anything in this time about survival then they should look to the master-teacher, the Black woman.

And then from this I think we have something to learn from each other. I think the tide needs to rise for our experience, and hopefully this inspires some empathy among the broader levels of society. Folks don't want to live through this experience anymore. Hopefully we will work to raise the tide so that all the ships can rise.

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This interview was edited for length and clarity.