According to Keyes, the first group – Queen Mothers – consist mainly of early female rap pioneers in the 80s such as: Queen Latifah, Roxanne Shante or MC Lyte. They express strong connection to their African heritage by calling themselves “Nubian queens”, and wearing ethnic clothes and jewelry. The symbol of queen mother may be supposedly rooted in African court tradition. Mothers of kings in many African kingdoms used to be cult objects and granted special privileges. “Queen Mothers” in hip hop culture also consider themselves as strong, intelligent black women responsible of spreading the word among the community. They discuss issues similar to their male counterparts – marginalization, subjugation, and hardship of an urban life. A theme for their concern would be also heterosexual advances of men toward women, as well as domestic violence, and male sexism. These female rappers tended to present black women as self assured and independent in their songs.
Similarly to male rappers they would aim to challenge racist white supremacy by their music. Whilst black males in order to empower themselves oftentimes resort to sexist notions addressed towards their female counterparts, “Queen Mothers” do not apply the same strategy of subordination. As the excerpts from the songs presented in the first chapter show, many male hip hop artists depict women merely as sexual objects and generally cast derogatory light on them. Some black culture critics, as bell hooks, claim that male gangsta rappers engage in this behavior because women supposedly emasculate black men, negating their manhood and reducing the respect received from others. The critic also states that most black males lack of strong male (father) models to look up to. They are being convinced throughout their childhood that they are not destined to grow up as successful, strong, virtuous males. Instead they receive “education” how to become emotionless thugs. The author blames the mass media for perpetuating the image of a strong, angry black woman as opposed to black “castrated” male who is not able to provide for his family. Other reason for that may be the fear of female sexuality, thus women must be controlled.
“Queen Mothers” demand respect not only for black community in general but for black women in particular. This causes a huge inner identity conflict among black women, whether to be loyal to your ethnicity and race or gender. Extending the theory of black feminism to rap, black female rappers provide back lashing voices against male sexism and misogyny. However being a black feminist should not mean rejection of the African heritage. The African legacy may be utilized as an additional source of strength and power in this struggle. Tricia Rose in the her book, Black Noise, argues that in the late 1980s and early 1990s pioneer female rappers although refraining from calling themselves feminist, expressed three feminist standpoints: female empowerment, agency, and independence. They would rather call themselves “womanists” as they did not feel much connection with the predominantly “white” second wave feminism movement. Moreover, they felt as having been overlooked or even purposely excluded by white feminists in their struggle for female empowerment. These artists rejected and challenged representations of women as simply sexual objects. Rose states that these artists use rap music as a platform of dispute between other female and male artists, and their audience in general.
The most noticeable “Queen Mother” on the hip hop scene is Dana “Queen Latifah” Owens. Although “latifah” in Arabic means “feminine, delicate and kind” she proved to be also a strong and influential rap artist. At the young age of twenty one, she became well acclaimed artist. Despite her young age, her maternal behavior and mature approach to life made her to be perceived as a “Queen Mother.” Although she would find such comparison flattering, she tried to distance herself from being labeled. She would call herself a queen because every black female is a queen to her. The reason why Queen Latifah and other rappers have been allocated to the group of “Queen Mothers” may be linked to the “othermothers” phenomenon in black African community. Patricia Hill Collins elaborates on this notion in Black Feminist Thought. She claims that black women take a significant part in fostering of the black society in the United States. They have developed an image of a strong black woman who contribute to the whole black community well-being. The notion of motherhood in general, whether invoked by “bloodmothers” or “othermothers”, has powerful connotation. It seems that African American community seeks for strong mother figures not only in real life but also on the hip hop scene. Queen Latifah reflects the image of othermother by taking up serious political-economic issues of the black community in her lyrics, as in “The Evil that Men Do” where she raps about struggle of women on welfare.
Another example of a strong political commentary is Queen Latifah’s song “Ladies First.” She focuses here on promoting women’s importance and clamors for their equal treatment. She raps about the need for sisterhood which prompts women to support each other. The notion of sisterhood is emphasized here by the fact that the artist collaborates with another black European female rapper, Monie Love. They feel connected with each other by the bonds of the same gender and race. This is a typical approach of women of color engaged in the Third Wave Feminist Movement in America. The concept of global sisterhood coined by the Second Wave feminists is questioned and challenged here. Black feminists manifest more connection with other women of color from different countries or countries of their origin than with white middle class women from the United States. The video to this song is also a tribute to African American women’s history featuring images of activists and abolitionists as Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Harriet Tubman, or entrepreneurs as Madame C.J. Walker. The video also features the image of Winnie Mandela which may serve as a commemoration of the struggle against segregation in South Africa as well as emphasis on the concept of global black sisterhood. The rappers bring back these images into the light in order to re-inspire all women of color and prove they are capable of achieving the highest goals as breaking the racism and sexism.
Queen Latifah in her Grammy Award- winning song “U.N.I.T.Y”, as one of the first female artists not only proves of her rapping skills but also takes up the issues which divide black community. She focuses here on perpetuated hatred directed by black males toward black females. She answers back to males who use the insult ‘bitch’ in reference to women. She does so by using similar forms that are used by many of their male counterparts to denigrate women. For instance, by the use of vulgar language she reclaims those forms for women. Another pioneer rapper, MC Lyte in her song “Paper Thin” also makes a black female as a subject. She brings it to the center of discussion by rapping about the constrains of her intimacy and setting the rules by which she will date a man. According to Rose, the above mentioned artists’ messages are both emancipating and liberating for women. They rebel against the restrain of black female voices, offering counter hegemonic perspectives. Female gangsta rappers in particular, have created and imposed their own definitions of womanhood through their use of vulgarity, voice intonations, and sexuality.
Although most female rappers identify themselves by belonging to specific rap “crews” some of them would fall from one category to another or exist in many simultaneously. As an example of such a “swinging” artist may serve Yo – Yo. The rapper and activist when perceived through the prism of her artistic and social work would be allocated to the group of queen mothers. Her songs are devoted to her view on the political issues and black feminism. She is the founder of the group Intelligent Black Women Coalition (I.BW.C.) which aimed to fight against racism and sexism. Yet, Keyes claims that her style and attire would suggest she also fits the category of so called “Fly Girls” who gained recognition on hip hop scene mainly in the nineties. The origin of the new meaning of the word “fly” dates back to the sixties and seventies and describes someone wearing fancy clothes. The style has been presented in the blaxploitation movies like The Superfly (1972), Shaft (1971), The Mack (1973) or Foxy Brown (1974) and then adopted by the black youth in the eighties and nineties. Indeed, what distinguished “Fly Girls” from “Queen Mothers” at first sight was their sense of fashion. “Queen Mothers” tried to affirm their eroticism that refrains from the nakedness and exposure of Western styles by rejection of miniskirts or high heels. “Fly Girls” did not fear to wear tight clothes which accentuated their sexuality. They tried to counterbalance western European beauty canon by showing the beauty of black female body, accompanied by eye catching hairstyles, shiny jewelry and suggestive dancing. By doing so they made a statement against the white supremacist stereotype of the black round female body being undesirable. It was their fashion style that made them not only heard but also visible. The male hip hop group the Boogie Boys describe a fly girl as: “[Woman] who wants to see her name, her game or her ability. . . she sports a lot of gold, wears tight jeans, leather miniskirts, a made up face, has voluptuous curves, but speaks her mind.”
The most prolific and well pronounced “Fly Girls” of hip hop scene is undoubtedly the trio Salt- N- Pepa. They aspired to be acknowledged as models of real independent and successful black women of the nineties. They reached the peak of their popularity in the early nineties by releasing controversial hits like “Let’s Talk About Sex” (1991), “What a Man”(1993), or “Shoop”(1993). While the first mentioned hit raised awareness about safe sex, the other songs can be interpreted as manifestation on female sexuality and appraisal of men in terms of friendship, love and intimate heterosexual relations. Lyrics from their popular song “Ain’t Nuthin’ But a She Thing,” again typify messages of their powerful womanhood: “I’m a female, and I got it goin on /Don’t be fooled by my s-e-x/It ain’t that simple, I’m more complex/Let’s keep moving forward, girls, never look back.” In this song artists are exchanging ideas with women and men in general, warning men not to rely on clichéd notions of gender roles when interacting with women. They refuse to be considered as a weaker sex. They prove of their ability to work as hard as men, yet their intention is not to empower, or emasculate men. Similarly, they are passing on the same message to women while concurrently urging these women to progress, not regress, in their thinking and behavior. Such messages permeate most of the Salt – N- Pepa top hits.
Many examples of the “Fly Girls” songs take focus on female agency in male/female relationships perceived from the women’s point of view. In the chorus of her song, “What’s Up Star,” Suga initiates the interaction with males: “What’s up star, I’d like to get to know who you are/Let’s have drinks at the bar/And if I like what I see then the drinks is on me.” While men are usually considered to be the initiators in heterosexual relationships, here the artist takes it over and demonstrates her empowerment on this field. By doing so she violates an unwritten procedure of male-female courtship. She breaches the gendered norm of conduct. Instead of waiting for a man to approach her with an offer to buy her a drink, she would rather sit in judgment and contemplate over possible suitors. Upon positive evaluation of a potential mate she offers to buy him a drink. Another example of assuming power comes from a rapper and bass dancer, MC Luscious, who in her song “Boom! I Got Your Boyfriend” seizes another hypothetical women’s partner: “I’ll take him, shake him, ring him out/ I’ll show your man what it’s all about./ So when he tells you it’s the end./That’s when you know I got your boyfriend.” Her use of the verbs “take,” “shake,” and “ring” in reference to her male lover illustrates the control that she maintains over him. She outdoes her female competitor by articulating her ability to sexually expose what the girlfriend cannot to the boyfriend, leading to the termination of the relationship. Thus, she demonstrates her control and manipulation of the lover and eventually her supremacy over the female opponent by stealing her boyfriend. Although deceitful and potentially unethical, MC Luscious’s desires, and behaviors are at the core of attention in her song.
Another significant group of “Fly Girls” worth noticing is TLC ( Tione “T-Boze” Watkins, Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopez and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas). Their popularity had been quickly developing since their debut in 1991 and reached its maximum in the second half of the nineties. They spread similar messages to the other “Fly Girls” like rising awareness about safe sex (“Waterfalls”) or fighting with women insecurity (“Unpretty”). They also introduced more diverse fashion sense. Instead of accentuating their fit bodies with tight clothes, they would wear baggy pants as a symbol of solidarity with women of less flattering shapes. Similar approach was taken by another “Fly Girl” Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot. Being a successful writer and producer paved her way to the enormous success in the music industry. In no time she was offered a possibility to launch her clothing line and appeared in GAP and Adidas commercials. The fact that full-figured Missy became a model of the established clothing brand could be perceived as ground breaking in the sphere of perception of black female bodies. She serves as a role model to many black women who doubt in their attractiveness.
As during the late nineties rap became commercialized, gained greater audience and shifted to mainstream it is worth examining what were the messages conveyed by the female rappers. During this time some female artists were as popular and selling as many records as men; for example, Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown both had albums that sold one million copies. Contemporary female rappers of the late nineties and beginning of the twenty first century also endeavor in empowering and subversive mission against male domination, but the lyrical content of their songs show surprising and alarming similarities between them and male rappers. This may be one of the reasons these female rappers gained more commercial recognition than the pioneers. As means of empowerment they apply the strategy of “giving the attitude” and answering back in a rude manner to their male counterparts. This group of female rappers fall into category of “Sistas with Attitude” which consist of such popular rappers as Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim, and Da Brat, or Sis, or Eve. The characteristic of their style is the employment of the same symbolic speech and behaviors as their male fellow rappers. It may seem that by doing so they show to be equal to men on every level. The lyrics of their songs included motives of indulging in hedonistic activities as partying and smoking marijuana with their men, seducing, harassing, and sexually emasculating male characters; as well as disrespecting (“dissin”) their male and female counterparts. Although so called “dissing” in female rappers’ songs is mainly directed at male sexism, an analysis of contemporary female rap songs reveals that there are instances the same strategy is aimed at women. It is well visible here that these women seek for their self empowerment by all means.
The content of “songs with attitude” is abundant in vulgarity. The use of derogatory terms may be interpreted in a positive way. I trace some similarities between “Sistas with Attitude” and some of the Third Wave of feminism representatives. Similarly to them, female rappers reversed the pejorative meaning of vulgar words addressed to women.”Sistas” may be considered a coarser, clad version of Third Wave of feminism “Girlies” or “Riot Grrls”. These were usually members of underground punk bands who addressed issues as rape, female sexuality, domestic abuse, and female empowerment. Same as “Sistas” they also adopted derogatory, insulting words as “cunt” “bitch” “slut” in their vernacular. By writing these words on their skins or t-shirts they ridiculed and nullified their derogatory meaning. On one hand reclamation of the frequently used word “bitch” may be perceived as positive way of self empowerment or provide healing liberation. Other critics claim that this may bring worse returns as the message of female empowerment seem to be diminished and eradicated by female self-objectification.
One of the most reoccurring motives found in female rap lyrics is their swaggering feminine self assurance. This characteristic of rap has its roots in part of African-American oral tradition of toasting , where the “toast-teller” employs in verbal self- enhancement, and presents himself or herself as the “dreams of his [or her] Black audience and symbolize for them triumph and accomplishment against the odds.” For instance, in “Sittin on Top of the World,” Da Brat writes: “I’m on top of the worldâ€¦/Girlfriend offender cuz they man’s think I’m all that/ One of the baddest bitches on the planet.” She highlights how she is so “bad”, meaning “great” to such extent that she aggravates other women because their men find her beautiful. Another fitting example of braggadocio can be found in Eve’s song “What Ya Want,” writing “Popular since I started my lifeâ€¦/ Every thugs dream wife, see the love in they eyes/My time to shine, whole package make her a dime.” In these lyrics, the rapper is presenting herself as popular, and good-looking to every male and a perfectly shaped physically ( a”dime” in hip hop vernacular).