Female Fronted Hip-Hop’s Internal Conflict

This piece was written in 2012, as a part of my studies at Leeds College of Music.

In August 2009, Lil’ Wayne signed the young female rapper known as Nicki Minaj (born Onika Tanya Maraj) to his record label, Young Money Entertainment. By the week of February 9th 2011, Nicki Minaj had her first US number 1 album. With the rap genre having been dominated throughout its history by male performers, the importance of this achievement for female MCs (or “femcees” as some like to call them (Francois, 2010), cannot be overstated. Minaj’s career centres around her womanhood, from her self-identification as a “Barbie” and her enthusiasm for all things pink to her overtly sexual image. In this regard, she can be viewed somewhat as a harbinger for a fresh glut of female MCs, with the Guardian’s Paul Lester, offering “the success of Nicki Minaj” as a possible reason that female MCs “seem to be everywhere at the moment” (2012). Alternatively, she could damage the image of female rappers irreparably. After all, as Menda Francois (a female MC herself) notes, “the term “Barbie” has negative connotations.” (Francois, 2010) In the short space of time since Minaj’s appearance, the rise of other female rap artists, such as Azealia Banks, Kreayshawn and Iggy Azalea has been phenomenal. With all three poised to release their debut albums within the next year, it could be that this is the best chance that women have had to gain parity with men in the rap game.

The year in which the first track featuring a solo female MC was released is unclear. In her paper, Ruth Cumberbatch claims the year as 1980, with other sources citing it as 1979 (2001). However, all are unanimous in the fact that the honour goes to Philadelphia DJ and MC, Lady B, with her single “To The Beat Y’all”. The track samples a late-70’s funk groove and whilst not a hit in its own right, opened the door for female rap artists to grow in stature. The track is a blend of lyrical styles, not only self referencing the “disco beat” upon which the artist raps and boasting about her prowess in various areas, but also making sexual references, at times humorously juxtaposed with nursery rhyme imagery – “I said Jack and Jill went up the hill, to have a little fun/But stupid Jill forgot the pill and now they have a son.” These lyrical themes align perfectly with the topics approached by male MCs at the same time. For example, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” features the lyrics “Now what you hear is not a test, I’m rapping to the beat/And me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet,” coupled with descriptions of personal wealth. This type of posturing is endemic to the rap genre, and has become more and more prevalent with time. By the time we reach Ice-T’s early Gangsta Rap track “6 ‘N The Mornin’” (1986), we see constant violence and an obsession with stature and possessions in the lyrics. The objectification of women is not only apparent in the lyrics, but in the visual elements of the genre. The front cover of Rhyme Pays (the album featuring “6 ‘N The Mornin’”) features Ice-T sat in a sports car, with a scantily clad model stood behind him, whilst the lyrics to the track refer to women as “ho” or “bitch”. The Sugarhill Gang’s hit is devoid of such misogyny and this comparison illustrates the speed at which the degradation of women through hip-hop lyricism grew.

This dismissal of women introduced barriers to the advancement of female participation within rap. MC Lyte, lauded for the “positive image” she portrayed of black women (Cumberbatch, 2001), is quoted as saying that “men spend so long degrading women in hip-hop, how could we ever expect consumers to support female MCs?” (Swash, 2010) MC Lyte’s words are lent greater credence by the fact that she has been successful within the genre. Indeed, five of her singles have topped the US Rap chart, quite a feat considering the fact that between 2004 and 2010, the Hot Rap Songs chart (the current incarnation of US Rap) did not feature a female rapper in the number 1 position.

The obvious dominance of hip-hop by black males has been a focus for many female MCs, with many remixing the songs of male artists, injecting “feminine discourse into dominant masculine discourse” (Francois, 2010) Holly Kruse credits the all-girl act Salt-N-Pepa with providing “brutally honest pronouncements about gender relations” (1999:91) Such saturation by male artists means that it is impossible to discuss women in rap without comparison with men. If male MCs were to be discussed, their gender would be scarcely worth a mention – “no popular music in recent years has been as explicitly coded as male in popular discourse as rap.” (Kruse, 1999:86) In his New York Times article “Challenging Hip-Hop’s Masculine Ideal”, Touré suggests that “black male rappers are entrancing because they give off a sense of black masculine power.” (2011) If we take this as truth, the logical route for female success within the genre is to emulate this power.

Menda Francois quotes Cheryl L. Keyes’ theories on “subject positions” or personas that female rappers take: “Queen Mother”, “Fly Girl” and “Bad Girl” to name a few. She claims that a “Bad Girl” MC “attempts to empower herself as a woman by acting like a man,” and that the style “virtually birthed hardcore female rap.” (2010) Nicki Minaj’s most recent album “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded” revolves around her male alter ego – Roman Zolanski. Throughout Minaj’s career she has substituted “a feminine identity with a masculine one” (Francois, 2010), with her 2008 mixtape “Sucka Free” featuring her comparing herself to Shaquille O’Neal and DJ Kay Slay. This is not peculiar to her early career; 2011 saw her feature on Birdman’s track “Y. U. Mad”, opening with the lyrics “I am the female Weezy (Lil Wayne’s nickname)”. This constant comparison with men can be construed as an attempt to gain parity, or negatively, a fear of inferiority. It is rare to hear Minaj offer up another female artist as a role model, indeed the majority of nods she gives to her contemporaries are “disses”, as seen in her long running feud or “beef” with Lil’ Kim, culminating in the mutual exchange of “diss tracks” (Lil’ Kim released a track entitled Black Friday; Minaj responded with Tragedy). Roy Shuker suggests that “female rap” can be identified by its emphasis on “gender solidarity” (Shuker, 1998:221) – however, if we take Nicki Minaj as an indicator, no such sisterhood is apparent. Shuker’s simplification of such a complex issue renders his authority questionable, although some female rap does undoubtedly include such feminist ideals.

Intrinsically linked with the concept of gender is the concept of sexuality. V-Nasty’s verse on “Whip Appeal” (from BAYTL, her collaboration album with Gucci Mane), goes so far as to see her picture herself physically as a male – “If I had a dick, then I’d tell that bitch to swallow.” Whilst “rap lyrics are perennially cited as among the most misogynistic,” (Kruse, 1999:86) lyrics such as this make it clear that such lyrical pursuits are not solely the preserve of male artists. V-Nasty couples this male identification with a personal style consisting of baseball caps, hoodies and t-shirts – not too far removed from the look of many male hip-hop artists. This stands in contrast to the overtly sexual visuals of Nicki Minaj. Latoya Peterson discusses Minaj’s video for “Massive Attack”, which contains “gratuitous shots of her exposed behind.” Peterson suggests a correlation between a woman’s sex appeal and mainstream success. This argument holds water, with Nicki Minaj currently ruling the charts, whilst V-Nasty remains relatively underground. V-Nasty’s style is a throwback to earlier female MCs who “had far more options for onscreen representation, often appearing in the types of clothes their male contemporaries were wearing.” (Peterson, 2010) Whilst the two are disparate in style, they both seem to equate the male genitalia with power, Minaj stating “if you wasn’t so ugly, I’d put my dick in your face,” on her track “Come on a Cone.” Inversely, when a male rapper recites the word “pussy” (slang for the female genitalia), he invariably uses it to demean his adversaries, implying that they are cowards. From the usage of both of these words, the listener associates masculinity with strength and virility, and femininity with weakness and submission.

If female MCs choose to portray themselves as hypersexual objects, this only corresponds with the general image foisted upon women by the hip-hop industry. Hobson and Bartlow claim that although originally female MCs and DJs “could hold their own against their male counterparts”, the industry has reduced them to being “music video dancers, models, and groupies.” (Hobson/Bartlow, 2007:3) Many female artists are seemingly comfortable with this situation, and are happy to dress provocatively and dance suggestively in their own music videos. Feminist writers have expressed their disappointment in this; Menda Francois for example believes that Nicki Minaj “presents a rather regressive portrait of female empowerment,” (2010) whilst Cumberbatch quotes feminist Akissi Britton’s disapproval of Lil’ Kim’s “sexist and racist stereotypes of black women.” (2001) In Latoya Peterson’s article, Menda Francois is quotes as suggesting that the “sexually available coquette” is a viable alternative to the image of the “female thug” or “bad girl”, and without either, the “femcee” is stripped of her “power and agency.” (Peterson, 2010)

This sexuality can be presented in a variety of guises however. Yolandi Visser of the South African rap group Die Antwoord, plays the cutesy, vulnerable angle, only intensified by her childlike vocals and petite frame. The track “I Fink You Freeky” contains the lyrics, “these bad boys like to smack me in the bum,” indicating a willingness to be dominated by a male. Alternatively, we see female sexual dominance in the work of Iggy Azalea, an artist Touré describes as having the “hyperconfident air of a dominatrix.” Her track, “Pu$$y”, again features “bad boys” but in this context, “bad boys get a mouth full of pussy,” a role reversal that echoes masculine rap’s obsession with fellatio, a mirror image of Lil Wayne in his track 3 Peat – “don’t you ever fix your lips unless you ‘bout to suck my dick.” A determination to place priority on her own sexual gratification, rather than that of a male, is perhaps a crass method through which a female MC can display a modicum of feministic tendency. This concept of feminism within hip-hop is something that Francois describes as “a paradox.” (2010) Kemba King disagrees, and believes that although “being a hip-hop feminist is complicated”, “the two words are not antithetical.” (2010)

Azealia Banks expresses the same sentiments as Iggy Azalea on her track “212”, albeit in an even more aggressive and explicit manner – “I guess that cunt getting eaten”. Her usage of such a taboo term is a statement of intent in itself, an indication that she is able to offend just as much as male rappers. Banks however, does not merely reduce men to sexual objects. In this track, they are not even that, with the lyrics insinuating that Banks’ sexual partner is female. By eradicating the necessity for male intervention even at the basest level, Banks is able to project a powerful image on her own terms. Whilst rumours of lesbian or bisexual female rappers abound (Suzanne Bost claims that “Queen Latifah is routinely labelled a lesbian” (2001)), such clear homosexuality is rarely displayed within the music. The track flies in the face of Hobson and Bartlow’s statement that women within hip-hop are portrays as “decorative, fetishistic, manipulative, fragile, or in need of rescuing,” (2007:3) “212” is also remarkably popular for an artist who, at the time of release, was unsigned. Its video has had in excess of 17 million YouTube views – this is favorably comparable to the 46 million views of Minaj’s Massive Attack, a track released back in 2010 and after three whole mixtapes of Minaj’s music. If Banks’ rise continues at a similar rate, she could quickly become a realistic rival to Minaj, a development that would undoubtedly aid the progression of female rap. One artist can be seen as an outlier, whereas two can quickly become a scene.

The unabashed sexuality exuded on “212” can be traced to female hip-hop pioneers such as Salt-N-Pepa. On their track “Shoop”, the group are seen “walking along a beach and checking out men”, an image Cumberbatch views as “sexually assertive”. (2001) This sentiment is clear in the lyrics of the track, with Salt asking for a man’s number, and stating, “a ho? No, that don’t make me,” a direct response to the popularity of the word “ho” within the male rap vocabulary. In modern hip-hop, the word “ho” is openly embraced by female MCs, usually as an insult to their perceived inferiors, with Nicki Minaj’s 2011 single “Stupid Hoe” constructed around the word. There is perhaps an irony in the fact that the word “ho” implies sexually promiscuous women, utilizing their bodies for monetary gain, whilst the rappers that use the term as an insult do precisely that. It is impossible to state whether or not Minaj would have the same level of popularity had she chosen to dress conservatively in all of her music videos and public appearances. Latoya Peterson’s viewpoint suggests that she would not have, explaining that, “a successful female artist must not only be talented, but also able to titillate the gaze of an assumed male viewer.” (2010) This “assumed male viewer” could be “the dominant hip-hop consumer” – also known as “the young white suburban male” (Touré, 2011) If it is essential to appeal to this demographic, it is clear that female MCs face a struggle to be both respected for their craft and commercially viable simultaneously. This dilemma sees interesting juxtapositions appear constantly within the hip-hop world. For example, the music video for the remix of Yo Gotti’s track 5-Star Chick sees Nicki Minaj and Trina “spitting lyrics about their independence while the video holds them up as sexual objects.” (Peterson, 2010) Whilst both artists hold their own lyrically, it is Minaj’s cleavage and Trina’s thighs that threaten to become the stars of the show. In a separate interview, Trina suggests that she is well aware that her success is entirely based upon her sexual image – “(Men) want to see me as sexy, because I’m a female, (they think) ‘I’m a dude, I’m not learning nothing from you, I just want to see you.’” (Swash, 2010) Menda Francois suggests that it is possible for a woman to use “heterosexist sexiness” to make her body “a site of empowerment” but warns that when this sexiness “is displayed for male satisfaction, [it] creates little real power for women.” (2010) From this point of view, Minaj’s success may bring her huge financial gain and personal fame, but does little to further the cause of female rap. When observing earlier female hip-hop artists, one could contest that Minaj’s rise is a step back from artists such as Monie Love and Lauryn Hill, who, by comparison, are positively feminist. Love’s track It’s A Shame advises a friend to “tell him to kiss the you know what”, whilst Hill won five Grammy awards with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, an album replete with religious imagery and uplifting messages of love. (Hobson/Bartlow, 2007:5)

Alex MacPherson’s article on UK female MCs suggest that this ideal is perhaps not universal, with grime artist Stush claiming that “Over here, if you came out with that talk, you’d just get people going, ‘Oh, that girl’s a slag, man!’ All the guys would switch on you, you’d get no respect.” (2010) Again, Stush is an underground artist, perhaps reinforcing the idea that respect and mainstream success are not necessarily mutual. This transatlantic difference indicates that gender is not the only cultural divide between various MCs. Kruse cites “identifications of race, ethnicity, social class” (1999:91) among other factors that define a MCs persona and perceived authenticity. Race is a particularly fiery issue, and in his article, Touré discusses the anomaly of “white-girl” MCs (2011). To deny hip-hop’s roots in black music would be to rewrite history, and to obtain a level of authenticity (essential within hip-hop), each white female rapper must interact with this fact to some degree. The method chosen by Iggy Azalea is to assimilate herself into black society. Her video for “Pu$$y” sees her interacting almost exclusively with black people, from an elderly lady at the start, to a young boy upon her shoulders. Touré notes that the video is set in the same neighborhood as various Snoop Dogg videos, and that by considering these factors, Azalea implies that “it’s no anomaly for her to rock the mic.” (Touré, 2011) Whilst this may be the case, it is clear that Azalea is not black and never will be, and therefore is unable to assume the personality of a “femcee” who is. In fact, she has courted controversy in the past with her lyric “I’m a runaway slave…master,” from the song D.R.U.G.S, a lyric that has sparked a feud between herself and Azealia Banks. Whilst the pair may be divided by race, they share the same struggle as female artists, a fact that became painfully clear when Dirty South rapper T.I. issued a response to Banks’ dismissal of Azalea (signed to his Grand Hustle label). In a radio interview, T.I. calls the feud “bitch shit” and states that “I’m a man…you ain’t got no business addressing me.” (Ramirez: 2012) Whilst T.I. said this in regard to Banks, it is clear that this belief has widen implications, and that whilst he may enjoy the music of Iggy Azalea, he does not see her as an equal because of her gender.

Iggy Azalea’s attempts to position herself as a white artist carrying all the cultural baggage of a black artist could not be more different to the attitude taken by that of Kreayshawn in her video for “Gucci Gucci”. The song is a rejection of materialism and obsession with labels, something that hip-hop is well known for. However, the fact that she dismisses such labels out of choice (implying she can easily afford such designer items) “reeks of white-girl privilege” (Touré: 2011). She also has faced racial controversy, with her use of “the n-word” in a tweet published to her account. V-Nasty (who appears in the Gucci Gucci video with Kreayshawn) has done exactly the same, causing multiple online articles to be published about her alleged racism. Indeed, the pair are part of a collective known as the “White Girl Mob”, suggesting that their race is essential to their identity. There is an irony in the fact that a group that associate so heavily with being white should attempt to appropriate such a dangerous racial term. Perhaps an even heavier irony lies in the fact that Iggy Azalea also attempts a similar self-identification, stating she is part of the “White Girl Team”. In his essay, Russell A. Potter claims that “there can be no erasure of race,” (1999) and whilst neither artist attempts such a thing, it is obvious that it is an issue upon which they must treat lightly. Both artists however, seem to wish to make their differences (their gender and race) clear, contradicting the idea of the “Bad Girl” MC, known for imitation of male rap characteristics.

Race, of course, is not as simple as black and white, and women from a variety of cultural and racial backgrounds have found success, from M.I.A., a socially conscious artist with Sri Lankan Tamil roots, to Cher Lloyd, a young British artist with Gypsy roots who found fame on the UK’s X Factor for her versatility, both rapping and singing on the same track. Both have a unique musical style, steering clear of simply imitating black male MCs, and this approach effectively side steps the issue of race. A similar claim can be made of 26-year old artist K. Flay, who Touré describes as “an un-self-conscious hipster” (2011). Her videos are devoid of “hip-hop signifiers,” and by taking this route she eliminates her music’s reliance on the existing canon of hip-hop. It would be impossible to claim that K. Flay has sexualized her art in order to gain popularity. Quite the inverse is true, and it is perhaps the lack of sexuality within her work that keeps her as a niche, underground artist.

Ultimately, the rise of female artists within hip-hop may not be under the control of the females themselves. Cumberbatch believes that external influences often “undermine [the] endeavours” (2001) of women within the rap scene. Such influences are numerous – the degradation of women within hip-hop, the established dominance of black male artists and hip-hop’s macho posturing, at odds with the traditional view of a woman. Perhaps part of the reason that female rap has not been wildly successful until now is that assertive, self-sufficient women are a threat to the patriarchal society that is an essential tenet of the hip-hop culture. In addition to that problem is the permeating belief that female hip-hop is inferior to that produced by males. In Chantelle Fiddy’s article she discusses the components of the genre “grating vocals, cheesy lyrics, constantly overshadowed by male counterparts.” (2010) Such opinions seem engrained upon the public consciousness, with white female MCs facing this problem even more pronouncedly – “no matter what they say, it’s seen as cute and comical, like a cat walking on its hind legs.” (Touré, 2011) In the face of such adversity, it would take something special to break the patriarchal dominance of the industry, a huge female artists, willing to take a stand for womankind. Nicki Minaj has perhaps been female rap’s best hope so far, but through her pandering to the male archetype has become “a universal symbol of hardcore female rap’s innumerable missed opportunities for female empowerment.” (Francois, 2010) Even as more female MCs enter the industry, it is clear that they are playing the game by the boys’ rules. It will take something special to change that.

Bibliography

Bost, S. (2001): ‘”Be deceived if ya wanna be foolish”: (Re)constructing Body, Genre, and Gender in Feminist Rap’ in Postmodern Culture, 12 (1)

Cumberbatch, R (2001): Sisters With Voices: Women Making Music in the Hip-Hop Scene. Available from: http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/opendissertations/6499, accessed 30 May 2012

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Discography

Azealia Banks (2012): 1991. Interscope, 001700122

Birdman (2011): Y. U. Mad. Cash Money, Single

Cher Lloyd (2011): Sticks & Stones. Syco Muic, 88697861792

Die Antwoord (2012): Ten$ion. Downtown, DWT70312

Gucci Mane & V-Nasty (2011): BAYTL. Warner, 5290362

Ice-T (1987): Rhyme Pays. Sire, 7599256022

Iggy Azalea (2011): Ignorant Art. Self-released Mixtape

K. Flay (2011): I Stopped Caring in ‘96. Self-released Mixtape

Kreayshawn (2011): Gucci Gucci. Columbia, Single

Lady B (1979): To The Beat Y’all. Tec, 115392145

Lauryn Hill (1998): The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Ruffhouse, 69035

Lil’ Kim (2011): Black Friday. Queen Bee Entertainment, Mixtape

M.I.A. (2005): Arular. XL, 49186

Monie Love (1990): Down to Earth. Chrysalis, 1C 064-3 21720 1

Nicki Minaj (2008): Sucka Free. Young Money, Mixtape

Nicki Minaj (2010): Pink Friday. Cash Money, 2754184

Nicki Minaj (2011): Tragedy. Unreleased

Nicki Minaj (2012): Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded. Universal, 001653002

Salt-N-Pepa (1993): Very Necessary. London, 28392

Sugarhill Gang, The (1980): The Sugarhill Gang. Sequel, 306

Yo Gotti (2012): Live from the Kitchen. RCA, 55869

“This work was produced as part of Music and Cultural Studies at Leeds College of Music.”