How Black Female Emcees Changed the Conversation Through Hip-Hop
Lady B, Salt-n-Pepa, Missy, Lauryn, Foxy, Lil’ Kim and Minaj—it’s time we recognized all of their contributions to feminism.
Seated at a coffee table in an unidentifiable diner, revolutionary singer Nina Simone once told her interviewer that "...an artist's duty [was] to reflect the times."
And she was right.
So far, there hasn't been a time where feminism, hip-hop, and the black women in it, weren't desperately needed.
Unsurprisingly, black female emcees aren't widely acknowledged for their contributions to feminism throughout the ages. And it's even more unsurprising that the sexism and misogyny black female emcees faced (and still do) are generally less talked about. We're quick to minimalize black female hardships in hip-hop largely because we've never had to put a microscope on what it's like to be a black female emcee in a male-dominated industry.
That's why the voices of mega stars like Nicki Minaj ring so loudly when they make bold statements like "you need no man on this planet at all, period" in their interviews.
Minaj cuts through the noise because she's been the biggest voice in female emceeing (despite contestation) for quite some time now. And her Marie-Claire interview certainly wasn't the first time that the 10-time Grammy nominee had expressed the double standards she's faced thus far.
As a hip-hop fan and black female feminist, her position in the rap world is of particular interest to me because of her control (or lack thereof) in the game. She's in a position where she's had to be everything to be everyone, simply because, for a long time, there were no others.
And though some might find it difficult to consider her feminism groundbreaking, her very presence alone poses a particularly interesting question: what does it take to be a black female feminist in the game?
Before we can really look at Minaj's contributions, we must first take into account the magnitude of the female emcees' contributions and influences who've come before her. We must examine the hardcore hood feminists who were at the forefront of intersectional feminism when it came to race, gender, social class, (and even sexuality) before hip hop took the world by storm.
1979 saw the rise of Harlem's Sylvia Robinson ("Rapper's Delight"), Philadelphia's Lady B ("To the Beat Y'all"), and The Sequence ("Funk You Up") as some of hip hop's first female emcees.
During this time, feminism was in its second wave and began resisting conventional notions of beauty and femininity in lieu of social equality (e.g. The 1969 'bra burning' protests against the Miss America Beauty Pageant in Atlantic City). At this time in New York, crime rates were soaring in the South Bronx as crack cocaine started rolling in. There was a major blackout, and a lot of community housing was literally on fire. The late 70s also saw the rise and fall of the disco era, with local clubs packed to the sounds of Donna Summer and Soul Train. For black people, it was also an interesting time of revolution with social justice movements like the Black Panther Party. But hip-hop would still prevail despite its rough infant stages, and, in a way, ended up reflecting the disco sounds; it was music you could move to.
The 80s saw the rise of Salt-n-Pepa, both of whom were quintessential masters of ceremonies. Moving the crowd with their high energy and flow, their presence on the mic was larger than themselves. Often described as the "First Ladies of Hip-Hop," these women overcame being subjected to "misogyny, adversity, economic hardship, incarceration, sexual abuse/objectification, [and] violence" in the industry, according to Source Magazine. The self-described feminists pushed the envelope of what rap could mean for women at a time were there just weren't that many female emcees. In 1995, the duo won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, making them the first female rap group to ever win that award.
During this time in the late 80s, feminism was starting to center around sexual liberation and control of the female body. With fights for reproductive rights, abortion reform and birth control, feminism was starting to critique women's roles both in and out of the home and differentiate between sex and gender.
At the same time, MC Lyte was boldly making noise in Brooklyn, stepping onto the scene at just 16 years old. Unlike other female emcees at the time (Roxanne Shante, for example) who'd been introduced to the rap game as the "first ladies" of mostly male rap groups (later going solo), MC Lyte made her emergence into the hip-hop scene alone, and remained that way. She wasn't afraid to take on topics of sexuality, consent, or talk about just how great she is.
But it wasn't until the third wave of feminism during the mid-90s that we really saw a reformation of sexuality in hip-hop. At that point, the feminist movement had de-mystified and un-tabooed notions of women's sexuality within the academic sphere. Now, with the help of female music artists, women's sexual liberation was becoming more than just a literal conversation at the table.
It was ranking high on Billboard charts, selling out in record stores, and playing at local clubs. Female emcees were using hip-hop as a medium and their music as a platform to send strong messages about femininity, sexuality, gender representation, and self-worth louder and clearer than a lot of activist monikers could.
The 90s were peak times for female emcees in hip-hop with acts like Lil' Kim, Foxy Brown, Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott, to name a few.
Read More: The Noisey Guide to Lil' Kim
Unlike the emcees before them, Kim, Foxy, Hill, Latifah, and Missy all held their own on what it meant to be an individual artist. There was less of an emphasis on who the best lyricist was or who had a better flow, with record labels honing in on appearance, individuality, and sex appeal.
Kim and Foxy were two of the first high-profile female rappers to take sexual representation of the black female body to a new level. Kim not only owned her sexuality through raw, aggressive, lyrical stories, suggestive poses, and bold hairstyles; she also gave black women the permission to do so (though some would argue that this still "fell in line" with the black male fantasy and gaze).
Nevertheless, Lil' Kim would go on to make the top of the Billboard charts with her debut album, Hard Core.
Where Kim catered to the "sex sells" model, rival Foxy Brown was "no nonsense and fearless" according to former VIBE magazine editor-in-chief, Smokey D. Fontaine, in a documentary interview. The self-professed 'dark-skinned Christian Dior poster girl' was also highly successful, selling over 109, 000 copies of her debut album, Ill Na Na, in just one week.
And who could forget the pioneering anomaly that is Lauryn Hill? Critics still wax poetic about The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill as being one of the greatest albums of all time.
Her music had a spirituality that was matchless, timeless, and impossible to recreate. She was unapologetically herself in an era when female rappers were being marketed as sex symbols and didn't think twice about conformance.
L Boogie reinvented what the female emcee could look like. Her thunderous flow, soul-hitting lyrics, and vocal tone and ability were not only unmatchable—they had also never been done before. She was the first emcee to gain recognition for bridging the gap between womanhood and spirituality and contextualizing the struggles female emcees faced in the game.
In documentary My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth About Women in Hip Hop, Fontaine goes on to note that "Hip-hop is based on the truth….[But] when it comes to a woman's story, being who they are more often than not is going to have tales about how a man has done them wrong. Ultimately, [fans] don't want to hear that."
But when it came from Lauryn? Yes, you did.
She wasn't afraid to call out inconsistencies in our culture and hypocrisy in the industry.
Queen Latifah ("Who you callin' a bitch?"), 'Da Brat, Left Eye, and Missy Elliott were also artists who ignored the idea of appearing sexy or hard, and were all emcees who diversified and revitalized black women through creative videos, hood aesthetics, and innovative sounds.
Both hip-hop and feminism didn't care about how black women were represented until we claimed an identity for ourselves. Lil' Kim and Foxy were among the first to embark on their journey to reclamation by intentionally identifying as "bitch" in their music.
The Hampton Institute, an online grassroots think-tank, likens the now more popular term "bad bitch" in the rap world as both "a woman who de-emasculates her man by running the household and being financially independent, or as a woman who simply does not know her place."
It's less likely that Kim and Foxy would align themselves with the latter.
However, mainstream feminism was still largely dominated by heterosexual, middle-class, Western white women who didn't create open, inclusive spaces for women of colour, lower class women, queer women, sex workers or domestic workers. Feminism was still high off of the effects of earlier waves that fought for equal women's rights, such as the right to vote (which, again, did not include poor women of colour) and was only now warming up to the idea of multidimensional feminism (or, as author and poet Alice Walker coined in the late 1960s, 'womanism.') Activists and feminist writers like bell hooks took matters into their own hands with essays on everything from the racialization of black women within feminist spheres, to the dissonance amongst the issues, to the lack of unity between race and social class, and finally the radicalization of black self-love both in and out of our communities.
The very presence of female emcees meant acknowledging them not only as equals in the rap game, but as black female rappers in the rap game, and black women in general. It meant humanizing a demographic that had long been dehumanized since slavery. And it also meant identifying the obvious misogyny (read: misogynoir) in hip-hop, a still highly patriarchal arena that had desensitized, normalized and even commercialized the use of the words "hoe" and "bitch" in relation to black female bodies. Regardless, music by female emcees posed a threat to the very pillars of patriarchy in hip-hop, all the while trying to figure itself out. A black female in a male-dominated space became political, whether she meant it or not.
Much like in modern day activism, black female bodies have often been at the forefront of the battlefields raising our fists for our communities while simultaneously being ignored or forgotten about. Sparking meaningful social change in hip-hop means not being afraid to speak about sexuality and identity politics outside of an underground subculture. It also means acknowledging the double standard between Nitty Scott MC and Kendrick Lamar, who, as one of my hip-hop-head friends would say, is "able to make politically-charged music and still exist on a mainstream level."
Is it fair to criticize emcees for wanting to move forward in a mainstream career riddled with sexist sentiments? Should female emcees work harder to "demand" respect in an industry that has profited off of [black] female slander? Or should female rappers come together to form a collective of sisterhood in order to tackle the issues together? And is it even up to female emcees at all?
And ultimately, can hip-hop today exist without misogyny?
The answer is not a clear one.
Being a black female emcee today means an introspective look at what it truly means to be both artist and (black) woman in our current socio-political climate. It's getting real raw, gritty, and honest with oneself—a responsibility that our male counterparts aren't always tasked with.
Hip-hop feminism and former female emcee contributions birthed unapologetic acts like JUNGLEPUSSY and Princess Nokia, both of whom make music with strong messages of female positivity, freedom of sexuality, and a celebration of the female spirit. In a talk with Galore TV, Nokia, whose afropunk-esque roots speak for themselves, even soft-spokenly points out that "before hip-hop got [really] corporate and it had those qualms of aggressive masculinity that were almost a prerequisite to sell records, hip-hop was very female-oriented."
We're now seeing a renaissance of new, independent artists whose work dismantles the narrative that says you can't be successful as a trans rapper, queer tomboy or an afro-latinx bruja without pandering to the male gaze.
And gone are the days when women needed to prescribe to problematic notions of female objectification and 'video vixen-ism.' Artists now are moving away from larger narratives like these and slowly tapping into their own personal and political truths. We're reverting back to a time when art was an exploration of who we were as individuals and less about how we could be marketed, packaged, sold, and distributed to the masses. There's now less of a need for artists to actually sign with labels in order to be successful, affording emcees the artistic freedom and ability to build their brand, identity, and overall aesthetic, organically.
In other words, the music industry is slowly morphing into what black female emcees historically have had to be: self-sufficient and grassroots.
It only makes sense that rappers like Young M.A., Quay Dash, Kari Faux, Jean Grae, and Nezi Momodu would be a significant part of this shift with sex-positive/laden messages and carefree black girl vibes.
The waves and the droughts of female emcees makes us question why, then, someone like Nicki Minaj can truly be considered monumental to feminism in hip-hop. For someone who's continuously claimed the "Queen of Rap" title but failed to adequately defend her position, it leads us to wonder: with such power and visibility, is Nicki really a celebration of womanhood in hip-hop through her music, message, or actions?
Even rival Remy Ma, after her second diss track, admitted that though she "[didn't regret ["shETHER"], [she was] not particularly proud of it," and believes that women "...work so much better when [they] work together."
Nicki's feminism, though positive, is rooted in monopoly; feminism becomes a much less nuanced conversation when you're the only woman in the room. With power comes responsibility, and Minaj exists in a unique space where she is the only high-profile voice at a time when we need to hear more from intersectional communities and backgrounds. To consider her contributions socially significant is to discount the work that was done before her or work that exists outside of her music and audience.
And for Canadian black female pioneers like Michie Mee and newcomers like The Sorority, it's also an uphill battle in an industry that has historically struggled to stand on its own two feet (and, despite, Drake, still struggles to stand now).
While the future of feminism and the female rapper is still a bit hazy, one thing is for certain: the tides are now changing, and it's time we all acknowledged the groundwork laid before us.
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