Burning Down the Coup

by Shara Lunon

So I was on the phone with my friend Rose discussing what it means to be a female in musical realms dominated by men. She, a bass player rooted in punk, and myself, a hip-hop head, discussed what it’s like to get the looks and the whispered murmurs of people as she straps up her bass, or when I step up to the mic in a cypher. You’d think, after generations of badass female performers, that expectations of women’s roles on stage would have changed from being a novelty or a spectacle. This sent my mind into a whirlwind of questions about women in music, and hip-hop specifically. Questions like: With all the advancement in communication and dissemination of information, why are there fewer women in the forefront of emceeing than in the 80’s? Why is it deemed an anomaly when women write bars? Why are there such things as “female showcases” or “female mixtapes” instead of a focus on an equal split between men and women? And to me, most importantly, why is it still that there are only certain types of women in hip-hop that have notoriety? It baffles me that the “bad bitch” vixen still wins mass appeal over the “Earth mother” or the “wordsmith”.

For those reading who aren’t familiar with the origins of hip-hop, it is a culture that grew in the 70’s in NY as a way to inhibit gang violence. Forming from five basic elements - breaking, graffiti, DJing, emceeing, and knowledge - artists such as DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa used the structure of dancehall to create a safe, or safer, environment for the youth to engage in rather than violence. The dancehall scene was governed by the DJ and his breaks, along with a master of ceremonies that would use a basic rhyme or “toy rap” to conduct the party. Later, as hip-hop began to evolve into the recording world, the importance of lyrical finesse became the forefront of the music.

Since the movement began, women have contributed to these elements: Lady Pink in graffiti, MC ShaRock as an emcee, Daisy “Baby Love” Castro an “OG” b-girl (break dancer); yet most women have had limited recognition unless their “assets” were on display. A great majority of male artists have used derogatory, condescending, even violent expressions towards women and have exploited the female body as a display of merit. Some women have chosen to bank on this idea making the statement that hypersexualized attention is a source of empowerment over men with lyrics like:

“12 A.M. I'm on the way to the club

After three bottles I'll be ready to fuck

Some niggaz even put me on their grocery lists

Right next to the whip cream and box of chocolates

Designer pussy, my shit come in flavors

High-class taste niggaz got to spend paper

Lick it right the first time or you gotta do it over

Like it's rehearsal for a Tootsie commercial

How many licks does it take till you get to the center of the?”

                               (Lil’ Kim, “How Many Licks?”, Notorious K.I.M, 2000)

Rappers such as Lil’ Kim and Trina have capitalized on their feminine wiles and assumed a “large and in charge” attitude, essentially creating the image of the “bad bitch” that has dominated the mainstream since its emergence in the 90’s. Today, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna (two notable “bad bitch” personas who have capitalized on the image) top the charts, sell out stadiums, and work with all of the major heads in hip-hop, exercising their global influence and attaining some of the highest notoriety of all female musical artists today.

Others decided to approach women’s sexuality in hip-hop differently, pushing the message that women don’t exist just to satiate a man’s appetite, but both sides can enjoy sex equally, changing the image from focusing on pervasive sexuality, and often degradation, to self-respect. Take for example, Queen Latifah:

“Instinct leads me to another flow

Everytime I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho

Trying to make a sister feel low

You know all of that gots to go”

                               (Queen Latifah, “U.N.I.T.Y”, Black Reign, 1993)

The change in perception of women in hip-hop also came from a focus on the internal beauty of women and the connection of women to all within the universe. I personally relate way more to this archetype since my definition of a “bad bitch” is one who is strong in herself and can make you reflect on something after hearing her speak, not just focusing on her sexual prowess. This archetype defies the sexualized hegemony that dominates the hip-hop realm by contesting the societal ideologies that limit women to this sphere. This idea of the “Earth mother” or “Queen Mother” is echoed in the works of Lauryn “L Boogie” Hill, Erykah Badu, Georgia Anne Muldrow, and India Arie, with lyrics that reflect positivity and growth in consciousness:

“Woke and realized I was free

To be anything if it was an integrity

With what I dream, I knew it couldn't be wrong

And would be done I was born to be Earth's song”

    (Georgia Anne Muldrow, “Run Away”, Early, 2009)

As I was speaking to Rose, I explained that it’s difficult for me to wholly associate with either side. I flaunt what I got when I’m feeling feisty, and may be perceived as a “bad bitch” sometimes, and honestly, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill pretty much shaped my adolescence. My music deals with all my interactions with the environment - socially, culturally, universally - where both sexuality and the cosmos come into play.

Here's the thing; even though all of these styles are of merit, I believe in the mainstream a lot of it comes down to marketability. The rap industry definitely banks on the diva/vixen personalities. Sex, drugs, and violence have always been in the forefront, generating the most profit, while the “Earth mother” provides the balance, or the yin to the yang of the male-dominated industry. Unfortunately, societal expectations interfere  with artists’ work within every medium; something I personally try not to feel weighed down by. A good friend of mine says it’s like a diet of the mind, you take in only the things that nourish and enhance, and leave the junk out. I keep this idea in mind with most of what I listen to, and with all of whom I choose to work with. When I step into a booth, I know the expectation of me is different if it's all dudes on the other side. A lot of the time, guys don’t expect much from me. Some think I’ll just produce a good hook, some want that sex appeal, but sadly, others don’t care what I say, just as long as a female is in there to hype up the marketing. This leads me to ask - why? Why are my words one of the least relevant factors? If you go to the root, hip-hop is defined as:

“Hip-Hop: \ˈhip-ˌhäp\ hip- from Wolof word ‘hipi’, meaning “one whose eyes are open”, hop- American for informal dance. Hip-Hop: intellectual movement.” (Kingslee “Akala” Daley, Hip-Hop and Shakespeare, 2011)

As an intellectual movement, it would make more sense to expect thought-provoking subject matter and writing that illustrates one’s prowess of words. Rakim, perhaps the forerunner of poetics in hip-hop, described the book of rhymes as the instance when rap meets poetry. Freestyling, which has made up so much of hip-hop’s history, is a demonstration of the continuance of flow. When one takes the time to allow the beat to invoke a message, then one bares the mark of the wordsmith. Women such as Missy Elliot, Jean Grae, Rhapsody, and Demae (of Hawk House) have pioneered this art. Their lyrics are full of changing rhyme schemes, intricate metaphors, semantic agility, and uncommon word choice:

“Bomb street corners lay bodies at the coroners

The bluebird of happiness tweeting to stiff followers

Blak summons spirits thru a male goat's horn

Ate the cheese, be warned, I'm a spiteful woman, so don't scorn

In the darkness, the light seeks out the target

And I'm starving for it, guerrilla styles like Darwin

With a voice like a thunder storm, this ain't no summer breeze

This golden city's dead like autumn leaves and Brandon Lee”

(Yugen Blakrok, “House of Ravens”, Return of the Astro-Goth, 2014)

So where does this leave us young female emcees? Choosing just one image or one aspect of your essence to display can put you in a box, and the boys of this industry are already doing that for us, so why help them out? It is up to us to mix up the rules in the game. And it’s not just up to the females, but to the males as well, to propagate a more balanced view of women in the hip-hop community. We all need to be more aware and not just feed into the frenzy of hyped aggregation of vice and sex that drive the market.

I’ve made a conscious effort not to choose any one side of the representations described, though a great deal of my peers have. By all means, if you got it flaunt it; if your soul needs to express its growth, please share; but don’t forget the cleverness in the delivery for it is an intellectual movement. The constellation of these three elements, in my opinion, is what creates the most powerful female emcee and can stimulate the change of what is “expected” when one takes the mic.