The Evolution of Women in Hip-Hop


Hip Hop is more than a genre; it’s a culture. Its beginnings come from African American inner-city struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, and has since evolved into a representation of black urban culture in America.

Before hip-hop was a coined term, it was all about the aesthetic and the experience. Beats and turntables were one aspect, but the art of lyricism, the hip and urban street fashion, the nasty dance moves, and the all-around party vibes made a culture out of the music.

Girl groups such as The Mercedes Ladies would throw parties and would use those ingredients to cook up a good time when times weren’t so good. Though the Ladies never took to recording and releasing songs to gain their well-deserved fame, their party plate turned into a movement that would feed generations.

MC Sha Rock The first female rapper to make it big was MC Sha Rock. She was the only woman in the rap group Funky Four Plus One (she was the “plus one”), who was one of the first groups to appear on national broadcast TV as guest performers on Saturday Night Live in 1981.

When the group broke up, Sha Rock formed an all-female rap group, Us Girls, whose music was featured in the critically acclaimed movie Beat Street. Roxanne Shante` Shaking up the 80s was Lolita Shante` Gooden of Queens, New York.

After the release of the lady-hating anthem “Roxanne, Roxanne” by UTFO, a then 14-year old Lolita would team up with producer, Marley Marl, to create a rap response entitled “Roxanne’s Revenge,” the first recorded battle response in hip-hop history.

“Roxanne’s Revenge” would become the catalyst of the “Roxanne Wars,” a back and forth creative rebuttal that would last for years and bring forth nearly a hundred singles that contributed to the he-said, she-said battle.

The song garnered plenty of fame, and led the young emcee to create the stage name, Roxanne Shante`. Though she gained many rivals, Roxanne’s level head and sharp tongue would help pave the way for more strong and fierce female rappers.

MC Lyte Next in line for the throne was MC Lyte, who not only took the throne in the late 80s, but renovated the whole castle.

Not only was Lyte the first female emcee to sell millions of singles and albums, but her progressive lyrics helped hip-hop evolve from a mere party vibe to a socially conscious form of expression. Her music touched on topics such as racism, sexism, and the drug epidemic that took over her hometown of Brooklyn.

Lyte was also the first rapper to perform at Carnegie Hall, the first female rapper nominated for a Grammy, and was the first female rapper to have a single go gold. The Smithsonian Museum even added her diaries and her turntable to their rap and hip-hop ephemera collection.

MC Lyte helped make a path for other like-minded women to shake up and stir the rap game, such as Queen Latifa, whose artistry encouraged women to embrace their heritage, their curves, and their mind; and like Salt-NPepa, who became the first hip-hop group to go multi-platinum, and who addressed social issues like the dangers of drunk driving and the importance of safe sex.

Lil’ Kim However, towards the mid-90s, women began to take a sexual turn in their rap persona, thanks to the rise of Lil’ Kim. Discovered by Biggie Smalls, Lil Kim became a part of his rap collective, Junior M.A.F.I.A., where her engaging personality helped her stand out as the star of the group.

Her debut album, Hard Core, rife with raunchy lyrics that explored her femininity and sexuality, earned the distinction of being the highest-selling debut for a female rap album, ultimately making her an icon, a sex symbol, and the face of x-rated feminism.

Lil Kim’s unapologetic and dominatrix-style image combined with her lyrical prowess has earned her honorific titles such as Queen Bee, the Queen of Hip-hop, the First Lady of X-Rated Wordplay, and the Rap Goddess. Artists like Foxy Brown and Trina followed in Kim’s explicit footsteps and reclaimed their sexuality in the same manner their male counterparts did and continue to do.

Though their presence in the culture is undeniable, many question whether the image they claimed helped women progress in the industry like their foremothers did. Nicki Minaj Fast forward to 2017, where Nicki Minaj is the most relevant mainstream female rapper of today, a title she has held for nearly a decade.

Critics have compared her image to the likes of Lil’ Kim, and Minaj even admitted that she felt obligated to mimic the provocative behaviors of the female rappers of her day. However, she uses her sexuality to challenge the patriarchal linings of hiphop and even of society in general.

Her brand encourages female empowerment, perseverance, and sovereignty in a male-dominated society. And just like the women before her time, she has shown that she has what it takes to hang with the big dogs.

Even the musical genius, Kanye West admitted to have considered taking off Minaj’s verse from his hit single, “Monster,” because he feared that she would outshine him. When hip-hop is the topic of discussion, the focus is mainly on the accomplishments of men.

Women have brought as much to the table as their male counterparts have, therefore they deserve the same amount of acknowledgement and praise.

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