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Female voices in hip-hop are beyond important. In a genre that historically was and still is dominated in number by men, a woman’s perspective is empowering, refreshing and we need more of it.
Hip-hop is so rich with history and oozing with vital force, so it’s disappointing to see how often women are demeaned and objectified as sexual objects in the most popular and successful songs within the genre.
From early rappers like Dr. Dre with his song “B*tches ain’t Sh*t but H*es and Tricks” to modern rappers like Lil’ Wayne with his song “Alphabet B*tches” — once the degradation started, it never stopped. Not only is it blatantly disrespectful to half the population, but it is also disrespectful to the music itself — women have played a large role in the rise of hip-hop in the mainstream.
At the 2019 Grammys, rapper and musician Cardi B won best rap album of the year for her album “Invasion of Privacy.” It was a huge feat for her career and also for the history of the rap genre — it was the first time a solo female rapper won this award.
The best rap album category has existed for over two decades and it was only until this year a woman prevailed — while other female rappers like Missy Elliot and Eve were nominated in the past, not one of those women ever came out on top.
A moment like this is monumental because it proves that modern female musicians in hip-hop can achieve equal success despite competing against male musicians. The depth and soul women bring to hip-hop is invaluable and although their voices are powerful — they are lacking in number. It is a phenomenon that can be explained by various factors.
In the late 90s, the number of women in hip-hop signed to major record labels was surging — the Grammys saw this and created a new category called Best Female Rap Solo Performance in 2003. But it was quickly dumped two years later because of the decline of women musicians in hip-hop.
This did nothing but deepen the disparity in number between men and women in the industry and lowered the chances of the remaining women to be recognized in the mainstream.
In NPR’s article “Where Did All the Female Rappers Go?” rapper MC Lyte says, “This is pretty much what it was like when women weren’t able to get major recording and release opportunities,” when talking about the decline. This is a startling realization and should spark a sense of urgency — what happens to hip-hop without women in the mainstream?
Women in the genre have consistently promoted female empowerment in all its many forms — body positivity, sexuality, love and sisterhood. Without their voice, some of the more misogynistic and demeaning lyrics could become detrimentally normalized. Rappers like MC Lyte and Queen Latifah put women on the board with progressive lyrics that highlight the trials and tribulations of being a woman at this time — especially a woman of color.
Queen Latifah highlights this in her song U.N.I.T.Y “Every time I hear a brother call a girl a b*tch or a h*e/ Trying to make a sister feel low/ You know all of that gots to go.” Queen Latifah and many other pioneers’ voices cut through what hip-hop was used to hearing — they brought a fresh sound and more importantly a whole new perspective to the genre.
And women haven’t stopped bringing girl power to hip-hop.
Musicians like Beyonce consistently uses her massive platform to endorse feminism and write hit songs about feminine power. Her 2016 album “Lemonade” took the world by storm and quickly became an anthem for women across the globe. These reaffirming attitudes of mainstream musicians are important because the message they send has a significant impact on their audiences.
According to Psychological Science.org, positive affirmations are psychologically proven to lower stress, anxiety and even defensiveness in response to threats on our sense of self.
When audiences listen to music that sends a positive message about women both parties are affected. It can change the way women think about themselves and how the world views them. Simultaneously, it can expose men to a different narrative to how women are talked about in hip-hop.
Although I do allude to most of the misogynistic songs and lyrics being performed by male rappers, that is not always the case. Sometimes men rap respectful rhymes about women.
In Tupac Shakur’s song “Keep Ya Head Up” he raps about women in the form of a call to action, “And since we all came from a woman/ Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman/ I wonder why we take from our women/ Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?/ I think it’s time to kill for our women/ Time to heal our women, be real to our women.”
The thing is, old or new hip-hop, women are more often than not referred to by demeaning words and demeaning words only.
However, I know women in hip-hop sometimes refer to other women and even themselves with these same demeaning lyrics. The difference is that when women use these words they are harnessing the power and negativity that the original intention of the word had — and making it their own.
Words that once were used in hip-hop to degrade and objectify women to skewed, sexualized versions of what we truly are had the power stripped from them when women used them too.
Women in the industry face many obstacles that make the climb to the top all the steeper. While being a woman in the rap game takes exceptional amounts of talent to gain recognition, unfortunately, the appearance and appeal of these women play a large role in their success.
The NPR article states, “We might read these artists’ use of explicit sexuality as pure business savvy, or even their willingness to confront American taboos against female, and specifically black female, sexual expression. But it also dovetails nicely with the crude exploitation of women that, as Professor Tricia Rose argues, has become ‘almost required’ in mainstream hip-hop.”
This is why sisterhood is so important in hip-hop.
When girls support girls they can raise themselves up and help each other through an industry that equates their looks and their talent in importance, an industry in which they are outnumbered, an industry that makes the female musicians swim against the mainstream to get recognized.
In number, women musicians in hip-hop can empower each other and their audiences. In number, these voices can turn from a whisper to a shout — a call to action that can reach the whole world.
In the words of Ms. Lauryn Hill, “Music is supposed to inspire/ How come we ain’t gettin no higher?”