Unwrapping Black Feminism: How Black Female Rappers Verbally and Visually Subvert Traditional Rap Culture

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       Unwrapping Black Feminism: How Black Female Rappers Verbally and Visually Subvert Traditional Rap Culture

In the mid-1990’s the emergence of third-wave feminist rappers revolutionized the sphere of hip-hop and amplified messages of black womanhood and female sexuality. In the history of rap culture, female voices have often been overshadowed and devalued in the face of black manhood. Rap songs often portray women through the self-entanglement of the man and denying women from humanization. Female characters are rarely given names, agency or leverage and are generally portrayed as commodities. In music videos, females are often presented as “video hoes” that strictly serve as “eye candy” and debased to objects of male desire. After years of female perspectives being read through a sexualized stereotype, female rappers began to appear in the hip-hop scene and revolutionize rap culture. Black female rappers began to affirm public presence by privileging black female experiences and inhibiting a progressive space with a chance to flaunt their sexualities. Feminist rappers Missy Elliott, Queen Latifah and Salt n Pepper subverted the oppressive elements of a male-dominated rap scene and fostered a new form of hip-hop, allowing females to voice their emotional and sexual concerns. In delivering powerful messages of strength, body positivity female rapper encouraged each other to deconstruct dominant ideologies of black womanhood and open a political space for female autonomy.

Female bodily comportment is prescribed heavily within the media, narrowly defining the acceptable depictions of women. In Iris Marion essay Throwing Like A Girl, Young surmises “that the modalities of female bodily existence is experienced as a mere thing- a fragile thing, which must be picked up and coaxed into movement, a thing that exists as looked at and acted upon” (Young, 150). In the public sphere of media and it’s mass audience, this objectification of the female body becomes heightened. In the mid-1990’s feminist rapper Missy Elliott re-claimed notions of black female body standards. Missy exploded into the rap scene as a formidable figure, combating against a male dominated hip-hop scene and empowering a black feminist agenda. Elliott introduced female-centered narratives that actively seek out their pleasure and desires. In her song “One Minute Man” Elliott reclaims her body as a site of desire and empowerment, wanting a man with staying power, “to show her what he’s got and give her some more.” In refusing to be confined by conventional notions of sexuality, the woman in Missy’s raps are active and authoritative. Missy Elliott pushes black females to feel proud of their sexuality and flaunt it. In the music video for “One Minute Man” Missy disrupts the masculine graze and demands to be acknowledged on her own terms. In the opening shot, she removes her head from her body and holds it straight up to the camera. The power of this image lies within the superhuman ability of Elliot to decapitate herself while continuing to dance, breath and sing. In compartmentalizing her own body for her personal pleasure, Missy constructs a powerful image for women.

Queen Latifah’s feminist raps challenged gender roles within hip-hop music, addressing topics of domestic violence, female autonomy and women’s independence. She was seen as the “Queen Mother” of hip-hop, revolutionizing the sphere of rap culture within her politically charged rap songs[1]. In her 1989 release of “Ladies First” was hailed by the hip-hop community as a turning point in rap discourse, encapsulating social messages of empowerment, body positivity and female power  Her words championing  black women’s political and musical leadership roles in the black community and hip hop culture. Latifah furthers her message of feminist power and sexuality on the track “Come into My House.” She repeats the phrase “Give me the Body” into the chorus, privileging the body as an expression of individualized dance, she urges everyone to “move”. Latifah articulates feminist messages in hip hop, calling attention to sexism and gender discrimination in the dominant language and images used to refer to black women. In her 1993 song release  “U.N.I.T.Y” Latifah addresses sexual harassment, domestic violence and the ways in which female sexuality has been objectified.  In the music video, Latifah speaks for unity and derisively says “who you callin bitch? She demands respect!” Later in the song, Latifah depicts walking down the street in cutoff shorts and taking back to a man who attempts to grab her, “Huh, I punched him dead in his eye and said “who you callin a bitch”. She condemns men for objectifying female bodies as playthings and confronts them through dissing, confronting and threatening men. Latifah pioneered the infiltration of black feminist perspective into the public sphere, calling out “misogyny in hip-hop at a time when women in the industry weren’t being given opportunities to ask for much at all. She infused feminism into rap music when female artists were barely allowed through the door. And then she left it open[2]”. Latifah presents a strong voice of a black feminist perspective, rebelling against cultural impositions and speaking to empower women.

In the mid-1990’s black female rappers began to voice the vulnerabilities they faced within heterosexual relationships. Feminist rapper Lil Kim represents a “fly girl” in hip-hop culture, embodying a fierce independence and growing awareness of her sexual self [3]. In Lil Kim’s 1996 rap “Not Tonight” she defines her terms of sexual pleasure and negotiating her position in a heterosexual relationship. Kim depicts sexual encounter with the male character “Jimmy” who she concludes is a less than satisfactory lover. Kim rap is self-assured as she privileges her own desires over fulfilling Jimmy’s manhood. Kim’s overt sexuality is a liberating force, offering a new light on heterosexual power-relations. Through performance Lil Kim deconstructs a “dominant ideology by wearing clothes that accent her full breasts and rounded buttock and thighs, considered beauty marks of woman through black culture [4]. Bell Hooks further articulates that the erotic consciousness of the black woman is textualized around issues of body esteem “erotic pleasure requires of us engagement with the realm of senses…. the capacity to be in touch with sensual reality; to accept and love our bodies, to work towards self-recovery issues around body esteem and to be empowered by healing eroticism[5].” Lil Kim further pushes towards confronting body image and highlighting her own sexuality into rap songs.

Salt-N-Peppa where one of the first female rap groups who challenged the way women were seen and heard in 90’s hip-hop culture. Salt-N-Peppa embodied the performance of the “fly-girl as a party-goer, an independent woman but, additionally, an erotic subject rather than an objectified one”[6]. Salt-N-Pepa describes themselves as women who have worked hard to keep their bodies in shape; we’re proud to show them off”: moreover “we’re not ashamed of our sexuality; for we’re Salt-N-Pepa- sexier and more in control.  Often performing in color-full pant suits, baggy pants and gold chains, Salt-N-Peppa constructed a masculine image in dress, in comparison to artists like Lil Kim who chose to dramatically showcase her femininity. In this way Salt-N-Peppa “not only claim their sexual selves, but also enter the male body generally as a metaphor for their strength and power, but also to expand self-definition”.  Salt-N-Peppa opened up creative and critical spaces for other women rappers to express their own desires and discontent. In their 1985 release of “Tramp” Salt-N-Pepa craft an anthem that demands sexual agency and respect. The song begins with the retort “What’d ya call me” with the implication that the female speaker has been called a “tramp”. Salt-N-Pepa deliver messages valuing the female body, reinforcing empowering words to female listeners “I know what they want/it’s me because I’m so sexy/It’s me don’t touch my body/ Cos ya see, I ain’t no skeezer”. In their 1995 song “Ain’t Nothing but a she-thing”, Salt-N-Peppa offer a similarly inspirational and solidarity building message about women’s empowerment. In these songs Salt-N-Peppa bring women to consciousness with the oppression they face in dominant rap discourse and motivate them to support each other.

Nicki Minaj unapologetic sexuality and identity as an African American female rapper lends to her distinct voice in shaping not only black hip-hop culture but also black feminist thought more broadly. In her third studio album “Pinkprint” Nicki Minaj smashes sexist challenges while reclaiming power within her own sexuality. In the song “Anaconda” Minaj reclaims power within her sexuality. She effectively dismantles the male gaze of stereotypical rap songs that sexualize the female body and objectify it as a site of pleasure. Instead of discussing other’s bodies, she celebrates and glorifies the beauty of her own. She sample’s Sir-Mix-A-lot song “Baby got Back” originally known for it’s sexist connotations, Minaj transforms the song into an anthem of female empowerment. Minaj present’s her curves and imperfections with a fierce confidence and brazen sexuality. Contrary to popular hip-hop videos that objectify female bodies through the male male gaze, Minaj creates a female-dominated world where she both controls and enjoys her sexuality. In the music video for “Anaconda”, male dancers are presented as inferior, sitting down powerless in the face of Minaj’s fierce sexuality.  She demonstrates her body as powerful, a source of pride and eroticism- all on her own terms. In the kitchen scene, Minaj subverts the stereotypical notions of domesticity, eating food viciously for her own pleasure. She crushes the phallic symbol of a banana with her hands, representing her further domination and dismantling of the patriarchy.

Minaj pushes female rappers to be viewed in multiple lights instead of a single monolithic image. She challenges the traditional heteronormative interactions, embodying the dueling personas of dominatrix-like and Barbie like images in both performance and video. Whitney argues, that “Minaj’s brand of Barbie doll-like femininity both imitates and parodies the iconic doll, going beyond straightforward identification[7]”. Nicki imitates a western ideal of beauty, both exaggerating and subverting the Barbie stereotype. She deconstructs notions of Western beauty and womanhood through the parodic imitation of the Barbie doll. Nicki Minaj pave the road for female dominance and encouraging women to attain a fierce hold over their sexuality. In her video for “Super Bass’” Minaj is presented in a platinum blonde wig with wide, false lashes and playful, bright pink lipstick staring at the camera. Her sharp movements throughout the video replicate a “doll” and Barbie persona. Minaj expresses a sex-positive ideology, encouraging women to take their sexuality in their own hands and to equalize the sexual playing field. This duality of confrontation is “central to the female appropriation of music video form and helps explain why so many black female performers are so effective in this subversion”[8]. Nicki Minaj performances present a platform to refute, deconstruct and reconstruct her identity and seek empowerment. She reclaims agency over body within her confrontational and sexualized performances.

In the early 1980’s a third wave movement of feminist ideologies were introduced into the public sphere, as a result of a growing population of women who wanted to address race, identity and equality within society. Similar to Riot Grrrls who “used their punk rock sensibilities to creates music that proclaimed their defiance of sexist norms and gender roles, female rappers reclaimed their sexuality through performance and by presenting black female experience into the public eye” [9]. While the Riot Grrrl movement offered a primarily white mode of feminism identity within rock, female rappers used hip-hop music to reconstruct ideas about black femininity.  In the riot grrrl movement, Kathleen Hanna reclaimed “slut” through writing it across her stomach with lipstick while dancing on stage. Similarly, black female rappers of the 90’s reclaimed the word “bitch” and “slut” through song and popularizing it to represent a strong, confident woman whose future isn’t dictated by men. Missy Elliott reclaims “Bitch” as a part of her own vernacular in order to inject the notion of power into what it means to be female. In her song “She is a Bitch” Elliott writes in the chorus “she’s a bitch/Get on down while I shoot my flow/When I do my thing/ Got the place on fire/ burn it to flame”. In the song, the word “bitch” is redefined as a person with lyrical skills, who can motivate and excite an audience. Missy Elliott challenged and responded to male rapper’s characterization of women as “bitches”and “hos” in their song lyrics. Through the art of song, the term “bitch” had been redefined to show strength, solidarity and empowerment while aggressively challenging the authority of man. Female rappers of the early 1990’s achieved major strides in rap music by “continuing to chisel away at stereotypes about female artists in the male-dominated tradition and by re-defining women’s culture and identity from black feminist perspective”.

In conclusion female rappers of the mid-1990’s granted female audiences with a sense of self identity and empowerment, crafting a black feminist perspectives and releasing sexual desires into the discourse of hip-hop. Female rappers continue to foster a popular space for women to voice their desires and speak without fear of vilification.  In the commercial hip hop music today, female rappers have an increasing willingness to display and address issues of their own body and sexuality. Modern day feminist rapper Princess Nokia, song’s tackles female autonomy, empowerment and the importance of embracing your sexuality. Her rap’s amplify body-positivity and female solidarity, affirming her position on stage as the self-sufficient strong black woman that smashes sexist challenges and challenges gender binaries. While men continue to constitute a majority of the mainstream hip-hop industry today, female rappers are emerging as a powerful force. Female rappers present not only sisterly messages of encouragement but also harsh critics of one another designed to elicit a higher consciousness about women’s oppression. Black female rappers continue to dismantle sexism in the public sphere of hip-hop culture, writing their own songs, producing their own music and starting their own record companies. Women in hip hop and rap participate and construct a larger conversation and overall meanings of feminism in society.

 

Works Cited

Atwater, Deborah F. African American Women’s Rhetoric: The Search for Dignity, Personhood, and Honor. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2009. Print.

Berry, Venise, and Tricia Rose. “Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America.” American Music 14.2 (1996): 231.

Goodall, Nataki. “Depend on Myself: T.L.C. and the Evolution of Black Female Rap.” “Depend on Myself: T.L.C. and the Evolution of Black Female Rap” by Goodall, Nataki – The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 79, Issue 1, Winter 1994 | Online Research Library: Questia. JSTOR, n.d.

Hollows, Joanne. Feminism, Femininity, and Popular Culture. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester UP, 2000. Print.

Keyes, Cheryl L. “Empowering Self, Making Choices, Creating Spaces: Black Female Identity via Rap Music Performance.” The Journal of American Folklore

Orejuela, Fernando. Rap and Hip Hop Culture. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2015. Print.

Roberts, Robin. “”Ladies First”: Queen Latifah’s Afrocentric Feminist Music Video.” African American Review 28.2 (1994): 245. JSTOR. Web.

“Robot Check.” Check It While I Wreck It. Gwendolyn Pough, n.d.

“Throwing Like a Girl” and Other Essays (Studies in Feminist Philosophy) 1st Edition.” On Female Body Experience: “Throwing Like a Girl” and Other Essays (Studies in Feminist Philosophy): Iris Marion Young

Whitney, Jennifer Dawn. “Some Assembly Required: Black Barbie and the Fabrication of Nicki Minaj.” Girlhood Studies 5.1 (2012): n. pag. Web

 

[1] Keyes, Cheryl L. “Empowering Self, Making Choices, Creating Spaces: Black Female Identity via Rap Music Performance.” The Journal of American Folklore

[2] Rudulph, Heather Wood, “All Hail The Queen! R29 Looks Back At Latifah’s Feminist Anthem, “U.N.I.T.Y.”” Queen Latifah UNITY Feminism Legacy Black Reign.

[3]Keyes, Cheryl L. “Empowering Self, Making Choices, Creating Spaces: Black Female Identity via Rap Music Performance.” The Journal of American Folklore

[4]Keyes, Cheryl L. “Empowering Self, Making Choices, Creating Spaces: Black Female Identity via Rap Music Performance.” The Journal of American Folklore

[5]

[6]  Keyes, Cheryl L. “Empowering Self, Making Choices, Creating Spaces: Black Female Identity via Rap Music Performance.” The Journal of American Folklore

[7] Vigderman, Aliza. “My Anaconda Don’t: A Black Feminist Analysis of Nicki Minaj.” Medium. N.p., 08 Sept. 2015.

[8] Roberts, Robin. “”Ladies First”: Queen Latifah’s Afrocentric Feminist Music Video.” African American Review 28.2 (1994): 245. JSTOR.

[9] Whitney, Jennifer Dawn. “Some Assembly Required: Black Barbie and the Fabrication of Nicki Minaj.” Girlhood Studies 5.1 (2012): n. pag. Web

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