If you want an inside look at the state of women in hip hop today, you have to look, listen and feel the heart of the hip hop community. You have to acknowledge and recognize the numerous voices and faces of the underground movements. I Rhyme Like A Girl (IRLAG) is one such movement. Founded by Toni Blackman, hip hop activist, ambassador and educator. IRLAG is an artist development program established in November 2003. IRLAG originated from Toni Blackman’s Freestyle Union which was founded in 1994.

When I made contact with Blackman, I asked her thoughts on the positive impact her program has had on young girls.

“The Rhyme Like A Girl workshops are rooted in the idea that poetry, lyrics and performance can be used as a tool for building self-esteem, self-worth and self-understanding,” said Blackman .”Using rap to empower girls is a creative solution to a lot of the problems that hold girls back from being their best self. Time and time again I’ve seen young girls transform in the workshops. Music is powerful and so is the spoken word.”

An example of the positive impact IRLAG has had on young women can be seen at the Sisters of the Circle program in Roanoke, West Virginia. Sisters of the Circle is an after school performing arts program for young women ages 14-18. The program is produced by the Jefferson Center, a non-profit organization in partnership with Roanoke City Schools and Roanoke Refugee and Immigration Services.

In March 2010, Toni Blackman conducted a six-day residency workshop for the Sisters of the Circle program. A short documentary, ‘Toni Blackman and Sisters of the Circle’ was filmed by the Jefferson Center to showcase the young women’s experiences during Blackman’s week-long workshop. In the documentary, Blackman expressed what it takes to make a program like IRLAG successful.

“I’m able to move these girls to a space of becoming performers, so they can take the stage with power and confidence, and I think that’s what’s most beautiful about this work. That when you’re working with young people and encouraging them to grow and be on a path of transformation, you have to show up and once that they see that you’re showing up consistently, then that’s when the magic happens.”

Throughout the Sisters of the Circle documentary you can see the girls practice dancing, lyric writing and rapping. At the end of the six-day workshop the girls were able to perform their newly developed hip hop skills for a sold out audience at the Jefferson Center. A few of the girls were interviewed about their experience after their workshop had ended.

“It’s helped me be more confident in myself and go out and try new things, and to see how much fun the outcome would be and that trying new things would help you and push you more,” said 15-year-old Brittany.

“It was not easy for me to go out there and express myself. But now I really feel confident and if I put my effort into it I know I will succeed,” said 17 year old Mirka D.

The Sisters of the Circle is just one example of how IRLAG programs are promoting education and confidence for women through hip hop. Blackman explained to me there are a number of other female artists who have turned activists and entrepreneurs by starting various programs which promote women in the hip-hop community.

“Women are making incredible moves in hip hop right now. I’m a part of MC Lyte’s Hip Hop Sisters project and she’s engaged a incredible team of women who believe in the power of Hip Hop to change our world. There are mc’s, dj’s, producers, entrepreneurs and organizers. Mostly women, but there are a few male supporters who have joined the movement. Hip Hop Sisters is an example of what is unfolding around the world. There are women organizing, building collectives, recording new music, shooting videos…women both in front of and behind the camera and the boards. Invincible, Detroit MC and hip hop activist, has used her company as a vehicle to present female centered showcases and events. Lyrical legend Bahamadia is touring, making new music and proving that women can have longevity. There are a host of documentaries. JT Takagi did a documentary short, “She Rhymes Like A Girl”, produced by Third World Newsreel, that highlighted RLAG. It is an exciting time for women in hip hop right now!”

My final question for Blackman was does she feel her program will help build future female emcees who can bring knowledge and empowerment back to the forefront of the hip hop culture.

Blackman: “Rhyme Like A Girl intends to serve as a platform for female emcees to master the art of freestyle and improvisation, to work together artistically as a collective body of rap lyricists who understand the value of supporting one another and standing audaciously on their own two feet. RLAG has already served hundreds of girls and young women and will continue to expand.”

Blackman has been teaching hip hop history, globalization of hip-hop, gender issues and music history for over 8 years. Her work focuses on hip hop as both an artistic and cultural expression. The importance of discovering confidence of self and projecting positive self-image through lyrical and emcee development, as well as helping aspiring artists to navigate the industry of hip hop while maintaining their identity and integrity.