Women have always been part of hip hop, even though their accomplishments and impact have been understated and unsung. Yet any cursory examination of the history of hip hop reveals countless female musicians and performers. Some, like Queen Latifah, Missy Elliot, Salt-N-Pepa, Lauryn Hill, and Nicki Minaj, become household words. Hundreds of others remain behind the scenes, known mainly to audiophiles or serious music historians. Tracing hip hop back to its roots shows how the musical genre and its ethos evolved as the counterpart to a broader movement for social and political change. Women have remained at the forefront of the cultural revolution that is hip hop, ensuring that feminist values and ideals become mainstream while also making sure that feminism does not become whitewashed. Patriarchal social norms have prevented the women of hip hop from receiving the accolades they deserve, but the artists who have made it their business have paved the way for younger women to take control over their image, music, and branding. Women have at times mimicked their male counterparts, such as through female-led gangsta rap, but even then contribute to the ongoing discourse of what it means to be black and female in America. Scores of female hip hop artists, MCs, rappers, and producers have made their mark on the industry, transforming hip hop culture, ethics, aesthetics, and the business itself.
One of the main contributions women have made to the genre is by transforming the public perception of hip hop in general. Some female artists have helped legitimize hip hop, bringing it into the mainstream. For example, one of the earliest female rappers, MC Lyte, became ”the first rapper to perform at Carnegie Hall,” even before she was the first female rapper nominated for a Grammy, and was the first female rapper to have a single go gold” (Morris 1). Female hip hop artists have also shown that rap and hip hop are not necessarily about guns, money, and objectifying women. Scholarly analyses of female hip hop artists reveal that even when some female rappers use these tropes in their lyrics or videos, their being center stage conveys a sort of irony that needs to be considered as deliberate and subversive; a means by which African American women can “search for self-identity and self-control,” (White 607). The presence of women in hip hop historically paved the way for other female artists to retain power over their bodies. Rather than allow male artists and producers to dictate their image and brand, female hip hop artists steered the genre in a whole new direction.
Hip hop has been derided for crass misogyny, reflecting a narrow-minded view of the genre that overlooks the many artists who have eschewed negative or disempowering motifs either in lyrics or in music videos. Women in hip hop have occasionally succumbed to the male gaze and the patriarchal, heteronormative aesthetic, but a large number have challenged male hegemony through their music and performance. As Oware puts it, “Black female artists provide countervailing voices against male sexism and misogyny,” (788). Queen Latifah, one of the earliest female hip hop superstars, “made a name for herself talking about issues in the…
…about such subjects to draw attention to social injustice. Explicit lyrics became the calling card of many female rappers, who earned their street cred for sassy and clever x-rated lyrics: most notably Lil Kim and Foxy Brown. A great number of female hip hop stars have been heralded for their deft rapping, like the “syllable-stacking honed-blade verbal dexterity” of Nicki Minaj (uDiscover 1). Left Eye has been called a “a super slick lyricist,” (Orcutt 1). Their beats and backing tracks vary as much as their personal style, but a lot of female rappers have interjected soul and R&B into hip hop, adding depth to the genre and increasing its market appeal. Hip hop has built into it the means by which to use words to establish social hierarchies, and also to use lyrics to draw attention to social justice issues.
Since the breakthrough rap artists in the 1980s, hip hop has spread from New York around the world. A good number of emerging female pop music stars from around the world pay homage to the mothers of hip hop like Queen Latifah and Lil Kim. Women have been a part of the industry from the start, rapping, producing, and dancing. Their socially conscious lyrics went beyond issues related to race relations and violence, and addressed gender relations and black female sexuality. Female hip hop artists allow their male counterparts to understand, through their music, their perceptions of patriarchy and male privilege. Even those artists who avoided political commentary have grown into powerful role models for women, showing that women of color can be in control…
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