In 2014, Nicki Minaj revealed that she no longer considered herself a female rapper.
This wasn’t part of some spur-of-the-moment rant, nor was it a trademark theatrical performance by one of her outré alter egos. There was no cotton-candy-colored wig, no amazing Technicolor bustier dress. Instead, Minaj sat demurely, with neutral makeup and sleek black hair, for a movie press junket: “I’m sorry,” she said matter-of-factly. “I see myself as a rapper.”
Minaj, whose lyrics once declared that she “came to save a thing called female rap,” clarified her statement months later. She said her newfound aversion to being called a “female rapper” was because of the term’s dilution. After all, Minaj is, in fact, exceptional.
What might Minaj’s statement mean to the hip-hop zeitgeist? In 2017, the genre is widely identified with black male experience—a crucial perspective (Kendrick Lamar’s dizzying deconstruction of racial politics in America comes to mind), but one that too often positions women as “bitches” or sylphlike props.1
I remember a time—not long ago—when hip-hop emancipated women, especially women long denied a voice. Within the span of hip-hop’s young life, female rappers have gone from celebrated contributors to footnotes. Legions of books and culture critics chronicle hip-hop’s meteoric rise, yet seldom are women mentioned, much less given props: perhaps it’s no wonder that its arguable queen wishes to eschew the title. But in reality, women who rap have been a part of hip-hop’s fabric from the very beginning—and in many respects, they embody its true spirit.
The queen on the scene since I was a teen. / The pioneer, yes, I’m here to ’splain what I mean.
—Queen Lisa Lee
The gestation period for hip-hop spanned generations—West African griots; young black Americans signifyin’ and playing the dozens; dancehall toasters; drill sergeants; radio DJs; the verbal barrages of Pigmeat Markham, Gil Scott-Heron, and Muhammad Ali—and while its birthplace is debated, its birth was joyous. Most credit a back-to-school jam in the Bronx where DJ Kool Herc first isolated and extended the break (that is, the instrumental beat) of a song, so partygoers could dance longer while he emceed. Some Brooklyn natives say the work of local pioneers Pete “DJ” Jones, Grandmaster Flowers, and KC the Prince of Soul predates Herc’s legendary party and provided the blueprint of hip-hop, albeit more rooted in disco and funk. Either way, hip-hop’s pillars—DJing, emceeing, breakdancing, and graffiti—provided a creative outlet for young, opportunity-starved black men and women.
Since it was so fresh, there weren’t many rules in the burgeoning cultural movement. Men were the more prominent emcees in those early days, but women grabbed the mic, too, and while they were sometimes seen as a novelty, they were welcomed all the same. Soon, solo rappers like Queen Lisa Lee and Pebblee Poo, as well as groups like the Mercedes Ladies and the Sequence, would make their marks. But before that, Sha-Rock would lead the way as the first prominent female emcee.
She was eight years old when her family boarded a Greyhound bus from Wilmington, North Carolina, to New York City, where she’d soon be thrust into the city’s flourishing b-boy and b-girl culture. In the summer of 1976 (while the Son of Sam terrorized the city), she witnessed emceeing for the first time, at a Kool Herc jam. That fall, the tenth grader successfully auditioned to be an emcee with the Brothers Disco, setting the template for the Funky Four Plus One More—the “Plus One” referring to her, the only female. Though the title seemed to denote her as a garnish atop the group, she would become the main draw.
In her autobiography, Sha-Rock likens the rap-harmonizing group to a “hood version of Gladys Knight and the Pips.” Despite never releasing a full-length album, the Funky Four Plus One More had substantial recording success. Enjoy Records released their 1979 single “Rappin’ and Rocking the House,” a sixteen-minute disco-sampling debut that’s one of the longest rap songs ever recorded. In 1980, the group signed to Sylvia Robinson’s Sugar Hill Records and recorded their quintessential party jam, “That’s the Joint,” on which countless boasts coast over one nine-minute take. Blondie’s Debbie Harry was such a fan that she asked them to perform on Saturday Night Live when she was scheduled to host, in 1981. The Valentine’s Day appearance made them the first rap group to perform on national television.2
Hip-hop edged closer to reaching the masses as singles were pressed in the late ’70s, but it was still primarily a live phenomenon experienced in parks, at parties, and in clubs. A big draw for these shows was rap battles, where emcees freestyled to win respect, legitimacy, and often a cash prize. Usually these were equal-opportunity showdowns. In 1980, ten-year-old Lolita Shanté Gooden and her mother hopped on a bus to Woodside Projects for her first rap battle. The young girl was too short to face her older, male opponent, so the DJ emptied and flipped over his milk crate of records, creating a makeshift platform. Shanté slayed her rival, and she and her mom rode the bus home fifty dollars richer.
Four years later, rap trio UTFO shot to fame with “Roxanne, Roxanne,” a tongue-in-cheek B-side vilifying a fictional woman who rejects them each in turn. But when UTFO canceled a WBLS radio appearance on Mr. Magic’s “Rap Attack,” the popular host wanted revenge and his on-air DJ, the intrepid Marley Marl, was the one to seek it. Marl had heard that his neighbor Shanté could rhyme, and he offered her a pair of Sergio Valente dungarees in exchange for her help. Marl never followed through on the promised jeans, but Shanté more than delivered on her end. Adopting the moniker Roxanne Shanté, she freestyled over the instrumental version of UTFO’s hit in her squeaky, scratchy timbre, dissing the group and their misguided sense of entitlement. The feisty track was peppered with vulgarity, and (as legend has it) recorded in one take. Drawing elements from live rap battles and engraining them on wax, the track became the first major hip-hop “answer record.” It was also the most prolific, inciting the “Roxanne Wars”: a cavalcade of roughly one hundred more answer songs by rappers fronting as other characters in Roxanne’s fictional universe.
Shanté’s next few years were an impressive blur of feats. The wunderkind joined the Juice Crew rap collective; toured with LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and Eric B. and Rakim; recorded two albums; and collaborated with Rick James and Big Daddy Kane. But despite her grit on the mic, the combination of her age, gender, and overall naïveté made her an unfair target for peers, partners, and the general public. Soon after “Roxanne’s Revenge,” disapproving mothers picketed Shanté’s shows when the fourteen-year-old became pregnant (shifting any side-eyeing away from her then boyfriend, a predacious man eighteen years her senior). Meanwhile, DJs and producers exploited her, taking an even cut of her earnings rather than the usual small percentage.
“All you know is you’re this fourteen-year-old girl,” Shanté explained in a 2014 interview with the Hudson Union Society. “You have this gift of gab. You go, you do the shows. In thirty minutes, you’re making more than what your mom would make in about six months. So you’re just thankful.” Raised in the projects by a single mother, Shanté sees herself as more susceptible to being misled: “Growing up without a father, you tend to latch onto certain father figures, whether they are positive people or negative people, because you really don’t know what to compare it to,” she said. She was surrounded by men who wanted her to succeed, but only on their terms and for their own gain.
In September 1985, the New York Marriott Marquis morphed into hip-hop’s Roman Colosseum; the annual New Music Seminar was holding its inaugural MC Battle for World Supremacy. It was to be the first large-scale battle, drawing approximately five hundred spectators to a buzzing ballroom. Shanté had made it to the finals, where she’d face old-school bigwig Busy Bee. A steady snare-bass drumbeat began, and a rhyme referee of sorts counted down as the two traded eight-bar verses. Busy Bee came off as rehearsed and shaky; Shanté, freestyling, went in to finish him: “Let me tell you, you know you’re through. / What you say? I’m younger than you? / I can’t be an emcee that’s way from the back. / You need to do it over ’cause you know you’re wack. / I’m telling you something: get it together. / The hat you’re wearing, that shit ain’t even leather. / You wanna play games and you wanna get loose, / but we all know who got the juice.”
Doubling over after every deft diss, the crowd loved Shanté. The judges—Kool DJ Red Alert, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, DJ Whiz Kid, and the Fat Boys—held their scorecards up. Shanté earned three perfect scores and an eight, but Blow, making like a Russian figure-skating judge, gave Shanté a four. The score was enough to give Busy Bee the title. Shanté ended up disqualified for swearing—something Busy Bee had encouraged her to do backstage—but years later, she still wanted to confront Blow; it was the only time she’d cried after a battle. Blow told her gently that then, in 1985, the world wasn’t ready for the best in hip-hop to be a young girl: the genre wouldn’t be taken seriously. “After a while, I understood what he meant,” said Shanté. “[I] just hated [that] it was done to me and that [it] killed my love for hip-hop.” At eighteen, the fed-up mother of two left her boyfriend. At twenty-five, she would walk away from another abusive relationship: her rap career.
A brown-skinned female with two problems to correct: / wrong color, wrong sex.
But Shanté’s legacy lingered. In 1985, two nursing students bonded at Queensborough Community College despite polar-opposite personalities: Cheryl James was petite and soft-spoken, while Jamaican-born Sandra Denton was an impetuous social butterfly. They worked together as Sears telephone solicitors (often calling each other instead of potential clients) and soon befriended other coworkers: a young, undiscovered Martin Lawrence and aspiring music producer Hurby Azor. Inspired by Roxanne Shanté’s success, Azor wanted to record two female rappers. He recruited James, his then girlfriend, and Denton, naming them Super Nature. They snuck into a studio after hours and came out with “The Show Stoppa (Is Stupid Fresh),” a single slamming Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s beatboxing, “Inspector Gadget”–sampling hit “The Show.”
The song charted well on the East Coast, giving the duo a taste of success and an appetite for more. They renamed themselves Salt-N-Pepa, and Azor became their manager, songwriter, and visionary. They added a DJ to the mix, and after two candidates didn’t work out, Dee Dee Roper joined as DJ Spinderella.
In 1986, Salt-N-Pepa released their debut, Hot, Cool & Vicious. Although a hot ticket on the club scene, it wasn’t until a re-pressing added a dance remix of “Push It” that the group shot up the charts and was nominated for the Grammys’ first hip-hop award, Best Rap Performance. Hot, Cool & Vicious was the first album by a female rap act—and one of the first rap albums in general—to go platinum. The success of groups like Public Enemy and Run-DMC had established hip-hop as male-dominated, so Salt-N-Pepa were a breath of fresh air. They rapped fiercely but dressed sexily—common now, but unseen then, when most female rappers were dressing like their male counterparts in sportswear, jeans, and sneakers, plus oversize gold jewelry as added flourishes; their streetwear was stagewear. Salt-N-Pepa kept the accessories but made their sartorial legacy by slipping on slouchy jackets and curve-hugging spandex.
The group succumbed to the sophomore slump with the regrettably titled A Salt with a Deadly Pepa, but their third album, Blacks’ Magic, quelled fans’ fears. R&B-infused hits like “Expression”(written by James) and “Let’s Talk about Sex” made Salt-N-Pepa successful mainstream crossover artists through their roots, not despite them. Even the album cover—a Rockwellian portrait of the trio poring over a book titled Blacks Magic and invoking the spirits of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, and Minnie Riperton—attested to pride in their black identity.
Salt-N-Pepa took even more creative control of 1993’s Very Necessary, the biggest hip-hop album of the year. Its lead single, “Shoop,” eased onto the pop charts, “Whatta Man” celebrated positive examples of black manhood, and sexually liberated “None of Your Business” earned them a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, making them the first-ever female rappers to win the coveted gilded gramophone. In the wake of Very Necessary’s success, Azor was paid a settlement to relinquish his reins on the group.
But after their ill-promoted 1997 album, Brand New, flopped, James phoned Denton to quit the group. Unbeknownst to her bandmates, James was “depressed and bulimic, bingeing and purging up to seven times a day,” according to People magazine. Denton, hurt and confused, went home and took a razor to her wrist. She was hiding her own issues: her marriage to Naughty by Nature’s Anthony “Treach” Criss had recently ended due to repeated abuse. In a particularly harrowing chapter in her autobiography, Denton describes a morning when he raped her, dislodging her IUD and almost killing her.
Denton, who’d been in a string of abusive relationships, sometimes felt like a fraud when she was praised as empowering. “I was projecting this one image and at the same time I would be walking around with shades to hide black eyes,” she said. But abuse is a common ocurrence for a disproportionate number of black women, and female rappers are no exception. Some were sexually abused as children (Queen Latifah), some witnessed domestic abuse between their parents (Sha-Rock, Nicki Minaj), and some both (Missy Elliott). For the women who suffer sexual coercion and other forms of abuse, these rappers not only represent their voices but offer the hope that they, too, can survive and thrive.
Salt-N-Pepa’s success, as well as their outspokenness, opened doors for their contemporaries and inspired future trailblazers. MC Lyte had begun spitting rhymes at twelve years old, but it wasn’t until hearing “The Show Stoppa” that she wanted to be an emcee. “I had something to say,” she told the San Francisco Bay View. “It was the only way a young black girl could get her message to America.” After some vocal coaching, the fourteen-year-old Lyte recorded “I Cram to Understand U (Sam),” a song about love wrecked by crack addiction. The production was unpolished, extracted from a 4-track Tascam recorder that had to be paused whenever the studio’s boiler went off. Still, the single became an underground hit, landing Lyte a record deal with First Priority Music. In September 1988, the seventeen-year-old’s Lyte as a Rock dropped. It was the first full-length album by a female solo rapper on a major label.
Salt-N-Pepa’s influence on Lyte did not carry over to her style. Lyte’s attire was practical over provocative—baggy jeans, overalls, or a tracksuit. “I entered into hip-hop during a time where record labels let us do whatever we wanted,” explains Lyte, although the freedom was contingent upon selling records. But she did sell; Lyte quickly established herself as uniquely audacious, with a raspy, no-nonsense voice vaunting expert lyrical flow and depth. She was one of the first emcees to channel music into social advocacy, exploring topics like alcoholism, suicide, HIV/AIDS, and street violence. A rap magnate, she used her reverence to dive into acting and philanthropy, including the launch of her nonprofit, Hip Hop Sisters Network.
Bass lines affect me when my rhymes direct me. / Forgive the crowds, O Lord, they know not why they sweat me.
Lyte wasn’t the only female rapper from her era to become a hyphenate. As her star ascended, Queen Latifah branched into acting, jazz singing, talk-show hosting, fashion, cosmetics, record production, and artist management—but her first love was hip-hop. As a teen, after work she’d change from her Burger King uniform into a Swatch sweatsuit, K-Swiss sneakers, and a Benetton fisherman’s hat before heading to New York to sneak into Latin Quarter. At the infamous nightclub, she witnessed Salt-N-Pepa’s first show, as well as Sweet Tee and DJ Jazzy Joyce—women who skillfully brought the house down. Inspired, she began hanging in Mark the 45 King’s basement with a bunch of New Jersey hip-hop heads who eventually became the Flavor Unit. As the youngest and only female, Latifah was “the Princess of the Posse,” recording a demo track by the same name.
That demo landed Latifah a deal with Tommy Boy Records. When given money to buy a new wardrobe, she bypassed sweats, chains, and sneakers for an Afrocentric look: regal pan-African prints, kufis, and other crownlike headwear. In 1988, Latifah released her first single, “Wrath of My Madness,” in which she raps about her rise to rule and launches into a reggae-inspired chorus (twenty-four years before Drake declared himself the first person to successfully rap and sing). She won a Grammy in 1995 for “U.N.I.T.Y.,” a song lambasting misogyny and violence against women, but it was her debut album, 1989’s All Hail the Queen, that featured her signature single, “Ladies First.” The upbeat feminist anthem—featuring Monie Love, a sprightly British emcee—had a music video that amplified its message. After flashing photos of icons such as Sojourner Truth and Madam C. J. Walker, Latifah appeared as a military strategist, knocking down businessmen figurines on a chessboard map of Africa and replacing them with clenched fists, a symbol used in both feminism and civil rights. The video also featured footage from South Africa’s ongoing struggle against apartheid. By juxtaposing gender-specific lyrics and race-related issues, Latifah drew parallels between the two, highlighting the commonality in struggle.
Many of these artists of the ’80s and early ’90s wanted to represent women’s voices. However, as Tricia Rose writes in her Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America:
During my conversations with Salt, MC Lyte, and Queen Latifah it became clear that these women were uncomfortable with being labeled feminist and perceived feminism as a signifier for a movement that related specifically to white women. They also thought feminism involved adopting an anti-male position, and although they clearly express frustrations with men, they did not want to be considered or want their work to be interpreted as anti–black male.
Spinning the plates of race and gender is an all-too-familiar quandary for women of color. In the civil rights era, black females were relegated to shadowing men on the front line, even though women were the backbone of pivotal moments throughout the movement. Regardless, when your men are (still) being slain left and right, when your tax dollars are (still) going into the bloodstained hands of racist police officers, when your people are (still) being systemically dehumanized, it’s clear where allegiance is most essential: race trumps gender. Joan Morgan, author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down, puts it plainly: “White girls don’t call their men ‘brothers’ and that made their struggle enviably simpler than mine.”
Latifah and MC Lyte’s hesitation to identify as feminists wasn’t surprising. Third-wave feminism poses as a full-spectrum movement for social equality, addressing all marginalized groups, but feminism has often fallen short of its mark, primarily benefitting middle-class white women (prompting the creation of “womanism” for feminists of color). A significant racist imbroglio within feminist music stems from the rise of Riot Grrrl. The ’90s counterculture DIY movement was an invigorating crusade lauded for intersecting music, art, culture, and feminism, but ultimately failed in addressing intersectionality. In one case, according to a zine by Riot Grrrl Bianca Ortiz, the Mexican girls who attended an antiracism workshop at the 1997 Bay Area Girls Convention found themselves cooking in the kitchen for hours. “They were busy with the revolution while we fried tortillas,” Ortiz wrote. “We were so confused and disturbed with what was happening that the only thing we could do was laugh and try not to think about it.”
If the overtly feminist part of the counterculture simply wasn’t one where visible minorities felt represented and valued, the ’90s still saw a proliferation of women of color in the public eye due to the huge commercial success of hip-hop and R&B—and these representations were varied, eye-catching, and often controversial.
If I talk freaky, then that’s my business. / If I dress freaky, then that’s my business. / Got folks practicin’ how to spit like this / sexy CEO makin’ hits like this.
In Berry Gordy’s campy, critically panned 1975 box-office success Mahogany, we watch Diana Ross, with her trademark Keane-esque eyes and delicate frame, tell a rags-to-riches story of a department-store secretary from the South Side of Chicago who dreams of fashion design. She’s scouted as a model and given the titular moniker (after all, mahogany is “dark, beautiful, and rare”), becomes a style icon and celebrated designer (the pinnacle of her collection is a perplexing Kabuki-inspired runway show that’d never fly today), and—spoiler alert—gives up her career to reunite with the ambitious politician boyfriend she left back home. Though undeniably kitschy and full of sexist undertones, the film was treasured by young black girls, women, and drag queens. One of these starry-eyed girls was Kimberly Denise Jones.
Kim resembled Ross’s character in many ways. She loved high, over-the-top fashion. She survived humble, difficult beginnings, living in a car with her mother. After the state granted her father custody, he kicked her out, leaving her homeless. And, like Ross’s character, while she was feistily ambitious, it was a man who discovered her talent and mentored her—in Kim’s case, the yet-to-be-famous Christopher Wallace (Notorious B.I.G.).
In 1994, Wallace recruited Lil’ Kim to his Brooklyn group Junior M.A.F.I.A. (Masters At Finding Intelligent Attitudes). Exposure from the group and features—guest verses—bolstered Kim’s solo career, and her 1996 debut, Hard Core, went double-platinum. Kim’s blatant prurience was unprecedented in the rap world, and she mothered a generation of hypersexual female rappers (although credit should also be given to Foxy Brown, whose lascivious platinum debut, Il Na Na, was released less than a month after Kim’s).
Many found the spouting of man-eating lyrics in a male-dominated arena empowering. But others felt that Kim’s impudent sexuality needlessly objectified women to sell records; just two years prior, Da Brat—a coolly brash, Chicago-bred artist who bore baggy clothes and braids—had become the first female solo rapper to go platinum. Critics painted Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown as marionettes whose strings were pulled by their male mentors (and sometimes lyricists), Biggie and Puff Daddy for Kim, and Jay-Z and Nas for Foxy. In a 1997 interview, Kim dismisses the notion, saying others contributed to her career, but ultimately she began it and her persona wouldn’t resonate convincingly if she had been uncomfortable with it: “You can’t really just make someone into something and it works all the time; that person has to be a natural.”
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, / who is the baddest bitch of them all?
Foxy and Kim faded from the forefront, but that doesn’t mean the hypersexual formula had a short shelf life. Miami’s Trina burst out in 1998, bragging about her sexual prowess and unapologetically putting her satisfaction first (cunnilingus is a recurring theme). After over fifteen years in the industry and with her sixth album on the way, she’s still widely considered hip-hop’s most consistent female rapper. “Everything is done with a certain type of dignity,” says Trina, sitting across from me. “You know, provocative, raunchiness, explicit, raw—to me, that’s just a fearless esteem inside of yourself.”
We’re in a dimly lit greenroom at the Marquee Club, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she’s just performed. Although its population is over 90 percent white, the province is home to a large number of black Canadians descended from freed American slaves. Halifax, the capital, is a small port city that’s a fourteen-hour drive from Montreal, the closest major city. In-demand artists rarely bother playing here, especially on icy February nights like tonight. Regardless, I’ve just watched Trina rocking a holographic aubergine romper and a glittering white mic onstage, while twenty- and thirtysomething women rush the stage, shouting her lyrics word for word and waving their cell phones in the air. It has become clear that the dazzling rapper’s longevity isn’t a result just of her libidinous image or her megawatt smile, but also of her dedication to working the scene, wherever it may be.
I ask Trina about being called a female rapper. She prefers being called a “female entertainer,” because, when you’re a woman in this business, rapper is just one of many hats worn. “I honestly believe that I work ten times harder than most of the guy rappers in the game,” she says. “My show is ten times better. And I do way more.” But the respect doesn’t seem to measure up. “As a girl, you kind of get watered down because the guys are so powerful. And when it’s a guy, you’re able to do all kinds of weirdo things and you get away with it. But if it’s a girl, it’s considered raunchy, wrong.”
Trina’s known as “Da Baddest Bitch”—the title of her debut album and first single—so I was surprised by her softspoken nature. But I shouldn’t have been. Her music is gritty, full of club bangers, but there are sensitive, emotional tracks, too—something she pushed for later on in her career. So why does the public struggle to see these other layers? We can forget that the artist is more complex than the persona she creates to sell records—and that society shapes why the persona works. For instance, women of color are drastically more prone to having their bodies commercialized, making it well worth questioning whether the popularity of hypersexualized artists is linked to the historical tendency to stereotype black women as Jezebels.3
Trina pointedly reconstructs the politics of pleasure to prioritize women—a crucial clapback to the notion that their sole purpose is to satisfy men. But while she quashes traditional gender roles, she still faces other limitations. Both record labels and hip-hop in general have urged Trina to stay graphic to keep the money coming in, which in turn constrains how the public sees her. “They had this image, the baddest bitch,” the rapper told Newsweek in 2014. “But they never really knew me.” It’s common practice to pigeonhole the female hip-hop artist who embraces her sexuality. We like to watch, but do we really see her?
You chastise but can’t stop my enterprise.
Over three hundred years later but only forty miles from where the first Africans set foot on American soil, Melissa Arnette Elliott was born, in Portsmouth, Virginia. She survived poverty, molestation, and witnessing the abuse of her mother, only to come out as one of the most groundbreaking, idiosyncratic rappers ever, all the while radiating body and sex positivity.
But Missy Elliott’s self-assurance did sometimes falter. One of her first professional gigs was writing and producing a song for seven-year-old Raven-Symoné called “That’s What Little Girls Are Made Of.” Missy also rapped a verse on the surprise 1993 hit, but the music video (unbeknownst to Elliott) was shot with a thinner, lighter-skinned actress lip-syncing her vocals. Missy was later told she didn’t fit the “image” the studio was going for.
She focused on writing and producing with collaborator Timbaland—Aaliyah’s second album, One in a Million, is one of their most notable credits—until Sylvia Rhone, CEO of Elektra Records, gave Missy the chance to start her own label and record her first album. With just two weeks in the studio with Timbaland, Missy Elliott recorded Supa Dupa Fly. The album was released on July 15, 1997, and debuted at number three on the Billboard 200, at that time the highest debut ever for a female rapper. Critics praised Timbaland’s innovative, daedal production and Missy’s fluid ability to write, sing, and rap with abandon. The Hype Williams–directed music video for “The Rain” was especially memorable. In it, Elliott raps casually about how fly she is, while dancing in a glinting black patent-leather blow-up suit, its size exaggerated even more by the camera’s fish-eye lens. The iconic image was pointed; Missy made a big record without giving in to pressure to size down.
In 1998, Lilith Fair invited Missy Elliott to perform, due to the success of Supa Dupa Fly and in response to criticism plaguing the festival for lacking musical and racial diversity. Missy resurrected her black Michelin Man suit and hyped a crowd normally more prone to swaying to the yearning croons of folksy singer-songwriters. Nearly twenty years later, at the 2015 Super Bowl halftime show, 118.5 million American viewers (not to mention those who tuned in from 180 other countries) were equally enthralled as Missy performed alongside the headliner, pop diva Katy Perry. Streams of her hit “Lose Control” jumped up 1,396 percent on Spotify that Sunday.
Before Missy’s arrival, hip-hop was deep into an identity crisis, forgetting its sincere, underground origins as it became a highly commercialized, consumption-driven boys’ club. Women who made their way in, while bold and deserving, usually fit a physical profile: scantily clad, light in both skin tone and weight. But Missy’s timeless universality flipped and reversed the face of hip-hop, challenging the industry’s cynical ideals with the atypical and real. As a (formerly) plus-size, dark-skinned woman who oozes self-esteem, she dispels Western beauty standards and raps subversively about sex work, satisfaction (sexual and otherwise), and the black female body. Her hallucinatory, dance-heavy music videos—featuring UFOs, albino demons, disembodied heads, and marionettes—are unparalleled in visual flair. And though she projects an aura more extraterrestrial and neo-futuristic than her earthly peers, Missy’s lyrics remain grounded, often channeling the playfulness and humor inherent in early hip-hop. Meanwhile, she’s in high demand behind the scenes, producing for big names like Beyoncé and Janet Jackson (Missy had sent fan letters to Jackson as a little girl).
Considering the odds Missy defied and her mammoth success (she’s a five-time Grammy winner and the only female rapper to have six albums certified platinum), it’s hard not to deem her an anomaly. But though Missy’s a singular supernova, there’s another female rapper who tore up the charts in the mid-to-late ’90s, achieving unprecedented success both commercially and artistically.
My emancipation don’t fit your equation.
In 1988, a year widely considered hip-hop’s greatest, thirteen-year-old Lauryn Hill was in Harlem making her musical debut at Amateur Night at the Apollo. Dressed smartly in a tricolored blouse and black pencil skirt, she began singing Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You.” After a shaky start, boos surged from the notoriously tough crowd. But Hill grabbed the mic from its stand, forcing herself to be heard. By the song’s end, she had won the audience over, with some members giving her a standing ovation—though the teen still burst into tears once offstage.
Eight years later, as a member of the Fugees, her one-two combo of rapping and singing fared much better. The trio’s semi-narrative concept album The Score was a Grammy-winning triumph and one of the first hip-hop records embraced by an older, middle-class audience. But as their single “Killing Me Softly” dominated airwaves, a caller to Howard Stern’s radio show claimed that, in an MTV interview, Hill had declared she’d rather her family starve than have white people buy their record. Hill vehemently denied the claim, saying people misinterpreted her priority to appeal to black youth over achieving mainstream success, and noting that she still considers their music universal. MTV confirmed that the allegation was false, but the rumor persisted. A few years later, Hill added that her desire to improve the self-love of young black women doesn’t imply racial supremacy: “There are a lot of young black girls who I meet in my travels who don’t have a lot of self-esteem. So if I communicate to them that they’re beautiful, no white person should find fault in that. It doesn’t mean that young white girls aren’t beautiful, because they are just as beautiful.”
Hill’s resonance within the black community, especially with women, intensified in 1998 with her solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a sincere examination of love, motherhood, societal pressures, nostalgia, and spirituality. Dominating charts and critics’ lists, Miseducation won half of its ten Grammy nominations, including Best Album of the Year—the first hip-hop album to do so. The Grammys remain notorious for failing to reward black artists beyond the categories of R&B and rap, so Hill’s wins were particularly significant. Despite being drawn from deeply personal experiences, the album was accepted as universal and Hill grew more than a fan base: she grew a following.
However, the pressures of stardom and commercial success became overwhelming, and she retreated from the public eye. Hill’s self-imposed exile—often linked to the influence of a spiritual adviser (some say cult leader)—presaged a sharp turn in her career. In 2001, she recorded the live album MTV Unplugged 2.0. If Miseducation showed vulnerability, Unplugged was Hill cutting herself open. Between popping lozenges and performing defiantly unpolished (and sometimes tearful) songs, she launched into stream-of-consciousness musings about reality, crusading against manufactured ideals of perfectionism that had once held her hostage. The album had poor sales and tepid reviews; Rolling Stone called it a public breakdown. Hill grew more elusive, focusing on family and spirituality. When she did book shows, she turned up hours late only to perform reworked versions of her hits, leaving many audience members dissatisfied. In 2013, Hill was convicted of federal tax evasion and spent three months in a Connecticut prison.
When people speak of Hill, it’s often wistfully and in the past tense, as if she were no longer with us. In the rare instance when the iconoclast is mentioned in the present, the public often deems her mentally unstable—the routine diagnosis we give uncompromising figures who see beyond the world in which they’re confined, from Albert Einstein to Dave Chappelle. Maybe these are coping mechanisms. Time and again, a new think piece crops up, lamenting the void of Hill’s voice and probing what really led to her withdrawal. But the latter is unnecessary; the reasons are there in Unplugged. “I had to step away,” Hill reaffirmed in Essence magazine, “when I realized that for the sake of the machine, I was being way too compromised.” Meanwhile, her peers uphold her defense. Talib Kweli penned an essay on how Hill—or any artist, for that matter—“is not a product, but a human being beholden to no one.”
The mountain of expectations placed on “our” artists is often insurmountable, obliquely requiring that they put their careers and fans before themselves. Hill openly criticized the industry-driven side of making music and the crushing pressure to capitalize on her success. Had she given in, the magic would be lost; her resonance stemmed from her disregard for the commercial.
In Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present, the hyperaware and (sometimes overly) ambitious book David Foster Wallace cowrote with Mark Costello, Wallace points out that “the hip-hop artist must present himself and his rap to a tough audience as at once for and of that audience.” The artist must represent. Pile on the added burden of emblematizing an entire gender, balancing societal, spiritual, and domestic expectations, and maintaining corporate bankability, and it’s a lot to bear. While the thirteen-year-old Hill obliged when the Apollo audience demanded more from her, she’s (for now) unwilling to do it again. “It’s not that Lauryn is crazy—if it’s not the orthodox way then people tend to say you’re crazy,” says former bandmate Pras Michel. “It just so happens that she’s done something that captured a moment in people’s lives. They want more of that, but she’s not ready to give that.” The industry mistreated her, she went from prophet to martyr, and we’re left enviously wondering who’s loving Hill.
Brown girl, brown girl, turn your shit down. / You know America don’t wanna hear your sound.
Hill’s rigidity in setting her own priorities and playing by her own rules (even if it landed her in jail) didn’t just change the hip-hop game but began a new one. Soon other defiant hip-hop artists were making waves from the ripples of Hill’s resistance. Take Mathangi Arulpragasam, for example. Using M.I.A. as her nom de guerre, she’s a self-taught virtuoso known as much for her courtship with controversy as for her music. She’s been called a terrorist sympathizer. She’s got beef with Oprah. In 2010, YouTube temporarily concealed the music video for her song “Born Free,” which gruesomely depicts a fictional genocide. Most famously, as a guest performer in Madonna’s 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, she flipped off a camera, prompting a lawsuit from the NFL. And while her candor can be refreshing, sometimes it’s messy. Last year, she inadvertently slighted the Black Lives Matter movement by pitting its visibility against that of Middle Eastern and Muslim issues—neglecting both the fuel that necessitates black activism and that black and Muslim identities aren’t mutually exclusive. She later clarified her concerns, but the incident was a misstep that further proved one thing: M.I.A. is often at odds with the world around her.
Born in London in 1975, she moved to her Tamil parents’ native Sri Lanka at six months old. Her father cofounded a student group central to the Tamil independence movement. This movement eventually morphed into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a terrorist group seeking independence from Sri Lanka, where laws had often favored the Sinhalese majority. His indirect link to the Tigers shadowed the family, leading his wife and children to seek political asylum in the United Kingdom while he remained behind, absent from their lives.
As a young immigrant, M.I.A. was drawn to hip-hop. She says, “It was the first thing that didn’t make me feel like I had to know Shakespeare back-to-front to fit in.” After talking her way into the prestigious art school Central Saint Martins, she grew frustrated at being surrounded by pretentious, detached students who disregarded what she felt was their duty to represent society, instead placating a narrow, privileged audience. After producing multiple visual art and film projects (including album artwork for post-punk band Elastica), M.I.A. turned to her refugee past for inspiration. Her lurid, spray-painted war imagery harkened back innovatively to hip-hop’s graffiti and later served as artwork for her 2005 debut album, Arular.
Arular and her next album, Kala, named after her father and mother, respectively, garnered universal critical acclaim. M.I.A.’s spry fusion of hip-hop, electronica, dancehall, gaana, funk carioca, bhangra, and the appropriate catchall “world music” was clatteringly irresistible. And while the music was infectious, dominating dance floors worldwide, her lyrics coursed through warfare, identity politics, and globalism. M.I.A.’s multiplatinum single, “Paper Planes,” which sampled the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” and peppered it with gunshots and a ka-chinging cash register, earned a nod for Record of the Year at the fifty-first Grammy Awards. Nine months pregnant in a skin-tight polka-dot-and-black-mesh minidress, she performed the hit on the live telecast, which then launched into “Swagga Like Us”—a collaboration between heavyweights Jay-Z, Kanye West, T.I., and Lil Wayne that sampled “Paper Planes.” While the “rap pack” traded verses among themselves, M.I.A. fit right in—to many, she stole the show.
Though she’s widely considered a pop act, M.I.A.’s roots are firmly planted in hip-hop. She simply repurposed it to reflect her essence, unlike artists such as Iggy Azalea, a white Australian who affects an inauthentic “blaccent” when rapping. Cultural appropriation is more pervasive than ever and, although it showcases the perpetrator’s ignorance, it also means that minorities see superficial, stereotypical, and exoticized depictions of themselves: they’re told they aren’t considered a part of the whole. Female rappers like M.I.A. validate the complex existence of the other, rather than pigeonholing it.
M.I.A. also represents a generation of others who not only embrace the music but identify with hip-hop’s ethos despite not sharing the racial background that bred it: there’s a growing movement of Asian female, indigenous female, and (black and nonblack) Latina rappers. Similarly, while the success of black female rappers undoubtedly resonates most deeply with other black women, women of color of all races (myself included) find vindication in these artists’ achievements. In a culture where there’s little visual representation of any minorities, we’re hungry for it.
M.I.A.’s and Lauryn Hill’s work has been explicitly political. Both have been lauded as visionaries, voices for the underrepresented. And, despite achieving worldwide acclaim, they both got significant blowback for speaking their minds (sometimes with admittedly extreme viewpoints) and failing to submit to the white-crafted commercial music industry. In her book Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, feminist scholar bell hooks writes, “While feminist women (many of whom are white) often say that they want to hear from women who have not spoken, they do not always want to hear what we have to say. Often when we speak, our ideas are not only expressed differently but they are different and this difference is not always affirmed.”
These words can be applied to society in general, as artists of color can attest. “Boom Skit,” a laconic track from M.I.A.’s fourth album, Matangi, reflects on feeling unwelcome as a brown woman in America. Within hours of the album leaking, the song’s lyrics were reblogged thousands of times by first- and second-generation immigrant girls living in America with roots from India to Jamaica to Yemen to Mexico to Bosnia and beyond. M.I.A. had publicly articulated a global experience: the silencing of women of color.
Eventually, the inhospitable nature of the commercial industry took its toll. In the mid-to-late 2000s, the last remnants of the golden era of female rappers petered out. Only a handful remained on major labels, down from more than forty in the ’90s. The Grammys eliminated the Best Female Rap Performance award. Journalists and fans alike lamented the dearth of female rappers. Tom Silverman, cofounder of the New Music Seminar and founder of veteran hip-hop label Tommy Boy Entertainment, offers the label’s experience with Queen Latifah as a possible explanation: “As big as she seemed to be, as much press as we had for her, she didn’t sell as many records [as her male counterparts],” he told me. Queen Latifah was the first solo female rapper to mine a gold record, but not with her revolutionary 1989 debut album; that same year, Tommy Boy labelmates De La Soul watched their debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, go gold within five months, and eventually platinum. De La Soul’s success was well deserved; the sunny, sample-saturated album remains matchless. Still, it’s hard to disregard a potential consumer bias that worked maybe not for De La Soul but against Latifah. After all, both records were widely acclaimed, genre-bending, and ultimately deemed classics.
Tommy Boy has appointed only female presidents in its thirty-five-year history. But despite the label’s pro-woman culture, Silverman concedes that if Latifah were a man, her sales probably would’ve doubled. “We found out that hip-hop was, at least at that time, and probably still to this day, a male-dominated business in terms of who’s buying records. It’s different with pop, where it’s very female-oriented.”
The digital-music revolution made things worse. Revenue from recorded music declined dramatically (total income for all music formats in the United States dropped more than five billion dollars—nearly 40 percent—from 1999 to 2008), so record labels were even less likely to invest in a female artist. The causes amplified the effect.
You want the bars, / I want my freedom.
So artists adapted. The twenty-first century brought a new school of artists embracing indie aesthetics. Azealia Banks was just seventeen in 2008, when she began uploading songs to MySpace; her thrillingly vulgar, beat-mutating single “212,” self-released in 2011, galvanized Universal to scoop her up the next year. But drafted into the big leagues, Banks soon clashed with the label. She publicly lamented her deal, saying she was “tired of having to consult a group of old white guys about my black-girl craft.” Banks is known for being outspoken (often problematically so), but her remarks recall those of Salt-N-Pepa’s Cheryl James, who once told Rolling Stone that labels are “racist more than they are greedy… They’ll sit on your record in a minute, just to make a point.” Freed from Universal in 2014, Banks eagerly rejoined the indie world and released her debut album, Broke with Expensive Taste, online—to critical acclaim.
Banks is one of many rappers to come up as a product of the digital revolution, but other artists found it a mid-career saving grace. Jean Grae, a South African–born, Brooklyn-bred rapper revered for her boundless lyricism, emerged during the mid-’90s and released solo records through indie labels before signing to Warner Bros.’ Blacksmith Records. But in April 2008, Grae wrote a cryptic MySpace post bidding her fans farewell and calling her music career “a wonderful and awful journey all at the same time.” She posted five months later, “I don’t wanna complain anymore, I just wanna change some things about the way artists are treated and the way you guys are allowed to be involved, since it IS the digital age.” Since then, Grae’s music has been self-released online.
As the first decade of the new millennium ended, fewer female rappers were in the mainstream, but sometimes this was by choice. These artists sought more agency, defying the exploitation and oligarchy inherent in the major-label machine. Still, by taking the independent route, they risked losing visibility. Even Missy Elliott—whose much-anticipated comeback album is in the works—couldn’t be counted on as the lone beacon of hope; she was forced to put her rap career on the back burner after being diagnosed with Graves’ disease in 2008.
All the girls will commend as long as they understand / that I’m fighting for the girls that never thought they could win, / ’cause before they could begin you told them it was the end, / but I am here to reverse the curse that they live in.
Things were quiet. Then along came Nicki Minaj.
Trinidadian-born Minaj has soared as a rap icon, with Vogue magazine declaring her “the most globally visible female rapper of all time.” She’s not immune from criticism—Remy Ma’s recent diss track, “ShETHER,” went in hard on Minaj—but her success is undeniable. Once boasting about making “50k for a verse, no album out” on Kanye West’s “Monster,” she gets as much acclaim for her features as for her own songs (West almost nixed Minaj’s verse because of how much she outshone him). And after only three studio albums, all released through Lil Wayne’s Young Money label, she’s crushed multiple chart records, becoming the first female rapper in nearly a decade to land a platinum album (and that’s without including streaming figures)—an increasingly rare feat for any artist these days.
Minaj spews verbal pyrotechnics, and her music ranges from breezily romantic to brazenly vulgar, from vainglorious to vulnerable—her single “All Things Go” delves into the abortion she had at fifteen, as well as her cousin’s murder. She makes a point to both rhyme and sing while seesawing between hip-hop and pop, a hybrid that boosts sales, widens her audience, and defies constraints imposed by hip-hop purists. Minaj refuses to be boxed in, and she’s frank about the double standards she encounters. In her first MTV documentary, she points out, “When I am assertive, I’m a bitch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss.”
Instead of rejecting the industry machine, Minaj embraces commercialism. The mogul’s music videos are ripe with product placement. She’s become a trademark, developing fragrances and cosmetics collections, landing endorsement deals with Pepsi and Adidas, and launching a brand of Myx moscato wine (which she co-owns—another first for a female rapper). Artists promoting products isn’t new, but Minaj commits to curating her brand instead of just cashing a paycheck: “My lawyer gives the same speech to everyone who wants to do business with me now. ‘Nicki is not one of those artists who allow her representatives to make decisions for her.’” She’s building an empire.
The unveiling of a Nicki Minaj wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Las Vegas was an exciting milestone. Making use of upward of three hundred physical measurements, Minaj’s likeness was sculpted down on all fours in a minimal getup of gold chains and black briefs. The image was plucked from the record-shattering music video for “Anaconda,” which, to a reductive eye, was vapidly titillating, but revealed upon closer examination a host of powerful subversive elements: Minaj plays teasingly with a banana, but then abruptly chops it up; later, she uses Drake as a prop, giving him a lap dance only to leave him high and dry; when he reaches to touch her, she swats his hand away before ditching him.
But Minaj’s proclamation of control was lost on the museum’s tourists. Shortly after its debut, pictures cropped up of visitors simulating sex acts on Minaj’s figure. This time, frozen as a waxwork, she couldn’t order them to back off. She’d been reverted from sacrosanct subject to belittled object, the antithesis of her video—and her very being. Some of the public’s lewdness can be attributed to good old-fashioned human idiocy (this isn’t the first wax model to have been groped), but whatever the lacquer used, it’s hard to overlook the fact that despite the plentitude of female rappers who’ve dominated the charts, the first (and, so far, the only) deemed deserving of a wax figure was depicted on her hands and knees.
In many ways, Minaj embodies defining characteristics from each era of female emcees. She goes toe-to-toe with male peers and comes out on top, much like Sha-Rock and Roxanne Shanté. She exudes the cheekiness of Salt-N-Pepa, the vicious vocal skills of MC Lyte, and the entrepreneurial spirit of Queen Latifah. She’s outlandish with a pop sensibility, just like Missy, and possesses an adept combination of singing and rapping in the spirit of Lauryn. Like M.I.A., she bulldozes creative and aesthetic boundaries. And like Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and Trina, she’s down to get dirty. But even more significant is what these women illustrate en masse: the idea of a female rapper is constantly subject to redefinition.
It’s fine if Minaj and others reject the term female rapper. Women who rap deserve the right to self-define (particularly after enduring years within systems telling them what to be). Still, if being a “female rapper” has come to mean less, that’s heartbreaking. Sure, historically, women in music have fought the use of female as a modifier that lightens their worth. But while hip-hop is illustrated myopically as male terrain, women have defied odds and obstacles to achieve some of rap’s milestones. And maybe the “female” title marks them as a minority, but since when is rap about being seen as a majority?
Hip-hop erupted to uplift the oppressed and fight the negativity of the urban plight; it was a movement for the—here comes that term again—other. As time went on, female rappers were relegated to being the other’s other. But rappers—female or male—don’t victimize themselves. They fight power, and they claim it.
In 2014, Nicki Minaj was promoting her minor role in the movie The Other Woman, with its logo splayed on the gray brick background behind her. Asked if she considered herself a female rapper, she said no. “I’ve worked with the greats and I’ve held my own with the greats and they respect me,” she explained. “I should respect myself enough to see myself the same way they see themselves.” That backdrop was oddly fitting: Minaj strives to set herself apart, even from her female predecessors and contemporaries. It’s part of the gig; hip-hop thrives off of rappers boasting about their superiority and asserting themselves to be the best in the game. But in the end, there’s no lone savior. Hip-hop is a collective, collaborative force—it’s always been.
Like those of all the women who rapped before her, Minaj’s triumphs make room for her successors (and her lyrics—“If Nicki win, then all of y’all gettin’ meetings”—prove she knows it). Yet whether or not Minaj kicks down doors, women who rap refuse to retreat. Just like in Queen Latifah’s iconic music video, the rap world mirrors a chessboard. The king may decide the game, but it’s the queen who wields unpredictable power. The queen is the wildcard.
While often more explicit and overt, this subjection is largely a by-product of misogyny within American society at large. It’s also tied to flawed ideas of masculinity. In his essay “Confessions of a Recovering Misogynist,” activist Kevin Powell confesses, “Patriarchy, as manifested in hip-hop, is where we can have our version of power within this very oppressive society.”
This wasn’t the first time Harry had championed hip-hop. Earlier that year, Blondie released “Rapture,” the first Billboard number one hit featuring rap, performed (albeit gauchely) as an outro by Harry. The song itself wasn’t hip-hop—Harry called it a homage—but amid rapping about Subaru-eating aliens, she name-checks Fab Five Freddy (who introduced her to the Funky Four Plus One More) and Grandmaster Flash. Some have criticized Harry’s decision to rap, saying she was co-opting black culture. But Harry wasn’t jumping on some bandwagon. The mainstream audience hadn’t yet embraced rap, and she wanted to bring light to the underground movement. “I felt that [the rap scene] was parallel to folk music,” said Harry. “That it was la voix pop, the voice of the people. It was a different voice. It was a voice of complaint, of talking about ego, of talking about their struggle.”
Despite her intentions, Harry’s words illustrate a troubling dynamic (and one that has repeatedly been brought to bear on hip-hop) in which the privileged romanticize minorities and reduce them to their traumas. But hip-hop’s lifeblood was never restricted to complaint and struggle: the music was fun. This was before the explosion of socially conscious rap (Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” would come out a year later) and gangsta rap, so the movement was more upbeat than indignant. The freewheeling, playful spirit doesn’t diminish old-school hip-hop’s importance: black youth were creating something for themselves, and that something made them feel good.
White America has a long history of feeling sexually entitled to minority women, with settlers and soldiers raping indigenous women as tools of conquest and colonization. During the Middle Passage, black women were allowed the freedom to roam on slave ships—black men, considered a physical threat, were chained to each other—and were therefore more susceptible to brutalization and rape by the ship’s crew. On land, while slaves were victims of sexual entitlement, their bodies were also demonized: in 1630, a Virginia court convicted a white man named Hugh Davis for “defiling his body” by having sex with a black woman. The case illustrates the eroticization and simultaneous denigration of racial differences that set in motion a confusing, damaging feedback loop.