Women’s Public Voices in Modern Times

18 / 07 / 2014

Isabelle Lane re-joins the Sheilas fold this month with this First Person take on feminism and hip-hop. Citing Mary Beard’s London Review of Books speech earlier this year in which she documented the history of silencing women’s voices, Lane sees women inhabiting the male dominated space of rap and hip-hop as being particularly brave and bold.

By Isabelle Lane

“Feminism means everything to me. On every level,” experimental pop musician Maria Minerva said in a recent interview. Despite existing in an “underground” scene that many would assume to be more progressive than mainstream society, Minerva expressed disappointment at the lack of empowering feminist voices in today’s musical landscape.

“I feel the theme of female sexuality in music is not often present,” she said.

“There are female rappers who are ‘ballsy’ enough to make a complaint about a guy being inefficient, like Lil’ Kim or Trina or whatever, but in the realm where I operate it is not very common.

“When I listen to these female rappers, for example, I feel really super empowered and moved, and I guess every woman, be black or white, does too.”

The hip hop genre is often associated with misogyny, homophobia and hyper-masculinity. Yet some women have managed to claim a space in this world where they can be brash, outspoken and demand respect.

In a lecture earlier this year titled Oh Do Shut Up Dear! Professor Mary Beard discusses the public voice of women, and reveals a persistent and systematic “silencing” of women in public life dating back to classical times.

“Public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender,” Beard said.

“[In] many ways women’s voices are not publicly heard in our own contemporary culture, and in our own politics from the front bench to the shop floor,” she concluded.

In light of this exclusionary history and ongoing culture, the role of women emcees in hip hop is even more radical and important.

The world of inner-suburban Melbourne that I inhabit is far from the mean streets of ‘90s Bed-Stuy that Lil’ Kim rapped about. It’s equally disconnected from the ostentatious wealth that’s frequent subject matter for many successful rappers. Yet, the gender politics female rappers address, either subconsciously or directly, are universal. When I hear women rapping with braggadocio about their lives, struggles and successes, I feel a little tougher and equipped with more fortitude in a world where forces of inequality and patriarchy are still so oppressive that, at the current rate of change, it will take another 75 years for women to achieve equal pay with men.

“Although hip hop cultural production is roughly 30 years old, the number of well-known female emcees, DJs, b-girls, personalities, designers, filmmakers, and executives is still nominal,” writes academic Shanté Paradigm Smalls.

Just as in our broader historical and cultural narratives, women are often excluded from “hip hop’s cultural memory” and “glossed over in rap historiographies.”  Yet their importance cannot be overstated. Smalls name checks “a long line of female hip hop artists who comment on, respond to, or investigate their reduced or problematic status as narrated by hip hop men.

“Salt ‘N’ Pepa, MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Eve, and even Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown address the interpellation of the female subject position in portions of their work.”

Despite their sore under recognition in the hip hop canon, I get a thrill with each new discovery in a lineage of deft, funny and confident female artists, from Roxanne Shanté to underground rap stalwart Jean Grae and up-and-coming openly queer rapper Angel Haze.

Many contemporary female rappers actively dismantle misogynistic dichotomies and reclaim sexist epithets. They are unashamedly confident, boasting about, and exhorting other women, to pursue economic independence and sexual satisfaction.

Dually adored and despised, Nicki Minaj can lay claim to being the biggest female rapper of all time.

“What I want the world to know about Nicki Minaj is when you hear Nicki Minaj spit, Nicki Minaj wrote it,” she said when accepting a recent award. Embracing powerful self-expression by writing your own rhymes and refusing to be a puppet for male ghost-writers is a crucial badge of honour among female rappers.

In a classic off-the-cuff diatribe, delivered with characteristic flair while applying mascara in a fairy floss pink wig, Minaj exposed the double standards that women are subjected to.

“When I am assertive, I’m a bitch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss. No negative association behind being ‘bossed up’, but lots of negative association behind being a bitch.

“When you’re a girl, you have to be everything. You have to be dope at what you do, but you have to be super sweet, and you have to be sexy, and you have to be this and you have to be that…It’s like; I can’t be all those things at once. I’m a human being.”

Iggy Azalea is undeniably Australia’s most commercially successful rapper. Her debut album The New Classic went to Number 1 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop chart, making her the first non-American female rapper to achieve the feat.

Azalea has her fair share of critics, with The Guardian music writer Rob Boffard dismissing the 24 year old from Mullumbimby as “the least important thing ever to happen to Aussie hip-hop.” Boffard then proceeded to endorse a string of male rappers as more deserving of attention.

“Last year seemed impossible to convince anyone in the music business I could break into the top 100,” Azalea wrote on Twitter following her album’s success.

“So let this serve as proof anything is possible and I hope we see more female rappers new and established in the charts,” she said.

In a world where women’s voices are too often stifled, the female rappers past and present who have claimed a space in the hyper-masculine domain of hip hop are bold, inspirational, and deserve to be championed.