Rap music originates from the Bronx in New York City where local black American teenagers, who struggled with unemployment, drug abuse and lack of resources to lead meaningful lives, found a voice through the music. The initial purpose of rap music was to express the living conditions of the black American teenage boys who survived through welfare and peddling drugs. Female rappers emerged in the early 1990s, a few years after the male dominated in the rap music industry (Collins 208). The global community perceives America’s culture as quite democratic and liberal but the rap music moguls have overwhelming power that contributes to the view of female rappers and black women in general. The domination of female rappers in the rap music industry meets constant resistance from black male population in the United States. Rap music performed by female artists should uplift the rights of women, encourage innovation, and contribute to black female unrestraint but it is not free from traditional stereotypes. This research will address the following question: how are the images and roles of female rappers portrayed in rap music industry in American culture?
Black American women incline to the name independent woman, an urban American slang meaning a woman who can pay her own bills in time, take care of her family, and develop high self-esteem without the help of a male member of the black community (Rose 147). The initial purpose of rap music has turned into a commercial industry where emphasis of rap message is on drugs, materialism, violence and misogyny. Female and male rappers differ in their rap messages but both genders cannot avoid objectifying women as sexual objects and men as the dominant species in the rap music industry. The purpose of this research is to learn about feminist’s discourse or dialogue in rap music in examining the identity of female rappers, image of African American women as portrayed in rap and music videos, and rap music as an occupation.
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1. The Images and Roles of Female Rappers Portrayed in Rap Music Industry in American Culture
Black female rappers contribute to the development of rap music, which is the dominant culture among African Americans. Rap music was male dominated, but female rappers grew from it. This implies that the male rappers acted as a stepping-stone for female rappers to enjoy rap music as a means of expressing black female oppression, poverty, and as a source of income. Professional female rappers introduce new messages and styles of displaying rap music to the wider community in the U.S. and globally. The power of female rappers started in the early 1990s with few artists such as Dana Owens (also known as Queen Latifah), Lil’ Kim, MC Lyte, Salt’N Pepa, Sista Soulja, Foxy Brown and Da Brat (Collins 208).
Female rappers are viewed differently in the rap music industry, but the contribution they direct towards the development of culture and music is undisputed. Pro-women lyricists defend the ghetto stories, which are real life reflections that draw attention to the elimination of racism, obscenity, and economic oppression among African Americans (Rose 147). There are two trends of female rappers since the late 1980s: those who assumed male roles and the new glamorous female rappers. The initial female rappers had to wear same clothes as male rappers, curse, and adopt a cruel mentality to be on the same level in the society as men. This role-playing was a result of male domination in rap music. Queen Mother was a category created for heroines who could take on male responsibilities, positions, and lead the family the same as the men in the community (Keyes 268). Queen Latifah, Queen Kenya and MC Lyte belong to this category, where they represented intelligent African American women. These female rappers voiced the oppression of black women in the American society, the plight of teenagers who lacked both education and jobs, and the effects of racism between the law enforcement order and Black community. All black women (rap fans and other women) regarded Queen Latifah as the role model who voiced women concerns in a male dominated society (Keyes 269).
Keyes defines a category of female rappers called fly girl represented by Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown and T.L.C (270). This category used sex as the base block of rap music where a female rapper had to wear fashionable clothing (short skirts, high-heeled shoes and sequined fabric), jewelry and cosmetics, and behave in an erotic manner. The male audiences in the rap music are inclined to female rappers who wear tight jeans and have voluptuous curves. Female rappers, who use feminine or sex image received widespread attention where they were viewed as sexual objects and this is still deliberately emphasized. Male rappers include nude or half-naked women in their music videos to objectify black women and to show that their main contribution to rap music industry is to satisfy the sexual desires of male audience and male rappers. Lil’ Kim succeeded in selling sex through her music and is standing on the same financial level as the male rappers (Forman & Neal 128). In her rap songs, Lil Kim lets her male and female audience know that wealth and fame can be achieved through rap music that focused on sex. Male rappers reserved and maintained wealth and fame for many years. Lil’ Kim shifted the power of male rappers, who were dominating in the rap music industry, through her erotic nature and lyrical content. The counter argument for Lil’ Kim’s portrayal of black women through erotic dressing, talking and behavior is that she continues to underline lack of self-ownership in female rappers. This trend continues to grow in contemporary female rappers, who diminish the stimulated role that rap music has traditionally changed the lives of black women in the American society (Forman & Neal 128). They further explain that contemporary female rappers invalidate their claims when they portray themselves as superwomen who do not exist in the real world; hence creating an image that cannot be achieved for women across the world.
2. Feminist’s Dialogue or Discourse in Rap Music Industry
The controversial appeal of African American female rappers originates from their messages and creative work in the rap music industry. History of rap music shows two typical female rappers: the rapper who takes up the roles of male rappers and the erotic black women. In the 1980s, few black female rappers emerged who played in a sexist arena, but there was the promotion of strong female rappers who are independent (Moody 43). Female rappers who were powerful in a male dominated industry sparked heated social discussions concerning their sexual orientation. Male audiences and artists did not believe in the strength of a black woman. In contrast, female rappers in the early 1990s instigated insults to each other because of beauty, fame and wealth than turning the indifference to their male counterparts (Keyes 270). Such behavior among female rappers contributed to promotion of a negative image of female rapper or black women at large. The role of female rappers in the music industries is to appeal to both male and female audience, but the most important target is black women. According to Shirea Carroll who is a writer for Essence Magazine, female rappers consider female audience as their biggest fans and worst critics (2011). The female audiences create a big fan-base when they can identify with the female rappers concerning normal issues affecting women, but they turn into critics when the same female rappers insult or threaten each other through their rap discourse. The only way to gain a strategic position through popularity and respect in the rap music industry is to avoid degrading other female rappers. These trends of female rappers composing an album to insult and threaten other female rappers continued as from the 1980s to the 1990s. Contemporary female rappers change messages of their songs to depict a mentality of richness, material possessions and glamour (Collins 208). Female rap artists forget the main origin of rap music, which voiced the economic oppression of the ghettos, demanded for equality between men and women, and, lastly, taught teenagers how to treat each other with respect.
The rap music in the modern society is polluted with cheap content about violence, sex and fame, which implies that most female rappers in the contemporary society are more interested in the commercial purpose of rap music (Fernandez 2011). The female rappers forget society values and their previous hardships in the ghettos before they gained the fame, wealth and popularity. The fundamental concern for female rappers joining the rap music industry is to make money through concerts, sales of albums and endorsements regardless of the ideas, moral aspects and messages they convey to audiences as young as five years old through their music and image.
3. The Identity of Female Rappers
The uniqueness of female rappers is due to their ability to conquer a male dominated industry in music as a career and business (Davis 2011). Female rappers create a platform where all the issues affecting women in a male dominated society are voiced, and they use their feminine discourse to portray an independent, beautiful and hardworking member of the society. In studying the identity of female rappers, the negative attribute springs into focus. The fly girl and sister with attitude categories represent black female rappers who use erotic words, gestures and clothing or aggressive language in their rap music (Keyes 170). Some female rappers merge both fly girl and sister with attitude in their rap music. Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown use erotic and aggressiveness derived from the hoodlum attitude where men brag about how they sexually exploit black women, engage in wild drinking sprees, binges, and brush shoulders with the police department (white power). The female rappers boast about smoking marijuana with the men, seduction, sexually undermining male rappers, repression, and insulting both male and female competitors (Davis 2011).
4. Image of African American Women as Portrayed in Rap and Music Videos
Male rappers objectify black women in their rap music videos, but female rappers promote the effects of the sexual image and exploitation of sexuality by claiming to possess skills in rhymes that are concealed behind pornographic images, videos and talk (Shirea 2011). Black women portrayed in rap music videos show illiterate, erotic and immature women who objectify themselves to seduce the male audience in their community. All female rappers began the rap music at an early age, which shows their lack of consciousness in their mission as role models. At a young age, these female rappers were dependent on their male mentors, who advised them to create an exaggerated sexuality that the target audience expected from black women in America.
As teenagers, black female rappers entertained their target audience for the sake of the fame and wealth (Pyatak & Muccitelli 4). They did not focus on the negative image they have created through their rap music, or the way they neglected womanist ideology. Female rappers did not realize the opportunity they had while conveying their message through rap music. They had the platform to change stereotypical views of black women in America by the public but they reinforced the undesirable image falsely observed by vast majority of male and female audience as typical and traditional for African American women. Contemporary female rappers choose a different discourse, which has the same effect as the previous generation. Music videos portray black women as aggressive women who brag about fame, wealth and superficial beauty. The effects of these feminist’s discourse contributes to the widespread change in character and lifestyle of women across the world in trying to live up to the standards of the images portrayed by female rap artists.
5. Rap Music as an Occupation
Rap music became commercially viable when White-owned record companies realized that rap music presented a financial opportunity. Initial rap music contained harsh language but it was diluted with profitable success of female artists such as Queen Latifah and MC Lyte, and other male rappers who refrained from resistive and offensive language (Salazar 2011). Music promoters who viewed African American music as a commercial success responded to the new non-threatening rap music from both male and female artists by staging successful concerts, creating a slot on MTV for rappers, and further improving the popularity of rap music among mainstream audiences (Pyatak & Muccitelli 5). This distanced the music from the African American community in which rap music began. In the contemporary society, rap music is corroded with foul language, erotic videos and violence images while other videos show how rappers use drugs, violate women sexually, and brag about their fame and wealth (Shirea 2011). The rap music industry lacks moral values but it receives a worldwide audience because sexual depictions attract vast majority.
Results Analysis and Discussion
The rap music videos above show how female rappers refer to themselves as “Bitches”, wealthy, erotic and independent. The male rappers use women as sexual objects in their videos to satisfy their desire and attract a wider target group of male and female audiences. Trina, Nicki-Minaj, and Rasheeda portray a black woman who uses her sexuality to seduce male counterparts in a degrading manner through provocative dance. They also portray the new black woman who is beautiful and can jostle both work and family without the help of men. Yo Gotti is a male rapper who refers to a refined black woman as a “5-star Bitch”. Although, he upgrades the contemporary black woman and uses foul language to show that she might be rich, beautiful and erotic, but she is still less than a human being.
Rap music originated from the oppressed teenage boys who lived in harsh conditions under the white power in New York City. Males have dominated in the rap music industry, but female rappers emerged in time to be bombarded with stiff resistance and competition. The female rappers assumed the roles of men by wearing men’s clothes, talking harshly and ignoring their feminine side to fit into a male dominated industry. The image and role of female rappers continued to change into provocative and immature characters. Male rappers bragged about sexual exploitation of black women due to the image portrayed by the female rappers in representing African American women. The values of the black community changed with time as female rappers use erogenous dance, pornographic lyrics and valueless music to exploit audiences. Female rappers in the contemporary society forgot the core values of rap music, which voiced the concerns of the society, empowered women, and restored equality.