“He just gotta give me that look, when he give me that look then the panties comin’ off, off.” A mother rushes to cover her daughter’s ears as they walk through the mall, but it is too late. The lyrics have already entered the little girl’s mind and the threat of having the song stuck in her head all day flows in and out of her thoughts to the same beat of the lyrics. Unlike the consumption of other major art forms, such as painting and dance, that of music cannot be easily interfered with, thus constituting it as the most important and invasive creative medium of contemporary society. Furthermore, music lies at the root of Black culture. From Negro spirituals to jazz, Blacks have remained invested in the American music scene through the lens of their distinct experiences in this country. Today, African-Americans account for about twelve percent of the U.S population, but are represented in significantly disproportionate numbers in the music and entertainment industries. Black women have been especially affected by the monotonous portrayals of the angry, hypersexual, and overambitious images of them that infest popular culture. As a result, pressure is often placed upon Black female hip-hop artists to be social activists simply due to their vast spectrum of influence and widespread coverage. Although some critics suggest that Black female rappers should be held responsible for amplifying positive images of Black women, their duties as artists are not dependent on their own racial backgrounds, but on the nature of their career in relationship to the foundation of hip-hop.
Despite the fact that hip-hop was founded in the 1970s as a form of expression for an oppressed people whose voices otherwise went unheard, hip-hop culture did not begin the process of becoming all-inclusive until well after its birth. The first female rappers did not emerge until more than a decade after their male counterparts. Not only did the first Black females in the industry have to exist in a society to whom the idea of racial tolerance was fresh; they also fell victim to the prevailing sexist ideologies of their time. Female hip-hop artists like MC Lyte, the first female rapper to release a solo rap album, through making the first initiative to enter a male-dominated space, acquired the responsibility of creating a conducive and respectful environment for those who would come after. With lyrics like “I am woman, hear me roar/ Comin’ out fresher and flyer than I did before/ That’s right, I’m well respected/ Don’t get stupid, I’m well protected/ If ya wanna battle I’m well prepared,” MC Lyte immediately deemed herself as an equal to her pre-established male counterparts. Throughout her debut album MC Lyte continues to define her role as a female rapper who is not in line with the status quo. In her hit song, “Paper Thin,” Lyte addresses love, men, and her relationship with the two. She states, “I do not touch until the third or fourth date/ Then maybe we’ll kiss on the fifth or sixth/ time to be me (muah) kiss/ Cause a date without a kiss is so incomplete/ and then maybe I’ll let you play with my feet.” The caution with which MC Lyte conveyed her sexuality to the public is also apparent in her debut album cover art. Female rappers are not only held accountable for their lyrics. Their album art, music videos, and public appearances factor in just as much, if not more, to their popular image.
On the cover of her first album, Lyte As a Rock, MC Lyte is seen in a loosely fitted sweat suit that conceals her curves and is posing with two men. There is another woman in the frame wearing high heels and a short dress, but only her legs and buttocks are visible. MC Lyte in her beginning years fulfilled her duties as a pioneer and spokesperson in all arenas related to her rap career. Some believe that due to the climate of the rap industry at the time of her debut, Lyte had to appear to be “one of the guys” in order to be taken seriously as rapper. There is no definite way to determinate what MC Lyte’s career would have looked like if she had decided to present herself as more provocative from the start. Critics can only compare the careers of those who shaped their personas after that of MC Lyte to those who chose to address their own needs in conjunction with the role of women as sexual beings. By suppressing her own femininity and openly rejecting the objectification of women in her lyrics and appearances, she created a space in which female rappers could showcase their raw talent without having to first prove themselves as legitimate. After MC Lyte and her fellow pioneers, such as Queen Latifah, negated initial doubts of inadequacy, the responsibilities of Black female rappers shifted to include the diversification of the genre.
As the popularity of Black female rappers began to increase, so did the variety in content and personas. With the changing dynamic of the female rap arena came shifting and, at times, conflicting responsibilities of these women to develop the revolutionary legacy of hip-hop and to be reflective in their music of the many societal changes that were occurring at the time. After it had been properly established that females could produce quality rap, these artists now had the opportunity to pursue hip-hop careers and had the choice of openly displaying or disclosing their sexual identities. Similar to MC Lyte, the R&B/Hip-Hop trio, TLC, immediately started to challenge traditional gender roles and continued to do so throughout their years in the spotlight. Their song lyrics and accompanying music videos conveyed a variety of messages ranging from the importance of safe sex in their hit song, “Waterfalls,” to that of maintaining healthy self-esteem levels in songs such as “Unpretty”. Due to TLC’s start as a socially conscious trio, it became their responsibilities to maintain a substantive quality in their music while working to expand the roles and natures of Black female hip-hop artists.
Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, the rapper of TLC, begins the song, “Das Da Way We Like Em” from their debut album, Oooooooh…On the TLC, with the lyrics, “I am unordinary/ The more balls the merry/ Not two hangin’ hairy wit’ dairy airy/ Cause to impress me is not to undress me…/ And bein’ honestly is what I want you to be/ You wanna control me you need much authority/ Understanding the depths of the ’90s women/ That is the way that I’m livin’ from.” Here, Left Eye asserts her own sexual needs and preferences, while simultaneously demanding her respect as a woman, and more importantly, as a female rapper. TLC started a dialogue surrounding sexual liberty, but still managed to utilize their sex appeal to convey relevant life lessons to their listeners. Now that “sexy” was an option, female hip-hop artists had been granted yet another opportunity to use it for the advancement of others or for their own personal gains.
Artists like TLC and Salt-N-Pepa, the hit rap duo with songs like “My Mic Sounds Nice” and “Push It” challenged exclusive standards of beauty and helped redefine notions of female sexuality. They undoubtedly introduced and utilized sexually suggestive tactics and behavior that gave females looking to enter the hip-hop industry the freedom to fully embrace their desirability. Whether or not these descendants would choose to use it for the conventional standards of empowerment and information, similar to what TLC and Salt-N-Pepa set, was left to the newcomers to decide. Lil Kim, who debuted in 1996, was generally criticized for not producing music of substance and for promoting herself solely as a sexual being. With lyrics like, “I used to be scared of the dick/ Now I throw lips to the shit/ Handle it like a real bitch/ Heather Hunter, Janet Jack-me/ Take it in the butt, yah, yazz wha/ I got land in Switzerland, even got sand in the Marylands” from a song entitled “Big Momma Thang,” Lil Kim was viewed as highly materialistic and vulgar. The fact that the objectified, hyper-sexualized image of Black women was already being heavily promoted by mainstream male rappers via misogynistic song lyrics and degrading music videos caused critics to be dissatisfied with the work of these types of female rappers because they seemed to only reinforce these negative stereotypes. However, their initial emergence as sex symbols and feisty divas being so far removed from the foundations of female hip-hop as laid by MC Lyte and the like, rid them of their responsibility to the traditional empowerment of Black women.
In the dramatic biographical film, Notorious B.I.G. (2009), Lil Kim is portrayed as being manipulated by Biggie, a prominent male rapper, and resorts to sexually explicit lyrics and appearances in order to sell records. According to the film, she was supposedly not as openly provocative before being signed to Biggie’s record label. Regardless of her initial rapping style and content, the fact that she decided to publically introduce herself as a sexually explicit rapper and not as one to shed light on feminist ideals or take a political stance similar to her female predecessors in hip-hop, she rid herself of all responsibility to such causes. Due to the vast misrepresentation of African-American women in mass media and hip-hop culture especially, some people save no room for self-degrading women in the rap arena. On the surface, artists like Lil Kim and Foxy Brown seem to contradict the very principles of liberation and respect that hip-hop was founded on. These kinds of artists, however, are not responsible for the continuations of revolutionary legacies in the sense that most critics believe them to be.
All contributions to the social advancement of African-American women do not come in the form of “fight the power”-type lyrics and loaded music videos. Nicki Minaj, a contemporary rapper who has managed to break boundaries between the rap and pop genres, is a prime example of the nonconventional ways in which artists can satisfy impending responsibilities. Her “Harajuku Barbie” persona, comprised of multi-colored wigs, skintight clothing, and a distinct rapping style, has brought her both positive and negative attention. While some may criticize Nicki Minaj for her blatant use of her womanhood and ambiguous sexuality for publicity, she has created a space to question the pressure that is often placed on Black female rappers. Contrary to popular belief, her lyrics are capable of supplying some women with inspiration and courage to follow their passions and to boost their self-esteem. Nicki’s proclamation of being a “Barbie” and encouragement of other females to claim the same is similar to TLC’s message of inclusivity. Instead of promoting what is considered as outcast appearances, Nicki Minaj is embracing the quintessential idea of femininity and inviting all women to be apart of it regardless of physical appearance. By proclaiming that women can be “as bad as they wanna be” in her lyrics she is actually fulfilling the responsibilities that are unjustifiably placed upon her by asserting that every woman is beautiful in their own right. This is of the same nature of her respected predecessors, except instead of protesting against the beauty criteria that is founded in patriarchal Euro-centricity, she is reclaiming those standards of beauty by consciously conforming to them. By taking pride in the materialistic she is leading a sort of revolution of her own. Nicki has created a space for women who see nothing wrong with feeling “fly” by way of wearing form-fitting clothes and following the latest trends.
In examining the roles of Black female rap artists it is important to respect the differing goals and needs of each individual. All female rappers are not responsible for the social and political advancement of Black women and other minority groups. As seen in U.S history, spearheads of all social movements have had to fight the hardest in order for their successors to have the privileges and luxuries that were not accessible to them; freeing those who came after from the responsibility of fighting previously won battles. The unreasonable expectations of Black female rappers are shockingly similar to the irrational duties that are placed upon African-Americans as a whole. Many are pressured to be active within the hypothetical general Black community and are looked down upon as “sell-outs” when they do not accept their supposed call to philanthropy and service. The fallacy of being “Black enough” and returning to one’s beginnings after becoming financially successful are among the many responsibilities that are often assigned to ordinary citizens simply because of their racial background. In order to rid our society of such generalizing expectations of any demographic, it is necessary to modify our own mindsets. This can be accomplished through the diversification of information intake from media sources. For example, for a better understanding of the multifaceted Black culture, do not gain information solely from movies like Friday (1995) that showcase monolithic scenarios and are based on stereotypical character sketches. Instead, watch more films like Jumping the Broom (2011), that display various types of Black lifestyles and the relationships between the members of similar, but separate demographics. With an array of sources feeding into the minds that make up society, we can start to genuinely diversify popular opinion.