“Niggas… betta grab a seat. Grab on ya dick as this bitch gets deep…” — “Get Money” w/ Junior Mafia
It was 1995 and quite a time to be alive. Hip-Hop culture was quickly becoming one of the United States’ most lucrative exports and the children of Black Power revolutionaries, pimps, hustlers, and slow-singing devotees of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesus Christ had seemingly found a pathway to overcome. “Some day” was our day, and through Hip-Hop, we found our voices, our style, our languages, our dress codes, and our strength.
For young girls and women, our connection with and access to the nucleus of Hip-Hop’s power was often precarious. Of course we were there since the beginning, our representation essentially fortified in the ultra cool style of MC Sha Rock, the beautification of Lady Pink, and the head-spinning clap-backs of Roxanne Shante. Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, and Queen Latifah were among those who showed and proved that the women of Hip-Hop were more than just sidekicks for men; women could not only hold ourselves down, we could embrace the culture as our own and earn the respect of our peers, as was the Hip-Hop way.
Unfortunately, there were those who were less enthusiastic about women being prominent fixtures in a culture that was born out of the need for revolution among the Black and Brown underclass across major American cities. Like several cultural movements before it, Hip-Hop found itself engorged with rampant misogyny as the socioeconomically disenfranchised young men fought for some semblance of power, even if it would only manifest and be respected within the confines of the concrete jungles they called home. Many of the most celebrated rap lyrics contain incredibly abusive suggestions of how to engage women — not women, actually, more their bodies than anything — and the universal accessibility of these songs resulted in young people, often seeking inspiration and guidance as they matured into adulthood, absorbing these rather painful ideas and perpetuating them off wax.
It became increasingly difficult for young women to believe they were welcomed into this space or that their voices would even be heard, much less respected, in the sea of men working hard to assert their manhood for mainstream acceptance and validation. On one hand, to prove you were “real”, you had to keep up with the guys and that meant everything from battling them in rap ciphers to outselling them in records or outranking them on the record charts.
Many women in Hip-Hop found themselves minimizing their outward feminine expression, as this was quite often seen as a liability that negated one’s authenticity in a culture where being “real” was all one could rely on for credibility. Lyrically, the women tended to stay neutral when it came to gender politics, occasionally dropping a song or two in which they affirmed their womanhood as equally important. Those songs, however, did not exactly lead to women earning respect as technical artists in the genre; they more often than not simply earned the women kudos for being independent women who made feminism their own by way of this new, empowering medium. To be regarded as a “Great MC”, then, early female emcees found themselves struggling with what it meant to be women in Hip-Hop culture without their expressions of womanhood posing any real threat to the dominance of the masculinity that was usually the key to mainstream success.
“The moral of the story is this: If you ain’t licking this, then you ain’t sticking this…” — “Not Tonight”
Enter Lil’ Kim, the “little petite young bitch from the street” who emerged onto the urban scene in the tradition of Bessie Smith, Denise LaSalle, and Betty Davis. She pulled zero punches and made it known from the beginning that she was here to publicly embrace her autonomy as a woman and turn as much of a profit as she could; it was her “thang” to shake the way that she felt, as Salt-N-Pepa recommended almost a decade earlier. Guaranteed to stay down, Kimberly Jones rolled deep with her clique, the Junior M.A.F.I.A., and in her loyalty to The Notorious B.I.G., one of the biggest Hip-Hop stars of the time.
“Get Money”, the biggest single from the group, dropped in the fall of 1995, some twenty years ago, and the world got its first taste of the outspoken new rapper who would, to be honest, rather count a million dollars while one of us ate her pussy. At only 4'11", Ms. Jones immediately grabbed the world’s attention with her clear demands that men do what she said, how she said it, when she wanted it, and urged the world to respect that the other side of the newly coined “Girl Power” era was an all-or-nothing, put-up-or-shut-up, Big Momma Thang.
Make no mistake, Lil’ Kim was not simply a “plus one” — she was a central figure in her crew and would ultimately become the most successful after Biggie. While many female rappers made their entrance into the industry by being cosigned and promoted by a notable male figure and found themselves unable to make a real name for themselves as individual artists, Lil’ Kim would not be bound by being the only female in few crew. Hardcore(1996) and Notorious K.I.M. (2000) are required listening for anyone who wants the most basic understanding of how sex-positive Black feminist women solidified their place in Hip-Hop history.
Sampling Sylvia Striplin’s “You Can’t Turn Me Away”, “Get Money” was, simply, a song about an emotionally and physically abusive domestic dispute involving infidelity, court appearances, money owed, drug deals gone bad, and breaches of loyalty and trust between a man and a woman who appear to reconcile it differently. For the hood, though, it was a familiar story for many who had friends named Keisha, Kim, or Pam holding down around-the-way men who had found ways out of the gutter by whichever illegal means necessary. Urban socialites before Instagram or Snapchat turned relatively unknown carbon copies into technocelebrities, these young women felt entitled to the same glamorous benefits of their mainstream counterparts.
The 1990s saw the peak of the Supermodel, the most envied, outrageously gorgeous woman who would not leave her bed for less than $10,000 a day. The Supermodel was heralded as the standard of womanhood, beauty, success, and influence, and despite there being little ethnic diversity in this model, many of us girls of color wished we could be so publicly adored while draped in the finest threads and jewels, making money just for waking up fabulous. Reality painted a bleaker picture and we found ourselves relating to the women who looked and lived like us, brown girls with straightened curls who wanted to get paid for laying in the shade and taking pictures with glasses of lemonade.
Lil’ Kim, Bed-Stuy’s own Superhoodmodel, made us believe this could be a reality for us all. We loved her unique fashion statements, her quirky videos, her dazzling smile and cute voice, and her undying loyalty to her hometown and the people she came up with. No matter what they said, Lil’ Kim had all people rethinking how we approached sex itself and whether or not we were ready for a sexual revolution in Hip-Hop culture. Well, at least when our parents let us listen or when we were able to sneak and jam to her messages because, from the outset, she was just another raunchy, vulgar, Black Jezebel rapping about selling sex and using her pussy to get ahead in life, and our mothers wanted more for us, didn’t they? We were supposed to want to work hard, be strong, be smart, fight for equality, and focus less on sex and more on success, right? So why did so many of us reduce Kim’s messaging to simply being a how-to guide to deep-throating (important work, by the way!) when she regularly called out gender-based double-standards and criticized misogyny for the oppressively violent bullshit that it is?
“Here’s something I just can’t understand
If a guy have three girls then he’s the man
He can even give us some head and sex her raw
If the girl do the same, then she’s a whore
But the table’s about to turn
I’ll bet my fame on it
Cats take my ideas and put they name on it” — “Can’t Hold Us Down” w/ Christina Aguilera
In 2005, Ms. Jones was convicted and sentenced to serve a year and one day for being loyal. Anyone from the streets knows that is the only way to describe what happened when she lied to the grand jury about details of a gun fight involving people she cared about. Unlike the snitches in her crew, she was “guaranteed to stay down” and lived in that authenticity unlike many in the culture who rapped about it but were not really ‘bout it, ‘bout it. She did her time, reflected on the previous ten years of her life and career, and set on a track to get back in the game.
Kim has had several publicized run-ins with abusive men and exploitative radio personalities, and has endured the condemnation of fair-weather fans and unforgiving paparazzi. She has been unable to regain the momentum she had in the mid-to-late 1990s and, as a decades-long fan and supporter and observer, my best guess is that she, like so many other Black girls and women in America, has experienced a great deal of pain in her life with which she still struggles to reconcile and heal. Speculative jokes about her physical appearances and changes over the year often ignore what could haven been the manifestation of discomfort in the body of an abused, used, exploited Black girl. Who knows, really?
Kim knows best and we should respect her choices about her life and where she is headed. A mother now, Kimberly Jones seems happier than she has in years and it is warming to see that the Queen of Hip-Hop now has the opportunity to raise a princess and pass the torch of empowerment, leadership, and strength that she embodied when she took over the rap game. Not only did Lil’ Kim permanently change the course of Hip-Hop’s music and culture, but she also innovated new ways in which women could feel more publicly comfortable in their own bodies and be more easily embraced by the mainstream for their creativity and individual autonomy as women.