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The women who shaped hip hop, from Salt-N-Pepa to Eve

Salt N Pepa pose with their Grammys for Best Rap Performance by a Group 01 March at the 37th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. (Philippe Aimar/AFP via Getty Images)
Salt N Pepa pose with their Grammys for Best Rap Performance by a Group 01 March at the 37th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. (Philippe Aimar/AFP via Getty Images)

Hip hop, the music and art form born in the Bronx, is thriving well into its 40s.

And while big name contemporary artists like Cardi B get a lot of attention, many of the women who helped build the art form are all-too-often forgotten.

“Women in hip hop, we’ve been there from day one,” says Martha Diaz, founder and President of the Hip Hop Education Center. “We were the ones who started the commercialization of hip hop. … We have been part of the culture in every aspect that you can think of.”

Why don’t women in hip hop get their due? Kashema Hutchinson, associate director of the Hip Hop Education Center’s women-centric Fresh, Bold & So Def Collection, says the reasons include misogyny and a cultural focus on men.

“Sometimes it’s ego that doesn’t allow the women to be represented, and sometimes it’s just like, ‘Well this is the blueprint. Let’s just have a token one woman band or act for representation.’ ” Hutchinson says. “[And that] actually hurts the culture.”

Meet some of the formative women in hip hop

Watch on YouTube.

Salt-N-Pepa

The hip hop group, composed of three women, formed in New York City in 1985. They were among the first women to win a Grammy for a rap performance.

Hutchinson says many of the women in hip hop at the time, though a critical part of the push for women’s empowerment, were more reserved.

“But Salt-N-Pepa, they brought more consciousness of sexuality, femininity,” says Hutchinson. “Also a lot of conscious awareness of making sure not only that the playing field is level but also that the issues that surround us, including AIDS awareness … they made sure they brought that. But also you can still be a woman and do everything the boys do too, and it’s OK.”

Watch on YouTube.

Queen Latifah

Also among the earliest women to win Grammy awards for rap performances is Queen Latifah – the singer, actor, producer and fashion label owner. Diaz calls her one of the first moguls in hip hop culture.

“Queen Latifah is the queen,” says Diaz. “She’s the one who really put out the call to all the men and women who degraded women, in general, to really curb your language. ‘Respect the queen.’ ”

Watch on YouTube.

Missy Elliott

Born just a year after Queen Latifah, the singer, rapper and producer Missy Elliott challenged the standard of how women in hip hop should look and sound, says Hutchinson.

“The thing about Missy, as [with] many of the women in hip hop, is that she’s multitalented,” Hutchinson says. “So what happens is not only is she not cookie cutter size … She definitely pushes barriers every chance she gets.”

Watch on YouTube.

Eve

Rapper, singer, actress and television producer Eve released her first album in 1999 and became the third woman to have a single reach number-one on the Billboard 200. She sold records, won a Grammy, opened a clothing line and co-hosted a daytime talk show.

Hutchinson says there are a lot of reasons why Eve was successful.

“One, she’s actually talented,” says Hutchinson. “Then you have to understand the camp that she came from, the time that she came in. … She was running with the big boys. And so because she was running with the big boys and can keep up with them and still have her own flavor, her own identity, it allowed for her success.”

 


Devan Schwartz produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill RyanFrancesca Paris adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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