By Maya Bakshani

Graffiti artwork covers the brick walls of San Francisco’s Minna Gallery. While DJs spin behind the night’s MCs who spit lyrics, break-dancers hit beats on the dance floor. And so lies the scene of a hip-hop jam created out of a love for music and culture.

While hip-hop is often seen as misogynistic, many work hard to provide a space for women in the culture.

UC Santa Cruz b-girl (break dancing girl), Karla Flores, explains the need for women to speak up in hip-hop.

“In general [hip-hop] is harder for women,” Flores said. “The whole thing is women have no voice.”

Flores notes that avoiding judgement while finding a place in hip-hop is difficult for women.

“Women are expected to present themselves in a classy way, otherwise they’re gonna be labeled as a slut,” she said. To Flores, Missy Elliot, Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige are successful women in hip-hop because they didn’t change the way that they dressed or acted, and because they allowed their life struggles to speak for themselves.

This struggle led to the creation of the Sisterz of the Underground (SOTU). The organization is an all-female collective based in San Francisco which serves to educate and empower women and youth through hip-hop.

On Mar. 22, artists from around the country came to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the birth of SOTU. The women arrived in style to share their art and culture as they celebrated.

Ron Creer, a street dancer for 15 years, supports the SOTU and their all b-girl crew that performs and competes around the country. He notes that people today believe that there is equality among genders, but society does not reflect that; women are still subordinate to men.

“Even though it’s equal [in society], it’s not really equal,” Creer said. “Hip-hop is just a reflection of that.”

The SOTU began as a space for women to express themselves and grow within the largely male-dominated culture of hip-hop. A branch of the collective, Definitive Education (Def Ed), is their biggest program. It promotes positive values and crosses lines of gender, class, and culture within communities through workshops in the four elements of hip-hop: rap, DJ, break dance and graffiti artwork.

The Sisterz began informally in 2001 through the inspiration of Sarah ‘Smalls’ Saltzman, who decided that she wanted to see something she had never seen before: an all-female hip-hop event.

“Honestly it, was such a manifestation of amazing women coming together,” Smalls said. “[It is] a space for women to express themselves, a support system for one another.”

Support, strength and education are all reasons the Sisterz came together. However, the ever-evolving debate over where women stand in the hip-hop culture continues. At the same time that SOTU fights to establish a space for women in the culture, some express other opinions about them.

Creer’s brother, b-boy Rob Creer, admits that while he appreciates the women working hard, he thinks they have a long way to go.

“SOTU is a work in progress,” Rob said. “Someone can’t just say, ‘I’m a lawyer.’ You have to earn that title. They’ve been around six years and they’re doing their thing.”

Rob continued that he doesn’t always understand why women want to get involved with hip-hop.

“Where do they draw their influences? It’s questionable,” Rob said. “They may be into the art, but are they really doing it for the culture? I question the roles that some females claim to hold in hip-hop.”

Ron Creer pointed out that while judging competitions and watching b-boys and b-girls battle, he doesn’t notice who’s dancing, he focuses solely on their skill. To him, hip-hop is genderless.

“I look at them as equals,” Ron said. “I don’t care if you’re an animal. If you’re a dog and you’re whack, you’re whack.”

UCSC b-girl Flores agrees that hip-hop is about the love of the art.

“If you love hip-hop, you love all of it,” said Flores. “[For] the real men, if they really are into hip-hop, gender should not be an issue.”

Smalls proudly stated that she appreciates all the people who have come before her and has high hopes for women in the scene.

“I don’t think I would be here without the men that came before me,” Smalls said. “Women are definitely on the road to elevation.”