'We do what we want, for ourselves': why it's a golden age for women in rap

Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Doja Cat and tens of other female rappers are breaking through by embracing sisterhood and shaking off the prejudices of the past

Much like the rest of the music industry, hip-hop, rap and grime have traditionally been male-dominated spaces. Finally, though, things are changing. Megan Thee Stallion’s rise – alongside US contemporaries such as City Girls and Doja Cat as well as UK talent including Stefflon Don and Ms Banks – felt inconceivable even a few years ago. Now, however, we’re at a point where there are several successful female rappers who support, rather than compete with, one another.

Ever since Queens rapper Roxanne Chanté called out pretty much all of her contemporaries back in the mid-80s, women in hip-hop have been pitted against each other. Even as recently as 2018, when Cardi B threw a shoe at Nicki Minaj during a red carpet confrontation, they have been encouraged to tear their rivals down. Just two years later, however, the mood has changed and this kind of spat is rare and feels undignified. Now displays of friendship and support, along with in-jokes on social media timelines are much more common.

“I’m very aware of the narrative of ‘There can only be one queen’ that’s been put into women’s heads,” says rising London rapper Br3nya. “But it never crossed my mind when I started making music that there wouldn’t be space for me. I think that idea is fuelled by men in the industry because it’s entertaining for them.” Br3nya says that when she started out, peers like Alicai Harley and Ms Banks “were very welcoming, supporting my stuff from the gate. We’ve built a relationship coming to each other’s shows, being in each other’s videos – if I need them, they’re there.”

This solidarity has been fostered by the influx of women working across the music business. While BBC Radio 1Xtra DJ Tiffany Calver doesn’t think it should be remarkable that she’s the first woman to host the station’s Rap Show, she makes the effort to discover and support female rappers because her male peers may not. “It’s still not at a level where I’m getting a balanced amount of female rap,” she says, “so until we get to that place I do have to proactively seek out female rap to play.”

As recently as 2017, US rapper and record executive Rick Ross notoriously stated that he wouldn’t sign a woman to his label because “I always thought I would end up fucking a female rapper” – which spoke volumes about an industry that saw women as objects. In 2020, though, the industry is clamouring for their talents: the likes of Rico Nasty, Flo Milli and Rapsody are all signed to major labels, all creating vastly different but universally excellent music.

Ms Banks.
Ms Banks. Photograph: Jordan Curtis Hughes/PR HANDOUT

While once artists such as Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown were expected to pander to that male gaze while also being discredited for displaying their sexuality, in 2020 artists like Megan Thee Stallion – rapping bars such as “You know I ain’t come boy if you had to ask me” – unabashedly express sexual desire from a woman’s perspective. It feels like there’s more room than ever for these women to do whatever they want: wear a hoodie or overalls or a bikini; write lyrics that discuss sex or politics; use classic soul samples or brash pop choruses.

Indeed, today it may not even be helpful to group these artists together by gender at all: “female” is not a genre, and the sort of work that, Tierra Whack, Kamaiyah, Leikeli47, Flohio, Bree Runway and Little Simz are making is all extremely diverse. “There’s no one specific way to be a female rapper,” says Calver. “Ms Banks can absolutely shell a freestyle, but then can be on an incredible Afrobeats single. She’s just an artist.”

But when the canon has been written by men, it’s necessary to champion women for being women in order to rewrite the narrative – even though it’s frustrating to do so. And while there are adjacent issues that need to be discussed – for instance, whether colourism makes success easier for women who are lighter-skinned – for now, women’s hard-won success needs to be celebrated. As Br3nya says: “Whenever I see those ‘greatest rappers of all time’ lists and there aren’t any women, I’m thinking: are you guys OK? But it’s because men don’t want to give women that type of rating. Women are going to have to be the ones making these lists, creating spaces to showcase female talent. I think that’s one lesson I’m learning – women have to have each other’s backs, and do what we want, for ourselves. Because no one else is going to do it for us.”

Contributor

Tara Joshi

The GuardianTramp

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