It feels as if someone started a rumor that 2014 might present a female resurgence in hip-hop. As a person with a vagina, I’d be thrilled if that happened — but I doubt the “Ladies Night” reprise is going down anytime soon. There are many reasons why women — with the exception of Nicki Minaj — are notably absent from mainstream hip-hop’s playing field. Thankfully, none of this is insurmountable.
First, and most obviously, hip-hop is not the most lady-friendly environment. Many of us who report on the culture develop rap blinders allowing us to, say, be the only woman in a room full of strippers at an event billed as a listening session and still do the work of interviewing the artist. (Yes, that happened to me personally and I perfected the phrase, "No, I'm not working tonight, but she is. Have fun.")
Last week, I was listening to an interview with hip-hop’s newest favorite, Schoolboy Q, an admitted fuck up who has publicly said that his young daughter was on financial aid for the first years of her life because he was “in the streets.” Now, Q’s getting himself together through music and taking care of his kid. Great, right? Then during his chat, the rapper said something like "It’s a shame that people don’t make songs like ‘It Ain’t No Fun’ anymore." Q was referring to Snoop and the late Nate Dogg’s infectious but highly problematic song about how women are awful wenches and "let's run a train on one because, what good is sex if you can’t share it with your friends?!"
Take a moment and let Q’s opinion sink in. How's that feel? Not so great.
Reform happens in bits and pieces; if hip-hop's in a phase where songs like "Ain't No Fun" aren't popularly accepted and cannot be played in mainstream venues, that's a step in the right direction. But still, we have MCs who are singing its praises. This type of anti-woman sentiment hasn't permeated all of hip-hop — but black male subjugation of black women, and women of other ethnicities, is something that happens and it sucks, as University of Richmond professor Erik Nielson writes at NPR.
For years, dominant male artists have made a fortune demeaning and degrading women, often portraying them in lyrics and videos as interchangeable objects of sexual pleasure, while increasingly limited radio and television rotations have made alternative representations of women harder to find.
Now imagine you’re crunched up in a small studio working with men like Schoolboy or pitching your music to a male music executive who thinks lyricists with breasts are already at a disadvantage. It’s not the most welcoming situation, so kudos to the women like Minaj, Iggy Azalea, Angel Haze or Nitty Scott who do break through, whether or not you like their music.
Secondly, there’s a commercial cocktail wineb MCs must master, a mix of sex appeal, lyrical talent, social media savvy and professionalism. Some of that concoction artists must have naturally, some they can buy, like sex appeal by way of plastic surgery or rhymes written by someone else, and some they just have to learn, like professionalism. But every woman MC must master each of these things in equal measure or success will elude them.
Speaking to this, Miami-based Trina, who has achieved enduring success with her highly sexual lyrics and provocative videos, puts the male perspective of women artists this way: "You a female; I'm a dude. I'm not learning nothing from you. I just want to see you. So whatever you're talking about, I probably don't really care. I wanna just look at you." As Trina has demonstrated, she is more than willing to oblige. But accepting, and even embracing, male desire in the formation of an artistic persona is hardly unique to her — in the last decade or so, we've seen artists like Lil' Kim and Nicki Minaj combine the roles of rapper and video vixen as part of their formula for success, too.
It’s unfair that women are sexualized more than men but being attractive isn’t just applied to the ladies. Anyone who hopes to sell records or movies must have a marketable image, that is the nature of the entertainment beast. Still, for women the lights burn brighter on their looks as a entry point for male hip-hop fans, similar to Hollywood penchant for sultry women like Angelina Jolie.
Elsewhere, contemporary hip-hop crews don't really have a female member (though they certainly used to), apart from Nicki with Lil Wayne's Cash Money-Young Money record labels. For every Queen Latifah or MC Lyte who stood on their own, there was a Trina, Lauryn Hill, or Lady of Rage who was introduced to hip-hop through a man. Each rap pack had their "pitbull in a skirt," as Eve liked to call herself amongst her Ruff Ryder crew that included DMX and the Lox. The men would call on their lady to make their obligatory love or pimp-ho song, or simply to contribute like Moni Love on De La Soul's "Buddy."
That said, there is one point in the NPR article and the music business in general where I call bullshit — the price of maintaining a lady MC's act. The idea that keeping up women artists is more expensive for a music label is true but not cripplingly so, not enough to inhibit the effort. If cost were that much of an issue, pop labels like Capitol wouldn’t be able to afford Katy Perry’s fake Egypt and horrible grill in her “Dark Horse” clip — but they can and did. Mariah Carey would never be able to record another album again, because that diva doesn't do small time.
If labels saw female MCs as financially viable, music executives would sign more women as artists, period. But these days, the music industry itself is in flux and many veterans don’t know which way is up anymore. Beyoncé dropped an album out of thin air, mixtapes once used to create excitement now barely make a ripple in the Internet’s 24-7 content ocean, Jay-Z and Kanye West both released albums last year but made more noise as boos to Queen Bey and Kim Kardashian, and rappers are faking New York Times reviews as viable marketing plans. It’s literally a free for all in the music business.
Ultimately, I see the plight of female MCs like the dichotomy between black and white unemployment: when jobs are hard to find for white folks, the situation is downright dire in black and brown communities. Similarly, as rappers and labels try to navigate the ever-changing musical landscape, most aren’t worried about where women fit. And while that sounds bleak, I believe it opens up space for women to start an Internet hip-hop movement all their own, busting down the door with good music independent the old system. Like any good hip-hop success story, from Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella to Lil Wayne's Cash Money, the ladies have to beat popular culture into submission with their talents until they can no longer be pushed aside. Get down or lay down, girls.