The Rise, Decline of the Female Rapper


‘What happened to the female MC?’ Documentary filmmaker and producer Ava DuVernay and BET go on a quest to mark the rise and decline of the woman rapper.

Somehow, I've managed to make it this long without hearing a full Nicki Minaj song. It's not that I'm not aware of her existence, but for whatever reason she hasn't captured my attention. Not like other artistes in the past have. Not like Queen or Lyte or Jean Grae or Lauryn. She's “OK”. She's trying really hard. And apparently she's it when it comes to women in hip-hop, who have a record label behind them.

In Ava DuVernay's documentary, “My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth About Women and Hip Hop”, she interviews many female rappers, from Roxanne Shante to Missy to Eve to Yo Yo, about the 90s feast and the 2000s famine for female rap acts.

DuVernay directed and produced the piece, which, at times, is both inspiring and a bit depressing. To watch clips of classic MC Lyte and Queen Latifah, then see flickers of rappers I haven't seen in years, like Monnie Love, JJ Fad, Boss and Charlie Baltimore leaves you gasping “What happened?” Yet we know what happened. The trajectory of success and failure of women signed to rap record deals has mirrored what has happened to the music industry as a whole.

Throughout the documentary, the women interviewed make the point that labels believe women rappers can't sell and are novelty acts ‑ which sounds crazy considering the great success of Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill, as well as veterans like Latifah, Lyte, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown and others. But this isn't shocking when you consider how just as women rappers were becoming commonplace the record industry was dying.

What happened in the 2000s was the buying out and shuttering of major labels and the push towards styles of hip-hop that would sell without much risk. Everything is now a different variation of the once untouchable “gangster” rap. (Which seems ironic that just a few years ago labels like Time Warner and Interscope were desperate to defuse controversy involving troublesome rappers). This is why the 90s rap scene seemed so diverse ‑ everything from conscious rap to head-bangers and booty-shakers getting major radio airplay ‑ compared to now where many major acts seem to be reinventions of past successful artistes. A sea of copies of a copy of Tupac, stripped of any complexities down to the base components of shirtless, tatted up, aggressive (both physically and sexually) and profane.

Because of this, there isn't much room for women rappers. Women continue to watch their careers live and die by whatever man is behind them (in Minaj's case, that's the imprisoned Lil Wayne). This means that female rappers have gone from dressing for themselves to dressing to sell their sexuality. In the documentary rappers Salt and Pepa laugh and gasp at the aggressive push to make women rappers more sexually provocative and how their asymmetrical haircuts and stretch pants are a huge departure from the near-naked looks promoted today.

The fashion aspect of the documentary was very fascinating to me. Especially since sexuality is so aggressively pushed now for both women rappers and musical artistes. Earlier artistes simply wore what they felt best reflected them, from MC Lyte's sophisticated urban chic to Queen Latifah's African inspired garb to TLC's colourful baggy pants and T-shirts. The documentary shows that the success of Lil Kim and Foxy Brown changed everything, as labels aggressively pushed female rap acts to be more sexually suggestive. (Who can forget that make over they gave Da Brat in the late 90s? From baggy leather pants to rapping in a bra top). What was always depressing for me was how this look was pushed on all women rappers across the board despite the fact that rappers like Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott, the two most successful female hip-hop acts of the 90s, managed to rap and sing dressed the way they felt comfortable. Elliott, after all, was overweight and known for dressing outlandishly, not provocatively. Hill dressed as a trendy, Earthy, round-a-way girl.

Yet now, rap for women is pushed as “clothing optional”,

What's also stark is how the women in the documentary discuss singer-rapper-songwriter Lauryn Hill. Hill did not participate in the documentary, but her presence is felt heavily as nearly every woman interviewed expresses a love for her style and aches at the loss of her from the music scene. It was like they were talking about something that died. (Even though Hill is very much alive and is now on the Rock the Bells hip-hop tour. But even while on tour, Hill has been reluctant to re-enter the limelight). The women interviewed all seemed to rejoice in Hill's success, but pained in her absence.

The documentary runs under an hour without commercials and is both funny and refreshing. Seeing Eve, for instance, and how lovely she is today, explaining how the game changed her life or hearing from Trina, a rapper I've never been a fan of, but can respect for her longevity, speaking on her inspiration was moving.

Female rappers are often propped up as the bits of flavour to spice up a male-dominated record label. People forget that these are women with dreams and talents and goals of their own. Hearing Lady of Rage describe how her rap debut was destroyed by Death Row Records collapse after Tupac's death, Dre's departure and Suge Knight's imprisonment is like hearing someone describe the death of their dreams. To come so close to the spotlight to only find that you didn't show up at the right time had to be heart-breaking.

To see the field diminish to Minaj and not much else is depressing. When Minaj shouted that she was holding it down for all women rappers at this year's BET Awards many women hip-hop heads I knew bristled, taking issue with Minaj's style and packaging. But considering the media environment she wasn't lying. She's pretty much it for a woman rapper with major label backing and airplay. For more diversity today, you have to go underground.

DuVernay's documentary is a great introduction for those who always wanted to hear from female rappers as individuals and not just as eye-candy or a commodity. I can only hope more filmmakers will continue to broach this subject and delve even deeper.

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• Danielle Belton is best known as the editor/writer of the pop culture-meets-politics blog The Black Snob. She is currently Editor-At-Large for Clutch Magazine Online, and was recently head writer for the late night television show Don't Sleep hosted by T. J. Holmes on BET.


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October 2013
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