Their Mics Still Sound Nice

BET Puts Ladies First

by Quentin B. Huff

14 October 2010

Nicki Minaj - still from BET 

According to the insiders and rappers themselves, there are many factors involved in the near extinction of female rappers from the post-2000 mainstream music scene. The reasons range from fiscal to social, although this range is actually kind of narrow since there aren’t any connections being made between female emcees and circumstances taking place outside of hip-hop. For example, we are all willing to ponder the influence male rappers have on negative social attitudes towards women, but we don’t consider the impact of, say, the accusations of sexual harassment leveled at United States Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991. Not to mention Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone starring in the controversial but commercially successful film Basic Instinct in 1992. Basic Instinct caused quite a stir over its depictions of sexuality and violence.

Events that occur in the dominant society tend to influence the attitudes and behaviors of participants in the smaller cultural context. The tension here is negotiating the proper balance between tying hip-hop’s analysis too close to its own happenings versus making connections from the outside that run the risk of being so tenuous as to amount to conjecture.

Nowadays, if you think a female rapper is dope, you can at least hook a sista up with a supportive tweet.

There are, however, a few things we can take to the bank. It’s ridiculous to argue with Nikki D’s assertion that sexism (“It’s a man’s world, straight up”) plays a crucial role in the careers of female artists. You’d have to be living on another planet to argue that sex appeal isn’t a component of the commercial retail formula, and even then there’s no excuse for not using a telescope.

There are assertions such as these in My Mic Sounds Nice that, while they may very well be true, are nevertheless worthy of our concern. In fact, we should be most alarmed if they are true. Their existence alone should call us to action, should force us to realize that somewhere along the way, we should have borne some responsibility to shape hip-hop into what we always claimed we wanted it to be. There are three such assertions in the documentary.

First, with respect to the sexually explicit imagery introduced by Lil Kim, the argument is made that Kim is the ultimate male fantasy. The idea is that she’s sexually obtainable and the man who obtains her can dominate her and “rule with an iron fist”. Later, Trina asserts that men are willing to listen to a woman rap as long as the woman looks good, first and foremost. Having something important to say is secondary at best, but most likely irrelevant.

Is this true? Must the ultimate fantasy woman be a supplicant, a hypersexual puppet ready to meet her man’s every whim? I’d like to think men are a little more complex than that—and yesteryear’s near-universal popularity of Lauryn Hill hopefully bears this out—but I have a feeling I’m wishing more than I’m observing. If it’s not true, then we (in this case “men”) need to speak up, as listeners and consumers. If we want to listen to ladies who display lyrical dexterity, then those are the artists we need to publicize and support. If it is true, that we’d rather hear a woman who looks good but doesn’t have a whole lot to say, then that’s exactly the type of hip-hop we’re going to get. We shouldn’t be surprised by it. 

It’s sort of like the sample in Public Enemy’s song “Revolutionary Generation” that quotes Mary McLeod Bethune as saying, “The true worth of a race must be measured by the character of its womanhood.” More to the point, it also reminds me of the scene in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged when character Francisco D’Anconia is asked to explain why he created the illusion that he is a careless, shameless playboy and he declares, “Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life. Show me the woman he sleeps with and I will tell you his valuation of himself.” Under that view, what does it say about us—hetero male hip-hop enthusiasts—if we are saying we are more attracted to the female artist who says nothing but tries to look alluring than the artist who focuses primarily on lyrical substance?

Sexuality, it seems, became the new entryway into a hip-hop career in the post-Kim/Foxy rap world. In the past, female rappers mainly came into the spotlight either via a male-dominated crew or with the validation of a male counterpart. Jermaine Dupri points out that the latter strategy was employed with Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor’s tutelage of Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Dupri’s own work with Da Brat, Notorious B.I.G.‘s relationship with Lil Kim, and Nicki Minaj being a “female version of Lil Wayne” (Dupri’s words, not mine).

There’s some truth to this, although I think the bigger picture demonstrates Nikki D’s point that rap is dominated by men. Under those conditions, the person who is in the best position to do any “validating” is likely to be male. Here again, that’s where we, as the audience, need to speak up, which is much easier to do these days than it used to be. Before, our main method of agreement or dissent was through our purchasing power. 

I guess the documentary wasn’t supposed to say this, seeing as how BET would be airing it, but networks like BET probably could have done a better job of balancing some of this imagery. Not censoring it, or ignoring it, but balancing it with a diverse array of female artists. In any event, nowadays, if you think a female rapper is dope, you can at least hook a sista up with a supportive tweet.

Piggybacking the sexuality issue, rapper Yo-Yo confesses her struggle to find her comfort zone in the aftermath of the “hip-hop sexual revolution” sparked by Foxy and Kim. She talks about how she wondered if she should add provocative elements to keep up with the times, and it seems she worried about losing the integrity of her voice. This, to me, was the most sincere comment of the entire piece, a fascinating yet heartbreaking glimpse at an artist searching for the best way to present her craft to the public. 

This puts her work in a different light, so that her most recognizable tune “You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo” isn’t just clever wordplay on her stage name. It, and much of her discography, is about trying to balance sensuality with the need to be taken seriously. Is it possible to do both? Again, Lauryn Hill’s name frequently pops up as an example of how to do it, and do it right, but how many people are as talented as Lauryn Hill? At her peak, she was a better emcee than most of the men in the business, yet it seems men have always had a tad more leeway to express the gentler insides to their rugged exteriors. I mean, I like Young Jeezy as much as the rest of y’all, but he’s no Lauryn Hill. C’mon.

In the meantime, whose fault is it that Yo-Yo and other female rappers were encouraged to tilt their styles toward Lil Kim’s end of the sexual spectrum? Insecure artists? Record execs looking to capitalize on an emerging trend? Fickle fans? Good questions.

Finally, the discussion of Nicki Minaj as the future of hip-hop puts the problem in context. The documentary notes that writers and editors haven’t quite decided how to deal with Minaj, in much the same way that the overall problem in the documentary consists of identifying a place for females in hip-hop—a room of one’s own, to borrow from Virginia Woolf.

I still maintain that the impulse to pit women against other women, to crown a Queen and declare her the reigning face of female rap, does us all a disservice. When we succumb to it, our search for the next big thing eclipses the others out there who would seek to entertain and enlighten us. Along these lines, My Mic Sounds Nice gives major props to the underground as a haven for talented and savvy emcees, name checking the likes of Jean Grae, Invincible, Eternia, Tiye Phoenix, and Bahamadia. As far as Nicki Minaj is concerned, the good news is that our desire to hail her as the poster child for the female emcee shows that we’re at least hopeful about the future. “[Female emcees] are not dinosaurs,” Missy Elliott declares. “We are not going anywhere.” 

Let’s hope she’s right. In the meantime, have a listen to some albums released in 2010 by female hip-hop artists, like Dessa’s A Badly Broken Code, Eternia & Moss’ At Last, Rah Digga’s Classic, and Boog Brown & Apollo Brown’s Brown Study.

 

 

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