woman in hip hop jean grea

As a general rule, I make it my business not to slate any woman making a living out of hip hop. The way it looks to me, it isn’t easy for anyone. As hip hop has grown into a highly lucrative commodity, the corporations have wrestled control of thegenre, reducing a diverse spectrum of creativity and experience to a bland and threat free version that can be pumped into the mass market.

About a couple of times a year I have the same argument with the same friend when we’ve drunk too much. He’ll say he can’t get into hip hop because of the lyrics about drugs and partying and pulling and who’s hardest, and the whole thing with the videos where women are never allowed to wear any clothes. Oh yeah, and the fact that everything sounds exactly the same. So I argue with him and talk to him about the four pillars and the Zulu Nation and community and the fact that there is so much power and inventiveness and creativity in this music and this culture but, honestly, when I’m in the gym and they’re playing cable tv and all I can see is oiled up girls in bikini’s thrusting to the same, tired, beat while some l’il boy lives out his pimp fantasy? I feel like I’ve lost the argument. That’s the mainstream, folks.

The corporations took the culture and they squeezed it and they sanitized it and they forced it through a sausage machine spewing out product into the world. A world where the only hip hop your friends who hate hip hop know is Eminem, Kanye, and Jay-Z. Possibly Biggie Smalls and Tupac as well (y’know, the dead black guys).

Bambaata/P.E/Dead Prez/KRS-1/Mos Def/Brand Nubian/Masta Ace/MF Doom… not so much.

Ain’t too much room in the big picture for an alternative image of what hip hop looks like, and you certainly won’t see it unless you go searching.

And what about all the women?

Someone once said of the tap-dancing duo, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, that it was funny how he’s the one that got all the credit when she not only did everything he did – she did it backwards.And in high heels. For women in hip hop, there’s not only the prejudice that says hip hop has to be one type of thing to make the cash registers sing, there’s the double whammy that says women need to be another kind of thing as well. And these days, you just know she has to be wearing high heels.

On top of needing to have flow, invention, lyrical skill and a head for business, women in hip hop now also need to make sure they have good hair, flawless skin, a size zero waist, and an ass thatyou could land a Boeing 747 on. I have read some garbage about why women are not well represented in hip hop in my time, but the biggest load of manure was the “insight” that it’s not commercially viable for a label to sign a woman because of the money they’ll have to spend on hairdressing, make-up, and costume. (Sideways glance to camera, with a carefully plucked eye-brow raised…)

And that ain’tthe all of it. When it comes to being a woman in hip hop, you’ll be damned if you do (look like you put out), and shelved if you don’t. It’s easy to slate Nikki for the work she’s *possibly* done, or Iggy for the twerking and the accidental red-carpet slip and the leaked sex tape and, well, EVERYTHING. But it IS what sells and the tragedy is it seems that these days? If you’re a woman it’s ALL that sells.

Jean Grae: My Story

In the decade 1993-2003, there were platinum albums from Eve, Lauryn Hill, Foxy, L’il Kim, Missy Elliot, Da Brat, Salt-n-Pepa and then…. no platinum for the girls at all until 2011 and NikkiMinaj. Do you blame Nikki for accepting that to get the sales, she’s going to have to have something very, very, um, *visual* to sell? Because talent won’t cut it. If it did, Rah Digga would be a superstar. If it did, Jean Grae’s last three releases* would be on a major label, not band camp. Nitty Scott would have been up for the Grammy, not Iggy Azalea.

Nitty Scott MC: Concrete Roses

So I don’t blame Nikki. Part of me wants to admire her. Her music bores me beyond all human endurance, but I can’t fault her business acumen. She is the only woman in the top 50 earners in hip hop of ALL TIME.

Just think about that for a second.

Not Missy Elliot, who insisted when she was signed that the company gave her her own label.

Not Queen Latifah with her syndicated tv series.

Nikki Minaj with her watertight contracts and her even tighter pants. Fair play to her, I suppose.

Because it can’t be easy having to live in that image and take flak from all sides, including those who should know better. I saw Public Enemy this year, with one of the best warm up sets I’ve had the privilege to hear. DJ Chuck Chill out. Legend. MC’d by someone who I have been told was Chuck D’s brother (or someone with a career as a Chuck D lookalike waiting to happen). It was great. A trip down memory lane back to the old school, and a reminder of how fantastic the roots of hip hop are, watching local b-boys and girls killing it to Fort Apache. Then the MC went to town on one track slating all those who claim to be hip hop now and calling them out for the lack of skill, and the lack of lyricism, and the lack of respect, and I was cheering along with the rest of the crowd. And then he got to Nikki. And he said “she’s just a ho”. Oh. Not, “she’s a barely passable rapper who takes beats off the conveyor belt Drake uses and doesn’t understand the horror that’s wreaked by auto-tune”. No. Just, she’s a ho. Talent isn’t even important when you’re dissing a woman, sorry, my bad. Dissing a “ho”.
Damned if you do, shelved if you don’t.

I get annoyed when the brothers in hip hop join in with the slackness. Don’t respect a rapper who looks like a ho? Fair enough. So stop helping to manufacture the culture that gives her no other option. Let some women in your videos wear some fucking clothes. Make like Bambaata and start putting your name behind emerging women with skills and with something to say. If you own your own label, sign those women and promote them until they get on the playlists and stop saying stupid shit like women can’t rap. Stop wandering off stage, Chuck, when Flav wants to do some tired, embarrassing, booty shaking skit where he gets to make fun of the fat chick. Just because you weren’t there for that bit doesn’t mean you’re disassociated from it.

Remember the Roc-a-fella artist, Amil? Best known probably for her verse on “Can I get a…” and a cameo appearance in the documentary “Backstage” – mainly looking nervous and out of place as a raucous and unruly blokes persuaded very, very, drunk girls to bare their breasts on camera. Nice. Well, in 2014 she gave an interview to Billboard in which she described bowing out of her emerging career because she didn’t like the life, hated the travelling, and hate the after parties, and I was just thinking sheesh ….I bet you did, it looked like a truly horrible place to be a woman. Certainly was for Eve, who’s spoken of how she became depressed on the Ruff-Ryder’s tour.

Amil: Smile 4 Me

So no, I don’t like to slate women who make it in hip hop because they’ve had to be twice as thick-skinned, twice as tenacious, and twice as business savvy as most of the men.

Backwards, and in heels.

But…still…

Can we talk about Iggy Azalea? And specifically her spat with one of the hardest mc’s (male or female) on the planet, the mighty Rah Digga?

It is ridiculous that the most mainstream media attention that Rah Digga has had lately surrounds her answer to a question about Iggy Azalea. It seems the only time the media can deal with more than one female MC at a time is when they’re manufacturing some stupid bitch fight. Anyway a bunch of stupid-ness got printed and tweeted and repeated, and totallymisrepresented what Rah Digga actually said when an interviewer asked what she thought of Iggy. Despite what you may have heard, there was zero racism in the response. She didn’t call Iggy out for being white. Look at what she REALLY said:

“Iggy Azalea, it’s like I can’t get into her, because it’s just not real to me. There is a white girl from Australia that spits in an Australian accent and her name is Chelsea Jane. That I can get into. Teach me Australian Hip Hop culture. Don’t come to America and try to convince me that you’re Gangsta Boo”

This is not racism. This is just saying that pretending to be something you’re not should not be necessary. I can’t argue with that, I can only support it, at the same time as despairing that a white girl trying to sound like a black woman from a continent she wasn’t born in spitting rhymes some claim she doesn’t write wins hip hop artist of the year (incidentally – her major competition was a white man). Meanwhile Rah Digga is out there in the community setting up youth programmes and schools and mentoring the next generation and banging out tracks that make your heart pound (check Angela Davis and Storm Coming from this year). Missy Elliot is worth less financially than Nikki Minaj. Jean Grae doesn’t have a major label deal, and 99% of people have never even heard of Sa-Roc.

Rah Digga: Storm Coming

Seems like the mainstream can’t cope with anything other than one kind of hip hop. One version of black masculinity. One version of femininity. And no kind of intelligence. We need to heed the words of Divine Styler, interviewed here when he said that music with a message “has been all but excommunicated from the broad church of hip-hop… ‘And that’s by design. It’s not out there. The companies, they’ll reject it. They want the bullshit for a reason. To keep people super-stupid and ignorant. There’s no attention being given [to this], no questions being asked, no one having these conversations. It’s just a bunch of bad kids being allowed to tear the house down.’”

Sa-Roc: Indigo Child (feat Drea D’Nur)

Let’s stop tearing the house down.
(And stop buying Iggy Azalea records)

Peace out.

*With the possible exception of her version of Santa Baby which should probably stay where it is

Words by Vicky T

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