Every other summer Saturday in Manhattan’s Union Square, there’s a rap cypher. It starts friendly enough but usually morphs into a battle by the end of the night; New Yorkers showing the infamous ego they’re known for. Each weekend that I’ve run into this cypher, I’ve appreciated the sense of authenticity and community that’s cultivated when people decide to gather and spend their evenings rapping in the dense heat. But with all that’s present, I notice something missing: Women.
This is how Hip-hop has basically looked for a long time. Athletic, beautiful, authentic– but gendered. Rap began as young men talking to other young men; confirming, asserting and validating each other over and over again. This origin allowed space for misogyny and self-segregation of the sexes. And there has been no notable moment of integration nor champion of that cause. “Female rappers,” yes. “Feminist rap,” yes. But an integrative wave that would eliminate the need for such a category? No.
Women have been able to carve out a lane for themselves. From MC Lyte and Queen Latifah to Missy Elliott and Lil Kim to Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, women have managed to be heard and have their voices amplified.
Especially now. Within the last couple of years, women have been an undeniable force in rap. Not only is Nicki Minaj one of the biggest rap stars of our time, and not only has Cardi B been breaking rap records left and right for the past two summers, but even underground and up-and-coming Hip Hop has been heavily infiltrated by women. Noname helped redefine how we think about Chicago rap. Young M.A. had a hit full of one-liners and Instagram captions that set the tone for parties through 2016. Rapsody earned a Grammy nomination for “Best Rap Album” for Laila’s Wisdom. Roxanne Shante got her own Netflix biopic. Tierra Whack made a huge splash with her Instagram-released short rap film, Whack World. City Girls had a widely celebrated feature on Drake’s latest, Scorpion. And others like Azealia Banks, Saweetie, Megan thee Stallion, Rico Nasty, and Cupcakke are maintaining, for better or worse, a steady buzz on social media.
It’s an exciting time to be a woman in rap. Women have a strong presence in both the mainstream and the niches of the culture. But as the landscape of Hip-hop has evolved to be more democratic, inclusive and accommodating– the language we use has remained the same. “Female rapper” has endured as a term of categorization and division. As women have proven themselves to be highly multidimensional rappers and an influential stream of fiscal and social capital– is it still necessary to segment them away from Hip Hop with the “female” precursor?
While “female” isn’t a bad word– it has a lot of baggage. The connotation has left us to set different expectations from women in rap. We expect “female rap” to be about “female things.” And we tend to punish and ignore women who don’t fit into the confine of what we think a “female rapper” should be by denying them the opportunities and support they need to be stars. It’s in this way that while men are rewarded for being experimental, even when they lack in skill, women are forgotten for it. When women are so different– The Lady of Rage, Eve, Remy Ma, Da Brat, Trina, Kelis, Jean Grae, Foxy Brown–what good is it to compare them all based on gender alone? We can see the dynamism of women by the variance of what they bring to the potluck culture that is Hip Hop, but we make them all sit together at a metaphorical kid’s table. It creates a speak-when-spoken-to environment that fosters the need for male cosigns. It makes it so that women need an invitation or permission slip to engage fully with the boys’ club that is Hip-hop. It encourages tokenism from our institutions. It catty-corners players who are cornering the industry; women who should be looked to as industry trailblazers are subcategorized and also’d. “Female rapper” often relegates an artist to an afterthought or a sidebar, when at this point they’ve earned their mention in the general conversation.
Furthermore, Hip-hop is a high context culture. Meaning that the implications of something are often more important and more potent than their explicit representation. Hip Hop is all about codes, symbols, body language, and nods. In a culture like ours, a lot can be understood without much being said. And on that note, sometimes what’s left unsaid is more interesting than what we express.
This is to say– the implications of a woman making it in Hip-hop are, in context, more interesting when we don’t spend so much time talking about her gender. Yes, she’s a woman. We know that without addressing it every time she speaks. When you’re a woman, you always are. You never leave that femininity at the door. You never shed it for a rap verse. Womanhood is an experience that informs art, but not one that siphons it off from the rest of the world. Letting that womanness stand as a fact, rather than a point of constant speculation may be more meaningful in the end.
Of course, this raises tricky questions. Would Nicki Minaj have won all those “Best Rapper” BET Awards if she was competing against the guys? Maybe. Maybe not. My guess is that she had the talent to be a real competitor. Her style has proven to be malleable to any beat, applicable to any content and layered sonically. We know she has the capacity to go against even the best of boys. It’s evident by her infamous “Monster” verse, the iconic moment that Kanye almost felt compelled to remove from the track because she upstaged the guys. Which brings me to my final and real point:
Ditching the gendered prefix of “female” before “rapper” will make for better rap.
And I think this Nicki case is a perfect vehicle for that argument. I often look at Nicki as a victim of the “female rap” categorization. I don’t ignore that she is extremely talented and successful, because she deserves recognition for all that she’s earned. But I think about how much bigger and better she had the capacity to be. Because we relegated her to “female rap”– an uncrowded genre of pre-set expectations, she really only had to find a few more ways to rap about pussy than everyone else to be considered the best. Because we relegated her to “female rap,” all those “Best Rapper” awards were practically guaranteed and not to be earned. Because we relegated her to “female rap,” she’s more prototypical than anything. An ideation of a “female rapper” rather than a living, breathing consistent producer of impressive lyrics (Which is why we see so many Nicki copycats among women rappers– they’ve been told that’s the only way women earn their keep in this game.). And even though she compares herself to men and has noted that they are who she’s up against, there’s no societal pressure or expectation that holds her accountable to delivering every single time. When she said the reintroduced the female rapper to pop culture, she was right. But then she stopped growing because she’s competing against herself and, essentially, reiterations of herself. She’s given us the same bitches-is-my-sons, British-accented, pink-tinted bars over and over again because she’s not trying to be the indisputably great. Just the relative one. There’s a difference between setting your sights on best rapper alive, and setting them on “best female rapper.” And that’s shown when you compare how she raps with intent and focus against Ye, Rick Ross and JAY-Z to how she raps against the cotton candy sound of Ariana Grande. On that same note, I love what Lauryn Hill brought to The Miseducation, but I’ll always think her rhymes were more potent with the men of The Fugees.
The term “female rap” stifles potential by negating competition. And not just the potential of women, but the potential of rap as a whole. Competing against everyone and not just a small segment of the population will make everyone work harder at discovering their distinct verse. Because women bring perspectives and point of views the men can’t, the more diverse content forces everyone to step up their dynamism. When we leave women out, our music suffers.