Another artist died this month. She wasn’t nearly as famous as Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose career I’m sad not to see realized beyond his brilliant body of work to date. Truth be told, I haven’t spent much time with her art in the past couple decades, and rarely thought to even google it. But since I heard that author Maggie Estep died at 50 of a massive heart attack I am moved to remember how important it was for me to encounter her in 1994, and what a foundational mark she left on me as a young feminist. I was 14 when I saw her on MTV Unplugged and I was transfixed: she was fierce, funny, verbose, lyrical, outfitted in a dress and combat boots, and super PISSED about sexism and misogyny. I fancied myself all those things, too, and in particular the latter. It was thrilling to see a woman on MTV using spoken word poetry to call out bullshit gender norms. And before street harassment was articulated by activists like hollaback! it was Maggie’s “Hey Baby” that emboldened me to write my own spoken word poetry (which the world will never, ever read) and raised my consciousness to fully appreciate and understand that it is totally unacceptable that women should feel unsafe in public spaces just being women–something I’m still raging against. The other thing is that in 1994 MTV was my internet. If I wanted to see and hear the music I liked that meant waiting for it to show up on the rotation. People who remember videos like Maggie’s often lament how MTV only ever shows formulaic, hacky images that are a dime a dozen (if they show music at all), but it’s important to remember that interesting and non-generic videos were always a rarity. As Maggie said of MTV in a New York Times profile,
“They have that whole ‘Free Your Mind’ campaign,” Ms. Estep said with a sarcasm worthy of her best spoken pieces, referring to the MTV tour that she undertook with John Hall, her former roommate and a fellow spoken-word artist. “But, you know, I’ve got a guy grabbing his crotch in my video and John’s got two guys making out in his, so they tell us our videos can’t be aired with those scenes. Yeah, free your mind, sure.”
Rest in peace, Maggie. Off to buy your books.