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The Feministing Five: Elizabeth Mendez Berry

Elizabeth Mendez Berry is an award-winning journalist who writes on hip-hop, gender, politics and criminal justice. Starting out as a hip-hop critic in Toronto, she eventually moved on to write for Vibe magazine. In Jay-Z’s book “Decoded,” he cites one of her essays as inspiring a line from The Black Album. In 2005, Berry wrote an article for Vibe that shook the hip-hop world. Using Liza Rios, Big Pun’s widow, as a primary source, Berry exposed the cycles of domestic violence in the hip-hop community. Last year, Berry sparked a city council hearing on street harassment after City council member Julissa Ferreras read Berry’s op-ed in El Diario on the topic. Berry, along with several other prominent writers, started a petition denouncing sexual harassment at The Source after former editor-in-chief Kim Osorio filed a lawsuit against the magazine. And not too long ago, she was interviewed by Feministing favorite, Jay Smooth, about the Chris Brown and Rihanna case.

Berry comes from a strong background in activism. She grew up in Toronto in a political household and developed a strong sense of justice from a very young age. With roots in Colombia, this provided her with an international perspective on social issues. Two key moments politicized Berry.  One was the murder of 14 female students at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, by a man who claimed he was “fighting feminism.” In 1994, while living in Mexico, she witnessed the zapatista uprising. These two events laid the foundation for Berry’s activism. Although originally intending to pursue human rights work, Berry’s style of journalism continues to effect genuine change and influences the way in which gender, violence and music is understood.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Elizabeth Mendez Berry.

Anna Sterling: How did you become a journalist?

Elizabeth Mendez Berry:
I don’t think it was ever “I want to have a glamorous career as a writer” in the beginning, but I loved writing about music. I love the wordplay and the idea of articulating that was really challenging for me. Gradually, I started thinking of the social issues that come with the music.

It was never just hip hop- I was always musically omnivorous. But probably the reason I became a music critic is because there’s so much substance in hip hop. There’s so much meat on the bones. I love salsa and it has a ton of political and cultural substance to it, but hip hop is denser. There’s all these bars to fill. The stories it tells and the experiences it engages with are so fascinating. It was an opportunity for me to talk about these social issues I was invested in and cared about.

AS:It seems that your work has been inextricable from concrete change. What do you see as journalism’s relationship to activism?

Part of having the international heritage that I have and having a feel for the political consequences of speaking the truth in places like Colombia where so many journalists have been murdered, you understand that just by saying certain things you have a capacity to have an impact. To me, shining a light where certain people don’t want it shone is a political act in itself.  I know for a lot of North American journalists, there’s this feeling like, “It’s just the facts, ma’am,” as if we’re impartial stenographers.

I definitely respect the need for journalistic rigor—if you’ve already decided what the story is before you start reporting it, you’re in trouble. I’ve always been a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of being an advocacy journalist—what I aim for is “unbought and unbossed.” I’m nobody’s PR person; not artists’, not advocates’. I try to make sure that I’m not writing a story to make anybody happy; I’m writing it to tell the truth, which can be really tough because we all want to be liked, but I do feel like that’s not the role of the journalist. You have to be willing to be unpopular. I see my role as being someone who tells stories that probably wouldn’t otherwise be told. I’ve been inspired by people like Ida B. Wells, a black journalist who chronicled the lynchings in this country, that would never have come to light without her reporting, or Alma Guillermoprieto, who witnessed the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, and wrote about it in the Washington Post. She received enormous criticism for that coverage but was ultimately vindicated by forensic evidence that 900 men, women and children were slaughtered there by a U.S.-trained battalion.

AS: When you testified at the city council hearing on street harassment, you said, “Resignation replaces indignation. We have to get back to indignation, ladies.” How did the shift happen and what can we do to get back to indignation?

EMB: Resignation is a coping mechanism. I was really annoyed by the street harassment I dealt with on a day-to-day basis. It was a story that doesn’t get told. It was so striking that my local city councilmember read that op-ed and said, “I hadn’t thought about it. Let’s have a hearing. Let’s put it on the record and talk about this as being a constraint on women’s public safety, health and access to public places.” Just by pointing it out in so many cases, you remind people that there is another way.

AS: What prompted you to write “Love Hurts”?

There were a number of different factors that prompted me to write “Love Hurts.” I had been working at Vibe for a few years and I had been acutely aware of misogyny and how it was operating. I remember I pitched it to the editor and said, “Can I do a story about teenagers in communities that are buying our magazine? Can we talk about what’s going on with them?” Domestic violence amongst teenagers was rising at the time. It was not going to get picked up because it wasn’t salacious or controversial. [The question was] how are you going to tell that story and make people care? And the answer was: you’re going to make people care by involving celebrities.

The other thing was that Big Pun’s widow put out a tribute DVD of him. It was very celebratory, but one part dealt with the fact that he had been abusive to her. There was security camera footage of him pistol-whipping her. It was brutal. A lot of people in the industry responded by slamming her. Several people said she’d cheated on Pun and therefore she deserved it. I also heard people around my office asking why she would be airing his dirty laundry. It seemed as if there was so much momentum and investment in silencing her, I felt there’s something there I want to investigate. If everybody wants to shut somebody up, there’s a reason for that and it’s usually not just about that individual. It’s not just about Pun’s legacy. It’s about us and how we feel about violence against women.

AS: Were you nervous when it came out?

What I was most nervous about was Liza. Several people had been candid with me, but she had the most to lose. She has been ostracized, not just because of my story, but in the story she gave more detail than she had before. Recently, I heard she was living in a shelter in the Bronx. She has told me, and I haven’t talked to her in awhile, that Fat Joe was getting all of the revenues from Big Pun’s sales. I don’t know the full story but, regardless, she struggles financially to the point of being in a shelter when there are murals of her dead husband all over Latino neighborhoods and everyone still adores Pun and knows his songs. And, yet, his kids are still struggling.

The thing about the Pun story is she could have been everybody’s favorite widow like Faith Evans. Liza Rios stepped away from that position deliberately. In my interview with her, she talked about how her children were replicating her husband’s behavior. Her son was beating up on her daughters. She said, “I can’t have my children believe this is okay. I have to speak out about it.” She did something very courageous. Her life would have been so much easier if she just said, I’m Big Pun’s widow, let’s do a tribute concert. She chose not to. I have enormous respect for that. She started a conversation about the ways these cycles of violence replicate themselves and hopefully [the article] illuminates and not just demonizes the abuser. [We could] talk about how collectively we need to work towards managing our anger and towards healing. Pun himself had been viciously abused by his stepfather.

AS: What are your thoughts on the public’s embrace of Chris Brown and pleas to leave him alone?

This was a case where you had two popular, well-known young celebrities who are both at the top of their game. One thing that struck me was that so many people who understand that the criminal justice system is profoundly flawed were telling me, “He’s done his time and served his debt to society so why are we still talking about this?” [To me, it’s like,] are you saying you’re leaving this case in the hands of a system you know is corrupt? We saw the photos, we read the police report. He choked her to the point that she’s losing consciousness. He could’ve killed her and he didn’t get any jail time. It spoke to me of how we live in a society where someone can get 25 years to life for a low level nonviolent drug crime, but this guy doesn’t get any jail time for almost taking someone’s life. I don’t think Chris Brown needs to be castigated for the rest of his career for making this mistake, but I do think that he needs to make a public acknowledgement of what he’s done and he needs to work through it in a public context. It’s not just between the two of them, it’s a public issue.

Who is your favorite fictional heroines, and who are your heroines in real life?

EMB: I love Maggie from “Love and Rockets.” They’re comic books and she’s fantastic. She’s a mechanic, heroic and human at the same time, and I love her. In real life, my mom is definitely a hero of mine. And amazing women like Jesusa Rodriguez and Angela Davis. There’s so many women that I admire, but what they have in common is they have risked something to tell the truth.

AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick?

: Potable water would be the drink. One food would be avocado and one feminist would probably be my sweetheart. He’s a feminist and a carpenter so he could probably make us a shelter, plus he’d keep me entertained.

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