For hip-hop’s 50th anniversary this year, “Turning 50: Looking Back at the Women in Hip-Hop” recognizes the women who shaped the genre. The series includes articles in print and online, a public syllabus highlighting women and hip-hop, and digital conversations with “hip-hop feminists” in music, journalism and academics.
“Roxanne’s Revenge” by Roxanne Shanté (1984)
“Ladies First” by Queen Latifah, featuring Monie Love (1989)
Album: Hot, Cool & Vicious by Salt-N-Pepa (1986)
“Roxanne’s Revenge” by Roxanne Shanté not only sparked the “Roxanne Wars” (call-and-response “diss” battles of hip-hop), it displayed the dexterity and lyrical skill of a 14-year-old who literally gave voice and subjectivity to the objectified “Roxanne” from the hit song “Roxanne, Roxanne” by U.T.F.O.
Such diss tracks propelled other women rappers forward, including Salt-N-Pepa, whose debut album Hot, Cool & Vicious advanced women’s rap skills and clap backs (in the studio, in the club and on the streets).
Meanwhile, Queen Latifah joined forces with Monie Love to advance Black women both historically and internationally in their music-video nods to Black foremothers and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
“U.N.I.T.Y.” by Queen Latifah (1993)
“Not Tonight (Ladies Night Remix)” by Lil’ Kim, featuring Angie Martinez, Left Eye, Da Brat and Missy Elliott (1997)
Album: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” is the definitive feminist, anti-violence anthem (“who you calling a bitch?!”), while Lil’ Kim’s “Not Tonight” employs sexually explicit lyrics to advance women’s sexual empowerment and a right to reciprocity in pleasure, which is further extended to women’s full autonomy with the “Ladies Night Remix,” featuring fellow rappers Angie Martinez, Left Eye, Da Brat and Missy Elliott.
The decade closed out with the masterpiece hip-hop album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which is as much about self-revelatory expression as it is sexual politics and racial consciousness.
“Get Ur Freak On” by Missy Elliott (2001)
“My Story (Please Forgive Me)” by Jean Grae (2008)
Album: Kala by M.I.A. (2007)
Missy Elliot’s “Get Ur Freak On” set off the early millennium with a remix sampling of East and West cultures while advancing both sexual autonomy and individual expression, often through mind-bending, weirdly creative music videos.
On the opposite end is Jean Grae’s “My Story,” a phenomenal display of lyrical storytelling as she gives voice to her pain and regret over her abortion and miscarriages.
The defining album of this post-9/11 “war on terror” decade goes to M.I.A. for her sophomore effort, Kala, produced across four different world regions after she was temporarily denied a U.S. visa when she was “flagged” for her support for the oppositional Tamil Tigers, of which her father was a leader, in her birth country of Sri Lanka. Assembling a transnational aesthetic and sound, the album articulated M.I.A.’s push for global solidarity through what she calls a “world town.”
“Moment 4 Life” by Nicki Minaj (2010)
“Say Her Name (Hell You Talmbout)” by Janelle Monáe (2015)
Album: Eve by Rapsody (2019)
The 2010s opened with new rapper Nicki Minaj, who would go on to dominate the decade with hit after hit. Perhaps the most definitive song of this era is her triumphant “Moment 4 Life,” in which she declares, “From this very moment I’m king… I slay Goliath with a sling.” An anthem of empowerment if ever there was one!
However, halfway through the decade, against the roar of #BlackLivesMatter, Janelle Monae, who occasionally raps on her albums, offered a powerful protest song, “Say Her Name (Hell You Talmbout)” in support of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s campaign raising awareness of Black women and girls who are also targeted by state violence. Its power is in its simple chanting of the names of victims, a unified choral refrain and militant drums underscoring the song’s gravitas.
The decade ended on a high note with noted rapper Rapsody, whose feminist-themed Eve features tracks named for notable women in Black history.
“WAP” by Cardi B, featuring Megan Thee Stallion (2020)
“Woman” by Doja Cat (2021)
Album: Traumazine by Megan Thee Stallion (2022)
The controversial “WAP” by Cardi and Meg Thee Stallion continues in the sexually explicit outrageousness of women rappers like Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj, but its mainstream reception opened up dialogue about female sexuality, orgasms and even vaginal health! Of course, this celebration must be tempered by the ubiquitous expectations for women rappers to embody hypersexuality.
Here, however, we might detect some pushback, as with Doja Cat’s “Woman,” which opens on a note of a woman embracing her femininity before she eventually rejects these expectations in the subsequent lyrics.
And, of course, as the decade unfolds we are excited to see what celebrated rapper Megan Thee Stallion has to offer, as her sophomore effort, Traumazine, gives voice to her anxieties (literally), mental health struggles and her feminist consciousness (“my body, my m—f— choice!”), especially in defense of herself when she was shot in the foot by fellow rapper Tory Lanez, who was convicted in 2022 for her assault.
Explore the full playlist:
Join Ms. for a special plenary, “Surviving Hip-Hop: A 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Women Who Shaped the Culture” (featuring Joan Morgan, Dee Barnes, Drew Dixon, Toni Blackman and Monie Love), set for Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, at the annual National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Baltimore, Md.
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