If you’re a woman who loves rap music, you’ve probably been rapping along to a song, then stopped to realize you were calling women b-----s and h--s.
This language hasn’t stopped women from participating in rap, whether as fans or artists. But in the age of #MeToo, when society is demanding greater respect for women, female hip-hop enthusiasts are faced with a challenge: how to balance their love for the music against their respect for themselves?
For Boston-based rapper Brandie Blaze, who asked to be referred to as her stage name only, this balance is found through her confident, brazen and sexually assertive hip-hop persona.
One recent Sunday evening, Blaze was working with her audio engineer, who goes by the stage name Fresh, to record a remix to one of her most popular songs, “Boss (Like Me).” She took a deep breath before stepping to the microphone in the studio, which was located on the second floor of Fresh’s house in Brighton. When she opened her mouth, the words that came out were raw, uncensored and passionate.
“Like my [men] quiet, no back talk … just stay face down,” the Boston-based rapper said along to the beat coming from her headphones.
The lyrics became increasingly vulgar and sexual throughout the verse. Blaze, who describes herself as a “trap feminist” — a woman empowered by a gritty hustler mentality who falls outside the scope of mainstream feminism — says her style of rapping is how she counters the way women are portrayed in some rap music.
“For me now, it’s how do I express the agency I have as a woman … but then also take the things that I love about hip-hop and the things that kind of make me uncomfortable when men say it, how can I turn that around and make it from my point of view and make it more digestible to me as a woman,” said Blaze, who simmered down once she was off the mic.
While the hip-hop industry is male-dominated, female emcees have always been part of it — and often, they have been the ones to uplift women through rap. Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y” and Eve’s “Love Is Blind” condemned domestic and sexual violence. Cardi B recently refashioned Project Pat’s song “Chicken Head,” which reduced women to their appearance and accused them of being gold diggers, into an anthem touting female independence and sexual power. The music of artists like Nicki Minaj, Lil Kim and Foxy Brown has also been known to elevate women.
Blaze, who is a survivor of sexual abuse and assault, says listening to artists like these helped her overcome her trauma as she came of age.
“Your mom gives you the birds and the bees speech, but your mom probably isn’t going to tell you the guys should be pleasing you, as well,” Blaze said. “Hearing that [in the music] when your first sexual experiences are someone taking agency over you is really powerful.”
Race also plays a factor in how women in rap are perceived, according to Oneka LaBennett, who teaches a class about the sexual politics of women in hip-hop at Cornell University.
“For black women and girls, and especially for women in hip-hop who are … performing their own sexuality in a liberated way, we are tempted not to see them as perfect victims,” she said.
LaBennett says women in hip-hop are often subject to “slut shaming,” the idea that dressing scantily and acting promiscuously makes women deserve sexual mistreatment. Cardi B echoed this when she told Cosmopolitan magazine that she felt the #MeToo movement excluded strippers and women who appear in rap music videos because they are not viewed as pristine.
LaBennett adds that compared to other issues affecting the black community, black women and girls’ safety sometimes takes a back seat. Since its genesis, rap has given voice to inner-city youth — many of them men — to highlight issues such as poverty, police brutality and racism. But as rap became mainstream, especially around the 1990s, female empowerment wasn’t a priority.
“This is an industry whose commercial success was largely built on disturbing lyrics and imagery of women,” LaBennett said, while stressing that there are many hip-hop artists who achieve success without relying on these characteristics today. Still, she says, keeping men at the forefront of the rap music industry allows negative portrayals of women to persist.
The hip-hop industry has not been immune to the #MeToo movement. Prominent figures such as mogul Russell Simmons and rapper Nelly are both facing sexual assault allegations by multiple women, which are being investigated. But in addition to calling out perpetrators, Blaze says she would like to see the movement inspire a change in the way women are portrayed in rap music. She believes more conscious artists such as Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole play a big role in doing this, but adds there is only one solution to truly changing the narrative: more artists who aren’t straight men.
“We just need more women, and God, besides more women, we need more LGBT people,” she said, noting that diversity needs to be seen both in the music itself and behind the scenes. “When you get all of those things and everyone has an equal seat at a table, I think that’s what’s going to bring a change.”