Just like the gender pay gap, the discrepancy between women and men in the workplace is fairly large. In many professions (S.T.E.M., labor fields, etc), there are simply more male bodies than female. Especially in hip-hop, male rappers dwarf the presence of female artists. According to NPR’s Code Switch, the number of female rappers signed to major labels is lower than 10; Less than 12 percent of female rappers are represented on the Billboard charts.
Nearly three decades ago, that wasn’t the case. In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, more than 40 women occupied positions in the rap game. It was like a domino effect, one female voice making room for the next. MC Lyte and Monie Love paved the way for Queen Latifah; Salt-N-Pepa made way for Lady of Rage; then came Missy Elliott, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown and many others.
By the mid-'90s, there were plenty of female voices to represent different elements of womanhood and artistry. Missy and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes held it down for the tomboys (sporting baggy threads), while Lil Kim, Foxy and Trina introduced a raunchier side of the culture. (Sex was a common theme in their music.) Lauryn Hill, an anomaly of her time, demonstrated an array of talents, experimenting with rapping and singing on one track.
In the 2000s however, representation declined. Nicki Minaj broke an eight-year drought when she achieved commercial success with her 2010 platinum album, Pink Friday. For awhile, Minaj was alone. Between 2009 and 2015, the Young Money artist was essentially the go-to femcee for a guest spot. She was later joined by artists like Dej Loaf, Young M.A, and, most notably, Cardi B. The Bronx artist’s rags-to-riches story has revived much conversation regarding women in hip-hop since she nabbed a whopping three tracks in the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Fans and critics will often dilute female contributions to one or two acts, and while there may not be as many women in the industry as previous eras, they are here and ready to speak up.
Here are the testimonies of some of the female artists that are hustling, dominating and making their voices heard: Trina, Rapsody, Dej Loaf, Young M.A., Dreezy and Kari Faux.
No one said being a part of hip-hop was going to be simple. For decades, hip-hop has had a very specific plight. Not only are artists fighting for recognition among their peers, they are also battling the rest of the music world to recognize the culture as valuable and permanent. But for the female emcees in particular, that’s only the beginning of the journey.
Being a woman in hip-hop ain’t easy, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a drag. With the current social climate swaying in a direction that is acknowledging and championing female voices and stories, now may be the best time to be a woman in the game. “It feels like you can be a trailblazer, and you can show in your own style another way of what womanhood and sisterhood is like in hip-hop,” Rapsody says.
Trina would describe her fellow female artists as boss ladies in charge, but even so, there seems to be a common life hack on how to navigate the game: “Go hard or go home,” Dej Loaf asserts. “You got to go hard because it’s so male-dominated,” Young M.A chimes in. “I feel like women is the underdog. A lot of women is talented, [but] that recognition kind of gets overseen.”
In order to smash those ceilings, however, Kari Faux thinks women should be “forging your own path even when others don’t want you to.” “I feel very empowered. We’re all multi-faceted Black women, so it’s really dope that there are so many different women and different narratives telling their stories.”
In today’s industry, the “G.O.A.T.” title is thrown around freely. Calculating who is the best is exhausted by a dubious metric system, that depending on who you ask to determine the final results will undoubtedly tally up varying answers. Ultimately, a variety of emcee can be “king” in their own right, but that logic doesn’t seem to apply to the women. More often than not, the perception remains that being a woman in hip-hop means that only one can exist at a time. It’s why Lil Kim and Foxy Brown couldn’t coexist nearly 20 years ago, or why Nicki Minaj, Remy Ma and Cardi B can’t all wear respective “crowns” today.
Remy Ma brought new life to the elusive female hip-hop feud when she released her ticking time-bomb, “ShEther,” a diss track aimed at Nicki Minaj. Yes, the feud was instigated by fan speculation that Nicki dissed her in a previous track, but Remy’s delivery on her single opened up a larger conversation about double standards in the industry.
Critics will argue a medley of different points: female feuds perpetuate a catty stigma or that it’s a petty pastime, to name a few. But according to the women who occupy those emcee spots right now, there’s a little more of a consensus. “The whole beef thing is just really weak,” veteran rapper Trina declares. “It’s another step to tear us down, and it will be more efficient if it was no beef. We make too much money for that.”
When your position is threatened, you fight for it. That’s essentially the same thought process that brought Jay-Z and Nas into the ring or Kanye West and 50 Cent face to face. Those beefs were instigated by record sales and chart stats, whereas Trina states that female feuds are usually fueled by petty rumors and tabloids. “When it comes to women, it’s the blogs, it’s the internet, social media, the fans that pit us against each other.” A rising star from Little Rock, Arkansas, Kari Faux experienced this made-up rivalry firsthand. “Last night somebody tweeted me and was like, ‘Kari Faux over Cardi B to be honest,’” she recalls. “And I’m like, why do you even feel like you have to compare us? Her story is different from mine. Where she’s from and what she stands for is different than where I’m from and what I stand for.”
But it’s not all ill feelings towards rap beef. After all, “that’s just hip-hop,” Grammy-nominated artist Rapsody admits. Back in the day, battle rap was just as important (if not more) as laying tracks on wax. Netflix’s Roxanne Roxanne, which follows the life of Roxanne Shanté, is certainly proof of that. So, if done appropriately, there’s nothing wrong with letting the girls play. “If it’s no jealousy and no envy and we all working together towards one thing, it’s like, I’m all for it,” Dreezy says.
“Whether you’re a woman, two women doing it, two men, a man and a woman doing it, that’s just what it is,” Rapsody adds. “I’d rather ya’ll do it over music than do it any other way... It’s just the core of hip-hop; it’s competitive.”
As urban legend would tell it, the only way female artists will kick-start their careers the right way is by nabbing a cosign from their male counterparts. Historically, there’s a Biggie to every Lil Kim, a Lil Wayne to every Nicki Minaj. And while the past may validate that argument, it’s not necessarily forged in present-day ink. “When I started, a lot of the girls came out under a guy. It was like a girl counterpart,” Trina admits. “[But] now it’s so different; it’s changed a lot.” The emcee, who’s often referred to as “The Baddest Bitch,” notoriously came on the scene in 1988, gaining notoriety thanks to her appearance on Trick Daddy’s single “Nann N***a,” off his sophomore album, www.thug.com.
Establishing a fan base is undoubtedly hard for any artist, let alone a female rapper. While Young M.A suggests a male cosign isn’t the solution, she says it doesn’t hurt to show you can hang with boys. “I know guys do show women love on their records. Nicki Minaj, for instance, when she was boomin’, she was on a lot of features,” she explains. “That’s how she kind of made her way a little more up there. Like I can rock with the fellas too.” The Brooklyn emcee says Lil Kim’s girl power anthem, “Ladies Night” (which features Missy Elliott, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, Angie Martinez, and Da Brat) was one hit that boosted female unity. “But damn, how long ago was that?”
While cosigns may have been a common practice among female acts in the early ‘90s and 2000s, many believe a cosign isn’t indicative to success in the industry today. “So many girls don’t even have a name as big or a platform, but they’re out here grinding. You can see their presence and it’s no guy around,” Trina acknowledges. The hustle is real, but sometimes it can even lead to money moves, as seen by Cardi B’s Cinderella story. The Bronx native turned heads after she became the first emcee to top the charts without a male feature or nod since 1998.
And at the end of the day, dope people cosign other dope people. According to Rapsody, that’s how it’s always been. “Every artist coming up, if they’re dope, you’re going to get cosigned,” the “Sassy” artist declares. “Jay-Z was cosigned by Big Daddy Kane, Kendrick was cosigned by Dr. Dre. J. Cole got the Jay-Z chain.” So when it comes to women getting that seal of approval, it shouldn’t be treated any differently. “When you’re talented, people are going to talk about it and people in these higher places are going to be like, ‘Yo, check so and so out.’ If they happen to be a man, so be it.”
As women of color in the entertainment industry, there’s certain pressures to be mindful of how you look, what you say and how you act in the company of others. Nicki Minaj said it best in her 2010 documentary, My Time Now: “When I am assertive, I'm a bitch. When a man is assertive, he's a boss. He bossed up. No negative connotation behind 'bossed up.' But lots of negative connotation behind being a bitch.” According to Rapsody, that’s because “people put too much energy into trying to make women 'less than' and box us like we’re this special, delicate thing.”
Although fans are watching to see what artists are wearing and how they act, Dej Loaf doesn’t feel restricted to one style or demeanor. “I’m good with makeup, without makeup, Timbs or a dress,” she confesses. Perhaps the ability to weave in and out of styles of dress and attitudes can be attributed to the ladies who first ruled the scene. “Think about when Queen and Lyte were out,” Rapsody adds. “They were tomboys, but it was still feminine in its own right.”
That versatility may be perceived as a weakness, but Dreezy assures people it’s a super power.
“That’s an advantage,” she says. “Not all guys are able to tap into their soft side and still be just as successful with that too. So it just gives me variety.” Even so, she admits that she has to “soften up” her image at times in order to not appear so angry or like the guys.
Young M.A, on the other hand, has no problem telling it like it is. From the start of her career, the “OOOUUU” emcee has portrayed a tough demeanor that many consider more masculine. Even so, she suggests expression shouldn’t be mandated by gender roles. “If it’s authentic and that’s how you feeling at the moment, just express it,” she says. “I don’t want to bow down or back up from what I originally came out on.”
(This piece includes additional reporting by Kai Miller)