The Revival: A Declaration for Female Emcees

The Scenario

Ask fans to list the things they’d like to improve about hip-hop, and you’re likely to hear answers raising a wide range of issues. Among them is undoubtedly the concern that female emcees, or “femcees” for short, have become something of an endangered species around these parts. Reports that the “femcee” is extinct are somewhat exaggerated, considering that there are working females in the biz today. Problem is, they aren’t enjoying the publicity or the success, either critical or commercial, of their male counterparts.

This, of course, assumes that the females in the game actually want or need this type of publicity or success. More to the point, “mainstream” attention, whether on a national or international scale, might not always be the great opportunity it’s made out to be, especially if courting the “mainstream” involves exchanging artistry for album sales and product placement. That’s a rather cynical view of things, isn’t it? Let’s hope nobody is in favor of that distribution model.

However, it’s probably safe to say that the female rappers and deejays enjoyed a higher profile in the ’80s and ’90s than they are enjoying today. There once was a time when the ladies of hip-hop were making their voices heard and, to the fullest extent possible in our male-dominated society and industry, they were demanding membership in the de facto hip-hop boys’ club.

Juice Crew member Roxanne Shante put the boys in their places with songs like “Brothas ain’t sh*t”. Meanwhile, Queen Latifah and Monie Love, in “Ladies First”, urged the sistas to take their rightful places in the world. Just so you know, Queen Latifah might have gone Hollywood to add height to her paper stacks, and she might have done a couple of jazz-oriented singing albums, but she isn’t gone from hip-hop for good. In 2009, she released Persona. Sure, the album could have been a bit more rap-centric, and less pop (I still say Pink would have made great use of this material), but I actually liked it once I got over my preconceptions about the type of music she ought to be making.

At any rate, no rundown of the past would be complete without mentioning how Salt ‘N’ Pepa sported sassiness and sensuality (“Push It”, “I’ll Take Your Man”) but did so with a sense of empowerment (see “Independent”, recorded years before the Destiny’s Child tune of a similar name). They also stressed the role of social and personal responsibility, particularly in terms of the consequences involved when people aren’t honest and diligent in their dealings with one another (“Chick on the Side”, “Let’s Talk About Sex”, “Heaven & Hell”).

MC Lyte blazed a significant lyrical and conceptual path, as her albums explored urban renewal, love and relationships, drug use, disease, partying, and plain ol’ battling. Lyte set herself apart from others, whether male or female, because she is known for writing her own lyrics. She even boasted as much in her classic track “10% Dis”, saying, “Others write your rhymes, while I write my own / I don’t create a character when I’m on the microphone”. Antionette, the rapper to whom many of MC Lyte’s battle raps were addressed, was also dope.

Although Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown were frequently derided for their sexually charged lyrics and performances, it’s worth noting that they, like most female rappers, were the lone wonder women of their otherwise all-male crews. Lil Kim made her way as the Mae West of the Notorious B.I.G.’s Junior M.a.f.i.a. clique, while Foxy Brown was the ride-or-die sista for the Firm. Kim and Foxy were, for better or worse, able to take male-centered raunchiness, reload it, and shoot it right back at the fellas. It is significant that these women had skills on the microphone in addition to their risqué imagery.

This is only a hint of what hip-hop had to offer from its female emcees. Suffice it to say, times were better for lady lyricists back then.

The Factors

Things are different in the 21st century, with female rappers still making music and female deejays still spinning records, but with their activities pushed to the periphery. It’s difficult to unravel this turn of events, and probably impossible to pinpoint the fork-in-the-road moment that brought us to our current predicament. Perhaps it’s an amalgam of factors, any combination of which could have caused the decline of hip-hop’s already tenuous relationship with female performers and listeners.

Two of these factors, “presence” and “climate”, are important to our discussion. The first one, which I’m calling “presence”, refers to my rather obvious theory that the spotlight shifted away from female rappers when key figures stepped away from the music business or took their talents toward the underground and/or the do-it-yourself aesthetic. Occasionally, as is the case with an artist like Queen Latifah and, to a lesser extent, MC Lyte and Eve, the acting bug strikes and our otherwise avid female hip-hoppers take a shot at what Hollywood has to offer.

As a result, we’ve lost unique voices that are difficult to replace. Imagine, for instance, how awesome it would be to have Lauryn Hill making records again on a consistent basis. While her solo album, The Miseducation of the Lauryn Hill, is often treated by critics and fans as a hip-hop album, it relies on Ms. Hill’s R&B sensibilities than her tremendous rap skills. I’m still of the opinion that she had the potential to out-rhyme nearly any contender, male or female but, unfortunately, as we’ve all lamented many times before, we haven’t been able to get much more from her.

Quite a shame, really, because in this era of the R&B-rap hybrid — which would include rappers on Auto-tune — Lauryn Hill could really be racking up the victories. All of the glowing things Talib Kweli said in his “Ms. Hill” song — about Lauryn Hill’s talent, charisma, and impact on the self-esteem of young girls — are still relevant.

At the same time, let’s say we did have Lauryn Hill on the scene. What about the grimier, gangsta side of rap? Lauryn Hill was never a fixture in the hardcore arena. Back in the day, we had other rappers for that, and Boss is one of the best examples. Boss, which was Lichelle Laws along with her cohort simply named Dee, released 1992’s Born Gangstaz, a rough and rugged concoction of supremely formidable rhymes coupled with funky production from Def Jef, Erick Sermon, AMG, and MC Serch. Boss’ voice was commanding, and it boomed through your system with the type of authority that served Chuck D and KRS-One so well. Born Gangstaz is not just a great album by a female rapper. It’s a great album, period, if you enjoy tales from the hardcore side.

A couple of cool things about Born Gangstaz. First, there are the telephone messages that bookend the album, in which Boss’ parents disclose that Lichelle Laws isn’t a total gangsta. She had attended 12 years of Catholic school, taken piano and dance lessons, and attended three years of college.

Second is the song “Recipe of a Hoe”, in which Boss attacks the lack of chastity and loyalty of men to the point of making Brand Nubian’s “Slow Down” (about a woman who is a “sick, mixed up individual” at best) sound like a tribute to sexual freedom (it’s so not). In “Recipe of a Hoe”, Boss takes the playboys down a peg, saying that the men who brag the most “ain’t even bulgin’ up under them belts”.

On the LP version, she proceeds to get increasingly rowdy about men and their wayward habits, echoing the sentiments of Roxanne Shante’s tune “Brothas Ain’t Sh*t”. “You fake ass wanna be a pimp mother*cka,” Boss sneers.”You heard me right, brotha, this b*tch here don’t stutter”. Tough luck in the industry, along with health problems, put Boss on the sidelines. These days, balance should be the watchword in hip-hop, especially when it comes to subject matter, and a vital component is lost when rappers like Boss are out of the mix.

The other factor, “climate”, is probably easier to see with the benefit of hindsight. Here, the idea is that the more hip-hop’s general worldview veered away from inclusion, the easier it was for the culture to tolerate, and become indifferent to, the decline in visibility of our female rappers. Specifically, with the “bling”-era materialism and commercialism of the ’90s taking the place of what was once an Afro-centric movement, hip-hop became less concerned with its African and Nubian queens and more concerned with “honeys” and “dime pieces”.

That change in focus was accompanied by a shift in global perspective. Where hip-hop in the United States had once been concerned with international issues such as Apartheid in South Africa, the overall post-9/11 view tended to be isolationistic. Before news and attention had, rightly, turned to lending aid to Haiti in 2010, hip-hop had already cycled away from dead prez’s “I’m an African” and was on its way to the localized allegiances expressed in Jay-Z’s “New York State of Mind”. With US hip-hop fragmented between “us” and “them” in terms of “mainstream versus underground” and “home versus overseas”, it’s possible that the disappearance of our female emcees slid right by us. Or that’s my theory at least.

I’m almost tempted to pinpoint 1995 as a pivotal year in this, if only symbolically. That year, Naughty By Nature released Poverty’s Paradise. That album ended with the song “Connections” in which front man Treach introduces a female emcee to the track, saying, “I put this on everything I love, man. It’s real sneaky. Sistahood. Females sneak up in here and come through.”

With Treach vouching for the female in question, Kandi Kain, she proceeds to rip the track to its finish. By contrast, that same year LL Cool J released Mr. Smith, which contained the album closing “I Shot Ya” remix. In this song, a posse track, young Foxy Brown takes her place alongside Keith Murray, Fat Joe, and Prodigy with a noteworthy appearance, only to have LL himself end the song with a verse about his ability to battle anybody in the rap game, along with the taunt, “Name the spot, I make it hot for you b*tches / Female rappers too, I don’t give a f*ck, Boo.”

I always thought that part undermined Foxy’s appearance in the song. I mean, how are you gonna have a sista show up for a song and then you record a verse where you’re going into verbal battle mode against women? And with that condescending “Boo” tacked on for good measure! Considering LL’s history for making songs to woo the ladies in his fan base (I think Canibus joked that 99 percent of LL Cool J’s fans wear high heels), it might not have been intentionally disrespectful.

Maybe it was just careless. I’ve come to associate these two songs with a paradigm shift, from males making room for the females (as in “Connections”) to males being indifferent to the female presence (as in LL’s subliminal salvo in “I Shot Ya”). In 1996, the debuts of Lil Kim and Foxy Brown upped the ante on sexual imagery and became associated with a much more explicit way for female rappers to relate to the culture.

Whatever the details, we can agree that something needs to be done about getting more exposure for lady rappers. We need a plan for getting this accomplished.

A Declaration for Female Emcees

I propose a change in mindset. Instead of thinking that all we have to do is find The Next Top Femcee, some lone female rap assassin who will carry the entire gender on her shoulders, hip-hop’s outlook should be long range and comprehensive. It’s going to take more than hoping that Jean Grae finally releases the album that brings her the name recognition she truly deserves, and more than acknowledging the innovations of Missy Elliott. It’s bigger than supporting a single artist who enjoys a moment in the spotlight.

Hip-hop needs a women’s movement. Maybe it would need to be sparked by something like the Seneca Falls Convention way back in 1848. Now that’s old school. Of course, no one was rapping at the Convention, but speakers stepped to the mic to address issues that were important to women on social, legal, and religious grounds. The brains and motivators behind the Convention — Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martha Wright, Mary Ann McClintock, and Jane Hunt — unveiled the Declaration of Sentiments at the event.

The Declaration of Sentiments used the Declaration of Independence as its structural model (in hip-hop we call that “sampling”), and it affirmed the natural rights of women and outlined the “history of injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” That’s awesome, right?

Photo (partial) from Seneca Falls archives

Well, as I advocate something along these lines for a women’s movement in hip-hop, it’s possible that the foundation has already been laid. A manifesto of sorts could be developed from The Revival, a brief documentary directed by rapper Invincible that features footage of the all-female We B Girlz hip-hop tour.

The title emanates from emcee Bahamadia’s statement in the film that the tour was designed to do more than entertain. It was meant to “get the word out about what we do through the podium of live performance.” The film likens the tour to a church revival, and compares to the hip-hop performances to “ministering”. The title might also imply that there should be a revival in female participation and stature in hip-hop.

The Revival spotlights five spirited, intelligent, and talented rappers: Invincible of Detroit, Michigan; Canadian emcee Eternia; Stacy Epps of Atlanta, Georgia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s Bahamadia; and New York’s Roxanne Shante) along with a dynamic deejay (Shortee of Los Angeles, California). The documentary captures the first ever meeting between industry veteran Bahamadia and the legendary Roxanne Shante, and it addresses a few of the concerns shared by women in hip-hop. By interviewing the women who took part in the tour and getting their feedback, The Revival gives us ideas for boosting the profile of female rappers and deejays, a few of which I’ve outlined below.

1. Female artists should support each other.

The Revival emphasizes the need for female musicians to be supportive of each other. Bahamadia notes the external distractions that keep women separated from each other, such as men using controlling and divisive tactics “in the background.” On the intimate and internal side, Roxanne Shante reveals that she had never been on an all-female tour, and she found it an eye-opening and rewarding experience. In the past, she says, she had not always been supportive of other females, but had become more supportive as she has matured.

There are many ways to show and give support. The Revival demonstrates that one of the most profound ways to do so is for women to share their lessons and experiences with one another. As they traveled together, the documentary gives the impression that these artists bonded as women and also as artists sharing a love for their craft. Also, it is encouraging to see that although Roxanne Shante is deserving of legendary status, she comes across as being open to learning new things from the younger emcees on the tour.

2. Female rappers should strive for self-identification.

An intriguing issue in The Revival concerns artistic freedom and identity. In the short film, the artists are adamant about not wanting to be known simply as “female rappers”. They want to be “rappers” and “emcees”, plain and simple, perhaps not without complete regard to gender, but definitely with the understanding that their appeal goes beyond the supposed novelty of being female.

At first, I was like, “What’s wrong with standing out because you’re female? You’re on an all-female tour.” That response, I think, comes from a certain male privilege. It’s easy to point out that these artists are participating in an all-female tour while also ignoring the adverse conditions for females in hip-hop that make such a tour a necessity. It’s also easy to say, “Well, being female helps you standout,” but when you think about it, is it really such a compliment to have your gender trotted out as a selling point?

In this context, gender, which is a relatively obvious descriptor for an artist (unless androgyny is part of the persona), gets treated as the attraction rather than the art itself. Women rappers are thereby seen but not heard, spotlighted but silenced.

Women in hip-hop, then, are working toward being identified on their own terms and through the categories that they create for themselves. This requires a delicate balance because, on the one hand, we want to acknowledge the need for gender equity but, on the other, we want to make sure people are focused on the music. Hip-hop fans and critics can be helpful here by avoiding quick comparisons between female emcees. When we only compare female rappers to each other, we give the impression that women can only compete against each other, and can’t compete with the fellas.

3. Touring is the Lifeblood of the Movement

Pigeonholing women as “female rappers” instead of locating them as “artists” and “emcees” is a point well taken. At the same time, the idea of an all-female tour is kind of awesome. What better way to get the word out to the people that female rappers and deejays are on the scene?

Sweeter than the publicity aspect is the amount of coordination and organizing that has to take place to pull off a tour like this. I don’t know if there needs to be a hip-hop version of Lillith Fair, but it’s the touring aspect of The Revival that gives the documentary its edge and urgency. Honestly, without the fact that these artists were touring together, the significance of their interaction would be diminished. It’s one thing to get together and talk about doing big things. It’s a greater thing to talk about doing big things while you’re in the middle of doing something big!

Another facet of The Revival brings us right back to the issue of female-to-female support. Invincible remarks that this tour had brought things full circle. There was a time, she says, when Bahamadia would always bring femcees up to the stage to perform during her shows. She had done this with Invincible. Following Bahamadia’s example, Invincible would in turn bring talented ladies to the stage during her shows, and she did this with Stacy Epps. Eventually, Stacy Epps brought Invincible and Bahamadia together for the tour that became the subject of the documentary.

I understand if you think the story is a little soft and sweet (I think it’s mad cool, actually), but it makes an excellent point about the intersection between artists supporting each other and having venues available to facilitate such support. Add to that the potential for new revenue streams to be collected from these tours, including merchandise, and it’s clearly high time for the ladies to get entrepreneurial with this idea so they can expand its frequency and reach.

4. Females Should Showcase Their Variety and Diverse Content

In The Revival, Roxanne Shante makes it known that she and the other performers are bringing more than a single act. It’s an entire evening, an experience designed for the wide variety of tastes among the hip-hop audience. Fans looking for engaging flows peppered with social commentary would enjoy Invincible, especially performances of her selections from 2008’s Shapeshifters.

Those looking for a sophisticated cadence and smart wordplay can get what they need from Bahamadia. Canadian emcee Eternia and Atlanta, Georgia’s Stacy Epps bring even more variety to the table while Roxanne Shante definitely holds down the old school end of the genre. Also, Shante is not afraid to go for the jugular as far as hardcore and explicit lyricism is concerned. The bottom line is that a wide range of expression attracts a wider audience.

From this, female emcees can deepen the impact of their various styles and messages by honing in on their vibe as a whole. Instead of focusing on one aspect of the performance, be it lyrics or choreography or delivery, it might be advantageous to think of the entire persona as a package. This would mean more attention to detail, in some cases, but also more concept-driven songs and albums. This way, it’s not simply a matter of flipping the script on male rappers and proving that women can play the game as well as the guys. It’s also about playing the game with a unique and personal strategy and vantage point.

All of this probably seems counterintuitive, given the current focus on singles and instant downloading, but we’re talking about a movement here. As such, the philosophy behind it should be comprehensive and aggressive.

5. Female Rappers Must Co-Sign and Collaborate.

Bahamadia and Roxanne Shante gave The Revival a co-sign, that touch of credibility that comes with being anointed by someone with insider status. Males in the industry do it all the time, giving each other props and declaring that their newest discovery meets a certain quality standard. It would be great to see this happen as often among the females.

However, that assumes there is a critical mass of female emcees with the necessary clout to create buzz around new acts. We don’t seem to be at that point yet. In the meantime, the congenial collaboration evidenced in The Revival might be feasible. Not only should female rappers offer guest spots to other females, they should use female deejays and producers whenever possible. Mixtapes and compilation releases would be a good start as well.

Along these lines, it would be helpful if R&B artists, many of which regularly use cameos from male rappers, would enlist the services of female emcees. Male rappers have collaborated with female rappers in the past but, again, we’re talking about a support structure among women within the industry that might start to unravel the stereotypes surrounding female emceeing.

Not to pick on the record, but I don’t think Ludacris’ Battle of the Sexes, which featured female emcees, made much impact on this front. I don’t think it was supposed to, though. It was Ludacris’ album, not a compilation. At the end of the day, it’s up to the ladies to tell us who they are and what they want be.