Black Women’s Contributions to Hip-Hop Beyond the Mic
When Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard (ODB) adorned his 1995 debut album, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, with his food stamps card, he articulated a two-pronged critique of race and class in U.S. society. Shortly after its release, ODB continued this charge in an MTV News segment that showed him cashing his family’s welfare check with his wife and three children in tow. On the heels of the Wu-Tang Clan’s breakout album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and a forty-five thousand dollar advance for The Dirty Version, his actions seemingly embraced and undermined the trope of the welfare cheat. A disavowal of middle-class respectability and neoliberalism, his actions have since become iconic in hip-hop history, especially after ODB’s death in 2004. Enshrining him as the sole architect of his creative politics, this narrative is largely mythic. Disappeared are the contributions of at least one person: his wife, Icelene Jones. Considering her input exposes the work romantic partners offered to the production of hip-hop, both creatively and politically. Aside from being muses, musicians, and other industry professionals, Jones emphasizes how Black women located in the intimate lives of rap artists actively invested in their significant others’ body of work.
Her role in the infamous MTV segment is subtle. Part publicity for his album and critique of welfare reform, ODB is the star of the piece. By contrast, Jones and their children remain silent as ODB defends welfare programs as overdue reparations for slavery and the Middle Passage. They accentuate ODB’s justification of government assistance as necessary support to which Black working-class and poor families were entitled. Limited to the background, their position is ironic. Most welfare recipients were women and children. And the feminization of poverty in the United States—illustrated by film in Claudine (1974) and the racist specter of Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare Queen”— has historically implicated Black women. Indeed, studies on the National Welfare Rights Organization have highlighted the racial, gender, and economic consciousness of Black welfare mothers. Yet ODB ignored these intersections. In doing so, his political critique preserved race as a metalanguage at the expense of the gender configurations inherent to welfare programs. Still, Black women’s centrality in welfare made it impossible even for ODB’s flamboyant personality to fully eclipse them. After all, Jones received their family’s benefits from the clerk before she handed them to her husband.
What does it mean to render this woman as visible and vital to her late husband’s artistic expression? Most obviously, it reconfigures how we remember ODB. Where RZA, fellow Wu-Tang Clan member and executive producer of The Dirty Version describes his cousin ODB’s creative process as extemporaneous innovation, Jones’s account portrays it as more intentional and collaborative. According to her, she functioned as confidant during the making of her husband’s debut album. “[W]e would go through a lot of him asking me,” she shares, “how this or that sounded during the creation at home before he would go to the studio.” There were times, Jones further recalls, that she and their kids were present during recording sessions for The Dirty Version. ODB even enlisted her on a track to dramatize an argument between the married couple as background for his rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Her revelations render portrayals of ODB as an unscripted, eccentric mad genius as problematic distortions. Equally important, Jones foregrounds how the intimacy she shared with her husband actively influenced his creativity.
In many ways, her location at the margins of ODB’s art and politics is systemic of rap. Despite known instances of the contrary, rap has historically measured legitimacy by whether or not rappers wrote their own rhymes (album skits from Raekwon and Lil’ Kim exemplify this point). Wu-Tang members have challenged this evaluation. In their 2019 documentary, Wu-Tang: Of Mics and Men, they described how impressing each other fueled their rhymes and revealed footage of them writing in the studio together. Such dynamics position them as ideal for examining the communal networks fueling their music. Yet focusing on their collaboration perpetuates the misconception of rap as a hypermasculine domain. Verzuz, a popular music series broadcasting competitions between musicians, proves that this notion shows no sign of declining. To date, it has yet to broadcast a battle between two Black women MCs. Its failure to do so overlooks the tradition that Queen Latifah, Salt ‘n Pepa, Left Eye, Lil’ Kim, Foxy, Eve, and others created for rappers like Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and Megan Thee Stallion, to name a few.
While not a rapper, Jones still rejects this framing of rap by exposing how her relationship was productive ground for her husband’s creativity. In the Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men as well as Unique: Return to the 36 Chambers’ 25 Years Later (2020) documentaries, she corrects the origins of the Dirty Version album cover. Competing with accounts stating that ODB brought his food stamps card to his record company, Jones explains in both that her husband “didn’t have one, but [she] had one, and it had [her] picture on it.” Elaborating further, Jones discloses that he borrowed hers for his album, replacing her image and information with his own and the album title. As manager of her late husband’s estate, Jones complicates ODB’s memory by asserting her place within it. Unlike other recollections of her as a respectable wife and mother, “a homebody, [who] took care of the kids,” she emphasizes her position in her husband’s creative process. In doing so, she directs our attention to Black women’s access to hip-hop from the zone of the intimate. As a result, she chisels away at the “masculinity” of rap by insinuating that women who existed in the intimate spaces of male rappers’ lives contributed more creatively than we assume.
Laying bare the cultural and financial capital the intimate offers rap, she also cautions us of the challenge in maintaining a Black woman’s autonomy while being an outlet for Black masculine fantasies. Not only part of ODB’s art, Jones also satisfied his desires for a family based on Five Percent Nation principles. In accordance to Five Percenter customs, ODB renamed her Shaquita. This was a brief development. Upon the birth of their youngest child, she insisted on giving their newborn daughter her name and returning to Icelene. Publicizing these details transcends the mission of ODB’s estate to dispute cartoonish portrayals of the late rapper. Inseparable from her effort to recast him as more serious and politically aware than we knew is the insistence that she contributed to her husband’s music and views. Part of this project is reckoning with the tense balancing act between being a co-contributor to her husband’s personal and creative desires and pursuing her own, such as keeping her name. In these ways, Jones demonstrates that falsifying a Black-man-centered history of rap requires that we consider how Black women situated in the intimate domain actively helped to shape the genre’s politics, aesthetics, and sound.permission.