Black Female Rappers in American Culture


1. Introduction
2. The role and images of black female rappers in American rap music industry
3. Feminist’s discourse in rap music
4. The dominant sexual and racial ideologies in American culture
5. Conclusion: the future of black females in American rap music
6. Bibliography

American culture, being traditionally perceived as quite liberal and democratic, is in fact paralysed by the overwhelming power of stereotypes which shape the current image of culture at large and its industries, including music, in particular. Even the most innovative and advanced movements turn to be submitted to the canons of the ideology that dominates in American culture. Unfortunately, such a situation does not contribute to the development of really free, liberal and focused on spiritual, moral and intellectual progress of the consumers of the culture.
Probably one of the most interesting, new and, unfortunately, typical example of the domination of stereotypes in American culture is the development of female black rap music, which has become particularly intensive in 1980s and is still quite dynamically developing. At first glance black female rap music should be free from traditional stereotypes, it should be innovative and contributing to black female emancipation and increasing the role of black females in the society at large but, in actuality, the situation is absolutely different.
Despite the fact that many female rappers pretend to be unique at developing the new image of a free and independent black female, it turns to be that practically all of them, or at least the most popular of them, are ideologically dependent on the male dominance in proper and figurative sense of this word. It means that as a rule black female rappers tend to create an image which can be well accepted by the wide audience and which is created on the basis of the dominating ideology in American culture, notably in American rap music that is characterised by the male dominance and the role of a black female is so to say secondary or subordinated to a male. As a result, instead of a new image of a black female that could be independent and free of male dominance, rap music industry and the audience have got a negative image of a black female, or an image of a black female that tends to underline her sexuality.
The role and images of black female rappers in American rap music industry
Speaking about black female rappers, it should be pointed out that their role and the impact on the development of the culture of African Americans and American culture at large should not be underestimated. Regardless the fact that many of black female rappers were created due to the male rappers they still contributed to the progress of rap music industry and introduced something new and founded a basis for further development of rap music among black females on the professional level.
The development of black female rappers as a strong power in rap music and culture has started in 1980s and nowadays it is still popular and interesting. Black female rappers may be viewed differently but their importance for music and culture cannot be denied. At this respect it should be pointed out that many cultural and music critics “praise rap’s role as an educational tool, point out that black women rappers are examples of aggressive pro-women lyricists in popular music, and defend rap’s ghetto stories as real life reflections that should draw attention to the burning of racism and economic oppression, rather than to question of obscenity” (Rose 1994, 1).
At the same time, on analysing the development of black female rappers, it should be said there could be clearly defined two main trends, which have been typical for black female rappers since 1980s. Initially, black female rappers had to “wear the same clothes as men, curse with the same intonation, and adopt a harsh mentality that didn’t place much value on feminine instincts” (Nelson 1998, 188) that was actually a natural consequences of male domination in rap music and culture at large.
On the other hand, later a new trend has become popular. Black females broke ground using sex or feminine image which was deliberately underlined. As Nelson George points out, “most commercially successful female group (and one of rap’s best selling act of any gender) began as slightly chubby b-girls who have evolved into glamour girls, and have been talking about sex since 1986” (1998, 185). Quite noteworthy is the fact that many female rappers used similar themes in their songs.
Nonetheless, it is impossible to objectively evaluate the role of black female rappers without analysis of the work of the most outstanding black female rappers. One of the most popular and well known black female rappers, whose contribution in the development of rap music is undoubted, is Dana Owens, better known as Queen Latifah. By the way her adapted Arabic name Latifah is quite symbolic and means ‘beautiful’, ‘sensitive’, ‘kind’. She became popular in 1989 with her hit single “Ladies First”. According to Monica Lynch, the Tommy Boy executive who put Latifah on, the song “signalled the empowerment of a new breed of female MC’s” (Hip Hop Divas 2001, 52). In fact this song arrived quite in time because at came at a period in rap when many female rappers were just dissing one another but not doing the same to their sexist male counterparts. In such a situation her album “All Hail” was not a sort of an album traditional for black female rappers of that time but it was an album of a woman who was not afraid to confront sexist and disrespectful behaviour. As the matter of fact, Queen Latifah has managed to put the right messages at the right time for, as many critics underlined, “the topic of empowerment for the ladies made a big impact on many socially, including capturing the attention of hip-hop journalists debating and documenting the female perspective” (Hip Hop Divas 2001, 53). Moreover, her trend to underline female independence and equality often provoked discussions about her heterosexuality and often she was asked whether she was a gay or not.
However, Queen Latifah was not very successful from commercial point of view for she has got only one gold record but financial side of the business was obviously not the most important in her contribution to the development of black female rap music. In fact she is an excellent example of positive female representation in rap music since her image is traditionally perceived as positive. As Treach said “she represents black women power. That’s why all the ladies were behind her whether they were rap fans or not” (Hip Hop Ladies 2001, 56). Unfortunately, Queen Latifah is a rare exception with her social and spiritual aims superior to financial ones which were basic for the vast majority of black female rappers later.
Anther significant personality among black female rappers is Sister Souljah. In fact she is a very gifted person who managed to apply her talent and knowledge in different fields though she is traditionally thought of as “a controversial American hip-hop generation author, activist, recording artist, and film producer” (Collins 2000, 221). Obviously her talent as a rapper was probably the most significant in her life. It was she who was the female voice of hip-hop formation Public Enemy and her first solo album 360 Degrees of Power was released in 1992. At the same time, it should be pointed out that she was really quite a controversial person, for instance, on commenting the Los Angeles riots, she said quite a provoking phrase: “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” (Collins 2000, 222). This statement, being severely criticise by the President Bill Clinton, inspired the creation of the first Sister Souljah moment.
However, in late 1990s she basically focused on her literary career and published her autobiography “No Disrespect” (1995) and the novel “The Coldest Winter Ever” (1999). Nonetheless, in her work both as a rapper and as a writer she raised disturbing problems of racial inequality, which sometimes simply overshadow another problem the problem of equality and ruin of stereotypes concerning black females.
Nonetheless, Sister Souljah represents relatively new generation of black female rappers while there is a very important figure in the black female movement, which produced a very serious impact on the development of rap music at large and its female branch in particular, and she is MC Lyte. Actually she is one of the major black female rappers. Moreover, she was the first who received the gold album. She started her music career very early when she was only 12 and soon after that she signed a contract with First Priority that was obviously a great success for a young African American girl. Naturally she continued her career and she released her debut album Lyte as a Rock in 1988 when she was 17 only. It was really a great success but what was really important for her and for black female rappers was the fact that it was a good example for other black female rappers to follow.
At the same time, there was also a great danger in it because in such an age she could hardly realise the importance of the message she gave to the audience while her commercial success was not less significant than her success as a rapper. The years to follow she managed to make a guest appearance on a remix of Sinead O’Connor’s “I wants your hands on me”, which became a dance hit. In 1990s she continued to release her albums. It is quite noteworthy that she collaborated with other black female rappers such as Missy Elliott “Cold Rock a Party”.
Naturally, her work and her success could not remain unmarked and in December 2004 she was inducted as an honorary member into Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Inc. In such a way, MC Lyte contributed greatly to the development of black female rappers and achieved great results at the very young age.
As for her collaborator, Missy Elliott, she was also a very significant personality in the black female rapper music. Actually, she is one of the first female hip hop superstars. Among her hits may be named “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”, “She’s a Bitch”, “Get UR Freak On”, “Lose Control”, and “Work It”. Quite remarkably she started as a singer and songwriter in an R&B group called Sista though it should be emphasised that her friend Timothy “DJ Timmy Tim”, the producer of her group produced a significant impact on her creative work and her image. Than she continued her career cooperating with Swing Mob, and later Timbaland. Elliot and Timbaland crafted hit singles for a number of artists between 1995-1997.
As a solo rapper, Elliott began her career as a featured vocalist on Gina Thompson’s “The Things You Do” and MC Lyte’s 1996 single “Cold Rock a Party”. Her debut album was released in 1997, was Supa Dupa Fly, a blockbuster hit that established Missy Ellitott as a major force in popular music. It is very important that Supa Dupa Fly was accepted positively by critics though some critics commented that “the album tracks, some of which sampled Missy/Mosley hits such as “Can We” and “One in a Million”, were far inferior to the singles” (Sexton 1995, 257). 1997 was marked by Elliott perform on Lil Kim’s girl-power anthem, a hit remix of her song, “Not Tonight” that obviously underlined her music work as a black female rapper. The next year, she continued her successful music career by writing and producing Total’s single “Trippin”.
Missy Elliott’s second album, Da Real World (1999) was just as successful as the first as well as Miss E… So Addictive in 2001. In fact she is very productive and among the albums which were successful may be also named Under Construction (2002), This Is Not a Test (2003), The Cookbook (2005) and she still remains to be popular so that “Missy Elliott is still as widely recognised and respected by her peers, mainstream, and underground as ever” (Cheney 2005, 410). Moreover, her achievements and success were rewarded and in November 2005, Missy Elliott won Best Female Hip Hop Artist at the 2005 American Music Awards, defeating, by the way, Lil Kim, another famous black female rapper.
However, her success was great, but the quality of her work was probably sacrificed for the sake of commercial success. In such a way commerce has started to prevail over the message the black female rapper, namely Missy Elliott, conveyed to the audience.
This trend has become even more obvious in the creative work of Lil Kim who was probably the most commercially successful of all females in the rap industry. On the other hand, Lil Kim was the best at selling the sex image. It is very important to underline that she was introduced to the hip-hop community via the all male crew Junior Mafia and “with a successful introduction in place and her mentor/lover The Notorious B.I.G. right behind her, Kim locked down the rap world from many (female) competitors for a very long time” (Evans 1994, 216). On analysing her work, it is easy to realise that Lil Kim exploited sexuality to create an image of sweetheart that was to a significant extent the result of her personal need to be loved. It is a well known fact that Kim left home too soon and this is why she had to hustle men in order to support herself. “’At that time I always had a man to take care of me’ she remembers. ‘Sometimes, if I thought I could get some money out of a guy, I’d sleep with. And I got kinda caught in that mentality’” (Hip Hop Divas 2001, 133). Soon she starts “transporting drugs, lives to boyfriend to boyfriend, learning hard lessons, getting betrayed” (Hip Hop Divas 2001, 133). Naturally all these facts from her biography reflected in her creative work and her image where sexuality was particularly significant, while morality obviously played a secondary role after commercial success.
Despite this fact, she was very popular and her debut on Junior Mafia’s “Player’s Anthem” left many rap fans captivated with her raw style and lyrical abilities. When her first album was released she was characterised as “the dopest female MC that’s coming out ever” (Hip Hop Divas 2001, 134). It is very important that, being an outstanding black female rapper, Lil Kim was supported by her boyfriend and male rapper Biggie who gave her a lot of help, though mainly at the beginning of her career. But even though his role has started to decline, when the real success has come, the death of Biggie produced a very serious impact on her creative work and she delayed the release of her second album The Notorious for three years. These facts underline the role of male in the progress of black female rappers career and the emphasis on sexuality in Lil Kim’s career and her image are extremely contrasting to what Queen Latifah’s promotion of black female independence and freedom from stereotypes.
Nonetheless, Lil Kim is unique and there has been no female solo artists before as successful as Kim in being raw and doing exactly what male rappers have done to be successful. At the same time, she revealed that black female rappers tend to give the audience the image which is to a significant extent stereotyped and black female independence promoted in 1980s is gradually replaced by striving for commercial success by all means.
In such a way, black female rappers being significantly similar to each other possess their unique characteristics and in general they played an important role in the development of rap music though their image as well as the message they convey to the audience were and remain to be quite controversial.
Feminist’s discourse in rap music
To fully realise the controversial character of black female rappers it is necessary to analyse in details their messages and their feminist’s discourse, which they represent in their creative work.
In fact there may be singled out two main trends in the image and style of black female rappers. On the one hand, there are female rappers which attempt to imitate their male counterparts they just tend to be like male rappers, wearing similar clothes, using similar language and style. On the other hand, there are black female rappers which are sometimes defined as a ‘fly-girl’ leading a very sexually active lifestyle and promoting this image, which becomes their second nature, to the audience. Among such black female rappers may be named MC Lyte and Lil Kim.
It should be underlined that often, especially in 1980s, black female rappers were playing in the sexist arena but the promotion of a black female as an independent female who can live her own way without male’s influence and support was quite rare and sometimes resulted in discussions concerning sexual orientation of a rapper as it was in the case of Queen Latifah described above. In contrast, many black female rappers were often harsher to one another than to male rappers that naturally did not contributed to the promotion of a positive image of black female rappers at large.
Furthermore, an important role for black female rappers played the female audience because, as one of the rappers singled out “women will be your worst critics, but also your biggest fans. The first group of people you gotta get are the women. You can’t do that by dissing’em, and you can’t do it by threatening them” (Hip Hop Divas 2001, 34). In such a situation, it was strategically important to gain respect and popularity among female audience first that cannot be fully done by black female rappers through dissing one another.
These were the trends that were typical for 1980s though present in 1990s but what has really become the main trend during 1990s was the increased role of commercial success, which overshadowed all other aspects of black female rappers creative work. In such a situation “’get rich’ mentality that has begun to dominate rap music, many artists loose consciousness of the art and will sell garbage in exchange for money” (Collins 2000, 348). Unfortunately, many black female rappers simply forgot what their life was like before success had come.
As a result the negative image of black female image was promoted by black female rappers and the situation has hardly changed since 1980s when the black female rappers movement got started to be particularly significant. Moreover, in 1990s the situation became even worse. The primary concern they were contributing to and continue to do so is making money regardless moral aspects, ideas and messages they convey to their audience through their work and their image.
Such a situation is particularly dramatic because many black female rappers exploit sexuality and sexual image and often these females “possess good rhyming skills that were hidden behind pornographic talk because this is what their mentors were producing” (Evans 1994, 303).
Furthermore, the negative image that is promoted is not the only drawback of black female rappers concerning feminism and emancipation of black female in American society and culture. The fact, which has already been underlined above, that many of them started at a very young age resulted in the lack of consciousness of their mission as representatives of pop music, of art and primarily as representatives of probably the most deprived part of American society black females which, in order to be really independent and equal to other members of society, have to use all opportunities to promote their positive image, not negative one.
Naturally as teenagers, these young black female rappers were mainly concerned with the money they were making than with the image they were portraying and they could hardly be aware of black feminist movement or womanist ideology. At the same time it was quite natural that their discourse and the message they send to their audience was significantly influenced by surrounding reality and mass culture, which, as it has been already emphasised, were full of stereotypes and there were a lot of prejudices concerning black female and their image. Moreover,, being too young, they could not think absolutely independently. This is why they tended to create the image the audience traditionally expected from them such as exaggerated sexuality and basically negative image. In such a situation there remained little or even no room for feminist ideology and wider representation of real black female image, which was significantly different from stereotyped view on them. In other words, they did not fully realise the opportunity to change public opinion in relation to black females, on the contrary they only reinforced the negative image mistakenly perceived by the vast majority of the audience as traditional and typical for black females.
Probably because of their age they could not act otherwise but at the same time it is necessary to realise that such a situation has not gone to the past. Moreover, now the black female rappers’ discourse tends to be far from what may be treated as really feminist discourse oriented on the protection and promotion of rights of black females, in contrast sexuality and servile emphasis on the audience’s stereotypes are promoted and what is even worse new black female rappers choose such an image and use similar discourse over and over again.
As a result portraying controlling images, being ruinous for black female rappers as representatives of black feminist movement, are getting to be more and more popular and widely spread nowadays.
The dominant sexual and racial ideologies in American culture
A logical question that arises, when the situation with black female rappers is analysed, is the question concerning the reasons of such a discourse which obviously lacks feminists promotion and is rather subordinated to stereotypes. In addition to the reasons mentioned in previous chapter, it should be said that black female rappers willingly or not are a part of American culture and consequently they are subordinated to the dominant ideologies which are accepted by the vast majority of American society and which, in fact, they should change but currently they fail to.
It is an undeniable fact that the dominant sexual and racial ideologies in American culture are very discriminating in relation to black females and consequently black female rappers had to obey to these ideologies in order to gain popularity of the possibly wider audience but, on the other hand, it is necessary to realise that by doing so they can hardly gain real respect neither the audience at large nor black females in particular.
Speaking about the dominant ideologies it is necessary to clearly realise that they are developed and belong to white males and the changes that got started in American society are too slow to change the dominant ideology somehow. Naturally, in such a situation, black female rappers has a little choice to do and their choice in favour of popularity, even though it weakens dramatically black female movement, is quite pragmatic and natural. It is noteworthy to refer to George Nelson who estimated that “for much of hip-hop’s history, it has been a truism that the male rap consumer, white and black, simply won’t accept females” (1998, 185).
In fact rap has always been considered a private and male dominant space. This is why at the beginning it was extremely difficult for black female rappers to gain success and the breakthrough made in mid-1980s was particularly significant. Remarkably, this breakthrough coincided with the work of such a black female rapper as Queen Latifah who was probably the most eager rapper who strived for promotion of an image of a black female different from standardised and this image was obviously very successful for her as an artist but not in commercial aspect. However, such a position of Queen Latifah and to a certain extent similar to her MC Lyte led to their severe critique and “it is significant that the females who get the most respect in hip-hop’s primarily male domain – Queen Latifah and MC Lyte – are relentlessly dogged by rumours that they are lesbians. Whether these rumours are true or not, the message is evident: a female can’t be tough or strong or clear or exceptionally skilful at hip-hop unless she has sacrificed the thing that makes her a ‘real girl’” (Smith 1995, 127). Furthermore, as Tricia Rose estimates, such female rappers often “felt that they were being used as a political baton to beat male rappers over the head, rather than being affirmed as women who could open up public dialogue to interrogate sexism and its effect on young black women” (1994, 150).
Naturally, it is impossible to speak about equality and independence of black female rappers and their creative work since, being few compared to the mass of male rappers, they could hardly change stereotypes and dominant ideologies in a day, a year or even a decade because as a rule they have been viewed as “interlopers – either butchy anomalies or cute novelties who by some fluke infiltrated a boy’s game” (Light 1999, 177).
On facing such a resistance, from the part of the mass audience influenced by the dominant sexual and racial ideologies in American culture black female rappers, as one of them Kid-N-Play said, “have to work twice as hard [as males] to get half the credit” (Rose 1994, 146). As a result, it is not surprising that many black female rappers are harsher to one another than to male rappers that may be also explained by low number of black female rappers compared to males and by their intention to please the predominantly male audience for the sake of commercial success. This often led to limiting female rap songs to verbal ‘catfights’ and the typical ‘battle of the sexes’, especially in 1980s.
Furthermore, it should be pointed out that since 1980s there have been two main ways on which black female rappers could achieve success. On the one hand, there is the ‘I am as tough and as good just as the next ‘man’ role but very few black female rappers have chosen this way to success, though those who have chosen it are the most respected. On the other hand, there is an alternative that the majority of black female rappers have chosen and nowadays it gets to be more and more popular, is simply to sell sexual images that is not surprising because it is acceptable by the dominating male ideology in the industry for “that sex sells is the first axiom of advertising, and sexual ads are everywhere. And in order to titillate a sexually jaded society, you have to push the boundaries. You have to be a bit more brazen than the last hot little number, a little more ‘edgy’” (Burford et al. 1999, 72) and this is exactly what many of black female rappers are currently doing to be successful.
Unfortunately, the dominant sexual and racial ideologies in American culture result in the situation when “portraying African-American women as stereotypical mummies, matriarchs, welfare recipients, and hot mommas helps justify US black women’s oppression… These controlling images are designed to make racism, sexism, poverty, and other forms of social injustice appear to be natural, normal, and inevitable parts of everyday life” (Collins 2000, 70). Moreover, often black female rappers are portrayed as ‘hootchies’ since men allowed many of them to rap. ‘Hootchies’ is a term used by Joan Morgan in her book “When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost” (2000) and it signifies women who use sex to get what they want from men. An example of such a type of black female rappers is Lil Kim.
Consequently, the controlling image of black females becomes more and more widely spread and in general it is influenced by the dominant sexual and racial ideologies in which males play the main role and the desire to achieve commercial success force black females to create images the most attractive for the wide audience but unfortunately it results in the creation of an extremely negative image of black female that is very dangerous for the progress of black feminist movement.
Conclusion: the future of black females in American rap music
Thus, taking into considerations all above mentioned, it is possible to presuppose the future of black females in American culture at large and rap music in particular. The recent trends in the development of black female rap are quite disturbing, particularly an unparalleled commercialisation of the industry, but it is necessary to point out that the similar trends are typical not only for females but for males as well as for other industries of pop culture. Nonetheless, this trend is basically the result of male dominated ideology that makes the progress of black female rappers not so effective as it could be.
Furthermore, the perspective development of black female rap music would probably enhance this trend that would naturally lead to further exploitation of sexual images that would not improve the general image of black females which is now rather negative, according to the current images of black female rappers.
On the other hand, there is still some room for hope to change the negative image of black females would eventually vanish due to the creation of new image of a real black female which has nothing in common that conservative and stereotypical dominant male ideologies tend to promote. Fortunately, this presupposition is not purely hypothetical but, on the contrary, it is quite realisable and the growing number of black female rappers is significant evidence in favour of such a perspective. It is quite logical to presuppose that eventually quantity will be transformed into quantity and instead of the current discourse, black female will focus on such things as morality, females’ rights, freedom of standardised stereotypes and real independence.

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