Most people will be well aware of one female rapper in particular, and that’s Nicki Minaj.
Minaj revitalised mainstream female rap at a time when the heavy weights of the late 90s and early 2000s were beginning to wind down their careers, and ultimately she became the hegemonic voice of women in rap in the 2010s. Before her we had legends like Missy Elliot, Lil’ Kim and Treena to name only a few. In the past years, others have had a few hit songs here or there, but beyond Minaj, it seems that only Cardi B has been able to really break mainstream with more longevity than a single gold run over a season, such as Iggy Azalea’s series of big hits back in the summer of 2014. Cardi has, in my opinion, been a refreshing break from Nicki’s singular, dominant – albeit deserved – position as ‘the’ female rapper.
It’s not that Nicki isn’t talented, she’s a very gifted rapper, but she’s only one example of what women in rap and hip-hop can be and what they can do with their careers and their sounds. In the past few years it hasn’t been just Cardi B who has started to gain larger followings, giving the rap game the shake-up it craved.
Rap as a medium for artists of colour has always been significant in the Black community, and historically the most significant and successful women in rap have always been Black – save the token inclusions of Iggy Azalea and to a lesser, possibly memeable, extent Cher Lloyd.
This is not changing with artists like the heavily controversial Azealia Banks dropping tracks like ‘Anna Wintour’ – which became an overnight success with LGBT+ audiences who appreciated the aggressive rap style that Banks is known for.
Beyond Banks, there’s the City Girls, a rap duo from Miami who released their second studio album ‘Girl Code’ in November of last year, which boasts brilliant tracks such as ‘Twerk’ featuring Cardi B, which shows off their rapping prowess. They easily hold their own next to Cardi’s distinctively hard hitting flow and the song is full of the attitude that much of the female section of the genre seems to be predicated on.
The rap genre isn’t, however, only a space for Black women but is becoming a space for different backgrounds to find their voices. South Asian female rappers are really making leaps and bounds lately: the Indian-American rapper Raja Kumari recently came out with a new single ‘Shook’ where she celebrates her Desi roots and unapologetically delivers an Indian perspective to the rap genre. This followed her debut EP ‘The Come Up’ where Kumari slays with songs that draw on traditional South Asian styles of music and create a fusion of progressive rap and traditional music. Kumari isn’t alone as a Desi girl in music, M.I.A. the well-known Sri Lankan rapper has been making a name and breaking down boundaries in hip-hop for many years now with classic songs like her immensely popular breakout single ‘Paper Planes’, and the 2015 political single ‘Borders’. Both artists draw on the beauty in South Asian culture and embrace their Hindu faith in their work too, giving Hindu women an alternative form of music to see themselves in beyond the typical fenceposts of Bollywood and Bhangra.
The female rappers mentioned in this article are only a few of many others who are extremely talented and politically energised. Names like Aja, Cupcakke, CL, Remy Ma and Stefflon Don come to mind as names in rap that are not only breaking down boundaries for women and non-binary people of colour in rap but also happen to be dropping brilliant albums, singles and mixtapes as they do this. I highly recommend you listen to any of the artists I have mentioned.
Not just for their quality or cultural significance, these artists need recognition of the plethora of disadvantages they experience in the music industry; Nicki Minaj put it succinctly when she explained that in the studio when she is assertive she’s considered a bitch, where as a male artist would be considered the boss. Further the patriarchal projection of female artists both as musicians and objects makes it more difficult for female rappers to be viewed as serious artists instead of fitting into the gendered and racialised archetype of the video hoe. The work that all of the artists I have mentioned do to overcome this is significant to the progression of women in rap, to the point that the idea of a woman winning the Grammy for rap album of the year, as Cardi B did this year, is not considered so unusual or controversial.