In 1984, when Roxanne Shante first came out with the song “Roxanne’s Revenge,” (in response to the hit song on the radio “Roxanne Roxanne”) she dissed the whole UTFO crew, while simultaneously sending the message to other female emcees interested in making a name for themselves that now was the time to step their game up and enter the world of hip-hop. While the eighties seemed to represent an emergence of females in the culture, the nineties proved to be an explosion, with as many as forty-plus female emcees saturating the market at one time. Fast-forward to 2011, and the amount of female emcees has dwindled to a mere fraction of what it used to be, with only one major commercial female emcee to speak of. Enter Nicki Minaj: a five-foot-three-inch, hyper-sexualized, self-proclaimed black Barbie doll, with a wild persona, over-the-top outfits, back-and-forth-between-orgasmic-and-schizophrenic facial expressions, and curves for days (measurements 34-26-45). The fact that she, with her many hypocritical facets- from interview stance, to rap content, to her physical image, remains the only face of the commercially exposed female emcee doesn’t exactly send a positive message. One has to wonder: how did this happen and why is this important to hip-hop and not only future female emcees, but also particularly to young women of color? Recounting the careers of various relevant female emcees, as well as changes in the criteria set forth by major record labels, it becomes apparent that when the societal obsession of hyper-sexualized imagery and capitalism are linked together with an influential art form such as hip-hop, it’s not only detrimental to the movement itself, but especially to young men and women of color as well.
Michael Benabib’s compilation hip-hop photos book entitled, In Ya Grill: The Faces of Hip-Hop, has an extremely tiny section warranted to female emcees, in which the introduction states, “There are times when the world of rap seems about as open to female participation as the Little Rascals’ He-Man-woman-haters-Club” (Benabib, 100). (How proper, considering the size of the section!) Going back to eighties hip-hop and the emergence of women on the scene, we can see through performers such as YoYo, MC Lyte, Salt n’ Pepa, Queen Latifah, and Roxanne Shante that being a female emcee was much more than presenting an image. It was about raw talent and earning respect from emcees all around the male-dominated industry. As Nikki D, the first female rapper signed to Def Jam, recalled in BET’s documentary “My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women & Hip-Hop,” “It wasn’t about sex appeal; it was about what’s gonna come out your mouth when you open it… really about your skill and how you spit and if you could hang with the big boys” (DuVernay). Roxanne Shante not only dissed UTFO to break onto the then-mainstream hip hop scene, but she built up a fan-base and earned respect for herself long before that by battling young males in the Queensbridge, New York projects where she grew up ( VIBE BOOKS, 22-23). Part of the appeal of the women in hip-hop during that time was that they were natural and real. Roxanne Shante spoke candidly about her early days, before glam squads and budgets for clothing, stating, “… if I had a show, I wore what I had on because at the end of the day, it was about talent” (DuVernay). How they looked wasn’t as important to them as being heard and being taken seriously, especially by the men around them.
During the late eighties and early nineties, hip-hop began to change. According to underground emcee Jean Grae, the hip-hop industry “allowed more diversity” as far as the types of female emcees that were around (DuVernay).
People became more accepting of female emcees, as reflected by the high numbers of women who began being heard through airwaves and seen on televisions across America. One of the changes was the newfound reliance on males to “escort” the female emcees into hip hop;...
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