Women have always been part of hip hop, even though their accomplishments and impact have been understated and unsung. Yet any cursory examination of the history of hip hop reveals countless female musicians and performers. Some, like Queen Latifah, Missy Elliot, Salt-N-Pepa, Lauryn Hill, and Nicki Minaj, become household words. Hundreds of others remain behind the scenes, known mainly to audiophiles or serious music historians. Tracing hip hop back to its roots shows how the musical genre and its ethos evolved as the counterpart to a broader movement for social and political change. Women have remained at the forefront of the cultural revolution that is hip hop, ensuring that feminist values and ideals become mainstream while also making sure that feminism does not become whitewashed. Patriarchal social norms have prevented the women of hip hop from receiving the accolades they deserve, but the artists who have made it their business have paved the way for younger women to take control over their image, music, and branding. Women have at times mimicked their male counterparts, such as through , but even then contribute to the ongoing discourse of what it means to be black and female in America. Scores of female hip hop artists, MCs, rappers, and producers have made their mark on the industry, transforming hip hop culture, ethics, aesthetics, and the business itself.

One of the main contributions women have made to the genre is by transforming the public perception of hip hop in general. Some female artists have helped legitimize hip hop, bringing it into the mainstream. For example, one of the earliest female rappers, MC Lyte, became the first rapper to perform at Carnegie Hall, even before she was the first female rapper nominated for a Grammy, and was the first female rapper to have a single go gold (Morris 1). Female hip hop artists have also shown that rap and hip hop are not necessarily about guns, money, and objectifying women. Scholarly analyses of female hip hop artists reveal that even when some female rappers use these tropes in their lyrics or videos, their being center stage conveys a sort of irony that needs to be considered as deliberate and subversive; a means by which African American women can search for self-identity and self-control, (White 607). The presence of women in hip hop historically paved the way for other female artists to retain power over their bodies. Rather than allow male artists and producers to dictate their image and brand, female hip hop artists steered the genre in a whole new direction.

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Hip hop has been derided for crass misogyny, reflecting a narrow-minded view of the genre that overlooks the many artists who have eschewed negative or disempowering motifs either in lyrics or in music videos. Women in hip hop have occasionally succumbed to the male gaze and the patriarchal, heteronormative aesthetic, but a large number have challenged male hegemony through their music and performance. As Oware puts it, Black female artists provide countervailing voices against male sexism and misogyny, (788). Queen Latifah, one of the earliest female hip hop superstars, made a name for herself talking about issues in the lives of black women, and in her lyrics addressed frankly subjects like domestic violence (uDiscover 1). Missy Elliott was renowned for her desexualized image and for challenging heteronormativity (White 618). Yet desexualization is not necessarily the only means by which to remove misogynistic elements from hip hop. Many female hip hop artists have taken back their power through an affirmation of their bodies and sexuality. As Oware also points out, the women of hip hop have also changed the meaning of femininity itself, challenging gender norms by being up front about drinking, drug use, and sex.

In fact, one of the greatest contributions of female hip hop artists to American society as a whole has been the empowerment of black females. Starting in the early days of hip hop, in the 1980s, Salt-N-Pepa were frank and outspoken about their desires and their sexuality, while simultaneously demanding respect, preaching feminist values and speaking out against assault and discrimination, (uDiscover 1). Nicki Minaj is known for her body positive imagery, which drew her some criticism based on the assumption that she was perpetuating misogyny and the objectification of women (White 616). The assumption that Minajs image represented only the male gaze does a disservice to the artist. Minaj offered millions of women a vision of ideal female health and beauty that differed from the white norm. The fact that artists like Minaj who proudly flaunt their bodies draw criticism effectively shows how uncomfortable American society is with black female sexuality. On one hand, there is the hypersexual image of Black women; on the other hand, there is the stigma associated with the Black woman who boldly tries to assert control over her own life, sexuality, and how she is treated in society, (White 616). Women in hip hop cleverly and carefully alter social norms related to female sexuality, and especially African American female sexuality.

Another reason why female hip hop artists have made such a huge impact on society is through their influence on cultural trends, including fashion. As a result, female hip hop artists have given rise to a new generation of black female leaders who drive trends and become role models for young people. The female hip hop artists who retained full control over their musical and financial destiny continue to inspire others to do the same. Many female hip hop artists have become fashion icons, many going on to develop their own lines of clothing such as Kimora Lee Simmons Baby Phat, As White points out, artists like Lil, Kim and Foxy Brown popularized glamorous, high-fashion feminine hip-hop styles, (617). Hip hop has often been characterized by big name brand couture and designer labels, as a means of declaring victory over centuries of economic exploitation and not just for materialistic means (Oware791). Other female rappers have instead started their own trends or avoided mainstream fashion. For example, Lauryn Hill has been celebrated for her bohemian black glamour, (Tillet 119).

The vast majority of major female hip hop stars got their start on the East Coast, including Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Lauryn Hill, Lil Kim, and Queen Latifah. A small handful of successful artists, like Kamaiyah, are from the West Coast. Erykah Badu hails from Texas, and Nicki Minaj is from the Trinidad and Tobago, demonstrating the ongoing diversity within the genre. Female hip hop artists have challenged the assumption that black femininity is monolithic. A large number of female hip hop artists have evaded stereotypes, instead cultivating a unique and individual style. Bruce claims Lauryn Hill sings truth to power, while she produces, claims, and instrumentalizes madness for radical art-making and self-making, (371). Missy Elliot has also pushed the boundaries of performance art, at one point fashioning her own outfit out of trash bags (White 618). In similar form, Monie Lover rebelled against the hypersexualization of women; she shaved her head, and taped down her breasts and wore these baggy clothes, (Ocrutt 1). It is rare for the more to receive as much mainstream notoriety as Missy Elliot. As Jamerson points out, female rappers who fit the stereotype of a video vixen buxom and scantily-clad receive more mainstream attention, (1). The women of hip hop have defined their own style, rather than allowing the music industry, white hegemony, or patriarchal norms to dictate their style. Whether flaunting their forms or hiding behind garbage bags, the women of hip hop use fashion as a political statement.

Their participation in lyric generation and their contribution to the evolution of the genre is also a reason why the women of hip hop leave an enduring legacy. Many female rappers have been shamed for rapping only about sex, drugs, and moneyostensibly to get all of the abovebut a lot rap about such subjects to draw attention to social injustice. Explicit lyrics became the calling card of many female rappers, who earned their street cred for sassy and : most notably Lil Kim and Foxy Brown. A great number of female hip hop stars have been heralded for their deft rapping, like the syllable-stacking honed-blade verbal dexterity of Nicki Minaj (uDiscover 1). Left Eye has been called a a super slick lyricist, (Orcutt 1). Their beats and backing tracks vary as much as their personal style, but a lot of female rappers have interjected soul and R&B into hip hop, adding depth to the genre and increasing its market appeal. Hip hop has built into it the means by which to use words to establish social hierarchies, and also to use lyrics to draw attention to social justice issues.

Since the breakthrough rap artists in the 1980s, hip hop has spread from New York around the world. A good number of emerging female pop music stars from around the world pay homage to the mothers of hip hop like Queen Latifah and Lil Kim. Women have been a part of the industry from the start, rapping, producing, and dancing. Their socially conscious lyrics went beyond issues related to race relations and violence, and addressed gender relations and black female sexuality. Female hip hop artists allow their male counterparts to understand, through their music, their perceptions of patriarchy and male privilege. Even those artists who avoided political commentary have grown into powerful role models for women, showing that women of color can be in control of their own image, business, and art.

Works Cited

Bruce, La Mar Jurelle. The People Inside My Head, Too: Madness, Black Womanhood, and the Radical Performance of Lauryn Hill. African American Review, Vol. 45, No. 3 (2012): 371-389.

Jamerson, Jna. Best-of lists and conversations often exclude women. Why? BBC. 8 Oct, 2019. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20191007-why-are-there-so-few-women-in-best-of-hip-hop-polls

Morris, Tyana. The Evolution of Women in Hip Hop. The Pine Needle. 31 Jan, 2018. Retreived from https://www.pineneedlenews.com/single-post/2018/01/31/The-Evolution-of-Women-in-Hip-Hop

Orcutt, KC. Each One, Teach One | What generations of women in hip hop teach us about perseverance. Revolt. Oct 16, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.revolt.tv/2019/10/16/20917629/women-in-hip-hop-lessons

Oware, Matthew. A Mans Woman? Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 39, No. 5 (2007): 786-802.

Tillet, S. (2014). Strange Sampling: Nina Simone and Her Hip-Hop Children. American Quarterly, 66(1), 119137. doi:10.1353/aq.2014.0006

UDiscover (2019). Lets talk about the female MCs who . Dec 9, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.udiscovermusic.com/stories/the-female-rappers-who-shaped-hip-hop/

White, Theresa R. Missy Misdemeanor Elliott and Nicki Minaj. Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 44, No. 6, (2013): 607626. doi:10.1177/0021934713497365