Female Rappers, Gender, & Sexuality
By Adobea Addo-Ashong
How early female hip-hop artists addressed their gender and sexuality through their lyrics, music videos, and public persona
Hip-hop to this day is a male-dominated industry, it’s hard for female rappers to rise, and if so, become extremely successful. Because of this male domination, many have come to see hip-hop as being a genre exclusively for men. It is thought to be aggressive, masculine and manly. Authenticity in hip-hop has been intrinsically tied to masculinity, hence it is less likely for society to accept female rappers, doing the job of a man. Additionally, hip hop music tends to be misogynistic. Ever since its start women have been exploited and sexualized by hip-hop artists and they would glorify the objectification of women, not only in their lyrics but also in the music videos. In her aritcle about the evolution of black female rap, Nataki Goodhall states, “Rap music written and performed by men has generally either ignored the existence of women or defined them as commodities, objects of male pleasure, or ornaments” (Goodhall, 85).
This misogyny provides another barrier for females to succeed in the hip-hop industry. Nevertheless, a handful of female rappers have shined through and been able to attain worldwide success. Women rappers’ gender and sexuality are of prime importance because of the reasons stated above. It is hard for female rappers not to address their gender/sexuality in their music because of the culture and stereotypes within the hip-hop industry.
Golden Age hip hop is a name given to a period in mainstream hip hop during the 1908s and 1990s. It is said to be characterized by its diversity, quality, innovation, and influence (Duinker and Martin). Certain social-political themes emerged in the music during this age, such as Afrocentricity, political militancy, racism, and economic inequality to name a few. Artists often associated with this period include LL Cool J, Run D.M.C., Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest. This golden age also saw the emergence and development of Gangsta rap, a style of hip-hop characterized by themes that emphasize the gangster lifestyle. Gangsta rap is the sub-genre which is often criticized by the public as it is thought to promote crime, violence, racism, sex addiction, profanity, alcohol and substance abuser, and misogyny (historyofhiphop).
As discussed in class, the emergence of gangsta rap widened the generational divide between the African American community too. Black activist, Delores Tucker, stated, “the pimps in the entertainment industry who distribute gangsta rap are major contributors to the destruction of the African American community,” and “What do you think Dr. King would have to say about rappers calling black women bitches and whores? About rappers glorifying thugs and drug dealers and rapists? What kind of role models are those for young children living in the ghetto?” (Philips, 1996).
Cleary, the context is very significant. I want to examine female hip-hop artists at this time because as Goodhall stated, the mere presence of female rappers helepd to combat the prevalent sexisim (Goodhall, 84). I also want to see how these women specifically addressed their gender and sexuality during this period (the 1980s and 1990s) when hip-hop artists were addressing a lot of topical issues in their lyrics.
The fact that female rappers were females played a significant role in their music; just as other rappers were addressing societal issues; they addressed many issues related to gender and femininity. I will look at female rappers in the late 19th century to see how they attempted to use/ addressed their gender/sexuality whilst constructing their public image and in their music. What I find is that even though the early female rappers addressed their femininity in different ways, they all appealed to this image of male swagger.
‘Lyte As A Rock’ album cover
Mc Lyte, (Lana Michelle Moorer), has been described as a revolutionary female rapper who has ‘secured and steadily branded the place of women in the industry’(Goodhall, 85). She released her first album, ‘Lyte as a rock’ in 1988 and proved that one does not have to be a male to succeed in the rap business. Lyte rapped about a broad range of topics, including conflict, success, violence and mostly, lyrical fitness (about her impressive rap skills). Lyte has been titled as the first female rapper to release a full album (1988) therefore, she is considered to be part of the ‘Golden Age of Rap’/ This era which saw the rise of new, progressive rappers that spoke about many topical issues.
The cultural context that Lyte rapped in is significant as it had an impact on the way she presented herself and the topics she rapped about. She often tried to be seen as ‘one of the boys’ – she did not want her gender to be her label and therefore kept her feminine sexuality hidden. In her article, ‘Evolution of Black Female Rap’, Nataki Goodhall discusses how African American women have long been characterized as loose and hypersexual and how in the hip hop community men would deter women from entering the field by attacking their sexual reputation (Goodhall, 1994). It could be argued that, in efforts to fight this tendency, Lyte kept her sexuality hidden. This is evident in her first album cover where she surrounds herself with two men, who she is dressed like. She seems to fit in perfectly with them. There is also a stereotypically dressed ‘sexy’ woman on the cover who is likely there to contrast from Lyte. The other woman emphasizes how Lyte is more like the guys then sexually, loose girls.
‘I am Woman’ song lyrics
I am woman, hear me roar
[The Queen] Nah, that’s too corny
[The Sexy] Nah, that gets the guys too horny
[The Best] Now that sounds conceited
But what is true is true, so it has to be repeated
The best is Lyte when I’m on the mic
A song in her first album is named, ‘I am Woman.’ It begins with the phrase, ‘I am woman hear me roar’. This is an allusion to the women’s liberation song called ‘I am Woman’ made in the 1970s by Helen Reddy, it has the same first line. Lyte’s language already associates women with strength and power. The onomatopoeia “roar” shows the ability and forte she has, comparable to wild animals that people fear, such as lions.
These lyrics tell us a lot about the depiction of women during those days, words that are supposed to be compliments are interpreted negatively. Evidently, femininity is not embraced by Lyte, she rejects two names specific to women (queen and sexy) and chooses “best” – a generic term that could refer to both and women. This links to studies of artists like MC Lyte, “these women chose to adopt a style which was traditionally male in order to succeed in a male-dominated industry. The apparent message was that the projection of a more masculine image leads to success and that, in fact, success as a rapper could come only after sacrificing femininity.
In most of her other songs which describe females, she does not sexualize them – she refers to females in her song “Don’t Cry Big Girls”. She asks listeners to “confront me like a big girl” and says, “big girls we don’t fight over men.” The language she uses to describe women her lyrics do not refer to their sexuality but to their clout.
‘Like a Virgin’ song lyrics
They’ll use, bruise and abuse
Dump your ass and be sure to choose
The next fresh fish that steps into the place
Lovin them and leavin them, that was their reasonin
Lyte talks more about males than she does about women in her music; however she typically describes them negatively, she continuously stereotypes all males as players, this term propagated by hip-hop culture is defined as a male who is skilled at manipulating others and especially at seducing women. (Urban Dictionary) an example of Lyte’s gender stereotyping of males is her song ‘Like a Virgin.’
Lyte warns women about the dangers of men; her language and tone are very contemptuous and sincere. She uses harsh words such as ‘bruise’ and ‘abuse’ to highlight how injurious men can be. She also uses the term ‘fresh fish’ to metaphorically refer to women. This term reminds the listener about how banal women are in the eyes of men. Furthermore, Lyte uses the third person to refer to men; by doing this she makes all men seem the same. Many of Lyte’s other songs condemn the behavior of men. She describes men as to how male rappers describe females in their music – she reverses the roles and by doing this Lyte empowers women in her lyrics and proves that they do not need to exploit their sexuality in order to be successful.
Salt n’ Pepa
‘I’ll take your man’ song lyrics
I’ll take your man whenever I feel like it
This ain’t a threat or bet, it’s a damn promise
From me to you, your sex life’s through
If you get another lover, I’ll take him, too
All I have to do is say a rhyme or two
And he’ll hop and leave you like a kangaroo
In stark contrast to Mc Lyte’s lyrics and reference to sexuality comes the all-female rap group, Salt-N-Pepa. This group greatly embraced sexuality in their music. It consisted of Cheryl James (Salt), Sandra Denton (Pepa) and Latoya Hanson, who then got replaced by Deira Roper. The rap group was made in 1985. Salt-N-Pepa is known for their freedom to talk about taboo topics such as Sex and women’s desires. Salt-N-Pepa similarly to Lyte, reversed the roles of men and women in their music. This is shown clearly in their song ‘I’ll Take Your Man.’
In their lyrics, Salt-N-Pepa asserts their authority over the opposite gender by claiming that they can steal a man from another woman “Whenever [they] feel like it.” They also reinforce their strength by saying that this is a “promise” the language is very assertive and somehow intimidating. Normally, in hip-hop culture, it is the men who have the ability to and threaten to take another man’s woman.
The trio also declares their freedom in many of their other songs, for example, the song “None of Your Business.” In this popular song, the women say, “If I wanna be a freak and sell it on the weekend Its none of your business” and “Your double standards don’t mean shit to me”, the diction emphasizes the unfair gender roles placed in the society the group live in, where it is alright for men to have many sexual partners whereas it is wrong for women.
‘Shoop’ music video
A clear example of why Salt-N-Pepa has been called “undoubtedly the most historically and continuously progressive female rap group in terms of addressing female sexuality” (Goodhall) is their music video, ‘shoop’. This song is about sex and sexual desires. In the video the three women are dressed in an effeminate way, wearing revealing clothes, however, the men’s dressing in this video is even more revealing than the women. The women come up to a random group of men to flirt, like one would expect men to do a woman and they target different stereotypical types of men, from the working man in the suit and tie to the gangster in the hood, to the sporty basketball player. We also the women pointing at and admiring men’s bodies as they walk around shirtless on the beach. Evidently, in the music video, we see the group totally reverse the roles of men and women as men are the ones who are taking on the video vixen role. They are the ones who are sexualized and objectified, and the women have the power to pick and choose.
Word Up! Magazine cover
In their music video and their lyrics, we see Salt-N-Pepa being overtly sexual and effeminate, however, the group still attempted to appeal to the image of male swagger. We can see this through their ‘word up’ magazine cover where the trio wears baggy clothes, baseball caps, and even big chains like one would expect male rappers to do. Even though the group would express sexual freedom in their lyrics this didn’t mean that they dressed in a sexual way a majority of the time, like we see female rappers today do. Salt-N-Pepa showed through the dressing that they, like all of their male colleagues, had swagger. Clearly there was not simply one dimension to the group, and this would allow them to appeal to many different audiences.
After the mass media success of Mc Lyte and Salt-N-Pepa, more and more female hip-hop artists emerged into the scene with lyrics that attacked social stereotypes. This includes the rapper Queen Latifah (Dana Elaine Owens) who started her rapping career in 1989. Latifah seemed to have focused her lyrics on significant social issues that she faced daily, including femininity and gender issues. She is best known for her song entitled ‘U.N.I.T.Y’ which voices against the treatment of women in hip-hop culture.
Concerning her public persona, Queen Latifah presented herself as what has been described by scholars as a ‘Queen Mother’ frequently. Latifah viewed herself as an African-centred icon and this was exemplified through their dress, as the picture above of her album cover shows. Through this, and other album covers that were similar to this, Latifah established her regal identity. In explaining how she got her stage name, Latifah said her cousin gave her name Latifah and she didn’t want to be MC Latifah as she “didn’t want to come out like old models,” so she chose queen; she also says she chose this name because “Every black woman is a queen.” Latifah also had a maternal demeanor and posture which contributed to the perception of her as a queen mother. Her fans saw her as a maternal figure or as someone to revere and at times fear (Keyes, 2000).
Instinct leads me to another flow
Every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho
Trying to make a sister feel low
A man don’t really love you if he hits ya
And nothing good gonna come to ya til you do right by me
Brother you wait and see (Who you calling a bitch?)
The lyrics immediately condemn the negative names typically used to describe women by male rappers. Latifah states that “Instincts” force her to begin another rap expressing her strong stance against misogyny in hip-hop; it is evident that she is talking about her fellow rappers in the industry by using the expression ‘brother’, a colloquial term used to refer to men. “Bitch” and “ho” are two impertinent names commonly used to describe the nature of women in hip-hop music and allow two labels to be placed on women – they are infuriating and promiscuous. The fact that Latifah specifically mentions the two words highlights their prevalence in hip-hop lyrics.
By rhyming simple words, Latifah allows the listener to truly appreciate the catchy lyrics and strengthens the choleric, bitter tone of the song. The language suggests that women are commonly oppressed and belittled by males. She unites all females by the generic word, ‘sister’, highlighting that the fight against negative portrayal in media is a collective one. Latifah continues to touch on common issues faced by women such as domestic violence and street harassment. Latifah also uses the pronoun ‘we’ to refer to females signifying that all females form one tight community, and to show she identifies as part of this large community.
‘Ladies First’ music video
Ladies first is another popular song by Queen Latifah which helped define her rapping career, like most of her music, this song touches on femininity and gender issues, it attempts to empower women, show how much strength they have and all they are capable of. However, similar to Queen Latifah’s other songs, she targets black women. In the video, Queen Latifah dresses in a military outfit, reminiscent of for members of the black panther party used to dress in the 60s. the black panthers. Whilst in this outfit, she has a powerful stance and in one scene, pictures of powerful black women (mostly political activists) flash behind her. This includes Angela Davis, Winnie Mandela, and Harriet Tubman.
Cleary, Latifah attempts to prove to women how much potential they have to make a difference. One should also note that in this music video, all the women, including her, her featuring artists, Monie Love, and the back-up dancers, are not dressed in a sexualized way or in a way that accents their body. Most of the women in the video wear long-sleeves tops. By doing so Latifah counters the picture of women painted by the male rappers of her time. She attempts to portray the supremacy and strength of women that she discusses in more detail in the lyrics of the song.
In all, although Mc Lyte did not celebrate sexuality in her music, she does refer to the attributes of femininity. Lyte, however, does not exult females like Queen Latifah and Salt-N-Pepa. Instead, Lyte brings power to her gender by using her language to criticize and stereotype men.
Salt-N-Pepa, on the other hand, attempts to empower women mainly through rejoicing their sexuality and using sexually unambiguous language. Finally, Queen Latifah empowers women by glorifying the female gender.
Comparing these rappers to female rappers today just emphasizes how influential these women were. there is a lack of explicit feminist ideals in contemporary rap music by women. When looking at youtube comments under the music videos of these women, many addressed this change, for example:
“Im 21 so im from the Nicki and Iggy era. However i have a strong appreciation for this kinda rap. At least they rap whats relatable and not just about money or ‘haters’, i can actually make out what they’re saying, these rhymes actually flow. My generation just dont know lol” – Daniel S.
“After watching sweatie Lee , Meghan stallion , cardi B and all the clones of nikki Minaj. This is so refreshing. Where are the real female rappers at?” – Aaliyah Kassim.
Clearly these artist’s revolutionary influence is still felt to this day.
Duinker, B., & Martin, D. (2016, September). In Search of the Golden Age Hip-Hop Sound (1986–1996). Retrieved from http://emusicology.org/article/view/5410.
Gangsta Rap. (2014, April 11). Retrieved from https://historyofthehiphop.wordpress.com/music-genres/gangsta-rap/.
Golden age hip hop. (2019, November 29). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_age_hip_hop.
Goodall, N. (1994). Depend on Myself: T. L. C. and the Evolution of Black Female Rap. The Journal of Negro History, 79(1), 85-93. doi:10.2307/2717669
Keyes, C. (2000). Empowering Self, Making Choices, Creating Spaces: Black Female Identity via Rap Music Performance. The Journal of American Folklore, 113(449), 255-269. doi:10.2307/542102
MC Lyte – I Am Woman. (1988, September 13). Retrieved from https://genius.com/Mc-lyte-i-am-woman-lyrics.
MC Lyte – Like a Virgin. (1991, September 17). Retrieved from https://genius.com/Mc-lyte-like-a-virgin-lyrics.
Philips, C. (1996, March 20). Anti-rap crusader under fire. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/local/la-fi-tupacdelores20march2096-story.html.
Salt-N-Pepa – I’ll Take Your Man. (1986, December 8). Retrieved from https://genius.com/Salt-n-pepa-ill-take-your-man-lyrics.
Queen Latifah – U.N.I.T.Y. (1993, November 16). Retrieved from https://genius.com/Queen-latifah-unity-lyrics.