Hip-Hop is one of the most male dominated genres of music to date. Since its genesis in the 1970s, many male artists established themselves as household names by frequently relying upon displays of machismo and the objectification of women, while simultaneously excluding and discounting their female peers. This trend is all too familiar as a woman who frequently finds herself in male-dominated spaces—whether it be classes, internships, or jobs. While unfortunately, being underestimated is a universal experience for most ambitious women, so is persevering and excelling in their respective field despite the obstacles that they face. Female Hip-Hop artists are a prime example of this perseverance. Despite working in a field that so frequently promotes images of misogynoir and sexual violence, these women trailblazed by actively promoting feminist ideology in their lyrics and their actions—altering the genre forever. There is so much to learn from these women’s careers as ambitious women who also plan to leave a lasting impact on their communities and the world.
In the 1984, popular Hip-Hop group UTFO released the song “Roxanne, Roxanne.” The song was a massive hit for the group at the time. But 37 years later, looking at the lyrics, it is evident that the song perpetuates the harmful objectification that was prevalent in much of early mainstream Hip-Hop. “Roxanne, Roxanne” is a 5-minute narrative in which each member of UTFO details the various ways he followed and catcalled “Roxanne” a young black woman who immediately expresses her disinterest. While in hindsight, most listeners can understand why this song presents as extremely disconcerting, it took retaliation from a few trailblazing women in the industry to highlight the sexism present in the track. One of these women was Lolita Shanté Gooden, known professionally as Roxanne Shanté, a fourteen-year-old skilled rapper who had been freestyling and battle rapping since she was ten years old. Roxanne recorded her response, titled “Roxanne’s Revenge,” in 10 minutes- and it was a hit. The song went on to sell more than 25,000 copies soon after its release. However, the more impressive feat was its impact on women in the Hip-Hop scene. The track’s release inspired women in urban communities to fight back against street harassment. Roxanne’s impact didn’t stop there- 33 years after the song’s release, a dramatization of her life titled “Roxanne, Roxanne” premiered at the Sundance film festival. Despite her retirement from the music industry at the early age of 25, Roxanne continues to have a profound impact on the communities she holds dearly. She now runs a nonprofit in New Jersey that supports disenfranchised teenagers.
It’s difficult to discuss female trailblazers in Hip-Hop without spending hours chronicling Queen Latifah’s extensive career. Born Dana Elaine Owens, the rapper, singer-songwriter, actress, producer, and entrepreneur was one of the first women to overtly promote intersectional feminist ideology into her music. At 19 years old, she had already established herself as a household name in New York and New Jersey. In an interview in 1989, the young artist was already expressing the feminist ideals that she would continue to champion to this day. She proclaimed that she based all her success is based on female artists rather than her male counterparts, stating that despite her success she was “not Salt-N-Pepa yet.” This quick statement is particularly striking from an artist of her stature, even as early as 1989—out of all of the successful artists releasing Hip-Hop in 1989, she chose one of the few commercially
successful female acts, who were still making considerably less money than their male counterparts. One year after this interview, a 20-year-old Queen Latifah would release her first commercial hit, “Ladies First” featuring British MC Monie Love. The song is just as the title suggests: a proclamation of the unconditional strength, skill, and power possessed by women around the world. The fourth verse of the song states, “Ladies first, there's no time to rehearse / I'm divine and my mind expands throughout the universe”. Truly, Queen Latifah’s mind has continued to expand across the universe following this proclamation- 3 years following the release of “Ladies First,” Latifah would release “U.N.I.T.Y,” an anthem of intersectionality that has yet to lose both its sonic and lyrical importance. In this song, she intentionally criticizes the way that the hyper-sexualization of women in Hip-Hop has caused men in everyday situations to degrade and disrespect women. She calls for unity and inclusion in the scene, while not stepping down at all. While her demands are for peace and understanding, she also asserts herself as independent and strong, despite her femininity—threatening the next man to call her a slur or degrading word. Ultimately, however, the song serves as a call to action for the respect of Black women in a society dominated by men. Outside of her musical contributions, Queen Latifah continues to serve as an icon to women everywhere, having recently publicly acknowledged her long-term partner, Eboni Nichols—a rare yet inspiring display of her sexuality. As a successful actress, an author, an advocate, and a mother, Queen Latifah will certainly go down as a one of the most influential women in pop culture.
To exist as a woman in Hip-Hop is a radical act. To exist as a woman in any male-dominated field is a radical act. While it is easy to feel discouraged in these situations, one may find comfort when looking at the history of female artists in Hip-Hop- a genre that frequently praised imagery of misogyny and objectification, a genre that, at its genesis, only featured 1 or 2 female MCs. Today, 40 years since the origins of Hip-Hop, many of the most revered artists in the genre are female and continue to promote similar feminist ideals- they owe it all to the early trailblazers like Roxanne Shanté and Queen Latifah. Their perseverance changed the genre forever.