Throughout much of the 2010s, the rap game has been dominated by Nicki Minaj, having used her fast flows and raunchy rhymes to shoot up the charts and into hearts. Minaj’s status as a self-proclaimed “Queen” has made her a symbol of feminine dominance within the hip-hop community, even having her dubbed by The New York Times as “the most influential female rapper of all time” before she could release her sophomore album. However, the rapper’s reign at the top has fallen under scrutiny for her refusal to allow any other woman to surpass her, which has landed her in numerous high-profile feuds and formed a monopoly in the field of female rappers. This isn’t entirely her fault though, as the mainstream rap audience contributes most heavily to the problem by constantly pitting up-and-coming female rappers against each other, thus constructing yet another obstacle for women in an overly competitive field that turns aspiring rappers into crabs in a bucket. To prevent this cycle from continuing to plague the careers of promising rappers, hip-hop audiences must eliminate the monolithic notion that women can only exist in their own sub-section of the culture, thus giving women the space to express their femininity however they choose without confining them to their own section of the culture, and allowing them to coexist amongst themselves and with the community at large.
Women face a glass ceiling of some sort in virtually every profession, and the hip-hop industry is far from an exception. In a culture historically rife with sexual objectification and unchecked cases of abuse, being a woman trying to make it big in what many believe to be a man’s world has proven to be costly for some. For rising rapper Kitty in 2013, it may have cost her more than she anticipated. While on tour with rapper Danny Brown, she witnessed a female fan initiate oral sex on a non-consenting Brown onstage and proceeded to write “My Thoughts On This Whole Danny Brown Oral Sex Thing,” an article featured in Vice which documented her grievances with the experience. Immediately after the article’s release, Kitty — herself a victim of sexual assault — was lambasted and threatened for speaking out on the incident, with many detractors defending the actions of the perpetrator and claiming that Kitty was overreacting to something that Brown was enjoying. Last month, Kitty claimed via Twitter that writing about the assault “ruined [her] career,” adding that she “felt insane … all the time” due to the hateful responses to her article. In the current social climate, dialogues about sexual abuse are as prominent as ever, so the inclusion of more perspectives from victims of any gender is imperative if hip-hop continues to progress forward.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be a trend the culture is moving towards. Even Cardi B, one of hip-hop’s most prominent names, has faced ridicule and belittlement from some who ignore her experiences with sexual misconduct as well as her opinions on other social issues because they judge her solely for her history as a stripper. In a March 2018 interview with Cosmopolitan, Cardi claimed that “a lot of video vixens have spoke about [sexual harassment] and nobody gives a fuck,” going on to state that “just because somebody was a stripper don’t mean they don’t have no brain.” A similar case can be made for CupcakKe, who made a name for herself by writing hyper-sexual songs which have overshadowed her more substantial musical statements in songs like “Pedophile,” in which she documents her experience with an older man sexually molesting her at age 15. In the minds of many, she will always be the girl who rapped about deepthroating, thereby neglecting her tales of empowerment and LGBT pride. For an artist as popular as Cardi or as niche as CupcakKe to have their perspectives overlooked in such a way shows how any woman, regardless of their standing within the culture, can be subject to unfair scrutiny or ignorance on the part of listeners. Like men, women should be allowed the artistic freedom to rap about sex and present themselves however they choose while being taken seriously as artists; giving them the opportunity to break away from the label of being just another female rapper and giving them a strong voice in the male-dominated rap mainstream is a step towards ending that double standard and bridging the gap between genders. If artists like CupcakKe could break free from the confines set upon them by the imaginary subgenre of “female rap,” they would likely amass a considerably wider audience to which they could present their perspectives on such crucial matters, resulting in dialogue and change in a community that so desperately needs it.
Another major obstacle faced by women in hip-hop culture comes as a result of the way that audiences often tend to pit them against each other, often resulting in highly publicized feuds that do very little to progress the careers of the artists involved. A prime example of this issue can be found in the controversy surrounding Migos’ “Motorsport” single released in 2017, which featured verses from both Nicki Minaj and Cardi B that many believed contained subliminal shots at each other. Both women denied the rumors, with Cardi stating in an interview with Complex that “I feel like people just want that drama because it’s just entertaining … People constantly, always want to talk about how in [the urban community] how we need to get along with each other. But these are the same people who want to see minority women against each other,” while also noting that these cases don’t occur within the realm of pop music. Minaj echoed a similar sentiment in a tweet that focused on the gender divide in how these feuds are fueled, claiming that “They don’t do this to male M.C.’s.” Certainly, the rap “beef” has always been and will continue to be an integral element of the culture, but it can become a major issue when such conflicts are fabricated or exaggerated by fans and media to gain more attention and traffic. These feuds have the potential to ruin careers, and in a field where women already have the deck stacked against them, audiences forcing them into a corner and gawking as they duel it out only makes it more difficult for these women to succeed. Eliminating the idea of an inescapable “female rap game” will prevent the excessively heightened sense of competition that holds so many women back from advancing their careers and capitalizing upon their artistic potential.
Perhaps the most glaring issue at hand when addressing the gender division in hip-hop is precisely the opposite: how women are perceived when they are being included with men. Oftentimes, when female rappers are included in the same breath as males, they’re being directly compared to a certain rapper instead of being viewed as their own artist with talent and accomplishments independent of the artist whom they’re being compared to. For instance, many hip-hop fans have touted Rapsody as “the female Kendrick Lamar” simply for her lyrical and storytelling abilities, but while being compared to someone who is widely considered to be the best rapper of his generation may seem like quite the compliment — especially as she’s stolen the show on numerous tracks with Lamar before, such comments can come off as backhanded and place unnecessary expectations and limitations upon aspiring female rappers. An artist like Rapsody has talent and perspective to offer that is exclusively her own, and while songs such as “Black & Ugly” — in which she explores overcoming shallow perceptions based upon appearance through her proclamations of “black and ugly as ever and still nobody fine as me” — may be just as applicable to male listeners, she gives the song a feminine energy that, despite being black and “rather ugly,” neither master MCs Notorious B.I.G. nor MF DOOM could possibly replicate.
These inequities take place at numerous levels, whether it be in everyday conversation, while ranking rappers and albums, or at award shows. Rapsody’s nomination for Best Rap Album at the Grammys in 2018 was a breath of fresh air for some who saw it as a victory for women and the entire underground rap scene, as it was rare to see an album so relatively unknown receive a nod at the sales-driven award show. However, it served as an unfortunate reminder for others that women are often unreasonably left out of the conversation during award season, with a mere five women ever receiving a Best Rap Album nomination and only one — Lauryn Hill as a part of The Fugees in 1997 — earning the win. As the 2018 Grammys came to a close, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow suggested that women in the music industry should “step up” if they seek to take home awards, in response to complaints that there was only one woman to win during the entire main show and the one woman nominated for Album of the Year was the only nominee not to give a performance during the night. It is important that these committees bestow their awards upon deserving artists and don’t resort to disingenuous “diversity” to drive up ratings and public reception, but there are plenty of women, especially in hip-hop, who deserve their moment in the spotlight. Viewing these women as nothing more than counterparts to male rappers is toxic enough, but forcing them into their own field and away from inclusive conversations about the rap game sets them back even further from attaining the recognition they deserve on a grander stage.
It can be argued that having an entirely separate space for women promotes self-determination within the community and a greater self-dependence as opposed to relying on men within the industry, especially in a time where so many toxic and abusive men are being outed, but so few are actually being held accountable for their harmful actions. This point-of-view is certainly an understandable one, but it ignores a rather unfortunate, yet very important truth: Many males, both within the industry and in the general audience, are in desperate need of a wake-up call on the matter of gender-related issues, and the emergence of more women in the male-dominated hip-hop scene has the ability to offer new perspectives that can drastically shift mindsets on matters such as sexual abuse, promotional and pay discrepancies, as well as plenty more. This isn’t intended to suggest that women owe men any sort of explanation on such matters, as society should hold men to higher standards of thought and expect from them a moral compass that can tell right from wrong, but restricting these perspectives to a specific scene or subgenre limits the visibility of women looking to tell their stories to a wider audience and defeats much of the purpose of telling such stories in the first place. The voices of women are crucial to the culture’s progression towards a brighter day, and should be projected as far as they can possibly reach; Placing these voices in a bubble can only serve to silence them.
Treading through the many facets and nuances of the question of how to properly include women in such a male-dominant culture is a rather difficult task, all things considered. It probably shouldn’t be, as the answer can be something as cut-and-dried as simply just listening to women with an open mind, but there are so many underlying factors as to why rap is in the state that it finds itself in and how women contribute to this that the debate over identity expression becomes a sort of dilemma. It is important to find a middle ground between representation and tokenism, as artists with a strong sense of identity often have a great deal of influence over people who share that trait and can be a major inspiration to aspiring creators, yet it is far too easy for an artist’s identity to overshadow their musical ability and become the sole selling point of their music. As stated by Rapsody in a 2017 interview with the Chicago Tribune, “never let your gender define you or limit you, but be proud of it at the same time.” Moreover, the representation of femininity in hip-hop is always positive, but it shouldn’t be an expectation cast upon every woman making music. On her 2013 track titled “Samaritan,” Noname’s sly self-admission that “you a female rapper … you supposed to be a bad bitch” demonstrates how toxic of a mindset many rap fans and artists alike are trapped inside of. If a woman wants to rap about being a “sk8er boi” as Princess Nokia does on “G.O.A.T.” she should be allowed the space to do so. Similarly, Jean Grae should be afforded the artistic freedom to pull off mocking the feminist women who blindly label her as a “femcee.” Pigeonholing female artists based on a singular set of stereotypes is detrimental to their careers, and to the progress made to further include and celebrate the voices of women since the genre’s inception. As hip-hop continues to grow into a massive global force, more women will continue to push forward boundaries and challenge listeners to think outside of their bubble. That is, if they’re let out of out of their own bubble first.