Hip Hop’s ‘Hidden Figures’: The Feminist Herstory and Future of Hip Hop

Black women have historically played a crucial role in the origins of hip hop, but are often unacknowledged. It’s time to learn the rich herstory of hip hop feminism.

Lil Kim, pictured here performing in 2008, is one of many women who have not been sufficiently recognized for contributions they made to hip hop culture. (windyjonas / Flickr)

With the recent opening of the Universal Hip Hop Museum, the cultural phenomenon called hip hop is on everyone’s mind. But where are the women? How are they represented?

The gender omission of women as architects of hip hop, from its humble beginnings up to the current moment with its global impact, is not a new issue. Despite hip hop’s cultural contributions globally of music, beats, rhymes, dancing, clothing and lifestyle, women have been noticeably absent from its origin story and the pantheon of Black men who are thought to have “made” hip hop what it is today.

Moreover, there have been huge debates over how Black women especially are described and portrayed in hip hop. In the early days of hip hop, there were strong discussions and critiques over its glamorization of violence via gangsta rap and the degrading representation of women, and especially Black women, in music videos and in the genre’s lyrics.

This social critique of hip hop actually resulted in a 1994 congressional hearing on the matter, spearheaded by political leaders like U.S. Representative Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). Those who participated regarded the glorification of violence and the pornographic portrayal of women to be a cause for national concern. The Congressional Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice entitled this report “Shaping Our Responses To Violent and Demeaning Imagery in Popular Music.”

An archival image of the 1994 report, “Shaping Our Responses To Violent and Demeaning Imagery in Popular Music.”

They’ve Paid Their Dues: Giving Props to Women in Hip Hop

Fast forward, and almost three decades later women still have not been sufficiently recognized and given their props for contributions they have made to the full spectrum of hip hop culture, and challenging the gender stereotypes, which still persist.

What follows is a herstory to celebrate Women’s History Month and reveal some of hip hop’s “Hidden Figures.”

The Beginnings of Hip Hop Feminism

Hip hop, the largest cultural phenomenon to ever grace the globe, emerged in 1973 after Cindy Campbell, a Black woman from the West Bronx, birthed the brilliant idea to host a back-to-school party to fund her school wardrobe. She asked her brother, DJ Kool Herc, to DJ at the party—and the rest is hip hop history. DJ Kool Herc is credited with birthing hip hop, while his sister’s contribution is lost and she remains a “hidden figure” in hip hop’s history.

In every facet of hip hop music and culture, women have been innovating and setting new precedents, yet most connoisseurs of hip hop remain unaware of how women have actively shaped its culture and music from inception.

In 1999, the term “hip hop feminism” was first coined by Joan Morgan in her seminal work, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. However, in action, hip hop feminism began much earlier and in various forms: from Lady Pink’s graffiti resistance in 1979 to the rappers of the 1980s and 1990s such as Queen Latifah’s Ladies FirstMonie Love’s Down To Earth, the sexual revolution of MCs like Foxy Brown and Lil Kim challenging gender power dynamics. Internationally, women like Las Crudas (Cuba) remind us that Black women in the hip hop movement have been a steady force in its evolution.

Fast forward to the 2000s, there were several academic interventions made—like Tricia Rose’s Black NoiseGwendolyn Pough’s Check it While I Wreck It in 2004, Ruth Nicole Brown’s Black Girlhood Celebrated: Toward a Hip Hop Feminist PedagogyKyra Gaunt’s The Games Black Girls PlayImani Perry’s Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip HopSusana M. Morris and Brittney Cooper’s Crunk Feminist MovementRachel RaimistZenzele Isoke … the list goes on.

In every facet of hip hop music and culture, women have been innovating and setting new precedents, yet most connoisseurs of hip hop remain unaware of how women have actively shaped its culture and music from inception. From pioneering fashion designers that create fresh new styles, to shape-shifting entrepreneurs who helped globalize the art form, talented B-girls, daring graffiti artists, undefeated and unmatched MCs, versatile DJs and dynamic educators, women show up and show out.

Even stretching beyond the immediate cultural imprint, women have been intimately involved in writing hip hop’s herstory in film, documentary and archiving such contributions.

An Absence of Women’s Voices

In the early 2000s, Gregory Hall produced the documentary series, More Than Music: Songs That Changed The World, which later became Impact: Songs that Changed the World and aired on Bravo (2003) as a music mini-series. In the segment on Run DMC and Aerosmith: Walk This Way, the film took a dive into looking at hip hop’s around the world. 

Dr. Irma McClaurin, a Black women anthropologist, then working at Fisk University as deputy provost, currently a member of the Fresh Bold So Def Collective, was the only woman interviewed and featured in the only segment on hip hop in the 12-part series. Although not listed in the credits, McClaurin called attention to the double standard used to evaluate Black and Brown urban youth in hip hop culture who make capitalism work for them through the art form in her commentary. Her presence in the film demonstrates how women have been in the vanguard of forming, interpreting and defending hip hop culture, yet remain unacknowledged.

Growing with the hip hop industry as it has evolved into a global phenomenon, women are living examples of what it means to break the gender boxes of the old, build anew and lift up others alongside them. Despite monolithic and stereotyped representations of women in the mainstream, especially for Black and other women of color, the contributions of women to innovating in hip hop music and culture is undeniable. There are so many unnamed, unlisted and undiscovered artists out there.

Fresh Bold So Def Conference: A Recognition of Women in Hip Hop

Cover of Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

The Fresh Bold So Def Collective is doing this work of lifting up women’s contributions in hip hop.

Fresh, Bold and So Def is a feminist initiative spearheaded by Martha Diaz, founder of the Hip Hop Association (H2O), the original hip hop film festival, the Steingertz Hip Hop Center at NYU and so much more. Diaz convened the Women in Hip Hop Collaborative to join forces and end women’s erasure in the story of hip hop’s origins last year. The original conference provides a powerful window for people to gaze inside the work that has gone before, be introduced to what exists now, and get glimpses of what is yet to come.

There is a long list of women whose lives and lyrics demonstrate that there is no one blueprint to being who you are.

Whether it’s MC Sha-Rock, Debbie D or Pebblee Poo, they carved a path for us to experience the Laila’s Wisdom Rhapsody offers.

The timeless The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

The grit of Nitty Scott.

The intellect of Mona Haydar.

The riveting storytelling and vulnerability of Sammus.

The lyrical genius of Akua Naru.

The unabashed prowess of Sa Roc.

The sick rhythm and flow of Chika.

The unapologetic seduction of Foxy Brown.

The no-fucks-given sensuality of Lil Kim.

The younger OG Nicki Minaj when she told us she came to “Fly”:

“I am not a word, I am not a line, I am not a girl that could ever be defined, I am not fly, I am levitation, I represent an entire generation.” 

Women overseas are also showing up and doing the work, day in and out. From Shadia Mansour calling for an end to a violent Israeli occupation of Palestinians, to Panmela Castro calling for an end to violence against women in Brasil through graffiti art, to Aysha Upchurch showing what dancing diplomacy looks like within U.S. higher education, to Edd Wheeler breaking age barriers as one of Brazil’s oldest MCs in the genre, to South Africa’s Gigi Lamayne, the world of women in hip hop is vast and boundless.

Yet, in the public sphere, the input of women in hip hop is grossly overlooked. Far too often, hip hop is depicted in the media as not only a male genre, with women presented as exceptions and rarely acknowledged for the brilliance they have contributed from the start, but also reducing their value as objects to be seen and not heard. The Fresh Bold So Def conference challenges all that. It forefronts women in hip hop and places them on the world map in ways that reveal their multi-dimensional, nuanced, complex existence.

Forging Their Own Path Forward Outside the Box

Women in hip hop have always been at the epicenter of change and their future will continue to produce bold reclamations and re-imaginings of what is possible, telling their own herstory of accomplishments.

Far too often, hip hop is depicted in the media as not only a male genre, with women presented as exceptions and rarely acknowledged for the brilliance they have contributed from the start, but also reducing their value as objects to be seen and not heard.

Take Follow the KEEPERS for example, a global collective of artists, scholars and activists convened by Akua Naru, who are creating the first comprehensive digital database to document, center and map women’s contributions to hip hop’s five decades history.

The old rules don’t apply anymore. As we approach hip hop’s 50th anniversary, Generation X, who grew up with hip hop, are now stepping into mentorship roles and shepherding the younger generation. The new cohort of artists benefits from the foundation laid before while charting their own paths, ones marked by an undeniable legacy of innovation, courage, and unapologetic authenticity. Talent like Young DevynSaweetieYoung M.A. and Tierra Whack are just a few examples.

Today’s women in hip hop are creating their own lane, defying the need to fit into any specific box for acceptance or acknowledgment as an MC, DJ, B-girl, businesswoman, fashion designer, graffiti artist, archivist and more. Despite facing barriers of being denied access to major distributions in the past and too often becoming dependent on major record labels that exploit their artistic talent, women in hip hop are forging a new path forward—on their own terms. They are showing what it means to be fresh, to be bold, and to be so def.

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Azmera Hammouri-Davis, MTS, aka the Poetic Theorist, is a Black-Palestinian American womanist, poet and spoken word artist, and Africana spirituality practitioner from Kea'au, Hawaii with over a decade experience in teaching and training the Afro-Brazilian martial art of Capoeira. She is a Fulbright creative and performing arts research recipient, founder of the women-led radio show "Break The Boxes Stories," a founding member of theKEEPERSHip Hop Collective, and was the first person offered the inaugural Africana spirituality chaplain role at Tufts University multi-faith chaplaincy. Azmera holds a master of theological studies degree from Harvard Divinity School, and a double bachelors degree in visual and performing arts and social sciences psychology from the University of Southern California (USC). Find her on socials media: @azmerarhymes.