It was no big revelation to me to hear an all-woman rap troupe way back in 1980. That was the Sugar Hill Records group the Sequence, with their hit “Funk You Up”. The introduced the phrase “gangster rap” to the world, adding to a new strain of music no one was sure would last. Why wouldn’t there be female rappers, I thought, when there were women making every other kind of music? What I didn’t know at the time — and what probably no one outside hip-hop’s ancestral cradle of ’70s New York City knew — was just how big a moment that actually was.
Thanks to Jospeh Ewoodzie’s Break Beats in the Bronx (2017), I finally learned that there was a pretty significant b-girl crew, the Mercedes Ladies, in the days before rap was released on a commercial record. Further, that was pretty amazing, because hip-hop was already reflecting the gender distinctions of its environment in ways that would constrict female participation.
Those distinctions weren’t immediately obvious to me as rap advanced through the ’80s. After all, the presence of women was clear, from one-hit wonders like Dimples D to established stars like MC Lyte and Salt-n-Pepa (with their DJ, Spinderella). Queen Latifah’s All Hail the Queen (1989) was (and is), on numerous levels, a marker in the ground for the presence of women in rap. But as much as I loved (and love) that album, I had no idea how badly such a marker was needed.
All that became clear after reading Kathy Iandoli‘s God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop, a knowledgable and passionate tribute to womens’ role in the birth and growth of rap. More than just a name-check of virtually every major female rapper (but even that would be a revelation to many), this work looks at how these rappers evolved. It explores how they fought for their place in a male-dominated industry, and navigated their way to success, be it fleeting for a few years or sustained for a career. For all the successes that became radio hits and major cultural moments, there were numerous obstacles along the way, some baked into the industry culture and some of the rappers’ own making. God Save the Queens is a monument to women in music keeping it moving despite the obstacles, as a genre was being birthed on the fly.
Like Ewoodzie, Iandoli points to the Mercedes Ladies as the first female rap crew, but goes him one better with additional tales of how many hurdles they had to (literally) jump just to get a chance to perform. By that moment in the mid-’70s, competition for opportunity and recognition was already fierce among male rappers and DJs, and none of them wanted to be upstaged by a bunch of “girls”. That mindset, Iandoli reports, would linger well into rap’s development.
Her recapping of Roxanne Shante’s saga foreshadows much of the female experience as rappers in all the years since. Lotlita Shanté Gooden, a brash 14-year-old from the Queensbridge housing projects, recorded a cutting answer record to U.T.F.O.’s 1984 hit “Roxanne, Roxanne”. After the success of “The Real Roxanne”, she was rechristened Roxanne Shanté, and became the central figure in a long-running series of answer records to her own answer records (what Iandoli dubs the “Roxanne Wars”), marked by a bitter rivalry with fellow female rapper Sparky D. Yet for all her skills and success, Shanté was infamously lowballed by her male counterparts, and didn’t even get to put out an album until 1989, five years after her signature hit.
“So now we’re three and a half decades removed from the start of that narrative,” Iandoli laments in her prologue, “and sometimes it feels like nothing has changed.” Throughout God Save the Queens, there’s plenty of evidence to that. Some of the themes that emerge include the battle to be taken seriously as rappers and not just “pop” performers or novelties. There are accusations of men writing their lyrics which, in some notable cases was true, but not always. They are how they should look and dress (with hair texture and skin colorism a persistent issue then and now).
Iandoli lands on Rah Digga’s construction of Nubian Princesses and Sex Kittens as a false dichotomy that for years shaped the available lanes for women in rap. A Nubian Princess could have natural hair and artistic integrity, but not sex appeal (UK rapper Monie Love felt compelled to tape down her breasts and cut her hair in order to draw more attention to her mic skills).
Sex Kittens were expected to be nothing more than eye candy with straightened hair, de-emphasizing whatever lyrical skills they had. It’s actually an echo of that shopworn madonna-or-whore tripe that women endure in just about every culture and endeavor. In rap’s context, Lauryn Hill’s emergence, combining the best of both archetypes, with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998) was a potentially game-changing moment… except the game never really changed. The Nubian Princesses eventually lost out, as record labels pushed Sex Kittens to the fore.
Indeed, while God Save the Queens is rap-specific, much of what Iandoli reports applies to women everywhere. They’re not recognized for their foundational contributions. They’re written out of official histories. They have to constantly prove themselves, even after they’d already done so. This even affects the choice of motherhood-or-career (as if that actually had to be a choice in the first place, which it never has been for men). Iandoli herself has her own tale to tell: she begins God Save the Queens with the time she was called the c-word live on the air while working at an internet radio station. (She also takes a moment later in the book to muse about the evolving presence of the b-word.)
But given all that, it’s a bit surprising, and disheartening, to read another thread through the book: beef between rappers. The Roxanne beef remains legendary, and the ’90s Lil’ Kim-Foxy Brown beef is probably the most famous, but female rappers, just like their male counterparts, have exchanged barely veiled shots at each other in their lyrics. Sometimes, the beef went on for years.
I’ve never understood the need to keep beef going, even as I know how it was part and parcel of hip-hop from day one, and reject it summarily as anything that contributes to the culture’s potential as a vehicle for change and change agents. So it was all but heartbreaking to read through God Save the Queens that people already on the short end of that culture’s stick spent such precious energy on such mindless prattle.
But that might have been an understandable by-product, Iandoli suggests, of the uphill, cutthroat battles female rappers faced. By the ’90s, every major rap crew — Bad Boy, Junior M.A.F.I.A., Death Row, No Limit — had a First Lady (read: token female) amongst their line-up. But rarely, if ever, was there simultaneously a Second Lady in those crews, and often crew loyalty trumped gender solidarity.
What Iandoli does best is to present these rap women as artists and people of agency and intelligence (and in fan-friendly, relatable prose, which many readers will likely appreciate). We can agree or disagree with their choices, like or dislike their music, but we come to respect them as artists who found their ways through a system that is not designed to nurture their growth. (Or anyone’s, for that matter, but that’s a longer story.)
A story that can at times seem depressing ends on a note of optimism. Iandoli brings God Save the Queens into the present day, showing how both Nicki Minaj and Cardi B established their independence as both artists and free-thinking women. (Although beef reared its ugly head here too.) She concludes with Megan Thee Stallion, a second-generation female rapper who seems poised to avoid the pitfalls that dogged many of those before her. It isn’t just the Chicagoan in me who wishes she’d also made room for Jamila Woods and/or Noname. These two artists are South Side contemporaries of Megan and Cardi B who embody black female artistic self-dependence — and a new generation of black girl magic — on a vastly different plane.
So God Save the Queens is a much-needed corrective to the Great Man (Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and so on) interpretation of hip-hop history, foregrounding the involvement of women every step of the way, and the evolution of that involvement. But it is far from a complete corrective. Even though it’s subtitled “The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop”, it only scratches the surface of what that subtitle proclaims.
Perhaps this is due to Iandoli’s background as a music journalist and industry staffer, but there is virtually no consideration of female participation in the non-rap elements of hip-hop: breakdancing, graffiti and DJing. (While I’m here: please stop calling it “hip-hop” when you’re talking about only rappers. If even the U.S. Postal Service, my former employer, acknowledges all four elements of the culture, the people inside that culture can at least attempt to do the same). If the act of saying these rappers’ names and telling their stories is a giant step forward, tracking down women elsewhere within the culture would have been an even bigger one.
It might have also been worth noting that much of rap journalism was reported by women such as Iandoli. It’s especially eye-opening to see the work of Danyel Smith, dream hampton, Vanessa Satten, Aliya S. King and others referenced and quoted as, in essence, the first drafts of rap history. Iandoli and her female colleagues have been integral to the explanation and portrayal of rap to a wider audience, and often from positions of influence as editors-in-chief and senior writers. Is there another area of print media besides fashion where so many women, especially women of color held key positions as they did at Vibe, The Source and XXL during their heydays? I would imagine that, like Iandoli, many of these women might have tales to tell of their own battles for opportunity and respect.
Another segment of the rap community not discussed here is the women who danced in rap videos. They helped sell the music to an audience fantasizing about the stories male rappers told, yet many of them were there only for sex appeal (again, with a coloristic emphasis on lighter-skinned women with straighter hair). It would be interesting to hear from some of them about their experiences, especially as they played into the general message rap music sent to its female audience about their place in the culture. Notably, a seminal moment for women and rap not mentioned in God Save the Queens, is the uproar by black women over how they were portrayed in Nelly’s outrageous 2004 “Tip Drill” video. Their protest went from the campus of Spellman College to the pages of Essence magazine.
But the most important segment of the hip-hop community not heard from here is its female audience. What God Save the Queens calls forth is a deeper dive into the larger issue of how rap feels to women, and how they navigate those feelings. Joan Morgan has done that to some extent, in her books When Chickenheads Come to Roost (1999) and She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (2018), and writers like Tricia Rose (The Hip Hop Wars, 2004) have weighed in as well.
Recently, younger black female scholars who have grown up with rap as their life’s soundtrack have used that experience in recasting feminism for black and brown women in the present day. For example, Beyoncé and much else of female rap and R&B is a constant through Brittney Cooper‘s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower (2018); she even titled one of its chapters “Bag Lady”, after the Erykah Badu hit.
To grapple with those broader issues of representation within hip-hop, and to understand how they echo and mirror those same issues throughout the rest of culture, society, and blackness, needs engagement with black and brown feminist writers and thinkers, both contemporary voices and their foremothers. Iandoli early on signals that she’s probably not the person for that particular job, seeing as how she’s white. But a mention that the conversation has existed for quite some time, and from several different perspectives, would have been nice for her to note among the fascinating sidebars she drops throughout the book.
And that leads to the elephant in the room Iandoli mostly avoids: why has this even been an issue in the first place? She pokes at it early on, after quoting Angela Davis’ definition of a radical (“grasping things at the root”, or working to exact structural change from inside the belly of the beast). She then notes women have done exactly that in hip-hop from the jump:
But having said that, she doesn’t push much further on hip-hop’s structural gender imbalance. How indeed did a culture that arose as an alternative to the mainstream end up replicating many of the mainstream’s injustices? And how have women in rap tried to collectively negate the exploitation of themselves and their sistren? Iandoli gives us the stories and perspectives of women as active participants in shaping their careers, but not a sense of if or how female performers have worked to rejigger rap culture’s sexist architecture on a level broader than securing their seats at the table. Also, (at least in some cases), she misses the opportunity to discuss how these women support each other’s grind. (To be fair, the full accounting of sexism throughout the music industry is, to quote dead prez, bigger than hip-hop.)
All that might be way out of the lane of a celebratory, music-first roundup like God Save the Queens, but that’s the door Iandoli opens. It will be a shame if those who come to this book for stories about the music and their beloved artists don’t take their reading and thinking on the subject to the next level. (Or some intrepid journalist or scholar didn’t pick up the thread themselves). As it is, the performers featured here express the issues quite clearly from their lived experiences, and there is untold validity and, at times, inspiration in what they say to us. Throughout it all, nevertheless, they persisted.
Kathy Iandoli (Author Photo credit: © Krista Schlueter / courtesy of Dey Street Books)