Table of Contents
2. Representations of the Black Female Body
3. Usage of Femininity and Sexuality Through the Ages
3.1. MC Lyte
3.2. Lil’ Kim and Missy Elliott
3.3. Nicki Minaj and Cardi B
5. Works Cited
A lot of research has been done that examined how Black women are presented in Hip- Hop songs by male artists. Especially rap music received much criticism, because it implied negative representations of women. Yet, how black female MC’s represent themselves is a topic that still needs more investigation. In the rare moments when women take the stage, it is noteworthy to examine the message of their songs. Therefore, this study is concerned with the question, in how far black female rappers make use of their femininity and sexuality from the beginning of Hip-Hop music until today. In doing so, Valerie Chepp’s study on “Black Feminism and Third-Wave Women’s Rap: A Content Analysis, 1996-2003” has been consulted and formed the basis for this research. Due to the fact that this paper also involves contemporary female rappers, many online publications and websites have been used for the analysis. Furthermore, for each artist, one song has been chosen to analyze representations of femininity.
Firstly, there will be a chapter that deals with the historical representation of the black female body, and will answer the question of where most stereotypes against African-American women originated from. It will give some background information about the supposedly sexually promiscuous black woman and will give examples that reinforced this stereotype. Chapter three will provide an analysis of selected black female MC’s and will examine if and how they made use of their femininity and sexuality. As a subchapter, MC Lyte will be presented who is considered a Hip-Hop pioneer and one of the first female rappers that emerged in the 1980s. It is followed by the analysis of Lil’ Kim, who is known to be a sexually liberated rapper and whose hypersexualized look brought her a lot of fame in the 1990s. In contrast to Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott will be introduced as the desexualized female rapper. She also gained prominence in the 1990s and is known for her creative, almost comedic look. Another subchapter will focus on more contemporary black female rappers and present Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. Today, Nicki Minaj is one of the most popular female MC’s and constantly reinvents herself. Her supposedly competitor is Cardi B, a rising star of female rappers who seems to be highly relatable, at least for many African-American women. Finally, the last paragraph of this term paper will be a conclusion, which sums up the results achieved and gives an outlook for future research on notions of femininity in Hip-Hop music.
2. Representations of the Black Female Body
Women’s relationship with Hip-Hop is a complicated one, not only as listeners but as representatives as well. It entails a long story of degrading and disrespecting women, especially Black women (Rose 115). The reinforcement of stereotypes, such as the promiscuous black woman who ultimately received the label of a ‘bitch’ is ever-present in contemporary Hip-Hop music (Rose 116). Most rap songs and music videos represent the stereotype of the sexually immoral black woman, which are produced and promoted by major record labels that profit from those images (Rose 120). From the near-naked, hypersexualized female dancers in music videos who are presented as a nice accessory of the male gangster rapper, to the explicit references of sexual acts of bitches and hoes (Rose 119). In Hip-Hop music the female black body is exploited, objectified and “divide[s] women into groups that are worthy of protection and respect and those that are not” (Rose 119), meaning that the status of the white woman is elevated in comparison to the Black woman.
However, those stereotypes were not invented by the Hip-Hop Music industry in the 1980s. The roots of these stereotypes against Black women and their degradation goes back to the cruel enslavement of African-Americans who became “ungendered commodity objects” (Cosimini 51). During the slavery era, female slaves were considered female, but they were never regarded as women (Patton 38). Venetria Patton claims that characteristics of female slaves have been described as animalistic, to advocate the assertion that they cannot be real women (37). Distinctive features of black people, such as curly hair, big lips and noses were used to justify the dehumanization of African- Americans (Rose 179). Even after the abolition of slavery the stereotypes against black people remained. The ‘black beast’ became a prominent image during the early 19th to the early 20th century, most famously in the movie The Birth of a Nation from 1915 (“The Birth of a Nation (1915)”). The ‘black beast’, or ‘black rapist’, was played by a white actor in blackface (“The Birth of a Nation (1915)”). He was portrayed as savage, animalistic and monstrous (“The Birth of a Nation (1915)”). An example that showcased the ‘monstrosity’ of female black bodies was Saartjie Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus, a South African woman who was exhibited in Europe during the 19th century (Pieterse 181). Although her steatopygia was a medical phenomenon, she was displayed as a typical African woman with enlarged labia and posterior (Pieterse). For two shillings, people could have a look at her body at freak shows (Springer 110). On the one hand, people were fascinated by her large buttocks and even got to poke her with a finger or a stick, if they paid extra (Springer 110). On the other hand her body was also used to reinforce the stereotype that Black women were supposedly sexually promiscuous, because of the enlarged external genitalia (Springer 110). Its relevance today becomes apparent while listening to Kanye West’s single Monster in which he and also Nicki Minaj claim that they are “motherfucking monsters” (“Kanye West – Monster Lyrics”), enforcing the stereotype of the monstrous black beast.
After a long history of degradation and exploitation of the female black body, Hip- Hop music gave female rappers a chance to speak their minds and fight back (Philips 260). One might argue that female rappers use their music as a tool to fight stereotypes about Black women. According to Layli Philips, there are three purposes for songs of female rappers (Philips 261). Firstly, the female rappers are demanding respect for themselves or women in general (Philips 262). The message of these songs might entail “the classic feminist theme of fighting patriarchy” (Philips 262), and descriptions of a woman who is looking for revenge (Philips 262). Those acts of revenge can be a truthful description of events, but can also take on bloody fantasies (Philips 263). The second possible purpose of rap songs by female artists, can be the encouragement of other women, or to empower oneself (Philips 265). Within these songs, female MC’s want to support other women and offer a form of self-help (Philips 265). Thirdly, the issue of solidarity is often including within songs of black female rappers. They might not only defend other women, but also black men against white society (Philips 261). The question remains if and in how far female rappers utilize their femininity in order to convey the purpose of their songs?
It is no secret that Hip-Hop music is often criticized, because of its negative and controversial representations of women. Furthermore, numerous studies have shown that adolescents internalize gender roles and relationships which are represented in Hip-Hop songs and videos (White 608). There has been a lot of research in regards to misogynistic lyrics and representations of women in Hip-Hop music by male artists. However, it is important to note that not only men exploit the black female body to gain profit, but also female rappers, who “promote male sexual fantasy-based images of women as sexually voracious and talented in their ability to please men” (Rose 124). If this self-exploitation of the female black body is used to express their power and to show that they own their sexuality, or if it is just put on display in order to sell records is up for debate. For that reason, this paper will present a critical examination of representations of femininity and sexuality of black female rappers from the emergence of Hip-Hop in the 1980s until today. Selected lyrics and their messages about sexuality, but also performances of female rappers will be discussed in the next chapters.
3. Usage of Femininity and Sexuality Through the Ages
Many female MCs have shaped the Hip-Hop music and its industry, such as Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa, Foxy Brown and Lauryn Hill, just to mention a few. Unfortunately, a paper of this scope cannot analyze all of the female rappers who have made an impact in Hip-Hop music. Therefore, only a few black female MC’s have been selected for the analysis. This chapter is divided chronologically, starting with a pioneer in the rap game, MC Lyte who achieved fame in the 1980s. In a subchapter, the contrasting Lil’ Kim and Missy Elliott, who both started their careers in the 1990s, will be presented. Followed by today’s ‘rap queen’ Nicki Minaj and the talented newcomer Cardi B. Each subchapter will point out, how different female rappers made use of their femininity and sexuality in order to fulfill the purposes of gaining respect, empower women or show solidarity to black men.
3.1. MC Lyte
Lana Michelle Moorer, also known as MC Lyte, was born in Brooklyn, New York and started her music career at a very young age (“MC Lyte”). At only 16 years old, she became the first solo female rapper to release a studio album in 1988 (Philips 257). MC Lyte achieved fame through her flow and lyrical precision and her debut album Lyte As A Rock was praised for its hit singles I Cram To Understand U, 10% Dis and Paper Thin (“MC Lyte”). Years later, her single Ruffneck was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rap Single in 1993 (“MC Lyte”). This nomination made MC Lyte the very first female rapper who was nominated for a Grammy (“MC Lyte”). She is now the founder of the Hip-Hop Sisters Network, a non-profit organization “that promotes positive images of women of ethnic diversity” (“About Us”) and provides support to women for education, health and financial empowerment (“About Us”). The Hip-Hop Sisters Network is also supported by many famous female rappers, such as Cheryl ‘Salt’ James, Lil Mama and Jada Pinkett Smith (“About Us”).
It can be argued that MC Lyte found a way into Hip-Hop, because she imitated her male colleagues (Krishnamurthy). She presented herself as unfeminine, wearing mannish clothes, had a raspy voice and violent lyrics (Krishnamurthy). She most often wore track suits, baggy jeans and shoulder pads (Krishnamurthy). Her tomboy look caused some confusion in the beginning of her career, because she could easily pass as a young men (Krishnamurthy). When her first single I Cram to Understand U was released, female rappers were a rarity in the music industry (Krishnamurthy). MC Lyte assimilated the look of male rappers and wore baggy pants with large boots (White 617). Therefore, a lot of people did not know that she was a female rapper and assumed that MC Lyte must be a young men (Krishnamurthy). She did not set herself apart from the look of male rappers, therefore she dressed in the same baggy clothes as all of her male colleagues.
However, not only with her clothing, but also with her frank lyrics and her raspy voice, she proved that she could keep up with the male rappers. In a documentary, she stated that she intentionally changed her voice when she would rap (“My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth About Women And Hip Hop”). This should make her voice appear tougher and more masculine (“My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth About Women And Hip Hop”). In a male-dominated genre, the contents of her songs were just as tough as the boys’. MC Lyte became respected by male rappers, because she was talented, had skills and would battle against other male artists (“My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth About Women And Hip Hop”). Her songs often dealt with drug abuse, but also implicated her love for black men, mostly from within her community (“MC Lyte”). In an interview, MC Lyte stated that she was just being herself and she rapped about issues that came from her heart (“MC Lyte”). She also wrote her text without having any music or beats prior to the lyrics, which helped her to write from a “deeper sense of self” (qtd. in “MC Lyte”). For example, her first single I Cram To Understand U is about falling in love with a drug addict (“MC Lyte”). According to MC Lyte, her own experience of witnessing drug addictions within her community helped her to create this song (“MC Lyte”).
One of her most famous songs called Ruffneck appeared on her fourth studio album Ai n’t No Other in 1993. This song was the first single by a solo female rapper that achieved gold status (Philips 257). In Ruffneck she raps about wanting a man from the streets. The Urban Dictionary defines ‘ruffneck’ as a “thuggish, rough street smart type guy” (“Ruffneck”) and that is exactly what this song is about. MC Lyte describes a man who is “up to no good”, chased by the police and who has an “evil grin with a mouth full of gold teeth” (“MC Lyte – Ruffneck Lyrics”). Here, MC Lyte raps about the stereotype of the black criminal which is implied in these lines. This is further highlighted in the third verse, in which she states that her man is “back to the streets to make a buck quick” (“MC Lyte – Ruffneck Lyrics”). However, she also defends the young man by saying that “all I gotta do is beep him 911 and he’ll be there” (“MC Lyte – Ruffneck Lyrics”), insinuating not only her but also his solidarity. As mentioned in the previous chapter, songs by female rappers might serve the purpose of solidarity and defend black men against society in general. The second verse of Ruffneck is more lewd, in which MC Lyte states that her man must “be in charge” and must “smack it, lick it, swallow it up” (“MC Lyte – Ruffneck Lyrics”). The line sounds like it has been adopted on a one-to-one basis from a song by a male artist, which proves that she can keep up with other male rappers. Because it is a female MC who says these lines, it objectifies men instead of women and presents “an autonomous and desiring black female sexual subject” (Chepp 547). Her lines additionally perpetuates the stereotype of the promiscuous black man or woman, which was imposed on them by white people. This is further illustrated in the following lines, as she raps about the man with his “Hands in his pants fiddlin’ with his dick hairs” (“MC Lyte – Ruffneck Lyrics”). Another purpose of female rap songs is fulfilled in Ruffneck. At the end of the last verse, MC Lyte offers help to all other women. She warns her fellow women against “the wannabe ruffneck” (“MC Lyte – Ruffneck Lyrics”) who is “Hard boppin’ always grabbin’ his jock and braggin’ about his tec” (“MC Lyte – Ruffneck Lyrics”). This highly sexually and aggressively charged statement describes a man who constantly has to point out how tough he is, for example by boasting about his gun, but is not a real ‘ruffneck’. MC Lyte clearly advises caution by stating that “That’s the kind you gotta watch out for” (“MC Lyte – Ruffneck Lyrics”).
On the one hand, MC Lyte did not introduce herself as a sexual object but rather wanted to be judged by her talent. She distanced herself from a feminine look and wore boyish clothes to emulate male rappers and to be regarded as an equal. In most of her songs, she adheres to the purpose of solidarity and defends black men against larger society. She gave insight to black communities from a female point of view, which was unique among the male-dominated Hip-Hop genre (Chepp 546). On the other hand, MC Lyte not only chose sexually explicit, but also aggressive lyrics. The fact that she used the same language as all the men in the business and demonstrated her sexuality, proved that she controlled her own sexuality. She also referred to the importance of relationships with other Black women, therefore addressing and supporting other women in her songs.
3.2. Lil’ Kim and Missy Elliott
The 1990s saw a rise of many female MC’s, including Foxy Brown, Missy Elliott, Eve, Lil’ Kim and many more (Chepp 546). Rap songs by female artists had a variety of topics, such as the relationship between women and men, sexuality and sexual desire, money, success, drugs, violence, but also parties and dance (Chepp 550). With the emergence of female MC’s, the “representations of black female sexuality and womanhood had become increasingly hypersexualized” (Chepp 546). An example of the hypersexualized female rapper would be Lil’ Kim who will be introduced later in this chapter. However, some female MC’s did not compromise their talent and skills with flaunting sexuality in their performances (Chepp 545). However, both of them questioned the male hierarchy that still dominated the Hip-Hop genre (Chepp 545).