Half of the February 1998 Vibe magazine cover.

Women in Hip-Hop: Where Do We Stand?

by Anijah Boyd

The Faces of a Woman

When you think of women in Hip-Hop, where does your mind immediately go? Do you think about the women used as an accessory to represent success? Do you think of the heavy hitters with word play that could out rap most of your favorite male artists? Or do you think of the woman pressured to fit into each of these molds in the Hip-Hop industry? Regardless of where your mind wanders, remember that though you may respect one a bit more than another they are all women struggling to be every type of Phenomenal Woman. The issue then becomes figuring out where we stand. For decades women have taken on many different roles in the Hip-Hop industry and even that has caused some confusion. Our sexuality becomes questioned when we are more like the Missy Elliots and Queen Latifahs of the game. Our character becomes questioned when we present ourselves more like the Lil’ Kims and Foxy Browns of the game. So who do you want us to be? We can’t be too conservative that means we’re boring but “wifey" nonetheless. We can’t be too sexy because that means we’re “hoes.” We can’t go head to head with men and show that same hunger because that immediately erases all of our femininity. Do you see the issue? Women are pulled in so many different directions and expected to be so many different types of woman, but as soon as we become the woman society and Hip-Hop wants us to be, we are criticized. There is no “right way.” Women have created their own way to fight through hyper-sexuality, hyper-masculinity, and invisibility.

The Woman as a Black Woman

Words/Phrases to Know:

Now because Hip-Hop most definitely is and started as a Black thing, the majority of women seen in the music videos are Black. Black women have a direct tie to the Hip-Hop industry. We are the accessories being called “bitches” and “hoes.” But of course the male artists and male fan-base will tell you if you’re a “lady” when they address these bitches and hoes in song lyrics you can go ahead and immediately exclude yourself from that. We have allowed men to title us however they please. Because a woman isn’t at home 24/7 being Becky Homecky it’s okay to address her with disrespect? This is where the underlying issue of patriarchy steps in stemming from underrepresentation, stereotypes, the marginalization of the struggles of Black women, and the sexualization of the Black female body. Just to name a few. Before we get those men quick to object but never too quick to listen let’s shoot down the main arguments. Supposedly, it takes a lot to be considered a bitch or hoe in the music biz. When you’re assertive about the things you want, like Nicki Minaj is known for being, the industry labels you as a bitch. When you dress too proactively, of course that means you’re a hoe! And Lord forbid you do both, you might as well be on a corner in Las Vegas selling your body for money and soul to the Devil. But wait. Men love these bodacious women. These are the women glazing our timelines as Woman Crush Wednesdays. These are the women getting wifed and sensationalized. They’re also the same women men turn around and address as bitches and hoes. That sounds a bit conflicting. There’s probably a man reading this right now thinking about how he wants all of these women in one woman but isn’t even half of the man he could be, so what makes him feel so obligated to label and own any of these women? Luckily for you, we know who we are. The bitches, hoes, and Becky Homeckys know where we stand without the labels pushed on us.

The Woman as an Accessory

The accessory. The groupie. The bitch. The hoe. These women are a part of the culture too. They symbolize success, hyper-sexuality, and are the main face of patriarchy because their sexuality is used as a means of degrading them and painting them as powerless. When men get the “hoes” as reward for their accomplishments that officially means that they have made it. Just another accessory like the jewelry and cars but with a new name, video vixens. These are the least respected women of all the women further discussed and we have society’s confusion to thank for that. As if these women can’t be just as educated and respectable as anyone else while also embracing their sexuality. Less clothing does not equal less brains. Forget society and your own conditioned thoughts for the sake of perspective. One can conclude that this is because they have no lyrical presence in the Hip-Hop industry, they’re mostly used as warm bodies. This is where a slight mix up happens. Women that do have lyrical presence in the Hip-Hop industry often have to compete with these women for attention though they have two completely different occupations. That could be because Hip-Hop started as a man’s sport and women have always been viewed as a less significant counterpart to man. It’s in the Bible, y’all. We came from the rib. Because of this, it’s easy to get stuck with the idea that a woman can only be an accessory and nothing more. That is until you get women like MC Lyte, Roxanne Shante, and Salt-N-Pepa on your head.

Whatta Man

Very Necessary, 1993

Let’s take a moment to focus on Salt-N-Pepa and their often overlooked significance. Something we must notice about them is that they found a way to be Hip-Hop and still embrace their femininity. Being the first female rap crew, Salt-N-Pepa had an identity to build. We can look at them as a point of harmony. Where being a woman in the Hip-Hop industry begins to make some kind of sense. Breaking out in the 80s, the world did not have women rapping about the things women liked or thought so when Salt-N-Pepa gave us “Whatta Man” women finally had the chance to rap along to something they could relate to. Something that said:

“Hey, I may be a woman in this male dominated industry, but I don’t have to be a male to succeed.”

The Woman as an Artist

The artist. The rapper. The creator. The lyricist. The most respectively misunderstood women in the game. These are the Lauryn Hills and the Queen Latifahs. These are the Noname Gypsys, the T’Nah Apexes and the Chelsea Rejects. They have lyrical presence. They are heavy hitting, head to head with the men and more often then not out rapping them too. With the exception of the pioneers in the game, we’re still waiting for these women to be given the credit that’s due. Could it be because they are not hyper-sexualized that they’re given less attention? Does the invisibility aspect play a role here because these women don’t quite fit into the accessory mold and are representing Hip-Hop to the core? Society has taught us that women in Hip-Hop are more meant to be an accessory than an artist. That can be viewed as why some female rappers mix the idea of being a rapper and an accessory to gain respect and attention in the industry. As cliché as it may seem, sex sells. Sex captures attention, but sex doesn’t last forever. 50 some odd years from now a big butt isn’t going to matter. Mediocre punchlines and an almost naked body won’t matter. The longevity of the music on the other hand, will. 50 years from now, Hip-Hop will remember Lost Ones but will leave Boss Ass Bitch behind. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a risqué rap artist, but have the bars to earn long lasting respect not just attention. Like previously stated, sex doesn’t last forever, lyrical impact does.

Verse 1, 6 and Hook: T’Nah Apex; Verse 2, 5: Chelsea Reject

Lost Ones

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 1998

Lauryn Hill has one album but also has more respect in the industry than women who have consistently dropped projects. This is because Ms. Hill has singles better than a lot of folks entire discography, so at the end of the day, the music really does speak for itself. She has no trouble mixing her idea of her own womanhood with the many faces of Hip-Hop. Ms. Hill is another point of harmony. She is where it somehow became okay to embrace whatever type of woman you are in very masculine industry because your message was so powerful that it forced people to stop sleeping on you. It is important to be a triple threat in the entertainment industry to get the world to pay attention. Just ask Beyoncé. Luckily for us, Ms. Hill is a quadruple threat. She can sing, rap, produce, and write her own music. Four talents that rappers these days get four different people to do for them. Let’s not stop there, though. Ms. Hill harbors one of the most unique and soulful sounds in the game. Being that she can sing and rap, often times you hear her transition from one of the most fire verses to ever be spit to singing a hook that reminds us that the joy of our world is in Zion. To say that she paved the way for women to embrace heartfelt femininity mixed with lyricism in the Hip-Hop industry is an understatement. Ms. Hill gave Black women a voice when the world didn’t care to know what we sounded like.

The Woman as a Journalist

Words/Phrases to know:

Under-appreciated, underestimated, and taken for granted. These are the Angie Martinezes and Anijah Boyds of the industry. There is definitely presence, but in a journalistic manner. Because men dominate the Hip-Hop industry, they should also know the most about it, right? Wrong and when women show they are more knowledgeable to the game men often find ways to discredit that or the world almost ignores it. Invisibility. Women are only supposed to know Drake lyrics, apparently. I might know every word to The What but I am still a woman capable of being educated in the things I love. Coincidentally, Hip-Hop happens to be That Thing. The culture is for anyone who is willing to dive in wholeheartedly and embrace and learn about every part of it. It’s not for those who just want to be a part of the conversation for the moment instead of partaking in keeping the culture alive and kickin’ it. Who on this planet nurtures life better than a woman?

The Power of a Voice

Let’s take a closer look at Angie Martinez. Outside of being “The Voice of New York,” writing a book, and hosting a Hip-Hop radio show with more listeners than any radio show in the country, Martinez is a hardcore Hip-Hop head. Born in Brooklyn, NYC by way of Washington Heights in 1971 and bumping artists like Run DMC & Grandmaster Flash in grade school, Martinez was right in the fire of Hip-Hop’s golden era. The 90s.

Martinez interviewing Shakur in 1995.

She sat face to face with the late, great Tupac Shakur and discussed the East Coast VS West Coast beef and men nowadays will still tell her Hip-Hop is a big boy’s playground.

Interesting isn’t it? That no matter how we educate ourselves with research and personal experience a lot of the time it still boils down to gender roles, sexism, and misogyny. But, just like her fellow rapping women previously discussed, the lyrical impact will speak for itself. In this case, the truth in journalistic impact will speak for itself. Being an ethical journalist was easy until people stopped being able to swallow the truth. Tough pill to swallow like broken glass and cinnamon. The point is, though Martinez is successful and making money the credit due is still being postponed. She has recently been set to be honored with receiving the AirBlazer award, but is that enough for nearly 2 decades of hard work? It is an honor to be recognized for creating paths for women, but it’s time that the entire world see us for how we see ourselves. Capable of being every type of Phenomenal Woman in this very complex Path to Rhythm.

The Woman as an Educator

And then there are the educators. The guardians of the culture itself. These are the Dawn-Elissa Fischers (a.k.a. the “D.E.F.” Professor) of the game. Though we often see people saying that the culture is becoming lost, how could it be when all of these forces are working together behind the scenes keeping the real power of Hip-Hop kicking it? We can’t, and it is not the fault of the entire culture that a few decide not to pay attention. Hip-Hop never died. We’ve been standing strong since Kool Herc. With these women around, this is confirmation that Hip-Hop is here to stay and it’s true history will never be forgotten. The educator and the journalist work hand-in-hand in this way. They are out getting there hands dirty in whatever they can that Hip-Hop has the power to help. It’d be selfish of us to keep it for ourselves and not recognize the foot it has in social injustices. Hip-Hop can be partnered with anything. That’s what has made it unique and timeless.

Path to Rhythm

Currently at San Francisco State University as an assistant professor in the Department of Africana Studies within the only Ethnic Studies college in the world, Dr. D.E.F. teaches about Black popular culture and a plethora of other things. She uses Hip-Hop as a positive outreach through many different community-based projects that have found a way to span across the world. Not just the country. Though Dr. D.E.F. has a long list of accomplishments, our favorite focus will be the Hip-Hop Archive that she just so happens to be a founding member of at Harvard University.

One can say that this is where Hip-Hop, art, and education peacefully meet with its mission statement being:

“Facilitating and encouraging the pursuit of knowledge, art, culture and responsible leadership through Hip-Hop.”

This culture creates geniuses in every path thanks to women like Dr. D.E.F. giving a positive outlet that the traditional university route doesn’t fully understand but must implement. The importance of an outlet is often overlooked in education and the women that bend over backwards to create them are even more taken for granted. Why is that? Could it be because Hip-Hop is a big boy’s playground? Something that Black men deeply involved take much pride in considering the struggles that Hip-Hop was born from? Even with these things in mind, we must work harder to give the women involved the respect and credit deserved. You gotta give credit where it’s due ‘cause you ain’t gon’ like the karma when it’s set up on you. For every man that has made a great leap in this industry, there’s a woman that has done something similar, just as great, or better but we have not said her name. We will #SayHerName. Especially when she is Dr. D.E.F., a co-founder of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention. Just to throw out one more accomplishment.

Phenomenal Women (Da Ladies in the House)

Da Ladies In The House EP, 1995

Words/Phrases to Know:

We can safely say that women in Hip-Hop are underrepresented. They come in the form of accessories, artists, journalists, and educators all with one goal: enhancing the culture. No matter how you flip it, they have all had some kind of impact that changed the face of Hip-Hop forever. We will say their names with respect. Retrospect for life. We will learn to make patriarchy in the Hip-Hop industry a thing of the past by pinpointing the women willing to step up and represent the underrepresented. With these women on our team, the outcome of this will not be Politics As Usual. Queens have the power to implement lasting change. Talk about pussy power. With that being said, it’s only right to leave off with food for thought provided by the 1998, Illmatic inspired film, Belly from Rev. Saviour:

Belly, 1998
“Help me to put an end to the disrespect and the dishonor of our most valuable resource: the Black woman. Help me put an end to the destruction of the young mind through the use of drugs, alcohol. Help me to build up a population of great thinkers. People who create change through thoughtfulness and spirituality. Will you choose that truth? Will you? Will you choose the light over the darkness?”


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