I think it can be agreed by anyone who supports women in the music industry that the question “What’s it like to be a girl in a band?” has reached its expiration date. And not only because it’s supremely patronizing, but also because it’s just been answered too many times, as if a woman playing a guitar was the highest feminist statement. In a recent interview with Billboard, musician and activist Annie Lennox discussed the role of women in music, referencing Beyonce’s recent adoption of feminism, stating, “Twerking is not feminism… It's not liberating, it's not empowering. It's a sexual thing that you're doing on a stage.” When people talk about feminist representation in music, most of the time they’re only referring to women in bands, and, since the onset of the Riot Grrrl movement in the early ‘90s, specifically white women in punk bands.
Female-centric music festivals like Ladyfest and Boston’s Smash It Dead Fest (which profits the city’s rape prevention center) are composed almost entirely of punk bands, and the same goes for the music highlighted by the female artist collective The Le Sigh. While it is great that these support networks exist, the hyper-specific-celebration erases the merit of the work done by ladies in rap and hip hop, or, in Lennox’s case, derides it. Why is the band Perfect Pussy considered radical while the rapper Junglepussy is just raunchy? It’s both the result and the cause of a deeper problem surrounding the devaluation and erasure of women of color in feminism.
Conversations about women in hip-hop and rap typically prompt a discussion of the communities’ perceived misogyny, consequently forgetting, and effectively erasing their actual contributions. In 1999, Joan Morgan coined the term “hip-hop feminism” with the intention of defining a place in hip-hop culture for female MCs. It legitimized the art created by women like Lauryn Hill, Salt-N-Pepa, and Lil’ Kim, all of whom worked toward female empowerment outside the realm of mainstream feminism. With her debut solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), Hill gave an intimidatingly intimate look at motherhood and love from a woman’s perspective. On the other hand, Salt-N-Pepa unleashed a new form of feminine toughness with Very Necessary (1993), on which they assert themselves as “ladies that are clever” and aggressively denounce slut-shaming.
Salt, Pep, and Spin may have been some of the first to make tiny cracks in the sexual glass ceiling, but it was Lil’ Kim who busted it the fuck open in 1996 with her appropriately-titled debut album Hardcore. Kim’s lyrics are as belligerently violent and sexually explicit as any of her male peers, like Biggie and Junior M.A.F.I.A. While male sexuality rarely draws any attention--and not just in rap, but in any medium--Kim asserting that she doesn’t “want dick tonight” while complaining about a boyfriend who won’t go down on her is still jarring nearly 20 years later. Few can claim to have created art so radical.
One of the only people currently living up to that legacy is Nicki Minaj. The “Anaconda” video is the most prevalent instance of Tearing It Down From The Inside in recent history. Minaj has appropriated Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”, our country’s most beloved song about ass, and turned it into an undercover critique of the male gaze and the hypersexualization of black women. She lures the masses in with catchy hooks and skimpy outfits, but slaps our collective hands away at the last second. She makes sure you know that, no matter how much of her body she shows off, none of it is for you. How is this any different than Kathleen Hanna lifting up her mini dress on stage and shouting “This is my ass!”, other than that Minaj’s tactic is at least a little bit more nuanced?
At this point, women in hip-hop and rap seem to be accomplishing more feminist visibility than any other genre. While Beyonce’s brand of empowerment has often been criticized and could be considered still “in development”, who else is attempting to explicitly address issues as controversial as feminism and sexual ownership from such a high position of pop cultural power? She certainly isn’t as aggressive as other politically-minded female artists, but few others have the ability to burn the word “FEMINIST” in big, bold letters into the minds of millions of young people. As Roxane Gay, author of the book Bad Feminist, tweeted after the notorious VMA performance: “What Bey Just did for feminism, on national television, look, for better or worse, that reach is WAY more than anything we’ve seen.” The idea that feminism is punk is harmfully exclusive and almost violently boring. A woman shredding a guitar has no more political value than Lil’ Kim squatting in a cheetah print bikini and is, at this point, a lot less revolutionary.