Female rappers come and go like the fashion they sport. There’s no denying their commercial success, but why is it that so few seem to have staying power?

The hype leading up to the release of her first album caused it to debut at number one on the Billboard 200, where it spent 81 weeks. It sold a record-breaking 422,624 copies within its first week, snatching the title from Madonna as highest first-week sales by a woman. Not only was she the female face of the hottest rap crew in the game, but everybody – including Aretha Franklin and Mary J Blige – jumped hurdles to get hip hop’s new “it” girl to spit a verse on their upcoming releases. It was 1998 and the success of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill had created a buzz no one could have anticipated. With 10 Grammy nominations (another first for any female), rapper Lauryn Hill singlehandedly changed the perception of female rappers and their contribution to the hip hop genre.

Even hip hop guru Nelson George, who once ridiculed the role of women in the development of rap, went on to tell Billboard Magazine, “The ‘Lauryn effect’ is going to be very profound. It’s not just her, per se, but women have dominated the 90s era of pop music, and it seems natural that Lauryn will spark a rise in the prominence of female MCs.” Over 15 years have passed and Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday is the only album by a female scoring high on the charts. While her album’s success far exceeds that of her male counterparts, this isn’t quite the picture many painted at the dawn of the century. Nevertheless, hip hop critics all over the world are kneeling at her throne, calling Nicki Minaj “the future of rap” and talking about how she has singlehandedly reshaped the perception of female emcees. But, this all sounds a tad familiar, doesn’t it?

Rap revolution

A wave of flower power wasn’t the only thing that swept through the US during the 1960s; while many protested against a war on the other side of the Pacific, one was taking place in their backyards. The mistreatment and arrest of Rosa Parks sparked a civil rights campaign that would liberate African Americans from the apartheid they’d endured for centuries. With this freedom came a new sense of self many New York City poets explored through spoken-word poetry, which later evolved into what we know as rap. Although US law outlawed discrimination against minority groups and women, the legacy of white supremacy wasn’t as easy to shake. Unemployment, access to resources and racism were still a reality for black youths who began to use rap to air their grievances. However, the face of rap seemed to resemble that of a man – regardless of the gender of the rapper on stage. In Hip Hop America, Nelson George explains that in rap’s earlier days, rappers like Queen Latifah and MC Lyte had to wear the same clothes as men, curse with the same intonation, and adopt a harsh mentality that didn’t place much value on feminine instincts. EJ von LYRIK, frontwoman of Godessa (the first African hip hop act to feature on MTV Base), said that she could definitely relate. “Any guy would easily be accepted into the culture whereas girls would be shunned and tested over and over again just to fit in. Any female emcee who started out back in the day will tell you they were always more acceptable when they dressed up in baggy clothing and acted tomboyish.”

There were, however, a handful of hugely successful rappers who wouldn’t be caught dead in a baseball cap and baggy… anything! But, as Nelson also points out, “[Salt-N-Pepa] the most commercially successful group (and one of rap’s bestselling acts of any gender) began as slightly chubby b-girls who have evolved into glamour girls, and have been talking about sex since 1986.” In other words, rappers who positioned themselves as “fly girls” sold out in the eyes of hip hop purists. No matter how great their contribution to the commercial success of the genre, their body of work was seen as an insult to its cause.

According to Billboard’s editor Danyel Smith, it is significant that the females who get the most respect in hip hop’s primarily male domain are relentlessly dogged by rumours that they are lesbians. Whether these rumours are true or not, the message is evident: a female can’t be tough or strong or clear or exceptionally skilful at hip hop unless she has sacrificed the thing that makes her a “real girl,” she concludes. While some of these rappers may have been respected for their craft, gossip about their sexuality upstaged any message they tried to deliver. Furthermore, male rappers started getting comfortable with another disrespectful label for their female counterparts that even had Oprah spitting fire: Bitch.

Owning the title

Contrary to popular belief, the “black bitch” stereotype wasn’t born out of hip hop; it is a view of African American women that is deeply embedded within US culture. In American Slavery, historian Peter Kolchin said because black people were stripped of their humanness when positioned as commodities during the slave trade, women of African descent were positioned as sex machines whose sole purpose was to reproduce. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins expanded on this in Black Sexual Politics, where she explored the creation of modern black sexual stereotypes: “the jezebel, the mammy, and the welfare queen that, in the United States, helped uphold slavery, Jim Crow segregation and ghettoization.”

In the mid-90s, female rappers decided to turn these stereotypes on their heads by wearing them with pride. Rappers like Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim set out to control their own destinies by taking control of their sexuality. Their message was simple: I am a bitch… but, I am not your bitch. “On one level, freak, nigger, bitch, and faggot are just words. But on another level, these terms are situated at an ideological crossroads that both replicates and resists intersecting oppressions,” Hill Collins wrote. While they were no longer submissive sex machines, buying into these negative images just affirmed what society thought all along. On top of that, they were slammed for perpetuating stereotypes regarding the hypersexuality of black women, linking it to high rape statistics. As researcher Tamika Gambrill suggested, many did not see beyond this image these rappers constructed for themselves. “These women possess good rhyming skills that were hidden behind pornographic talk because that is what their mentors were producing,” she wrote. This may be somewhat true, but must we always blame men for everything wrong with the world?

Woman’hood

Some argue that former lover/crew member Wyclef Jean was the catalyst to Lauryn Hill’s spiral to nowhere, but what happened to Hill was life – more specifically, life as a black woman. It’s no secret that their relationship (at a personal and professional level) was seriously messed up. Apart from being stripped of any sort of acknowledgement of her role in the production side of things in Refugee Camp, Hill was also stripped of her dignity as her relationship with Jean started and extended into his marriage to another woman. That’s why the success of her solo project was so important; it was her way of breaking free from the proverbial chains tying her to Jean. However, Hill’s victory was short-lived, as four men filed a lawsuit against her for claiming full credit for music that they had contributed to. Although she wanted to fight these allegations, she settled the suit – which, at that point, seemed to be the least of her worries.

She was unhappy in her relationship with Rohan Marley (who remains married to his wife even after fathering five children by Hill). She also had to deal with the stresses of being a new mother plus those that came with her new superstar status: paparazzi, family wanting money, companies wanting her face on billboards… an endless list of people wanting this and that! EJ von Lyrik said that’s why she chose to establish her career before even considering motherhood. “I have just recently returned from my second international tour and it would have been really difficult to even spend time with my children (if I had any), just because it takes up all of your time and energy,” she said. “Thankfully a family is definitely in the cards and I feel I’ve achieved most of my goals as an artist and am ready for the plunge! This doesn’t mean that I’m giving up my career in music. My priorities have just shifted and I’m looking forward to a new challenge in my life.” Along with new sources of inspiration, perhaps?

Feminine touch

Hip hop feminist Joan Morgan once wrote, “Few were willing to believe that black girls growing up in the same violent, materialistic, and economically and spiritually impoverished environments were likely to suffer their own pathologies.” This may very well be where female rappers are getting it wrong. Rappers seem to be placing way too much attention on what men do or think or want. There exists an inherent need for acceptance in the male-dominated community. If these women focus more on producing work that truly represents who they are, they are sure to gain the respect they so desperately seek – just maybe not from the crowd they’ve been targeting.

“There are a lot of people in hip hop who are probably never going to get what I do,” Nicki Minaj said to Interview Magazine. “But, by just being myself, I end up touching a lot more people who might never have paid much attention to a female rapper.” People like? Women. Yes, real women. The kind of women that no other generation of female rappers tried to be. The logic is simple: the same way that men take to the rap of other men, woman will probably do the same provided that they can related to these rappers the way that men relate to male hip hop artists.

Also, while these women might not believe it, their gender puts them at a bit of an advantage over their male counterparts. “I have a lot of freedom to be crazy. I can rap in a London accent, make weird faces, wear spandex, wigs, and black lipstick. I can be more creative than the average male rapper. And I can show off my boobs. Guys can’t do that,” she said. These liberties are very much key to Minaj’s success.

The solution seems simple; implementing it, not so much. As rapper Lil’ Mama pointed out, “Females are not leaders within the business. A lot of the time, female MCs are represented by male rappers or a male-led company, so that limits what women can do in the industry.” However, EJ von Lyrik feels that social attitudes toward women are changing. “Women are now being providers along with their husbands. Many women are now very career-driven and want to make a success of themselves on the corporate front,” she said.

Still, a lot needs to be done to achieve a level of sustainability for female rappers within the industry. “You have Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Ke$ha, and they’re all on tour and thing go great for them and there’s no hatred between them. In hip hop, you have your Lil’ Kims and Nickis hating each other and trying to bring each other down. They’re fighting for the spotlight,” Lil’ Mama said. She believes it is essential for female rappers to support each other because how is any audience going to support them if they won’t support each other?

Perhaps Queen Latifah was onto something when she called for U.N.I.T.Y. among women everywhere way back in 1993. Perhaps these rappers need to reconnect with themselves and among themselves in order to truly thrive. What is for certain, however, is that the foundation of any revolution is the consciousness of the repressed.

by Angelo C Louw
Published in PLAYBOY South Africa January – February 2012