Watch the Queen

The artwork of Sandi Rankaduwa, entitled “Watch the Queen,” is depicted in the photograph above. It is a representation of the beauty and power of a queen.

In 2014, Nicki Minaj made it known that she no longer identified as a female rapper.

No trace of her eccentric alter egos was present when Nicki Minaj sat down for a movie press junket; no colorful wigs or fancy bustier dresses. She was quite demure in her neutral makeup and sleek black hair as she apologized in a matter-of-fact manner: “I’m sorry, I view myself as a rapper.”

Months after declaring that she had come to “save a thing called female rap,” Nicki Minaj explained her change of heart. She noted that the term “female rapper” had been watered down, and indeed, she felt she was an exception to that.

What could Minaj’s statement signify to today’s hip-hop culture? In 2017, the style is usually linked to the African-American male experience–an essential outlook (Kendrick Lamar’s captivating analysis of racism in the U.S. is a notable example), yet one that too often sees females as “bitches” or attractive accessories.1

Not too long ago, hip-hop became a liberating force for women, especially those who had been denied a voice. However, in the short history of the genre, female rappers have quickly become overlooked and underappreciated. Although many books and critics have documented hip-hop’s success, women have been largely excluded from the narrative. Consequently, it is not surprising that some female rappers have opted to distance themselves from the title. In actuality, women have been a fundamental part of hip-hop from day one, and they embody its true essence.

Since I was a young girl, I have been a queen on the scene. I am a trailblazer and here to explain what I mean.

–Royalty known as Lisa Lee

The roots of hip-hop traverse through eras, from West African griots, to African-American youth engaging in verbal sparring, to dancehall toasters and radio DJs, to Pigmeat Markham, Gil Scott-Heron, and Muhammad Ali. Though its origin is contested, its birth was celebrated. DJ Kool Herc is credited with hosting a back-to-school jam in the Bronx, where he isolated and extended the instrumental beat of a song, giving the crowd more time to dance. Some Brooklyn natives argue that Pete “DJ” Jones, Grandmaster Flowers, and KC the Prince of Soul were the forerunners of hip-hop, with a sound more based in disco and funk. Regardless, the four components of hip-hop–DJing, emceeing, breakdancing, and graffiti–precipitated an artistic channel for young African-Americans with limited prospects.

In the beginning of the burgeoning cultural movement, there weren’t too many regulations. Men dominated the scene, however, women made an appearance, even if they were sometimes seen as a gimmick. Single rappers such as Queen Lisa Lee and Pebblee Poo and female duos like the Mercedes Ladies and the Sequence, started to make their presence known. Nevertheless, Sha-Rock was the first to really stand out as the lead female emcee.

When she was eight, her family took a Greyhound bus from Wilmington, NC to NYC. This coincided with the Son of Sam’s rampage, and that summer she saw emceeing for the first time at a Kool Herc jam. In the fall, the tenth grader auditioned and was chosen to be an emcee with the Brothers Disco. She became the only female, being labeled the “Plus One” of the group – the Funky Four Plus One More. Though it appeared as if she was just an addition to the lineup, she quickly became the star attraction.

In Sha-Rock’s autobiography, the rap-harmonizing group is compared to the “hood version of Gladys Knight and the Pips.” Although they never released a full-length album, the Funky Four Plus One More had considerable recording success. Their sixteen-minute disco-sampling debut, “Rappin’ and Rocking the House,” was released in 1979 and is one of the longest rap songs ever recorded. Later in 1980, the group signed to Sugar Hill Records, owned by Sylvia Robinson, and recorded their classic party jam, “That’s the Joint,” which consists of several boasts within one nine-minute take. Blondie’s Debbie Harry was a great fan of the group and thus asked them to perform on Saturday Night Live when she hosted in 1981. As a result, the Funky Four Plus One More became the first rap group to appear on national television on Valentine’s Day that year.2

In the late ’70s, hip-hop started to become more well-known and singles were pressed, however it was still mainly experienced at parks, parties, and clubs. A big draw for these performances were rap battles, in which the emcees freestyled in order to be respected, authenticated, and win a cash prize. In 1980, a ten-year-old Lolita Shante Gooden and her mother got on a bus to the Woodside Projects for her first rap battle. Since the young girl was too small to duel her older, male opponent, the DJ overturned his crate of records to create an elevated platform. Shante beat her challenger and with fifty dollars richer, she and her mom took the bus back home.

Four years later, rap group UTFO gained fame with “Roxanne, Roxanne,” a B-side song that poked fun at a female character who refused each of them. However, UTFO’s cancellation of a WBLS radio appearance on Mr. Magic’s “Rap Attack” incited the fury of the popular host, and his DJ Marley Marl went searching for vengeance. Marl heard of his neighbor, Shante, and her ability to rap, and offered her a pair of Sergio Valente dungarees in exchange for her assistance. Although Marl never followed through on the promised jeans, Shante more than made up for it when she adopted the name Roxanne Shante and created a freestyle verse over the instrumental version of UTFO’s hit. The track contained crude language and (as the legend goes) was recorded in one take. By utilizing aspects of live rap battles and preserving them on wax, the track became the first major hip-hop “answer record” and initiated a series of over one hundred more answer songs by rappers creating other characters in the fictional world of Roxanne.

For the following years, Shante achieved a series of remarkable accomplishments. She became part of the Juice Crew rap collective and joined tours with LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and Eric B. and Rakim. Additionally, she recorded two albums and collaborated with Rick James and Big Daddy Kane. Despite her proficiency in rap, her young age, gender, and innocence made her an easy target for her peers, partners, and the public. Shortly after “Roxanne’s Revenge,” when Shante was fourteen years old and pregnant, mothers protested her shows and shifted the blame away from her then boyfriend, who was eighteen years her elder. Moreover, DJs and producers took an equal portion of her income instead of the usual insignificant amount.

Shante, in a 2014 interview with the Hudson Union Society, discussed her upbringing as a fourteen-year-old girl raised in the projects by a single mother. She said that, due to her lack of a father figure, she was more likely to become influenced by those around her, regardless of their positive or negative intentions. She was surrounded by men who wanted her to be successful, though only under their own conditions and for their own benefit. She was thankful for the money she was making, however, making more in thirty minutes than her mother would make in six months.

In September of 1985, the New York Marriott Marquis was transformed into a hip-hop Colosseum for the inaugural New Music Seminar’s MC Battle for World Supremacy. The ballroom was bustling with an audience of around 500. The final showdown was between Shante and hip-hop veteran Busy Bee. The rhythmic drumbeat began, and right as the rhyme referee counted down, the two began trading eight-bar verses. Busy Bee seemed to be stuttering and pre-rehearsed, but Shante, who was freestyling, put him in his place with the following: “I’m telling you something: get it together. / The hat you’re wearing, that shit ain’t even leather. / You wanna play games and you wanna get loose, / but we all know who got the juice.”

Shante’s performance had the crowd in stitches, and the judges, who included Kool DJ Red Alert, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, DJ Whiz Kid and the Fat Boys, held up their scorecards. Even though she got three perfect scores and an eight, Blow gave her a four, which was enough to make Busy Bee the winner. She was disqualified for swearing, which Busy Bee had previously egged her on to do. Years later, Shante still wanted to confront Blow, saying it was the one time she had ever cried after a battle. Blow explained that the world wasn’t ready for a young girl to represent hip-hop, which he believed had to be taken seriously. She understood what he meant, yet still felt frustrated that it was done to her and that it crushed her passion for the genre. At eighteen she left her boyfriend, and at twenty-five she decided to quit her rap career after being in an additional abusive relationship.

A woman of brown complexion with two issues to be remedied: / an incorrect hue and an incorrect gender.

–The iconic duo Salt-N-Pepa, who rose to fame in the music industry in the late 80s and early 90s.

In 1985, two nursing students at Queensborough Community College became friends despite their contrasting personalities – Cheryl James was gentle-spoken and diminutive, while Sandra Denton was outgoing and from Jamaica. They bonded over their work at Sears as telephone solicitors (often phoning each other instead of customers) and made other acquaintances, including Martin Lawrence and music producer Hurby Azor. Inspired by Roxanne Shante’s accomplishments, Azor wanted to create a duo of female rappers, and recruited James and Denton to be Super Nature. They clandestinely entered a studio and recorded “The Show Stoppa (Is Stupid Fresh),” a song that dissed Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s “The Show” that had a beatboxing and “Inspector Gadget” sample. Shante’s influence remained long after her time, and her impact was felt by many.

The single proved quite popular in the East, granting the performers a taste of fame and inspiring them to persist. They decided to rename themselves as Salt-N-Pepa, while Azor took charge as their director, lyricist, and creative force. A DJ was also added to the mix and, after two attempts failed, Dee Dee Roper filled in as DJ Spinderella.

In 1986, Salt-N-Pepa released their debut album Hot, Cool & Vicious. Although it was popular on the club scene, the group only became a hit when a dance remix of “Push It” was added to the re-pressing. This was the first rap album by a female act to go platinum, and it was nominated for the first ever Grammy hip-hop award for Best Rap Performance. Salt-N-Pepa were a breath of fresh air to a male-dominated hip-hop scene at the time. They rapped with equal ferocity and dressed sexily, whereas other female rappers dressed similarly to their male counterparts in sportswear, jeans and sneakers. Salt-N-Pepa kept the accessories but made their own style statement with slouchy jackets and figure-hugging spandex.

The group experienced a setback with the unfortunately named A Salt with a Deadly Pepa, but their third album, Blacks ‘ Magic, relieved fans’ worries. Hits like “Expression” (written by James) and “Let’s Talk about Sex” made Salt-N-Pepa successful crossover artists as a result of their roots, not in spite of them. The album cover–a Rockwellian depiction of the trio examining a book named Blacks Magic and evoking the spirits of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, and Minnie Riperton–showed their pride in their African-American identity.

In 1993, Salt-N-Pepa released Very Necessary, the predominant hip-hop album of the year. Its breakthrough single, “Shoop,” gained popularity on the pop charts, while “Whatta Man” glorified strong African-American men and “None of Your Business” brought them their first Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. In the aftermath of Very Necessary‘s prosperity, Azor was given a monetary compensation to relinquish his control over the band.

After James’ unsuccessful attempt at a comeback with the album Brand New, he phoned Denton to tell her that he was leaving the group. Unbeknownst to her other band members, James was suffering from depression and bulimia and was throwing up to seven times a day, according to People magazine. Denton was hurt and confused, so she went home and tried to harm herself with a razor. She was also hiding her own issues; her marriage to Naughty by Nature’s Anthony “Treach” Criss had recently ended due to his repeated abuse. In her autobiography, Denton recounts one morning when he raped her, which caused her IUD to become dislodged and almost killed her.

Denton, who had been in a series of oppressive relationships, often felt like a phony when she was acclaimed as empowering. “I was showing this one image and at the same time I would be going around with sunglasses to cover up black eyes,” she said. However, abuse is a widespread event for a disproportionate number of African-American women, and female rappers are no different. A few were sexually abused as minors (Queen Latifah), some saw domestic abuse between their parents (Sha-Rock, Nicki Minaj), and some of them experienced both (Missy Elliott). For the women who experience sexual manipulation and other types of mistreatment, these rappers not only provide an outlet to express their feelings but also provide the encouragement that they, too, can survive and prosper.

The success and outspokenness of Salt-N-Pepa encouraged many of their contemporaries and inspired future trailblazers. After listening to their song “The Show Stoppa”, MC Lyte, who had been rapping since age twelve, wanted to become an emcee and share her message with the world. At fourteen, she recorded the song “I Cram to Understand U (Sam)”, a song about a love lost due to crack addiction. Despite being produced on a limited 4-track Tascam recorder, it became an underground success, leading to a record deal with First Priority Music. In September 1988, at the age of seventeen she released her first full-length album Lyte as a Rock, the first album by a female solo rapper on a major label.

Lyte did not take Salt-N-Pepa’s style as her own; instead, she opted for more practical clothing like baggy jeans, overalls, and tracksuits. She explains, “I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted, as long as I sold records.” She was successful in her endeavors, and her raspy, no-nonsense voice with its expert flow and depth made her stand out. She was an early adopter of using her music to advocate for social causes, touching upon topics such as alcoholism, suicide, HIV/AIDS, and street violence. She used her influence to pursue acting and philanthropy, creating the Hip Hop Sisters Network nonprofit.

My rhymes lead me and the bass lines stir something in me. / Oh Lord, I beg your pardon for the people, they don’t understand why they are so passionate about me.

–The renowned Queen Latifah

As Lyte’s fame began to grow, Queen Latifah started her own journey into the world of acting, jazz singing, talk-show hosting, fashion, cosmetics, record production, and artist management–but hip-hop was her true passion. During her teenage years, she’d switch out of her Burger King uniform and into a Swatch sweatsuit, K-Swiss sneakers, and a Benetton fisherman’s hat to go to New York and sneak into Latin Quarter. This nightclub was where she watched Salt-N-Pepa’s first show and Sweet Tee and DJ Jazzy Joyce wow the crowd. This experience was inspiring, making her join a bunch of New Jersey hip-hop heads in Mark the 45 King’s basement, which eventually became the Flavor Unit. Latifah was the youngest and only female of the group, becoming known as “the Princess of the Posse” and recording a demo track to match.

When Latifah was granted money to buy a new wardrobe, she chose an Afrocentric style, rather than the typical sweats, chains, and sneakers. This ultimately earned her a record deal with Tommy Boy Records, and in 1988 she released her first single, “Wrath of My Madness.” In 1995, she won a Grammy for her song “U.N.I.T.Y.”, which denounced misogyny and violence against women. However, it was her first album, All Hail the Queen, that featured her most well-known single, “Ladies First.” The music video for this song was a powerful representation of Latifah’s message of feminism and civil rights, showing footage of iconic figures such as Sojourner Truth and Madam C.J. Walker, and also incorporating imagery of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid. By combining both gender-specific and race-related issues, Latifah highlighted the commonality in struggle.

Tricia Rose, in her book Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, explains that many musicians from the 80s and early 90s wanted to help express the voices of women.

In speaking with Salt, MC Lyte, and Queen Latifah, it became evident that these ladies felt uncomfortable bearing the label of “feminist” as it was a term associated with white women only. They believed that feminism meant being against men, which wasn’t something they were in favour of. Although they expressed annoyance with the male gender, they didn’t intend for their work to be seen as being anti-black men.

Women of color have long been faced with a complex situation when it comes to considering race and gender. During the civil rights era, black females were typically not included on the front line, despite the significant role they had played in such moments. Men, however, continue to suffer from racism, police brutality, and systematic dehumanization, making it understandable that fighting for one’s race would take precedence over gender. Joan Morgan, author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down , affirms this by saying, “White girls don’t call their men ‘brothers’ and that made their struggle enviably simpler than mine.”

Due to its failure to fully embrace intersectionality, it is understandable why Latifah and MC Lyte have hesitated to label themselves as feminists. The Riot Grrrl movement of the ’90s provided a platform which combined music, art, culture, and feminism, yet it still neglected to consider the needs of marginalized groups, largely benefitting middle-class white women instead. As an example, Bianca Ortiz’s zine detailed the Mexican girls who attended an antiracism workshop at the 1997 Bay Area Girls Convention being relegated to the kitchen to cook for hours, which left them feeling confused and disturbed.

The ’90s saw a big rise in the visibility of women of color in the public eye due to the immense popularity of hip-hop and R&B. Despite this, the overtly feminist part of the counterculture was not one in which minorities felt fully included and respected. These representations of women of color were many, resonating, and sometimes contentious.

The way I talk and the way I dress are my own decisions. / People try to copy me and the way I rap, / but I’m a successful CEO that makes hits like this.

–Rapper Lil’ Kim

In Berry Gordy’s Mahogany, a 1975 big-screen hit that received mixed reviews, Diana Ross portrays a character from the South Side of Chicago who works as a department-store secretary but has a dream of fashion design. She is discovered as a model and given the name “Mahogany,” becoming a celebrated designer (culminating in a puzzling Kabuki-style fashion show). Eventually, she abandons her career to be with her politician boyfriend. Despite its outdated, sexist elements, the movie was treasured by young black girls, women, and drag queens, including Kimberly Denise Jones.

Kim shared many similarities with Ross’s character. Her taste for extravagance was evident in her fashion sense. Despite having a challenging upbringing, living in a car with her mother, she was determined to make something of herself. However, it was ultimately a man who provided her with the opportunity to do so. That man was the not-so-well-known Christopher Wallace, otherwise known as Notorious B.I.G. who took her under his wing and helped to nurture her talent.

Back in ’94, Wallace signed Lil’ Kim on to his Junior M.A.F.I.A. crew from Brooklyn. Her solo career skyrocketed with increased exposure from the group, and her 1996 album Hard Core achieved double-platinum status. Never before had someone been as sexually explicit in the rap game as Kim, inspiring a wave of hypersexual female rappers (not to forget Foxy Brown, whose album Il Na Na was released just a month prior to Kim’s).

Many found the use of aggressive lyrics in a male-dominated environment to be empowering. However, there were those who felt that Kim’s sexualized image was simply used to sell records; two years earlier, Da Brat had become the first female solo artist to go platinum. Critics suggested that Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown were merely puppets whose strings were pulled by their male mentors, such as Biggie and Puff Daddy for Kim, and Jay-Z and Nas for Foxy. In a 1997 interview, Kim refuted this idea, arguing that others had certainly helped her career, but ultimately it was her who created her persona and it would not have been convincing if she had not been comfortable with it: “You can’t really just make someone into something and it works all the time; that person has to be a natural.”

O looking glass, upon the wall,/ who is the most fearsome female of them all?

–Trina’s name was put forward.

Foxy Brown and Lil Kim may have gone out of the spotlight, but that does not mean that their hypersexual style of rap was fleeting. In 1998, Trina from Miami made her entrance and was unashamed to put her own pleasure first (cunnilingus was a reoccurring motif). After being in the music industry for more than 15 years and with a sixth album in the works, she is still seen as the most consistent female rapper in hip-hop. “I carry myself with a certain dignity”, she says, when I met her, “provocative, raunchy, explicit and raw – to me, it’s just having the courage and confidence to be yourself.”

We find ourselves in a dimly lit greenroom at the Marquee Club in Halifax, Canada. With a population that is over 90% white, the province is home to a large black Canadian population that are descendants of freed American slaves. Halifax, the capital, is a small port city that is a fourteen hour drive from Montreal, the nearest major city. Despite the fact that few performers bother playing here, particularly on chilly February nights like this one, I had the pleasure of watching Trina rocking a holographic aubergine romper and a sparkling white mic onstage. Women in their twenties and thirties rushed the stage, singing her lyrics and waving their cell phones. It has become clear that Trina’s enduring success isn’t only attributed to her libidinous image or her megawatt smile, but also to her dedication to working the scene wherever it may be.

When I inquired of Trina what she thought of being labeled a female rapper, she said she would rather be referred to as a “female entertainer” as she has to wear many different hats in the business. She then went on to say, “I honestly believe that I work harder than most of the male rappers out there and my show is better. Plus, I do more.” She then acknowledged the lack of respect she receives in comparison to male rappers. “As a woman, I get overlooked because the guys are so powerful. If it’s a man, he can get away with all sorts of oddities, but if it’s a woman, it’s seen as raunchy and wrong.”

Trina is usually identified as “Da Baddest Bitch”, the title of her initial album and first single, something that made me surprised by her softspoken demeanor. Yet, I should not have been. Her music is strong, made up of club bangers, but also has emotional, sensitive tracks, something she focused on in her career later on. So why does the public have difficulty recognizing these other sides? We can forget that the artist is more multifaceted than the persona they make to sell records–and that society influences why the persona is successful. For instance, women of color are more prone to having their bodies used commercially, making it beneficial to consider if the fame of hypersexualized performers is correlated to the long-standing stereotype of African American women being Jezebels.3

Trina has reworked the politics of pleasure in order to give women a more prominent role, counteracting the belief that they only exist to please men. However, this shift has brought its own restrictions. Record labels and the hip-hop industry have encouraged Trina to remain explicit in order to keep the money coming in, which has shaped the public’s perception of her. In 2014 she told Newsweek, “They had this image, the baddest bitch, but they never really knew me”. It is often the case that the female hip-hop artist who is open about her sexuality is put in a box. We observe her, but do we really get to know her?

You may criticize, but you cannot impede my endeavors.

–Missy Elliott, the famous artist, is well known for her inventive lyrics and creative music production. She has been applauded for her unique style and influence on the music industry.

Around three centuries after the first African men and women were brought to the United States, Melissa Arnette Elliott was born in Portsmouth, Virginia – only 40 miles away from the event. Despite having to struggle with poverty, molestation, and the abuse of her mother, she managed to become one of the most innovative and unique rappers of all time – and she always stood for body and sexuality positivity.

Despite having a strong sense of self-confidence, Missy Elliott experienced a moment of vulnerability. In 1993, she wrote and produced a song titled “That’s What Little Girls Are Made Of” for the seven-year-old Raven-Symone, which also contained a rap verse from Elliott. However, when the music video was filmed, an actress who was thinner and lighter-skinned was used to lip-sync Elliott’s vocals without Missy’s knowledge. She was informed afterwards that she was not the image that the studio desired.

Missy Elliott, in collaboration with Timbaland, worked on writing and producing her second album, One in a Million, until Sylvia Rhone, the CEO of Elektra Records, gave her the opportunity to start her own label and make her first album. In two weeks of studio time with Timbaland, Missy recorded Supa Dupa Fly, which was released on July 15, 1997 and attained a peak rank of third on the Billboard 200, a record-breaking debut for a female rapper. Critics lauded Timbaland’s creative, intricate production and Missy’s ability to rap, sing, and write without restraint. The music video for “The Rain,” helmed by Hype Williams, was especially memorable for its portrayal of Missy rapping about her own “flyness” while wearing a bulky black patent-leather getup, exaggerated by a fish-eye lens. This iconic image was a powerful statement, demonstrating Missy’s success in making a great album without succumbing to the pressures of being smaller.

In 1998, Lilith Fair invited Missy Elliott to perform due to the success of Supa Dupa Fly and criticism about the festival’s lack of musical and racial diversity. Missy was sporting her black Michelin Man suit and got a usually quiet crowd energized. Fast forward to 2015 and the Super Bowl halftime show, which had an audience of 118.5 million Americans (with more from 180 other countries) watching Missy take the stage with Katy Perry. After the show, streams of her song “Lose Control” increased by 1,396 percent on Spotify.

Prior to Missy’s arrival, hip-hop was facing a crisis of identity, having forgotten its authentic, underground beginnings as it became a highly commercialized, male-dominated industry. Women who managed to make it in were bold and worthy, but generally conformed to a particular physical image: scantily clad and light in both complexion and weight. However, Missy’s timelessness and relevance reversed the face of hip-hop, pushing back against the industry’s narrow standards with her atypical, true self. As a former plus-size, dark-skinned woman with immense self-esteem, she defies Western beauty ideals and raps about sex work, pleasure (of all kinds) and the black female form. Her surreal, dance-infused music videos, featuring UFOs, albino demons, disembodied heads and marionettes, have no equal in visual creativity. Despite projecting an otherworldly, futuristic aura, Missy’s lyrics remain rooted in the playfulness and wit of early hip-hop. Furthermore, she is in demand as a behind-the-scenes producer, having worked with renowned artists like Beyonce and Janet Jackson (whom Missy sent fan letters to as a child).

Despite the incredible accomplishment of Missy Elliot, a five-time Grammy Award winner and the only female rapper to have six platinum albums, there is also another female rapper who experienced great success from the mid-to-late 1990s. This artist had both commercial and creative success that was unprecedented.

My freedom does not compute with your calculations.

–The music of Lauryn Hill

In 1988, regarded as a milestone year for hip-hop, Lauryn Hill made her first musical appearance at the Apollo’s Amateur Night. Clad in a tricolored blouse and black pencil skirt, she began singing Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You.” Despite a shaky start, she was able to create a connection with the typically unforgiving audience, ultimately leading to some members giving her a standing ovation. Nevertheless, the thirteen-year-old was still moved to tears when she left the stage.

Eight years after her earlier failure, Hill was part of the successful Fugees trio who, with a combination of rap and singing, won a Grammy for their concept album The Score. The single “Killing Me Softly” was popular, but a caller to Howard Stern’s radio show said that Hill declared on MTV that she would rather her family starve than have white people buy their record. She denied this and said her priority was to appeal to black youth, but also that she thought their music was universal. MTV confirmed her denial, but rumors persisted. Later, Hill clarified that her goal to improve the self-love of young black women was not meant to imply racial superiority: “There are many young black girls I meet who lack self-esteem. So if I communicate to them that they are beautiful, there is no wrong in that. It does not mean that young white girls are not beautiful, because they are just as beautiful.”

In 1998, Lauryn Hill’s resonance within the African-American community, particularly with females, became more intense with her solo debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. This heartfelt exploration of love, parenting, societal expectations, nostalgia, and faith soared on the charts and topped numerous critics’ lists, taking home five of its ten Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year–the first hip-hop record ever to do so. The Grammys often overlook black performers outside of the R&B and rap classes, so Hill’s victories were especially notable. Although it drew from her very own life, the album was considered universal, and Hill acquired more than just a fan base–she gained a following.

The pressures of fame and achieving commercial success proved to be too much for Lauryn Hill, and she chose to withdraw from the public eye. It has been speculated that this was due to the influence of a spiritual guide, which also signified a shift in her career. In 2001, Hill released the live album MTV Unplugged 2.0, showcasing her vulnerability. The album was met with poor sales and reviews, with Rolling Stone calling it a public breakdown. She then dedicated her time to her family and spirituality, and when she did book shows she would arrive late and play altered versions of her hits, leaving many fans disappointed. In 2013, Hill was found guilty of tax evasion and served a three month sentence in a Connecticut prison.

When speaking of Hill, it is often done with a sense of nostalgia and in a past-tense manner, as if she had already gone. The few times her name is brought up in the present, it is often in regards to her being seen as mentally unstable–a common assumption made about those who see beyond the status quo, from Einstein to Chappelle. This could be considered a way of coping. Articles come and go, mourning the loss of her voice and asking what really drove her to withdraw. The answer is already there in Unplugged–Hill herself clarified in Essence magazine that she had to take a step back “when I realized that for the sake of the machine, I was being way too compromised.” Her peers have also come to her defense; Talib Kweli wrote an essay on how Hill–or any artist, for that matter–is a person, not a product, and thus is not beholden to anyone.

The weight of expectations put on “our” artists can be too much to bear, as it indirectly requires them to prioritize their careers and fans over themselves. Hill spoke out against the corporate aspect of making music and the strain of trying to take advantage of her fame. Her artistry was preserved because she didn’t succumb to the monetary potential; her impact came from her refusal to focus on the commercial.

In Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present, David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello explore the idea that hip-hop artists must present themselves in such a way that is both for and of their audience. This burden is intensified by the need to represent an entire gender, while also juggling societal, spiritual, and business expectations. Lauryn Hill experienced this pressure during her performance at the Apollo and has since refused to give the same level of performance. Pras Michel explains that people often accuse Hill of being “crazy” for not following the orthodox way, however, her ability to capture a moment in people’s lives has made the public yearn for more. The industry has mistreated her, transforming her from prophet to martyr, and we are left to ponder who is supporting her.

_Hey there, brown girl, please lower the volume. / You know the U.S. of A. doesn’t care for that noise. _

–M.I.A.: An iconic figure in music and culture.

The rigidity of Hill’s principles and refusal to adhere to the status quo (even if it meant jail time) not only changed the hip-hop scene, but even created a new one. Mathangi Arulpragasam, better known as M.I.A., is a self-taught musician who is well-known for her music and propensity to court controversy. She has been accused of being a terrorist sympathizer, and her music video “Born Free” was temporarily hidden by YouTube due to its graphic content. At the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, she famously flipped off a camera, leading to a lawsuit from the NFL. Last year, her comments on the visibility of Black Lives Matter compared to Middle Eastern and Muslim issues caused some controversy, though she later clarified what she meant. It is clear that M.I.A. is often at odds with the outside world.

In 1975, a girl was born in London who, at six months old, moved with her Tamil parents to Sri Lanka. Her father became a part of a student organization which was a key factor in the Tamil independence movement. This organization eventually evolved into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a prohibited organization which sought autonomy from Sri Lanka, a country in which the Sinhalese majority were generally favored by law. His affiliation with the Tigers caused the family to be shadowed, making them seek political asylum in the UK while he stayed behind, missing from their lives.

M.I.A., a young immigrant, was attracted to hip-hop as it was the only thing that made her feel like she could fit in without knowing Shakespeare inside out. After getting accepted into Central Saint Martins, she grew displeased with the other students who seemed to prefer catering to an exclusive, affluent crowd instead of taking up their role to depict society. She created multiple visual art and film pieces, including the album artwork for post-punk group Elastica, and drew from her refugee background for inspiration. This led to her distinct war imagery that had a connection to hip-hop graffiti, which was featured on her 2005 debut album Arular.

The world was enthralled by Arular and her subsequent album, Kala, both named after her parents. M.I.A.’s unique blend of hip-hop, electronica, dancehall, gaana, funk carioca, bhangra, and “world music” was infectious and her lyrics explored themes of warfare, identity politics, and globalism. The single “Paper Planes” was hugely successful and was a nominee for Record of the Year at the fifty-first Grammy Awards. M.I.A. was nine months pregnant at the event and wore a polka-dot-and-black-mesh minidress while performing the hit. She even managed to participate in the “rap pack’s” performance of “Swagga Like Us”, which sampled “Paper Planes”, and many thought she stole the show.

M.I.A.’s music is described as pop, but her true foundation is in hip-hop. She crafted her own style, as opposed to artists like Iggy Azalea, who adopted a fake “blaccent.” Unfortunate cultural appropriation is more prevalent than ever, meaning that people of color are often misrepresented and excluded from the mainstream. Female rappers like M.I.A. represent the complexity of people who are often marginalized, rather than reducing them to a single identity.

The success of female rappers of color has a wide-reaching appeal, regardless of race. M.I.A. serves as a symbol of this generation, which is composed of not only those who appreciate the music, but also those who identify with hip-hop’s core values even if they do not share the same racial background. This is especially true for Asian and indigenous female rappers, as well as black and non-black Latinas. The victories of black female rappers are most significant to other black women, yet all women of color, myself included, find vindication in their accomplishments. In a society where minorities are often underrepresented, we are eager for this visual representation.

M.I.A. and Lauryn Hill have both been widely acclaimed for the strong political messages in their work. Despite achieving global recognition, their outspokenness and refusal to conform to the commercial music industry, even with more extreme viewpoints, was met with backlash. Feminist scholar bell hooks addresses this in Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, pointing out that “when women who have not spoken do so, their ideas are often expressed in different ways and these differences are not always welcomed”.

M.I.A.’s fourth album, Matangi, contains a track entitled “Boom Skit” which speaks to the feeling of being excluded in society as a woman of color. The words were quickly shared among thousands of first- and second-generation immigrants who hailed from a variety of countries, such as India, Jamaica, Yemen, Mexico, and Bosnia. The artist provided a voice to many who felt unheard, as she voiced the experience of being silenced as a woman of color on a global scale.

The unfavorable atmosphere of the commercial industry took its toll eventually. In the mid-to-late 2000s, not many of the female rappers from the golden era were left around in major labels, and this number was reduced from more than forty in the ’90s. The Grammys also stopped giving out the Best Female Rap Performance award. People were unhappy about the lack of female rappers, and Tom Silverman, co-founder of the New Music Seminar and founder of Tommy Boy Entertainment, gave an explanation. He said that even though Queen Latifah had big press and seemed to be popular, she didn’t sell as many records as the male rappers. Queen Latifah was the first solo female rapper to get a gold record, but it wasn’t with her 1989 debut album; the same year, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising achieved gold status in five months and eventually went platinum. De La Soul deserved the success; their album with its happy samples is still one of its kind. Yet, it is hard not to consider the possibility of a bias from the buyers that worked in favor of De La Soul but against Latifah. Both albums were highly acclaimed, genre-defying and are now regarded as classics.

For the past 35 years, Tommy Boy has only had female presidents in charge. Silverman admits that if Latifah had been a man, her sales would have likely increased. He notes that it is quite different in the pop genre, where the majority of buyers are female, while hip-hop is still male-dominated in terms of who purchases the records.

The digitization of music had an unfortunate consequence. From 1999 to 2008, the total income for music formats in the US dropped by a staggering 40%, amounting to a loss of five billion dollars. This meant that record labels were even less likely to finance female performers, creating a chain reaction that only exacerbated the situation.

I desire independence / whereas you seek confinement.

The words of Jean Grae are a source of inspiration.

In the twenty-first century, the indie aesthetics of art flourished, with artists like Azealia Banks leading the charge. At only seventeen, Banks began sharing her music on MySpace, and her single “212” was released in 2011. Universal quickly signed Banks, but she soon had disagreements with the label, citing racism and a lack of respect for her “black-girl craft.” After parting ways with the label in 2014, Banks went back to the indie world and released her debut album, Broke with Expensive Taste, which was widely praised.

Banks is one of the many rap artists to benefit from the digital revolution, and Jean Grae is no different. An acclaimed lyricist based in Brooklyn, New York, Grae released solo records through independent labels before being signed to Warner Bros.’ Blacksmith Records. However, in April 2008, she wrote a cryptic post on MySpace saying goodbye to her music career, describing it as “a wonderful and awful journey all at the same time”. Five months later, she made a post mentioning that she wanted to “change some things about the way artists are treated and the way [fans] are allowed to be involved” as it was the digital age. Since then, Grae’s music has been self-released digitally.

At the end of the first decade of the 2000s, only a few female rappers were featured in the mainstream, though many of them made this decision on purpose. These artists wanted more control, and refused to be taken advantage of or oppressed by the larger record companies. However, by choosing to go the independent route, they ran the chance of fading from public view. Even Missy Elliott – whose upcoming album is eagerly awaited – had to temporarily abandon her rap career after being diagnosed with Graves’ disease in 2008, showing that she could not be relied on as the only source of optimism.

All the ladies will be applauded if they comprehend / that I’m standing up for the girls who never thought they could succeed, / due to the fact that they were told before they even had a chance to start that it was the conclusion, / yet I’m here to undo the misfortune that they exist in.

–Nicki Minaj is an artist who has made her mark in the music industry. She has demonstrated her unique style and sound, which has been embraced by fans all over the world. Her success has been a testament to her hard work and dedication.

It was peaceful and serene until Nicki Minaj made her arrival.

The Trinidadian-born Minaj has seen immense success in the rap industry, with Vogue magazine even calling her “the most globally visible female rapper of all time.” Despite facing criticism from Remy Ma’s diss track, “ShETHER,” her achievements are still remarkable. She earned $50,000 for a verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” and has received equal admiration for her features as for her own songs (West almost omitted Minaj’s verse due to her potential to outshine him). With only three studio albums under her belt, all released through Lil Wayne’s Young Money label, Minaj has broken countless chart records, becoming the first female rapper to have a platinum album in nearly a decade (without counting streaming figures); an accomplishment that is becoming rarer and rarer for any artist these days.

Minaj is renowned for her lyrical firework displays, and her music covers a broad spectrum of topics – from the romantic to the vulgar, from haughty to exposed. Her single “All Things Go” touches on her teenage abortion and the killing of her relative. When she raps and sings, Minaj walks the line between hip-hop and pop, a fusion that not only increases her sales but also expands her fanbase and rejects the conventions of hip-hop fundamentalism. She will not be pinned down, and she is open about the unequal terms she faces. In her first MTV documentary, she made it clear: “When I am strong-minded, I’m a harpy. When a man is strong-minded, he’s a leader.”

Rather than turning her back on the industry machine, Minaj has welcomed commercialism. Her music videos are well known for their product placement. Moreover, she has become a trademark, creating fragrances and cosmetics collections, striking endorsement deals with Pepsi and Adidas, as well as launching her own brand of Myx moscato wine (which she co-owns, a first for a female rapper). Even though artists endorsing products is nothing new, Minaj is actively engaged in forming her brand instead of just taking the money: “My lawyer gives the same speech to everyone who wants to do business with me now. ‘Nicki is not one of those artists who allow her representatives to make decisions for her.'” She is constructing an empire.

The unveiling of a wax figure of Nicki Minaj at Madame Tussauds in Las Vegas was an exciting event. It was created using over three hundred individual measurements, and depicted Minaj on all fours in a minimalistic outfit of gold chains and black briefs. This image was taken from the record-breaking music video for “Anaconda”. Initially, this may appear to be mindless titillation, however, it is actually full of subversive elements. Minaj is seen playfully interacting with a banana before abruptly chopping it. Later, she uses Drake as a prop, giving him a lap dance only to leave him stranded. When he attempts to touch her, she swats his hand away before departing.

But, it seemed Minaj’s message of empowerment was lost on the museum’s visitors. After it opened, images of people re-enacting sexual acts on the wax figure appeared. This time, she was unable to tell them to stop since she was motionless and rendered in wax. This was the exact opposite of her video and her message. Some of the public’s behavior can be attributed to human nature (this isn’t the first wax model to be touched inappropriately), however, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the only female rapper who has been given a wax figure is portrayed on her hands and knees.

Minaj is an amalgamation of the many eras of female emcees. She has the confidence of Sha-Rock and Roxanne Shante, the sass of Salt-N-Pepa, the power of MC Lyte and Queen Latifah’s business acumen. She has the playfulness of Missy Elliott and the singing/rapping hybrid of Lauryn Hill, plus the boundary-breaking attitude of M.I.A. Furthermore, she carries on the tradition of Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and Trina in being unafraid to be edgy. Collectively, these artists show how the notion of female rappers keeps evolving.

Minaj and other women who rap deserve to be able to define themselves, particularly after having to abide by oppressive systems for so long. Unfortunately, it’s sad to see that the term ‘female rapper’ has come to be viewed as lesser. Women have long fought against the use of ‘female’ being used to lessen their worth. Hip-hop is often viewed as an exclusively male pursuit, yet women have triumphed in the face of obstacles and achieved major successes in rap. Even though they are seen as the minority, since when has rap been about being seen as the majority?

Hip-hop began as a way to bring positive vibes to those who felt oppressed and to battle the negative reality of city life; it was a movement for the marginalized. However, as time passed, female rappers were pushed to the side and dismissed. Nevertheless, all rappers, male or female, take a stand and do not accept victimization. They resist authority and assert themselves.

In 2014, Nicki Minaj was advertising her brief part in the movie The Other Woman, with its logo shown on the gray brick-coloured backdrop behind her. Asked if she considered herself a female rapper, she answered in the negative. “I have collaborated with the greatest and I have been able to keep up with them and they respect me,” she said. “I must also respect myself enough to view myself the same way they view themselves.” The scene was peculiarly fitting: Minaj attempts to make herself one of a kind, even from her female predecessors and contemporaries. It is part of the job description; rap music is based on artists bragging about their superiority and asserting themselves to be the best in the business. But in the end, there is no single hero. Hip-hop is a collective, team effort–it has always been that way.

The successes of Minaj, like all the female rappers who preceded her, create space for the next generation (and Minaj’s lyrics demonstrate she is aware of this fact). Even if Minaj does not open the door, female rappers will not back down. The rap world resembles a chessboard, as illustrated by Queen Latifah’s classic music video – while the king can control the match, it is the queen who has the potential to make unexpected moves. The queen is the wildcard.

  • The subjugation of women in the United States can be traced to misogyny in society and misconstrued ideas of masculinity. Kevin Powell’s essay “Confessions of a Recovering Misogynist” acknowledges this, noting that “Patriarchy, as manifested in hip-hop, is where we can have our version of power within this very oppressive society.”
  • Blondie’s “Rapture,” which featured rap (performed by Debbie Harry) and became the first Billboard number one hit with rap, wasn’t hip-hop but a tribute. Some have argued that Harry was appropriating black culture, however, her aim was to bring attention to the underground rap movement. She said, “I felt that [the rap scene] was parallel to folk music, that it was la voix pop, the voice of the people” and she wanted to bring to light “the voice of complaint, of talking about ego, of talking about their struggle.” Although it is true that rap has been used to portray struggle, it has also been used to provide an upbeat and fun outlet.
  • The subjugation of minority women is not new; the history of white America is full of instances of sexual entitlement over them. During the Middle Passage, for example, black women were permitted to roam the slave ships, making them more vulnerable to rape by the crew. On land, black women were both objectified and demonized. A 1630 Virginia court case, in which a white man was convicted for having sex with a black woman, demonstrates the sexualization and vilification of racial differences that continues to this day.

Using a different structure, the same meaning can be conveyed without plagiarizing: The act of changing the structure of a text while preserving its context and semantic meaning is referred to as paraphrasing, and is a way to avoid plagiarism.

The utilization of technology in the classroom has become increasingly prevalent in modern educational systems. Nowadays, it is commonplace for teachers to incorporate technology into their lesson plans and for students to use devices for learning. This usage of technology has been shown to offer a range of benefits, from improved engagement to greater collaboration.

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