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Where Did All The Female Rappers Go?

Nicki Minaj's commercial success over the last decade has stood as an exception to the unwritten rule that women rappers no longer have a place among elite artists.
Mike Coppola
Getty Images
Nicki Minaj's commercial success over the last decade has stood as an exception to the unwritten rule that women rappers no longer have a place among elite artists.

This piece comes to us from Erik Nielson, an assistant professor at the University of Richmond. He teaches classes on hip-hop culture and African American literature.

2014. This, we are told, is the year female rappers are going to break their way back into the mainstream, ending a long period of silence for women in the industry. Now, it's true that many people had high hopes for 2013, too. And 2012 was also said to be promising. But 2014, with anticipated releases from a bevy of up-and-coming women artists and a couple of established veterans, is going to be different. That's certainly the hope anyway, and the narrative, once again, as we head into the spring of a new year.

I'm not so sure.

I am sure, however, that the perennial discussions about whether, at long last, we will see a resurgence of women artists within the hip-hop industry raise important questions. While there are plenty of talented women rapping today, you'd be hard pressed to name them if your sense of the industry is shaped by radio rotations, music videos, or Billboard charts. Indeed, when Nicki Minaj's Pink Friday was certified platinum at the end of 2010, it was the first solo album by a female MC to reach that milestone in eight long years. Minaj went platinum again in 2012 with Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, but her commercial success over the last decade has stood as an exception to the unwritten rule that women rappers no longer have a place among elite artists.

It wasn't always like this. While there's no escaping that rap music has been dominated by men, there was a time when women were a far more significant presence, allowing (or forcing) the genre to be defined, at least in part, by a woman's perspective. Consider, for example, the decade leading up to 2003, the last year a female artist (Lil' Kim) had a platinum album before Nicki Minaj. In that time, a number of women went platinum, including Salt-n-Pepa, Da Brat, Foxy Brown, Eve, Lauryn Hill and industry powerhouse Missy Elliott.

Alongside these artists, critically acclaimed performers like MC Lyte and Queen Latifah were also releasing albums on major labels, often achieving commercial success in the process. And many of the major crews had a woman artist (even if just one): Death Row had Lady of Rage, Flipmode Squad had Rah Digga, Native Tongues had Monie Love (and Latifah) and so on. There were enough women recording, touring, and getting radio airplay that, in 2003, the Grammys took notice and created a new category for Best Female Rap Solo Performance.

Just two years later, however, that category was eliminated, with Grammy representatives citing a precipitous decline in the number of female artists in the industry who could compete for the award. BET and VH1 made similar arguments for dumping female categories from their hip-hop awards shows as well.

While cutting these awards undoubtedly exacerbated the decline in the years to follow, there's little doubt that women were indeed vanishing from mainstream hip-hop. According to Ana DuVernay, who directed the 2010 documentary My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth About Women in Hip Hop, the numbers tell it all: Whereas in the late 1980s and early 1990s there were more than 40 women signed to major labels, in 2010 there were just three.

With the emergence of several new artists — including Angel Haze, Iggy Azalea, and Azealia Banks — things are certainly looking up, but the long-term prospects for women artists are still precarious. Recently, I spoke with hip-hop pioneer MC Lyte, who in 1988 was the first woman to release a solo rap album with a major label, and she expressed genuine concern with the state of women in hip-hop today.

"We've gone backwards," she said, noting that the space she and others helped open up for women rappers appears to have closed off. "This is pretty much what it was like when women weren't able to get major recording and release opportunities."

She offered a number of explanations for the shift, but one of her points in particular caught my attention. According to Lyte, it's far more risky to sign women artists today because of the costs associated with their physical appearance. Hair, make-up and wardrobe all add up, she said, and therefore women — who already face an uphill battle when it comes to selling records — become an even more questionable business proposition.

It's an argument I've heard before, not only from other well-known artists, but from industry executives who cast themselves as the victims of unfortunate circumstances. It's a shame that we don't have more women recording, these executives lament, but they are just too expensive. While I have doubts about this to begin with — are we really supposed to believe that the crushing cost of hair and make-up has pushed a multibillion dollar hip-hop industry away from women? — it does reveal a disturbing assumption about women in hip-hop: that what they look like is at least as important as their musical talent.

And, frankly, for some fans that may be true. Miami-based Trina, who has achieved enduring success with her highly sexual lyrics and provocative videos, puts the male perspective of women artists this way: "You a female; I'm a dude. I'm not learning nothing from you. I just want to see you. So whatever you're talking about, I probably don't really care. I wanna just look at you." As Trina has demonstrated, she is more than willing to oblige. But accepting, and even embracing, male desire in the formation of an artistic persona is hardly unique to her. Iin the last decade or so, we've seen artists like Lil' Kim and Nicki Minaj combine the roles of rapper and video vixen as part of their formula for success, too.

We might read these artists' use of explicit sexuality as pure business savvy, or even their willingness to confront American taboos against female, and specifically black female, sexual expression. But it also dovetails nicely with the crude exploitation of women that, as Professor Tricia Rose argues, has become "almost required" in mainstream hip-hop. For years, dominant male artists have made a fortune demeaning and degrading women, often portraying them in lyrics and videos as interchangeable objects of sexual pleasure, while increasingly limited radio and television rotations have made alternative representations of women harder to find.

After years of this, when do we concede that mainstream hip-hop has become largely defined by the negation of female voice and perspective? And what does that mean for new women entering the industry? Addressing precisely this, MC Lyte argues that hip-hop's ongoing disrespect of women has "literally broken down our character," creating a market that is predictably hostile to female performers. "It has gotten to the point that we have been subjected to such harsh verbal treatment — assassinated even — that who would want to listen?"

And so, thanks to a climate of its own making, the recording industry is understandably reluctant to back female artists, and even when it does, it often tries to pigeon-hole them into roles that put sexual style over musical substance. For example, in a recent interview, Sharaya J, an up-and-coming artist working with Missy Elliott, recounted that after she had presented her work to a group of record executives, one of them suggested that she put on some heels, get a weave, and "sell them with sex." In other words, record executives seem to be encouraging women to peddle an image that caters to the sexual desire of fans — which serves to further reinforce them as objects rather than credible rappers — even as they complain that the costs of maintaining this image are prohibitive since women don't move enough units.

None of this bodes well for 2014 as the year of the female rapper. Even if all of the artists who are expected to release their albums actually do — several have been plagued by agonizing delays — it remains to be seen whether they will get a fair shake from a male-dominated industry that Lil' Kim protégée Tiffany Foxx recently said "doesn't want the girls involved."

Consider Angel Haze, who in December did what rapper M.I.A. had only threatened to do earlier that year. Frustrated with delays, she uploaded her debut album to SoundCloud, making it free to the public. It was taken down within hours, but her label did capitulate, sort of, by agreeing to move up the release date to Dec. 30 — during what is arguably the worst week of the year to put an album on the market. Given the timing, her initial sales were predictably dismal, invoking comparisons to Kreayshawn, another female MC whose highly anticipated debut album landed, after delays, with a thud.

Angel Haze's situation is instructive, though, not only because it's indicative of the difficulties other artists seem to be having with their labels, but because once we strip away the drama surrounding the release, we have a new album from a highly anticipated artist that we can listen to. And it's a good one, showcasing polished production, as well as Haze's lyrical dexterity and an ambitious attempt to tackle serious subjects without alienating a mainstream audience. Is it perfect? No. But it's a solid debut from a talented young artist who clearly takes her music seriously.

And yet, reviews from XXL, Spin, and Pitchfork — important, if dubious, arbiters in the industry — were surprisingly harsh, with reviewers taking her to task for, among other things, disappointing lyrics or confusing messages. That's especially ironic given that all three magazines gave significantly higher ratings to 17-year-old Chief Keef for his lyrically-vapid 2012 debut album and routinely award higher scores to rappers like 2 Chainz, Waka Flocka Flame, Rick Ross, and Lil Wayne. What these rappers have in common, aside from lyrical skills that range from dreadful to mediocre (the exception being Lil Wayne earlier in his career), is that they routinely degrade women, sometimes to shocking extremes, and appear to be doing little to elevate rap as an art form.

Importantly, though, they do manage to dominate major channels of distribution, don the covers of glossy magazines, and, collectively, play a considerable role in defining the future trajectory of rap music. Meanwhile, the space for women has gotten so cramped that we're left to question whether a commercial scene that will allow them to succeed even exists anymore. To hear artists like Rapsody tell it, even if they release good music, women are treated like they don't belong among the community of rappers, but rather they are relegated to a less-than-equal "femcee" subcategory in which they are expected to perform with, or compete against, other women.

And yet there are still some glimmers of hope. One is that we're seeing established artists like Missy Elliott, Lil' Kim, and others provide mentorship for new female MCs — in defiance of the conventional wisdom that a woman needs a male rapper's endorsement and support to break into the industry. More important is that, as with hip-hop generally, there's a vibrant scene for women outside the mainstream that is in many ways more interesting, diverse, and talent-rich than what we have been finding in traditional venues. It's hard to talk about gifted rappers, for example, without mentioning Jean Grae, who's been making records for years and has generated a significant fan base as an independent artist, and there are a number of talented MCs across the country who are charting their own course as well — Nitty Scott MC, Awkwafina, Gifted Gab, and Ruby Ibarra, just to name a few.

In other words, if fans are waiting for the major media outlets to make 2014 the year of the female MC, I worry that they will be disappointed. But if they do a little searching, they will find that some of the best hip-hop music today is being produced by women who have created their own space to perform. Hopefully, their work will force the industry, one seemingly bent on creating a men's-only club, to think twice.

Maybe 2015 could be the year for that?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Erik Nielson
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