In 2017 Princess Nokia dropped the following line: My little titties and my phat belly (That girl is a tomboy) which repeats in the chorus of the song ‘Tomboy’. That line shook me up. I never heard someone rapping about something that is not the stereotype of femininity. Listening to that song for the first time felt freeing, it gave me hope that society might be ready to step over stereotyped assumptions about being a woman and more crucially we are hearing it from a female voice in hip-hop, though she doesn’t specifically identify as female only.
I first heard the song in 2020. Apparently I was late to the game, because diving deeper into the subject it appeared there has been a soft rise of women in hip-hop. Although, it doesn’t particularly seem to be easy for them; having their gender pointed out all the time. I’m doing it too..
It’s time to talk about women in hip-hop again, but before we actually do, we have to learn about women’s history in hip-hop. Because, though it might surprise some, ‘we’ actually had a big part in it. I interviewed Kathy Iandoli, author of the book ‘God Save the Queens: Women of Hip-hop’. She shows the history of women in hip-hop, in which they took a surprisingly big part.
In your book, you argue ‘women were there from the beginning’. You mention many pioneering women of hip-hop such as Roxanne Shanté, but somehow they got forgotten and one could say masculinity took over. Several even say hip-hop traditionally is a ‘male world’. Could you tell me, in short, what happened?
“We’re talking about a time period since the birth of hip-hop in the ‘70s. Everybody was a young teenager, hip-hop was a very new and very young art form and women, indeed, were there from day one. They were there right down from the infamous party where DJ Kool Herc performed, which was actually thrown by his sister Cindy. So essentially, she is one of the main reasons we even have this art form, this beautiful culture, to begin with. But, women have obviously had to fight for their place there, even as teenagers.
Where did it start to change? It went from being hard to get in to hard to succeed, because in the early days there was no money involved. The competition aspect of hip-hop less became a contest of skill, and more a contest of ‘how can we create the least resistance to get to that money’. Women, unfortunately, kept being pushed back in the pursuit of men wanting to create money, fame, success and respect.”
When was that turning point in hip-hop history for women you seem to refer to?
“In the book, I mention Roxanne Shanté who basically won the MC battle for World Supremacy against Busy Bee in ‘85, but Kurtis Blow gave her an incredibly low score based upon judging another rap battle, which is why Roxanne Shanté lost that battle. If she wouldn’t have lost that battle, I believe she would have set a tone in hip-hop history that would have allowed for the growth of women in hip-hop at a more rapid phase. Losing that battle in ‘85 was something that kept women far behind for decades and decades. If she won, hip-hop would’ve been labelled a ‘female artform’, and who knows what would have happened then. Be that as it may, when something is pioneered by a woman it gets labelled ‘women-only’. Whilst, when something is pioneered by a man, it often is labelled as ‘male-driven’ instead of ‘male-only’.”
Is it still relevant to discuss the position of women in hip-hop?
“When you listen to the conversations that are happening, they are still separating women from the bunch. We are still in a world where people are discussing the top MCs, that are men. They sometimes just throw in women for ‘good measure’ and be like ‘I don’t care what people think, but this woman is great’. That disclaimer is not a necessary point to get your point across, but it is something that is brought up frequently. That alone is proof. that we are not anywhere where we need to be in the way of figuring out how women can be a part of hip-hop, in some ways dominate it, lead it, change it. We don’t even really have the ability to be part of the conversation on who is the greatest of all time.”
The world isn’t ready for women in hip-hop.
“The world is universally ready for a female-driven takeover. It is already happening, but there is always that side that is afraid of what happens when women become competition. That’s what it comes down to: as long as you’re not competing, you’re allowed to be in the race. When you start doing better and actually be a contender, that’s when they start to push back.”
How should women approach their gender in hip-hop? Is it something we should use, or is it something that shouldn’t even be relevant?
“That is a very complicated question. Talking about gender in a discussion of sexuality, and talking about sex is an entirely different part than, let’s say, talking about motherhood, or talking about being someone’s sister or someone’s daughter. Women are not monoliths, but multidimensional people who can talk about so many different aspects of being a woman. It just happens to be that despite this the negative that gets pulled out is always the discussions about sex positivity. You’re being told to either act like your gender doesn’t exist or play up your gender.”
Female sexuality is often used in lyrics by male rappers, often in an oppressing way. How do female rappers touch subjects like these? In the Netherlands we, for example, have this female rap duo named ‘Lionstorm’ that are turning the table, rapping about ‘their’ dicks and in that way making a statement about gender norms.
“It has been done in the early days already by Lil Kim, but nobody likes to see what happens when the tables have turned. Men want to be able to speak aggresively about sex with women, though once women speak aggresively about sex with men it becomes a problem. Or even speaking enthusiastically with pride about sex. Look no further than what’s going on with Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion on their song ‘WAP’. People are acting like it’s the first time they’ve heard about sex, because it’s two women who are proud talking about how they don’t want to be dissapointed in the bedroom. You can pick up the concept of ‘WAP’ and apply it to things that have been going on since 1986, and even earlier with Salt ‘n’ Peppa, but it’s just territory that men especially remain uncomfortable talking about.”
Is it a competition between men and women?
“There is always competition, especially when you are dealing with talented people; men or women. But now men are starting to realize that they begin to fall behind women in hip-hop. There were and still are so many women that are doing the thing that everyone says they wish women to do, but nobody wants to hear it. They don’t want to invest in the opportunity to listen”
Why don’t people want to invest in female hip-hop?
“That takes us right back to Roxanne Shanté vs. Busy Bee, to winning and to changing it all. If the greatest rapper of the moment is a woman, the misconception is that it is now a women’s-only art form. As long as they make sure there is not a woman at top, they can continue making it male-driven.”
Still, female hip-hop is a concept right now. Is there something like a subgenre that is female hip-hop and should we maybe create our own genre in that then?
“I hope not, that wouldn’t do anything. If you start separating by gender, then you’re putting women in even a smaller box than they’re already in. It’s hard enough to succeed in hip-hop as it is.”
Do you think women in hip-hop legitimized their position?
“I think they always have but now we have strength in numbers. There are so many women out there, they’re doing so well and are being so successful. I don’t want to say it’s easier, because it’s not, but theoretically it is easier to legitimize yourself when you have more women in the space and you can say ‘we are here and we are doing our thing’. But it’s all relative, I mean women are doing this for decades now. Someone else might think they’ve just started doing things.”
It is great to actually read about these women in hip-hop in your book. You mention a lot of names that I, and with me many others, wasn’t aware of. Seeing those names shows me that ‘Hip-Hop Evolution’, that series on Netflix, could’ve been about women in hip-hop.
“Hopefully that will come.”
Let’s get back to the song ‘Tomboy’ by Princess Nokia for a bit; My little titties and my phat belly (That girl is a tomboy). When I listened to the song again, I realized the song was more about having to emphasize being a ‘Tomboy’ against another woman during a catfight over a man, than just about being a ‘Tomboy’ and not having to make a statement about it. It made me wonder: Do I expect female rappers to be strong feminists in their lyrics? Or is it better for them not to, because we shouldn’t have to make statements?
The interview with Kathy showed to me that women took on a big part in the history of hip-hop, but she also tells me there is no right answer to the question. I am not satisfied with that, so we have to start the conversation again. This time with female rappers and let their voices be heard through other platforms than just their music; and take their professionally legitimized opinions seriously. Not because they are women, but because they are kicking ass.
Do you want to read more about the many women that took on an essential part in hip-hop history? Kathy Iandoli’s book ‘God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop’ can be purchased here.