Two days ago, Brooklyn-by-way-of-Detroit rapper Angel Haze sent a literal “fuck you” to her record label Island/Republic by unleashing a deluge of passionate tweets before leaking her entire debut album Dirty Gold on SoundCloud three months before its expected release. Her leak, planned or not, effectively carried to fruition similar threats rapper M.I.A. posed to her own label Interscope back in August when it seemed Matangi would never see the light of day had she not put a figurative gun to their heads.
On the surface, Angel’s rebellion against the music business might seem like a ploy for personal gain. But, in multiple ways, it represents what’s been a shamefully terrible year for women in hip-hop.
Many critics likened 2013 to 1993—two robust years of genre-defining albums from rap legends and legends-in-the-making. But what made 1993 so undeniably perfect was its diversity. Alongside the male MCs we celebrate twenty years later, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Salt-n-Pepa, Monie Love, The Conscious Daughters, and Bo$$ each released critically acclaimed albums that year. 2013 may as well have been 1903 with its hushed female presence in hip-hop culture. And when women’s presence wasn’t silent, it was oftentimes loudly embarrassing.
In 2013: Lauryn Hill spent three months in prison for tax evasion; TLC essentially replaced Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes with Lil’ Mama; Eve put out her fourth studio album Lip Lock and no one noticed (less than 20,000 sold to date); only Tink’s Boss Up mixtape and M.I.A.’s Matangi made year-end lists for a rap album by a woman. Meanwhile, SPIN included Matangi in its “20 Best Pop Albums of 2013” list, voiding the album’s rap cred. Debut albums from Azealia Banks, Iggy Azalea, and Nitty Scott MC never came, and Angel Haze had to publicly beg for a 2013 release date for hers. The biggest news story on Foxy Brown’s comeback was when she fell on stage in New York. The list goes on.
It would be counterproductive to write yet another thinkpiece-y laundry list of personal frustrations. So, instead, I had conversations with two women heavily involved in hip-hop: North Carolina rapper Rapsody and HOT 97 music director Karlie Hustle. Together we dissected this problematic year for women in hip-hop and searched for solutions.
Back in August, Rapsody dropped her She Got Game mixtape which included an all-star lineup of features from Common, Raekwon, Jay Electronica, Mac Miller, Chance the Rapper, Ab-Soul, and more. It gained considerable buzz, yet came up missing from year-end lists like Rolling Stone’s “10 Best Mixtapes of 2013,” SPIN’s “40 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2013,” and other niche rankings. And Rapsody has an idea why. “She Got Game should be on most year-end lists. But women are still fighting just to get that recognition that MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Bahamadia, and Missy Elliott had back in the day,” she says. “It feels like we are only mentioned when speaking on ‘female rappers lists.’ Hence, why I am not a fan of the term ‘female rapper,’ ‘female emcee,’ ‘fem rap,’ ‘femcee,’ or anything like it.”
The facilitators are generally men. As a result, it’s not surprising that women are either overlooked or ignored, as we are absent from the process from the beginning. – Karlie Hustle
Taking aim at year-end lists has become a topic of discussion in recent weeks with Wale threatening Complex over The Gifted being left off the magazine’s “50 Best Albums of 2013” list. Karlie Hustle argues that the issue of subjectivity in list-making takes an even greater toll on women in rap due to gender imbalance in the media: “I would first surmise that women were not heavily involved in the curating of these lists in the first place. The facilitators are generally men. As a result, it’s not surprising that women are either overlooked or ignored, as we are absent from the process from the beginning.”
There is, possibly, another factor at play in the exclusion of women from hip-hop this year, and it involves Nicki Minaj—the “industry’s token woman MC” as Hustle describes her. In 2013, Nicki Minaj didn’t drop an album. She made more headlines for judging American Idol than for her music. “On a mainstream level, Nicki Minaj’s absence this year does [hurt the attention put on women rappers],” Rapsody says. “She was the one to spark the conversation a few years ago when she entered the industry and started to gain recognition nation and worldwide. It wasn’t until then people started to ask, ‘What happened to the female presence in hip-hop?’ So, I guess you could say that when she is not releasing albums, it’s somewhat of an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality in regards to females. Because we are all placed in the same bubble, and we are only expected to be competing with Nicki Minaj.”
For Rapsody, that bubble made it harder to tour in 2013 on her own terms.
I can’t tell you how often I get tweets about how I should battle ‘insert any female rapper here,’ or I should do a project with ‘insert any female rapper here.’ - Rapsody
“I dropped this great project this year and I can’t find myself a booking agency. When I do reach out to a booking agency, it’s ‘Oh, let’s put you on with this girl and this girl’ and I’m like ‘No, I’m not doing a female artist hip-hop tour. I just wanna tour.’ It’s like we’re slid to the left in a corner all by ourselves to compete only against each other, like we don’t belong. I can’t tell you how often I get tweets about how I should battle ‘insert any female rapper here,’ or I should do a project with ‘insert any female rapper here.’
In an interview with XXL, Brooklyn rapper Nitty Scott MC, who’s been very vocal on social media about gender inequality in hip-hop recently, echoed Rapsody’s sentiments on touring: “When people are putting together tours, they’ll put together acts that are like-minded, that can all appeal to the same audience. And I don’t feel that as females we’re given that same diversity. We’re thrown onto lineups, we’re thrown into these female MC lists of all the girls you should know about. We’re all so different, yet we’re all thrown into this pool of women that rap. I just don’t feel that it’s equal treatment.”
As a high-ranking executive at HOT 97, Karlie Hustle isn’t surprised at both Rapsody and Nitty Scott MC’s struggle to find a voice in the industry compared to men’s ease in doing the same. “There is currently an allowance for an array of different male voices to coexist in hip-hop without the fear that one voice will threaten another’s right to that existence,” she says. “As for MCs who happen to be women, that is not the case. The erasure of our voices over the years is pronounced. We apparently get one at a time now, if that.”
Hustle believes that the path to more balance might come from embracing and nurturing the careers of young women in hip-hop, much like the careers of young male rappers are developed.
One way to foster change in the industry is through female camaraderie and women mentoring other women just as Jay Z so publicly mentors Kanye West and he, in turn, supports his G.O.O.D. music cohorts. For Rapsody, mentors like Lady Rage, Jean Grae, and Rah Digga have each made a difference on a personal level. And Rapsody tries to lead by their example. “Asia Sparks, I haven’t really talked to her,” says Rapsody, “but she’ll tweet me music all the time and I always make sure that I listen to it and I support it because—I hate to do it just because they’re female, but I feel like if you’re a female and you’re dope, it’s only right because I know how the struggle is. T’Nah Apex and NoName Gypsy, I hit both of them up and told them I’m a fan of their music.”
It’s also a matter of accepting and understanding two crucial things:
1. There are infinite differences between the sexes.
2. Our anatomy or gender identification doesn’t dictate our entire human experience.
And that’s the message Rapsody hopes will resonate with those who hear her music.
“It takes people a little more time to really try to show some interest in [women rappers] because we’re female and the majority of guys don’t feel like they can have anything to relate to. So it’s like, ‘Why would I ride around in the car listening to a female rapper?’ And I’ve heard guys say no female rapper is good. But it’s like, this is life. As men and women, we go through different things but we go through a lot of the same things too. We all can relate to it as people.”
Rapsody’s sophomore album will be released summer 2014. Her 9th Wonder-founded label Jamla Records’ mixtape Jamla is the Squad drops January 28.