The state of the female rapper
By Jocelyn Codner
It’s hard to deny that the rap industry is a “men only” club: made, managed, and dominated by men. Female rappers… wait. What happened to them? Exactly. They used to exist, and they even held their own with the boys back in the days of MC Lyte and Salt-N-Pepa, and even later on when Missy Elliott and Eve took the stage. The entire genre of rap has morphed into something much different and women seem to be having a harder time finding their place.
When it first began, rap dealt with real issues and gave solid messages to listeners. In that world, women were welcome. They weren’t as successful as men, or as popular, but they were respected, and they were, well, existent.
The image now is grabbin’ “bitches,” hustlin’ and being a creatie marketing strategy for liquor companies. A woman’s options in the rap industry have been severely limited. In her Washington Post article, Teresa Wiltz writes: “In the rare instances when you do see a woman rapper, she’s almost always a bad girl. If you’re a woman, and you’re a fan of hip-hop, you’re happy to see these bad girls, because, at the very least, there’s evidence that some estrogen still lives on.”
If women had a hard time fitting in before, it’s nearly impossible now. When a woman tries to rap with that hard and aggressive style, it’s not pretty, and what a woman needs to be in the rap world is sexy, feminine, and anything but aggressive–unless they’re being aggressively enthusiastic about being some playa’s sex toy. Wiltz sarcastically gives a piece of advice to all the female rappers out there: “Understand that your role is to look and sound pretty, sort of like aural wallpaper.”
One of the only ways a female rapper can be competitive in today’s industry, is by exploiting her sexuality. Think Lil’ Kim. She is a very talented rapper. Her first album, Hard Core, is comparable to those of the greats. But her favorite topic is her wild sex antics. Her lyrics seem more like a frat boy’s fantasy than a real woman expressing her pride in her sexuality.
Anne O’Connel, in “A Feminist Approach to Female Rap,” addresses the issue of women rapping about sex: “Female sexuality [is] used to serve other females with a positive and empowered image of themselves, lending to the ability of other women to relate.” But aren’t the crude lyrics of Lil’ Kim, Trina and others like Remy Ma going a bit far? There seems to be a fine line between liberation and submission.
Female rappers used to use rap to empower women, to preach independence, and express sexual desire in a positive way. Salt-N-Pepa’s tracks “Shoop” and “Push It” are obviously sexual, but there is a clear difference between Salt-N-Pepa’s confident sexuality and the porn-star imagery of Trina.
In a genre that once was a great tool for female empowerment but now forces its female participants to exploit their sexuality, it’s no surprise that the older players are dropping out and fresh recruits are nonexistent. MC Lyte and Queen Latifah have moved on to acting, Lil’ Kim and Remy Ma have moved on to jail, and the two most successful female artists in the genre—Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill–are nowhere to be found.
Dave Livingston, lead engineer and head of Ithaca’s Moving Box Studios’ audio department, has worked in the music-producing industry in New York City at such places as Mixdown, Rebel Music, and for producers Kenny Smoove and 88 as a sound engineer. During his time in the city (2004-2005) it seemed like all the major producers were talking about was a feminine sound for rap. “All of the Majors were looking for what they were calling ‘Feminem’,” Livingston said. “They wanted to get the Female half of the demo[graphic] Eminem hit,” which is white teenage girls. After the disappearance of boy bands, “the whole teen girl demo[graphic] fell off” and producers have been preoccupied with filling that gap with the next hot thing. To Livingston, it is all a marketing strategy, and not so dependent on female sexuality.
Is there any hope for revival? Some, like Slate writer Jonah Weiner, talk about the re-emergence of female rap in artists such as M.I.A. and Yo! Majesty. Female rap has invaded the electro-pop world, where it has a much stronger chance of survival. It’s all about flashy hooks and dance beats there. “It’s always about what’s selling,” says Livingston. “Rap as it used to be isn’t selling. It’s the rule of nature: Evolve or die.”
Jocelyn Codner is a junior cinema and photography major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.