Musing On Music #4

by Hannah Weiss

Pictured: Nicki Minaj

A Man’s World? Analysing the Role of Women in Hip-hop

When you think of women in hip-hop today, one rapper comes to mind – Nicki Minaj. Yet just two decades prior, there were many: Missy Elliott, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, and Lauryn Hill are just a few of the female MCs who reigned throughout the 90s.

In 2003 the Grammys created a new category for Best Female Solo Rap Performance, the same year Lil’ Kim’s album La Bella Mafia went platinum. But this success wasn’t repeated until Minaj burst onto the scene with Pink Friday eight years later. The Grammys have long since dropped the category. So what happened to the women in hip-hop and why is there only one left standing?

The answer seems to lie with the listeners – in 1991 Newsweek reported that 80% of rap music’s audience was white. A 2004 study by Mediamark Research Inc claimed that 60% of hip-hop listeners were white – still significant, but also substantially less than the original figure. There appears to be no recent numbers ready to refute these claims. And in reality, the original statistics were based more on money-making than maths. In the 80s and 90s, black radio stations rarely played rap music – as advertising companies associated it with gang violence and crime, a radio station playing hip-hop was likely to lose profit. Around the same time, the top 40 radio stations catering to a white audience recognised the lack of rap music on the airwaves. This was hip-hop’s golden era, with crossover success achieved by crews such as Run DMC, who exuded a more positive vibe. In order to capitalise on this, the top 40 stations simply invented that 80% statistic to create media hype and reassure ad agencies that hip-hop was a safe bet. Their reasoning? The target demographic most prized by advertisers is white males aged 18 – 34, as they are assumed to have the most disposable income. This false data, used to justify the exploitation of hip-hop music, is still touted today by music industry conglomerates to excuse the lack of female rappers on their rosters.

The assumption is that this white male audience would have no interest in a female rapper. But why the bias?

The systematic vilification and objectification of women in hip hop is ubiquitous. The dominant voice is male, and indeed is an assertion of black masculine dominance in the face of social and economic oppression colluding to maintain white privilege. In Digital Underground’s video for Doowutchyalike, a male MC mimes biting the backside of a bikini-clad model. On their album As Nasty As They Wanna Be, Live 2 Crew lambast women for using their bodies to influence men. This hypersexualised portrayal of women has in turn affected their presentation in hip-hop culture. Watch any rapper’s music video and the women you see will be bodies shot in unsettling close-ups, scantily-clad. They are to be seen, not heard.

It follows logically that any women venturing into hip-hop’s domain will be judged first for her looks rather than her words. It began with MCs like Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown and girl group TLC. They broke boundaries by rapping but also conformed to societal expectations with provocative videos intended to appeal to male viewers. Mainstream success ensued, but with it a reassertion of the woman’s role as an object of desire.

In 1993 Queen Latifah retaliated with U.N.I.T.Y, a power anthem advocating respect for women. In it she raps: “This is my notice to the door, I’m not taking it no more/I’m not your personal whore”, calling out the misogyny plaguing hip-hop culture – and society. Yet despite the song’s Grammy win and Queen Latifah’s eloquent and compelling message, over twenty years later, Nicki Minaj has found herself publicly derided as overly promiscuous with the release of Anaconda. Minaj uses the song to respond to the sexism of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s hit Baby Got Back, subverting the infamous line “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun”, to assert female sexuality and promote body confidence. The song and video were widely criticised for their aggressive tone, but Minaj’s words and imagery are arguably no more violent than those used by male rappers for the past two decades.

Unlike Minaj, powerhouse and veteran MC Missy Elliott has succeeded in shifting records without subscribing to patriarchal beauty-ideals. In the video for I’m (Really) Hot, she appears in jeans and a hoodie, a far cry from the typical attire of the majority of female singers.  More importantly however, Missy Elliott has used her success as a platform to promote and act as a mentor for other women in hip-hop, subverting the traditional pairing of an established male rapper helping a female MC get her foot in the door.

Prejudice may be keeping women from rap’s top tier, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the talent. Do a little searching beyond the mainstream, and you’ll hear the voices of Angel Haze, Jean Grae, Nitty Scott MC, Gifted Gab and Ruby Ibarra, to name just a handful. You may not see their names atop the Billboard charts just yet, but these women are making some of the most vibrant hip-hop music today. Nicki Minaj definitely isn’t the only one.