When I met Trina for the first time last year, I played it cool. I was meeting her in a semi-professional capacity and wanted to leave a good impression. But on the inside, I was bubbling with so much admiration and gratitude that I could have burst into tears at any moment. I was only 10 years old when she made her debut on Trick Daddy’s 1998 single “Nann N*gga.” It wasn’t long after — thanks to constant radio play and the older cousins and friends of friends who played me the unedited version — that I knew every word of her now-iconic verse. It was a defining moment for me. Even as a pre-teen Black girl without the internet to give me an early introduction to the workings of misogyny, I knew that there was liberation in Trina’s unapologetic approach. During a time in my life where the only messages I got about female pleasure were stigmatizing, shaming, or attempts at erasure, Trina offered an alternative as she explicitly embraced her own sexuality. Her combative tone with Trick on the track affirmed that I could speak my mind, even if someone didn’t like it. As I continued to listen to her music — and other female rappers during the ‘90s and ‘00s such as Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Jackie O, and Khia — I realized that there really are two kinds of women in this world: The women who do what is expected of them and the women who do what they want. Falling in love with the work of female rappers through my teens and into adulthood have helped me choose to be the latter, over and over again.
Fast forward 20 years to our current moment. Media outlets, fans, and artists are exploring where women fit into rap (and the music industry at large). But we should never lose sight of this equally important question: What do female rappers mean to Black women? The answer is: a hell of a lot.
In April, Complex published a piece, “Why Can There Only Be One Dominant Woman in Rap?”. Framed around the ongoing feud between Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, Kiana Fitzgerald interrogates how societal sexism has infiltrated hip-hop to limit the resources and support available to women artists in the genre. Budding female rappers like Kamaiyah and Dreezy have felt that pressure of unnecessary comparisons to other female artists, but are still building impressive followings. Last month, Mic profiled 5 women MC’s — Megan Thee Stallion, Latasha Alcindor, Quay Dash, Saweetie, and Oshun — who are “setting their own rules.” A 2018 year-end story from independent publisher KQED bragged that acts like BbyMutha and Princess Nokia “Broke the Vixen Mold” for female rappers. And in her debut piece for The New Yorker, published this month, Briana Younger used the arrival of artists like City Girls, Rico Nasty, Noname, and Leikeli47 as a solid case for rap to really embrace its women. She noted how these women achieved success by carving out space for themselves on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and SoundCloud. But most importantly, she posited that hip-hop can’t reach the next level of its evolution without bringing more women into the fold.
Female rappers allow Black women to envision a world where our needs, desires, and identities come first.
With the exception of chart toppers like Drake and Meek Mill, whose new releases were unavoidable. I’ve spent most of 2018 taking a pretty hard pass on new hip-hop and rap that wasn’t brought to life by women. Megan Thee Stallion’s mixtape, Tina Snow, is my album of the year. I’ve been cheering on Miami duo City Girls — through JT’s imprisonment and Yung Miami’s homophobic comments — all year. And I’m not at all upset that Kash Doll’s “Ice Me Out” has been stuck in my head. Even lesser-known acts like Mother Nature and Ivy Leaguer Sammus have are cultivating organic followings that include yours truly. Cupcakke hails from my hometown of Chicago and hides exceptional lyricism underneath a layer of playful nastiness. With such a diverse lineup of women pumping music into the rap space, there hasn’t been a better time to be a fan of femcees. They’ve offered a welcome change from the monotonous sounds of rappers that are carbon copies of one another.
Running alongside all of these promising developments are sobering reminders of just how problematic this genre and its some of its artists remain. I’ve written several of these takes myself. Before he was fatally shot in June, rapper XXXtentacion was facing charges that included aggravated battery of a pregnant victim, false imprisonment, domestic battery by strangulation, and witness tampering. The outpouring of love and support that he received from peers in the industry before and after his death — alongside the continued harassment of his victim by his fans for speaking up — directly reflects who benefits and who is protected by hip-hop. Kodak Black, Tekashi69, Fabulous, and Nas are amongst the male rappers who have been accused of violence against women in this year alone. Sylvia O’Bell wrote a brilliant piece for Buzzfeed documenting how rap has largely ignored the implications of #MeToo and Time's Up. She concluded that the gross lack of accountability for these men is a result of a broader refusal to trust, protect, or defend Black women.
For some of us, the explicit misogynoir — a term coined by Moya Bailey to describe the specific, racially-informed misogyny directed at Black women — has given way to a complicated relationship with the men who have publicly exhibited a willingness and ability to harm us. I saw it firsthand last year when I went to a theater to see a Chris Brown documentary. I sat with a crowd of his Black female fans who hissed and sneered at the mention of Karrueche or Rihanna, who both suffered abuse at his hands when they dated Brown. Just this week, a Black female commenter on my Instagram said that it was toxic for me to applaud women like Beyoncé and Cardi B for leaving partners (and rappers) who treat them poorly. Even Nicki Minaj, a female rapper herself, has established a track record of supporting men with a history of violence against women, including her current boyfriend, who served time for kidnapping and attempted rape. She has publicly defended her man and her decision to date him. In these cases, aligning yourself with male supremacy feels like a safer and surer bet than resisting it.
There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for male privilege. Not even the rise in female artists centering the experiences and voices of women can curve it. For example, City Girls’ new album Girl Code includes a track called “Season,” basically a musical wishlist where Miami and JT rap about the cash and gifts they expect from men. But the song also features a verse from rapper Lil Baby who expresses skepticism and at moments downright refusal to participate in this exchange. “Wish I would go and buy a bird bitch a Benz truck,” he insists. On “Season,” City Girls still have to make room for male gatekeeping, and they allow their own preferences to be filtered. To that end, it’s also possible that Nicki Minaj’s respect in the game (from men) hinges on her apparent unwillingness to hold her male counterparts accountable for their treatment of women. There are just so many blurred lines when it comes to women in hip-hop.
Obviously, the genre can’t live up to its potential without the inclusion and recognition of more women. But there is even more at stake. What is certain is that female rappers offer Black women an alternative. Through any combination of their lyrics, style, personas, production, and performances, they allow us to envision a world where our needs, desires, and identities come first. We can de-center the male gaze, male desire, and men in general to visualize different outcomes for ourselves. Young M.A, a masculine lesbian, has brought queer sex between women into hip-hop’s public imagination, challenging pre-existing tropes about sexual identity in the space. When Queen Key dares to name her first project Eat My Pussy, she is normalizing female sexual pleasure. And when Dreezy dropped “We Gon’ Ride,” it was an acknowledgement that female friendship is sometimes the most important relationship we can foster in our lives.
Using accessible language that multiple generations of Black girls and women can understand, female rappers stand adjacent to radical Black female empowerment. They offer an entry point to feminism for those who dare to seek it outside of higher education institutions or the niche corners of Tumblr.
Back to that meeting with Trina: There was a point that afternoon where I was able to tell her exactly how much she meant to me. I told her that I’d made the choice to be a woman who did what I want, thanks to her. This shifted into a genuine conversation where she broke down exactly why she’s built her career around the raunchy rap that I love. What started as an attempt to use shock value to outdo Trick on his own song (and she did) turned into something else when she performed it live in front of Black women. After seeing them rap the lyrics at the top of their lungs, she knew that she was inspiring all of us to tap into something that had been evading them in most of hip-hop. It was uncompromising confidence, the kind of self-validation that you can only see in yourself.
R29 Unbothered presents Trap Glazed, a bi-weekly column where Senior Entertainment Writer Sesali Bowen looks deeper at what’s happening in Black pop culture.