Like most genres, Hip Hop has come to mean more to its fans than simply music. Although its roots are debatable, one thing is for certain: it has become a true representation of black urban culture in America. No one could have predicted the colossal impact the genre would go on to have when it emerged on the party scenes of the Bronx during the late 1970’s. A research article published in 2015 by Imperial College London claimed that the Hip Hop movement marked the ‘single most important event that shaped American Music.’ While initially the music was about African-American inner-city struggles, it has since embraced artists from all cultures. The changing world of Hip Hop has seen the rise and fall of distinct styles within itself, but perhaps the most important lens through which one should view it is the role of women.
Hip Hop is often associated with defiance and rebellion. It has a rare ability to let people speak their truths and live out their vicarious natures through music—which appeals to the youth. Though its themes vary, ideas of upward mobility, culture, hardships and success can be found in every artist’s repertoire. Its message is powerful, but its identity is flawed. So, given the very essence of its origins, it’s not very surprising to find provocative language being used to describe women. Aside from the lyrics, music videos brought by digitalization also objectify women and portray them as objects of pleasure. Even the big names in the industry are guilty of some of these. Rapper turned actor O’Shea Jackson Sr. (Ice Cube) once defended his allegedly misogynistic lyrics by saying, “If you’re a bitch, you’re probably not going to like us. If you’re a ho, you probably don’t like us. If you’re not a ho or a bitch, don’t be jumping to the defense of these despicable females.” People have come to accept this side of Hip Hop as part and parcel of the wider culture.
After the rising surge in popularity of Hip Hop, it didn’t take long for female rappers to follow suit. The likes of MC Lyte and Lauren Hill formed a strong foundation for years to come. The role of women in Hip Hop has developed in the same way as Hip Hop itself.
In the beginning, some women used their newfound platform to get important messages across. And they used the art of lyrical storytelling to do just that. With the continued objectification of women in the background, MC Lyte discussed the dangers of drinking and driving in Poor Georgie (1991) and Salt-N-Pepa expressed the importance of safe sex in “Let’s Talk About Sex” (1990). Similarly, Queen Latifah’s U.N.I.T.Y. (1994) called for solidarity among women and for a stop to the normal use of the words “bitches” and “hoes” in rap. These women integrated the sexual themes that were ever so popular with the male rappers into their own rhymes, while at the same time, denouncing the derogatory remarks made by their male counterparts.
Soon, female rappers started reclaiming their sexuality and many artists adopted a raunchy persona, a clear contrast to their earlier images. Artists like Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, and Trina gained widespread popularity with their overt use of sexuality. The Hip Hop industry was founded on these radical principles and it was since being used at the expense of women. However, in their search for significance in a male dominated industry, they attempted to show that what men can do, women can do better.
Almost three decades on, the Hip Hop landscape has changed. We have new music now in the form of mumble rap. What you make of that is beside the point. We have an empowering female faction in the industry and Nicki Minaj is proof of that. She has been on top for nearly a decade and often overshadowed her male colleagues. However, we must ask ourselves if Hip Hop has truly accepted its women.
2018 saw the rise of yet another female star in Cardi B. Yet, most of the year was dedicated towards pitting her against Nicki. The media’s attempt to embroil the two women in conflict was bizarre and mostly based on unfounded claims. These two were compared so much that eventually they did end up feuding. Sure, the drama proved to be good entertainment, but it also highlighted a sad truth about the genre- that there is only room for one dominant lady. Believe it or not, the only exception was the 90’s where fans were rewarded with a host of female collaborations and Missy Elliot, Kim, and Da Brat came together. Sadly, even that came to an end. The fact of the matter is that women in the industry are subjected to unfair and unnecessary comparisons that males hardly ever go through, forcing them to fight for the limited space afforded to them. And this is not likely to change in the near future.