The 1980s and 1990s saw a number of female hip hop artists attain critical and commerical success. However, hip hop is currently suffering from a serious lack of female representation. HipHopLaw.com contributors Kamille Wolff, Horace Anderson, and Brian Welch weigh in.
“It’s a sausage fest!” That was the exclamation hurled through the phone by my celebrity rapper/music producer friend. It took a moment for me to understand, but I soon realized what he was referring to. He was comically referencing the lack of female artists in the hip hop industry. Although his expression was less than diplomatic, his frustration was fully warranted. Why do we rarely see a woman commanding the mic when it comes to a genre that was founded upon bringing a different perspective to the musical landscape?
Male domination is the order of the day in many types of cutting-edge art forms. This phenomenon is not isolated to just hip hop. Grunge, rock, and metal are mainstream genres of music that have very few women in the forefront. Even within ethnic music communities, such as reggae and reggaeton, its message is disseminated mostly by men. When women are presented, they tend to be over sexualized or overtly masculine to a fault. Is this a function of natural selection or is there something else at work?
While in law school, I considered practicing entertainment law to protect the rights of artists. I was discreetly pulled aside at an entertainment law conference and told by a female mentor that I should never wear heels and a skirt. Instead, I was abruptly told to stick to flats and pant suits so that I would not distract my predominately male clients. “They will never listen to a word you say if you do not dress down,” she stated as I looked on in disbelief. The “they” was the stereotypical urban male who would be more interested in dating me than retaining me. I was flabbergasted by her comment. I was shocked that this educated woman was telling me that I could not appear feminine and competently get my work done at the same time. Whether I chose a pant or skirt suit, the look would always be tasteful and professional. Why should my clothing, dictated by my gender, put me at a disadvantage in working with the hip hop crowd?
At the same conference, there was a panel on sports law and how to break into the business as a sports agent. The entire panel was composed of white males. A young, black female stood and asked if, in the panel’s opinion, she would one day be able to enter into the sports agency field. Her question was met with a pause as the panelists, one by one, responded on how difficult it would be as a woman to convince players to sign with her. An older black woman then stood in the back of the room and claimed that she had had the exact opposite experience – she was embraced by several male players because she was female. She eloquently explained the complexity of the state of the black family where oftentimes the woman is the head of the household, especially in the inner-city communities where several of these players come from. This female veteran stated that her young black male clients trusted her more than her white male competitors to act in their best interest. Her male clients looked at her as both an agent and a counselor. She then added the insight that several of these athletes grew up without a father, thereby generating trust issues when it came to men. These men witnessed their mothers pay the bills and manage the finances of the household with little or no assistance from a male. As a result, women were the role models when it came to financial stability and security for these players. Accordingly, these professional athletes specifically sought her out as someone who resembled their mother in signing with a business partner and associate. Thereby, this female sports agent’s gender put her at an advantage when it came to young black male athletes. Could the same be true for the hip hop generation and young black male rappers?
Women are absent in large number from the hip hop landscape - both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. From the recording booth to the boardroom, women do not occupy a place in the decision or taste making for the hip hop industry. Instead, our female counterpart, the video vixen, receives a disproportionate share of the attention. We have come so far, yet have gone too far. How do we pull back the reigns on objectifying the female anatomy to move units? It will take a nation of millions and a pocket full of millions. Women are entering law school at a rate close to the equivalency of men. Women now make up approximately 50% of entering law school classes, yet men still overwhelmingly dominate the legal profession. This is particularly true when it comes to high level positions at large law firms. Perhaps we will not see a shift anytime soon, but I choose to remain optimistic. Hip hop can gain a competitive edge if it allows more women into the fold. The purchasing power of women, along with the creativity of the female touch, can only add to the rich texture of the hip hop movement. Microphone check 1-2, 1-2…is this thing on?
The short answer to this question, especially if we are talking about mainstream hip-hop, is “back to the margins.” Although we can rattle off the names of talented female rappers past (Lyte, Latifah, Salt n’ Pepa) and present (Jean Grae, Jane Doe), being talented and getting shine are two different things. Hip-hop has traditionally been an overwhelmingly male-dominated space that only grudgingly (and perhaps temporarily) made space for women. The current situation may just be a return to some gender-skewed equilibrium. It may also be yet another example of the music’s loss of diversity and variety of voices.
In the beginning, most of the crews and solo artists that made it to the mainstream were male. Then, answer records started to provide an entry point for talented women. Roxanne Shanté and Salt ‘n Pepa got on in part because of their battles on wax with UTFO and The Get Fresh Crew. Once it was established that women had rhyme skills, we went through a period where nearly every crew or collective wanted to have a woman associated with it. The Juice Crew embraced Shanté. The Native Tongues counted Monie Love and Latifah among its membership. The Fugees were essentially fronted by Lauryn Hill. Flip Mode had Rah Digga, Bad Boy/Junior Mafia had Kim, and so on.
The initial expansion of opportunities for female MCs coincided with Hip-Hop’s golden age of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, which embraced a certain level of musical diversity. In hip-hop’s “big tent,” the Fresh Prince could co-exist with Kool G Rap, De La Soul with Onyx, the Pharcyde with N.W.A., and Public Enemy with 2 Live Crew. New York began to acknowledge that good music could come from the west, the south, and the midwest (and even other cities in the east). Acts like Boo Ya Tribe, Kid Frost, 3rd Bass, and House of Pain proved that you did have to be black or Puerto Rican to be hip-hop. If all different styles, subject matters, geographies, and races were welcome, then it was probably easier than it had been before to envision a place for women in the movement.
But then, mainstream hip-hop began to get narrower and less diverse. First, the gansgta rap genre, then Cristal rap, shrunk the available creative space for rappers, including female rappers. Gangsta rappers rapped about guns and drugs. Unless you were rapping about guns and drugs, you got no attention from labels or radio stations. “Ladies First?” No thanks. “Princess of the Posse?” Get to the back with that. The only room for a woman in this form of hip-hop was as Apache’s “Gangsta Bitch,” or as a mule for some rapper’s drugs and guns. The Cristal-ization of mainstream hip-hop, while softening some of gangsta rap’s hard edges, did little to provide a place for women who wanted to get on the mic. An iced-out playa or baller did not need a woman running her mouth on wax. He needed her (and her friends) shaking their booties on his video. Take a look at the explosion in opportunities for “video vixens” in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Now see how many commercially successful female rappers you can think of who emerged during that period. It’s not a coincidence.
The current dearth of prominent female hip hop artists has coincided with a pair of recent and related trends.
One trend is the exclusion of females from the leading hip hop factions and labels of recent years. What has Jim Jones’ Dipset/ByrdGang, 50 Cent’s G-Unit, Fat Joe’s Terror Squad, T.I’s Grand Hustle, Slim Thug’s Boss Hogg Outlawz, and Three Six Mafia’s Hypnotize Camp Posse had in common recently? Not one of them has incorporated a regular female presence into their act. Contrast that with the 1990s, when Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def (Da Brat), Dr. Dre’s Aftermath (Lady of Rage), Busta Rhymes’ FlipMode Squad (Rah Digga), Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella (Amil), The Fugees (Lauryn Hill), and the Ruff Ryders (Eve) all featured female acts capable of standing on their own two feet. (O.K., maybe Amil doesn’t count.)
So why haven’t hip hop conglomerates welcomed females into their ranks in recent years? The current trend of gender exclusion and homogeneity in hip hop is likely the result of many factors, but possibly none more so than mainstream hip hop’s digression into a bottles and bling genre at the beginning of this decade. Until recently, when thoughtful artists began to reemerge on the charts and airwaves, hip hop in the 21st century focused largely on club life and its emphasis on money and sex.
This resulted in another trend.
In an effort to find their place in the dumb downed world of early 21st century hip hop, many female rappers forsook what made them unique and instead focused on fitting into the tarnished landscape. Instead of Queen Latifah’s transcendent wisdom, Eve’s confident femininity, or Missy Elliot’s staccato delivery and airtight production, we were stuck with Trina, Shawnna, Remy Ma and the like, each of whom sounds like any other male rapper obsessed with pursuing his next bottle of Dom and late-night hook up. Why would Dipset introduce a female thug into the fold when it already has plenty of male (i.e., more believable) prototypes?
Nevertheless, there will always be a place for women in hip hop. Prominent male artists such as Kanye West, Jay-Z, Lupe Fiasco, and Eminem each have their own unique shtick, be it pink polos, corporate takeovers, skateboards, or even tales from the trailer park. The key to success for female rappers of today (as M.I.A. is demonstrating) is to embrace what makes them unique. Listeners will surely take notice.
(Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)