The rap scene is a workplace like any other, and, like most offices and factories, it’s got some messy gender dynamics. The recent explosion in the low-and-slow simmering beef between Nicki Minaj and Cardi B is personal to the extent that they continue to call each other out, but more than that, it is a symptom of a system that forces women to compete with one another on nearly every plane, rather than lift each other up.
In her Atlantic article on women’s competition in the workplace, Olga Khazan analyzes various studies on the topic and summarizes that, “When there appear to be few opportunities for women, research shows, women begin to view their gender as an impediment; they avoid joining forces, and sometimes turn on one another.” Our larger culture often creates competition between women based on the perception of limited resources- mates, promotions, etc. In an even narrower identity group- not just women, but Black women rappers in a male industry- the resources are even slimmer, and so the competition is greater. After all, there are only so many third verse rap features available at any given time, especially for a woman. That’s why their collaboration on MotorSport felt so monumental- how often have we been treated to two NY raised, bold, record-breaking, talented Black women rapping on one track?
Two decades before Cardi threw a shoe at Nicki, Lil Kim and Foxy Brown battled over the same metaphorical territory- stylists, collaborators, magazine covers. From 2016–2017, Nicki and Remy Ma engaged in a very public fight over which of them was really the queen, as Nicki had ascended to the top of the rap game during Remy’s prison stay. Even the language of these beefs is imbued with exclusivity and hierarchy- there can only be one queen, and all others are meant to bow down.
Authenticity is often at the center of rap beefs. Who is more real? Hip Hop, and Rap more specifically, is grounded in a narrative of performative “realness”, and that realness is often derived from race and class-based struggle. Now that Nicki has long-since made it, her “come from nothing” narrative is eclipsed by Cardi’s more recent rise from the strip club.
Authenticity is built in opposition to falseness. In historic rap beefs, that struggle has played out as different cities vying for supreme credibility, ghostwriting claims, attacks on exes’ new partners, and, so frequently with women rappers, the concept of mimicry. Women rappers are often false because they are “copying” those that came before them. You can’t win a rap beef based in “realness” if you’ve copied someone else. We even see this in pop music- claims that Lady Gaga was just trying to be Madonna sometimes eclipsed her undeniable talent early on in her career (aside- super excited for A Star is Born); Christina Aguilera’s 2010 album Bionic was criticized as an attempt to capitalize on how popular Gaga’s “weirdness” had become. Interestingly, it became Gaga’s aesthetic, as opposed to Madonna’s, as soon as there was a new copycat.
Originality and imitation are the bones of many beefs Minaj has been a part of, including that with Remy Ma. The battles that stem from imitation claims are evidence that women cannot succeed by using one another as inspiration. Take as the alternative, for example, Justin Timberlake, who has for decades been successful on the backs of hundreds of Black people before him and never acknowledges that (ugh). While internet dwellers like myself may lament this, his “inspirations” aren’t at his throat for stealing their style. That’s because more than one man can succeed at a time.
“The biggest issue I heard about is what’s known as ‘competitive threat,’” Khazan says, “which is when a woman fears that a female newcomer will outshine her.” Women undermine and harm each other in the workplace as a means of self promotion and, to some degree, self-preservation. If only one can succeed, then it makes sense to eliminate your competition. In Nicki and Cardi’s industry, there are even fewer slots for female stardom than others. The nature of the rap game, then, pits these two Black women against each other. While it might be fun to watch the drama fall out, it’s also sad to know that the systems that have created their rift are still in place, and that even the most glamorous of us are not exempt from these systems of oppression.