Hip-Hop's Herstory

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Hip-hop has sometimes been criticized for its portrayal of women, but female MCs also have played a role in the genre, from its beginnings to what it is today. Tricia Rose, professor of Africana Studies at Brown University and the author of Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, talks with Farai Chideya.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Surviving the streets is one refrain in hip-hop music. But female emcees also have to stay on top in a mostly male genre. Later, we'll hear from top female rappers.

But first, here to give us a little context, we've got Tricia Rose. She's a professor of Africana studies at Brown University and also the author of books, including "Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America." Tricia, welcome.

Professor TRICIA ROSE (History and Africana Studies, Brown University; Author, "Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America"): Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: So who would you say was the first female rapper to really break the ice?

Prof. ROSE: Well, probably Roxanne Shante was, if not the earliest, certainly one of them who really, in creating the answer record format in hip-hop where women answered back through her song, "Roxanne's Revenge." That was a real turning point.

CHIDEYA: Well, it sounds like even from then, women were responding to a male archetype. Has that continued as hip-hop has evolved?

Prof. ROSE: Well, it's actually - it's changed a lot but this element of women having to sort of edge their way in and do extra work to prove that they're credible as emcees but also with lyricists, right, because being an emcee isn't the same as being a lyricist and actually writing the rhymes.

That's always been an issue and they've always had to grapple with the sexuality, the presumption that they had to defend their own sexuality. Women's expressions, especially black women's expression has often been contained this way.

CHIDEYA: Later, we're going to talk - I mean, not later but very shortly - with rappers MC Lyte and Monie Love. But let's look at some of the different archetypes of women in hip-hop. You've got someone like Queen Latifah, who now primarily acts. You have Lil' Kim, who has talked very openly about her need to be accepted physically. You have rappers like Eve. What different archetypes are there in the female hip-hop community over time?

Prof. ROSE: Well, I mean, I think it's difficult to do it across the whole, you know, history of hip-hop in the time we have, I imagine. But one of the things that's important to remember is that women have to address in hip-hop, at some point, their relationship to sexuality, whether or not they're choosing the Lil' Kim path, which is to try to be in a sense a sexual vixen, almost like, a rhyming, you know, stripper for all intent and purposes. Or whether or not they're playing the tough gangster girl who is empowered by her control and a certain kind of masculinity either - you know, either in terms of her sexuality or just her general masculinity and her toughness.

So there's also a history of empowerment, someone like a group like Salt-N-Pepa, that took sexuality and tried to turn the tables in an empowering way, and so did MC Lyte. She was known, and Monie Love, are both known for that very well.

That archetype is pretty much outside of commercial hip-hop today for women emcees. Of the underground is another story. But for the ones anyone's really got to know, that archetype is almost impossible to market today. You pretty much have to be a hypersexual or somehow hyper-tough. And it's a very limiting framework.

CHIDEYA: So Tricia, before we bring in MC Lyte and Monie Love, do you think that we've actually slid back in time where women have less options to express ourselves in hip-hop?

Prof. ROSE: In commercial hip-hop, absolutely yes, without a shadow of a doubt. In other words, the emergence of hip-hop as a mainstream, commercially viable form further marginalized and under-appreciated the complexity of women's participation. It gave more space to men but it also limited males' representation. But it gave them more space overall. And women emcees are under an enormous amount of pressure to fit a very narrow mold.

CHIDEYA: All right. Tricia Rose, Brown University, author of "Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America."

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