Things are looking up for women in hip-hop—or at least that’s the story the internet is eager to tell. From Nicki Minaj’s super stardom, to Young M.A.’s white-hot summer in 2016, to Cardi B’s record-breaking ascent to chart domination, there’s a feel-good narrative about gender dynamics in hip-hop right now. But while there is much to celebrate, we must think critically about how to truly make space for women in this genre. With so many promising emcees rising through the ranks, it’s time for us to confront the troublesome norms in hip-hop culture that hold women back.
Let’s start with the term “female rapper”: it’s time to banish it once and for all. On one hand, the distinction is necessary in this male-dominated genre—and that’s an issue in itself. It’s a sad truth but thanks to years of conditioning, we tend to consider male rappers the default and rely on a modifier for clarity’s sake (“no, I meant who are your top five female rappers?”). But we need to ask ourselves what message we reinforce by separating women from the larger pool of emcees. Since its inception, women have made vital contributions to hip-hop, from Sylvia Robinson bringing the genre to the Top 40, to Roxanne Shante setting the stage for battle rap.
Yet, even now, women continue to exist in hip-hop’s margins, so much so that we use the term “female emcee” to remind ourselves that they exist. It’s a crutch to facilitate our gendered amnesia and worse, creates an unspoken hierarchy where men are deemed the standard and women are considered the “other”. Part of creating space means being mindful of our language in hip-hop’s discourse. We must normalize a woman’s presence in this genre by referring to her as an emcee outright and finally allowing her the same luxury we do men: the right to let her talent, not her gender, lead. Speaking of talent…
It’s OK to require it of all emcees, even our female favs. While it’s true that music is largely a matter of taste, there is still room for a practical, objective discussion about ability and skill when it comes to rap. Cardi B, who slurs and stumbles through banal, lacklustre bars, is lacking in both areas. Yet critics and fans alike have been performing mental gymnastics trying to inject more meaning into her music than it actually holds. The same can be said for Nicki Minaj who, despite a few flashes of brilliance, can credit her reign in the early 2010s more to our lack of other options than to her lyrical prowess (there’s only so many times one can rhyme “China” with “China” before the jig reveals itself).
We cannot be so narrow as to conflate a critique on a rapper’s music as a critique on her gender.
These observations aren’t meant to undermine either artist—the beauty of hip-hop is that there’s room for many different voices, flavours and styles. Nicki and Cardi make important contributions to the genre in other ways; like how their bold, sexy personas are two fat middle fingers to the femmephobia and respectability politics that women in hip-hop have to navigate. Still though, to be considered one of the greatest emcees in the genre, a woman needs to spit and spit well. When we allow our hunger for a fairytale success story to make the rap—the main metric we ought to be using to assess a rapper’s merit—an afterthought, we suffer in the end.
From a commercial standpoint, wins are so scarce for ladies in hip-hop that we’re willing to tiptoe around a woman’s lack of skill for the sake manufacturing a victory. But we can’t put ourselves in a position where we yearn so badly for female representation that we don’t care who leads the charge. Part of the reason that women rarely come up in our “top 5 emcee” discussions is that we lower our standards just to let them in the game. We elevate them to the top of the charts without requiring them to develop as artists and doing so ultimately stunts their growth.
We require men to show and prove, we call them out when their bars are weak. For every Kingdom Come there is a Blueprint, for every Lil Xan there is a Kendrick Lamar. But a dearth of women in mainstream hip-hop makes us latch onto the first lady we find and hold on for dear life. The result is a forum that allows men to grow from mixtape rappers to Pulitzer Prize winners, but requires only bare minimum from, say, the Cash Me Outside girl. We want so desperately to spin a tale of women’s “progress” that we’ll applaud anything. To what end?
In order to breed more great women in rap, we cannot exempt them from fair and honest critique. If the bars are weak, if the delivery is off, if the song just doesn’t knock, we have to be brave enough to say so, rather than crowning any old nursery rhymer Queen just because the throne has been empty for too long. We cannot be so narrow as to conflate a critique on a rapper’s music as a critique on her gender. We can’t require less of some artists out of blind allegiance to a girl code, then cry sexism when their tepid albums are snubbed at award shows. And we can’t continue to operate under a model of scarcity—starving most artists of resources and opportunities due to an unspoken rule that there can only be one woman behind the mic at a time.
Alongside Cardi and Nicki, right beside Kendrick and Drake, we need a Young M.A., a LeiKeli47, an Azealia Banks, a Kamiyah, a Saweetie, a BbyMutha and more—in our magazines, on our radios, in our playlists and on the charts. At the same. damn. time.
Variety in the mainstream will shatter the false notion that women in hip-hop are a monolith. It will allow us to start choosing which artists to support based on merit and ability, not a desperation for representation. It will lessen the demand on any one artist to speak for all women and allow the best and brightest lyricists to reveal themselves. And on the topic of lyricism…
Yes, it matters who writes the rhymes. From Salt-N-Pepa, to Lil’ Kim and so many others, many of the “empowering” lady rap anthems we hold dear were actually written by men. Although stigmatized, ghostwriting in hip-hop is nothing new and yes, male emcees use writers too. But the practice becomes a thornier issue when considering hip-hop’s flawed gender dynamic. In rap, an emcee’s narrative is all they have. Singers have their voices and musicians have their instruments, but a rapper’s main currency is their story. If a woman is holding the mic but a man holds the pen, whose story is really being told? Misogyny and patriarchal ideals are already deeply woven into hip-hop’s fabric. Allowing male writers to literally put words in women’s mouths just tightens the thread. If we want more nuance in hip-hop’s conversation about gender, if we want more women’s stories to be told, we must empower women to write. We must also challenge men to start getting comfortable with not being centred in every tale.
2018 is proving to be a renaissance year for women in rap, and it’s OK to celebrate our wins. But at this critical point in hip-hop’s evolution, we can’t allow small victories to make us complacent. This can be a game-changing year for rap, if we’re willing to do the work.