In as much as Hip Hop as a culture and rap as a musical genre are highly misogynistic, the term “Hip Hop Feminism” may seem more a paradox than anything else. In his article “Re: Definitions: The Name and Game of Hip Hop Feminism,” Hip Hop feminist Michael Jeffries begins his attempt to conceptualize a Hip Hop feminism and a Hip Hop feminist agenda with the following preface: “In hip hop culture, women’s collective and individual performance or criticism is not feminist by nature; only if performers act with the goal of challenging male domination are they practicing feminism” (Jeffries, 215) [emphasis added].
What does it mean to “challenge” male dominance? How do these challenges take shape in a rap genre where the women act like men in order to grant themselves agency as women? In light of the intense focus on sexual politics, where does one draw the line between sexual liberation and sexual exploitation?
As Hip Hop scholar Gwendolyn D. Pough theorizes, Black women participants in Hip-Hop culture “bring wreck to the patriarchy” and “disrupt dominant masculine discourses” in part by remixing (male) rap(pers’) songs. As a rhetorical practice, the remix is a convention of rap music which allows rappers to Signify on, or revise one another’s songs.* Typically, unsigned artists (or artists at the outset of their career), such as Nicki Minaj, make their musical debut by releasing mixtapes. Unlike official albums, mixtapes often consist of remixes of other artists’ songs. Essentially, a remix is a recreation or remake (get it, “re-mix?”) of an original song and a mixtape is a compilation of these remixes.
By remixing male rappers’ songs, female rappers are able to inject and inflect feminine discourse into dominant masculine discourse. However, as Jeffries states, there is a distinct difference between feminine discourse and feminist discourse.
Simply because female rappers are Signifying on the male rap narrative does not necessarily mean that they are disrupting the patriarchy. On the contrary, given the restrictive conventions of the rap genre- which force female artists to straddle identities of heterosexist sexiness and simultaneous masculinity-as much potential as there is for female empowerment in hardcore rap through women rappers’ Signification on the male narrative, its full potential is rarely ever realized.
Female rappers, or femcees, operate as performers of gender and are most harshly judged by an injurious rubric of masculinity. These women are forced to negotiate “androgynous” identities as visually feminine, yet rhetorically masculine artists. A self-identified feminist and pioneer of hardcore female rap, Lil Kim, through her sexually explicit lyrics and calculated inversion of gender paradigms via exaggerated performances of masculinity, has led a virtual sexual revolution in Hip Hop.
Although this sex-positive revolution claims to be “feminist” in theory, there are many aspects of its ideology that are disempowering to women. Given that women rappers are expected to be rhetorically masculine, hardcore female rap grants women limited agency within Hip Hop and debilitates female rappers’ feminist attempts. While there are infinite opportunities for female empowerment in Hip Hop through femcees’ embrace of the erotic, (this is to say that the problem lies in the masculinization of the female narrative, not necessarily its sex-positive approach) female rappers’ feminist leanings are often severely undermined by their own pseudo-masculinity. This pseudo-masculinity is exemplified by “Queen Bitch” of rap Lil Kim’s bold assertion of her ambivalent gendered identity as a “female king” (Little Drummer Boy; Notorious K.I.M.).
Having made her debut by referencing Lil Kim’s hypersexual and sexually promiscuous image via the infamous open-crotched pose, Nicki implicitly aligns herself with a sexual and gender politic which purports to be feminist in nature, yet presents a rather regressive portrait of female empowerment. I say this not to discredit nor undermine Lil Kim’s position as a feminist, but rather to concede that while feminism does in fact exist in Hip Hop, within the context of hardcore female rap it is routinely bastardized and assumes a rather perverse form.
Although in contemporary Hip Hop, especially within the female narrative, hardcore rap is a dominant force, this was not always the case. Historically, there have existed several subject positions represented by and representative of women in Hip Hop. In her article “Empowering Self, Making Choices, Creating Spaces: Black Female Identity via Rap Performance,” Cheryl L. Keyes theorizes about several key subject positions: Queen Mother, Fly Girl, Sista with Attitude and Bad Girl, and their respective female subjectivities as observed in mainstream female rap. Performing masculinity, inverting gender paradigms, combining the “hardcore” elements of masculinity with the eroticism of female sexuality, maintaining a hypersexual and sexually appealing image, all the while lauding female promiscuity and self-objectification as means of erotic empowerment: the Bad Girl reigns supreme in contemporary Hip Hop. Primarily concerned with sexual politics and sexual power, the Bad Girl, through performance(s) of gender, attempts to empower herself as a woman by acting like a man. Essentially, the Bad Girl redefines womanhood and women’s empowerment in exclusively masculine terms.
Since Lil Kim’s debut in the late 1990s, this form of rap, which combines masculine hardcore lyrics with female eroticism, has dominated mainstream Hip Hop. This has ultimately led to a decrease in diverse images, portrayals and representations of Black womanhood and Black women’s roles in the culture at large. In previous decades different forms and styles coexisted and subject positions were represented simultaneously: “rap’s profile in popular music [was] broader during this period [late 1980s and early 1990s] and a range of music categories [had] developed (including pop, Afrocentric, sexually explicit ‘booty’ rap…message rap, and gangsta rap…as well as mack/player rap…)” (Muhammad 124).
In contemporary Hip Hop, however, the culture has become so oversaturated with the hardcore, gangsta and hypersexualized images and politics of hardcore female artists that the Bad Girl subject position has become largely normative.
The Bad Girl motif virtually birthed hardcore female rap, whose foundational crux is the imitation of the hardcore (male) rap genre; the hardcore female rapper is the female counterpart of the hardcore male rapper. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Nicki Minaj, and femcees in general, define themselves in masculine terms and assert their power and agency through their performances of masculinity.
*Signifyin(g), as defined by Henry Louis Gates, is “the practice of formal revision and intertextual relation between texts and refers to ‘the manner in which texts…address their antecedents. Repetition, with a signal difference, is fundamental to the nature of Signifyin(g)’” (Gates, 1998:51; ctd. in Schumacher 451).