The rise of Nicki Minaj has given rap a new leading lady – but why are female artists still under pressure to be 'sexy'?
The mainstream debut of Lil Wayne's protegee Nicki Minaj brings the perennial question to the forefront of hip-hop consciousness once again: what is the role of women in the rap game? While Minaj is tearing up the airwaves, appearing on everything from Mariah Carey's Up Out My Face to Ludacris's My Chick Bad, the self-described "Harajuku Barbie" has captured the imagination of a generation that hasn't seen a dominant, prolific female rapper since the heyday of Lil Kim and Foxy Brown.
Minaj may be hyped as the latest leading lady of rap but, as hip hop has become more mainstream, the shift in expectations of women has led to a new reality: a successful female artist must not only be talented, but also able to titillate the gaze of an assumed male viewer. Earlier MCs such as MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Queen Pen, Da Brat, and Roxane Shante had far more options for onscreen representation, often appearing in the types of clothes their male contemporaries were wearing.
At that time, it was not unusual to see women attired in Cross Colours, sneakers, and baggy jeans. If a woman chose a different look, it was just one of many. Even more mainstream groups such as Salt-N-Pepa and TLC were able to lace their lyrics with stories of female sexual autonomy, not just bedroom prowess. However, when Lil Kim erupted on the scene with her debut album Hardcore and Foxy Brown tore up airwaves with Ill Na Na, their popularity heralded a sea change in the way female rappers are perceived.
The video for rapper Yo Gotti's 2009 hit 5-Star Chick exemplifies the requirement that female MCs occupy both the role of rapper and that of eye candy. He spends half the video with one main girl who he holds up as representative of five-star status, focusing on her body and clothes, while six other women dance seductively in the background. The 5-Star Chick remix video features southern rapper Trina and Nicki Minaj, spitting lyrics about their independence while the video holds them up as sexual objects. The opening shot of Minaj's face quickly cuts to her bouncing chest, while the camera pans slowly over Trina's exposed thighs as she struts around the set, proclaiming their five-star status.
In order to enjoy mainstream success, the requirement is for women in rap to be as physically attractive as they are lyrically proficient. This can also be seen in Minaj's new video for Massive Attack, where her penchant for over-the-top costuming has to be balanced with gratuitous shots of her exposed behind.
Menda Francois, graduate of Bryn Mawr College and member of feminist hip-hop collective 3 X A Lady Crew, created an entire senior thesis around the contradictory demands of women who rock mics. Her paper, Step Your Pussy Up: Nicki Minaj and the Signifyin(g) Tropes of Hardcore Female Rap, explains:
"The female body is rarely a site of empowerment except when it is being objectified to define female strength through heterosexist sexiness, which, displayed for male satisfaction, creates little real power for women. Because female rappers' value lies in their ability to perform masculinity as well as be sexually objectified, when a femcee is not performing the role of the sexually available coquette nor the female thug, her power and agency are nonexistent."This dynamic is seen even in the ranks of independent hip-hop. Emerging MC Psalm One, who is currently signed to Rhymesayers Entertainment, spits interesting and complex lyrics about everything from domestic violence to "bio-chemical bursts". However, her image and positioning mark her out as different to her male counterparts. On the Rhymesayer's artist page, Psalm One is surrounded by male artists in thoughtful, pensive, or playful poses. She is pictured in a shoulder-baring tube top, with one hand clasped across her throat – an image that positions her as feminine, vulnerable, and coquettish. While this persona should not be construed negatively (after all, reclaiming space for women in rap will take on many forms), within the current context of women in hip hop, Psalm One's positioning echoes the requirements of the mainstream.
While the same tropes still hold, one can only hope that eventually the increasing female representation in rap will lead to women challenging the norms of the male-dominated space, not just performing in it.
What do you guys think about this? I'm not terribly familiar with Nicki's music or videos, but I do like what little I have seen of her for the simple fact that she seems like a ham. I find her entertaining because she's goofy and silly which makes her stand out to me compared to some of the other female rappers who use their sex appeal to sell their music. That said, this writer has a great point about how female rappers have to be sexy to be successful these days. Seems like the male hip-hop artists have dictated women's place in hip-hop and the female artists kind of have to operate within that frame. I miss the creative g0rls like Missy and Queen.