By Evette Dionne
Initially designed in the 1980s to reflect the condition of the urban African-American communities, the musical genre of hip hop is now a cultural phenomenon, generating billions of dollars in revenue and transcending global boundaries. As the hip-hop culture evolved, women MCs struggled and strived for their musical voices to be heard and considered relevant. From the millennium until now, there have been no significant contributions in the hip-hop culture from women MCs. Although this process to extinction for women in hip-hop has evolved over the past two decades, the constantly shifting role of women in the culture provides the focal point for Ava Duvernay’s documentary, My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth about Women in Hip-Hop.
In 2005, the premiere celebration for recording artists, the Grammy Awards, discontinued the category for Best Female Rap Performance Solo since there was an obvious lack of women contributing to the genre. However, this deficiency was not always existent. During the late 1980s through the middle of the 1990s, women MCs thrived in the music industry and were credited for their successes. From Roxanne Shante to Salt ‘N Pepa to MC Lyte, female rappers were prevalent and considered as relevant to the genre as the men they were in competition against. Their presence in hip-hop was not automatically accepted and often, women MCs had to challenge men to be considered serious contenders in the world of hip-hop.
Salt, who is one-half of the dynamic group, Salt ‘N Pepa claims that female rappers were not being listened to unless their record consisted of a challenge to an established male in hip-hop. This use of competition was displayed repeatedly with records such as Roxanne Shante’s Roxanne’s Response which was a direct challenge to male group U.T.F.O.’s Roxanne, Roxanne and Salt ‘N Pepa’s Showstoppers which was a response to Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s The Show. The usage of challenge as a means of establishment has been present in numerous genres of music including Rhythm & Blues (R&B). For instance, in the 1960’s at Motown Records, several artists would record an identical song from one producer. After listening to each version, the executive board for the label would vote for the best rendition and the artist or group that received majority vote would be allowed to include the song on his or her album. As Roxanne Shante stated, “Women had to prove that if they weren’t as good as men, they were better” and this mindset elevated women in hip-hop such as Queen Latifah to a level of success as great as their fellow male rappers
According to Fair.org, there are five dominant conglomerates in the music industry that control more than 80 percent of recording, producing, and distributing and none of these corporations are owned or headed by an African American. With the institution of hip-hop in the 1980’s, these conglomerates capitalized on the success of the genre and as with minstrel shows of the early 1900’s, exploitation of Black culture ensued. In Norman Kelly’s essay, Rhythm and Business: The Political Economy of Black Music, the exploitation of African-American artists for the purpose of profit is discussed and the genre of hip-hop has not been excluded from these “plantation-like conditions.”
As the hip-hop genre evolved, the image of women MCs progressed as well. As the golden era for women in hip-hop commenced in the 1990’s, there was an evident shift in how female rappers presented themselves. With the exception of prominent acts including Lauryn Hill, some women in hip-hop were now successful based on an emerging formula that insisted that visual presentation be more important than lyrical ability and that the constant usage of vile language and provocative clothing should be used to express sexuality. As Miami-based female rapper Trina stated, “You have to be sexy. They just want to see you.”
The empowerment lyrics from artists such as Queen Latifah and MC Lyte were replaced with raunchier content from sexualized female MCs like Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and Charlie Baltimore who used their beautiful figures as a means of propelling their careers. Although the 1990’s is considered the premiere period for women in hip-hop, the evident shift from talent to sexuality provides a resemblance to the grave exploitation of Sarah “Saartje” Baartman. Baartman was displayed in Great Britain in the 1800’s at freak shows because her large buttocks and elongated labia were intriguing to those who paid to see her. Some women MCs in hip-hop can now be considered the Sarah Baartmans for the conglomerates selling them and their music to the masses.
Since the millennium, the impact of women MCs on the hip-hop culture has been minimal and there has been a consistent decline in the number of female rappers who are signed to major labels. However, hope exists for the revival of women in hip-hop. Following the sexualized formula of the 1990’s, there was the emergence of Nicki Minaj who is considered to be the premiere woman in hip-hop at this time. With overly raunchy lyrics, an image that includes colorful hair and a crazy demeanor, and the endorsement of established male emcee, Lil’ Wayne, Nicki Minaj is considered to be “Kim Kardashian with a microphone according to Jocelyn A. Wilson.
Even with the presence of Nicki Minaj, other relevant women emcees are virtually extinct. The presence of female rappers are on a respirator clinging to life. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the abundance of women emcees that were present in the hip-hop culture during the 1990’s can ever be duplicated or if women emcees will be extinct from the genre entirely.