Book Review: A Righteous Fire Burns At The Heart Of 'God Save The Queens' Kathy Iandoli goes far beyond hoisting her heroes upon a pedestal; in rendering them as conflicted, complicated artists struggling against sexism and patriarchy, she wields an illuminating fury.
NPR logo A Righteous Fire Burns At The Heart Of Women-In-Hip-Hop's 'God Save The Queens'

Review

Book Reviews

A Righteous Fire Burns At The Heart Of Women-In-Hip-Hop's 'God Save The Queens'

In the prologue to her book God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop, Kathy Iandoli recounts her time working at an Internet radio station — and how, one day in 2009, a famous rapper who was appearing in the studio referred to her by saying, "F**k that c**t."

Iandoli, at that point already a veteran of the music industry, says she quit her job when her male boss, rather than support her, said, "Who will ever respect you?" It's an unsettling anecdote, and one that underscores the righteous fire at the heart of God Save the Queens: Iandoli's book is rigorous, insightful, and authoritative — but it's also deadly personal.

From her insider perspective, Iandoli traces the rise of female participation in hip-hop, an arc that parallels the evolution of the genre itself. In the early '70s, Cindy Campbell, sister of DJ Kool Herc, played a pivotal role in the ascendency of her legendary brother. A slew of groundbreaking yet underrecognized women in hip-hop followed — including the pivotal early MC Debbie D — culminating in the hip-hop's first true woman superstar, Roxanne Shanté, in the early '80s. From there, pioneers such as MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, and Salt-N-Pepa expanded the female presence in the rap world. It wasn't until the '90s, though, that the big breakthrough came: Lil' Kim, Foxy Brown, and Lauryn Hill busted down doors to the mainstream. And in the 21st century, the warring rap luminaries Cardi B and Nicki Minaj embody the progress of women in the hip-hop world, not to mention the obstacles women in the field still face.

The opposing forces of sisterhood and competition propel Iandoli's narrative. From day one, women in hip-hop have had to navigate the need for solidarity — while also wanting to leave their challengers in the dust. It's an interplay, Iandoli argues, that adds just one more level of complexity to the already fraught landscape that has faced woman rappers throughout the past 40-plus years. And she does so through compelling, vivid portraits of the key players in the game. In particular, her rendering of the young Roxanne Shanté — fierce, complicated, still in braces, and spitting rhymes — is masterful. And throughout the book, Iandoli maintains the measured hand of a historian while making no bones about who her personal heroes are.

As penetrating and passionate as God Save the Queens is, it feels a bit rushed in its buildup to Shanté. So many important figures from the '70s and early '80s are summed up peremptorily in a brief couple chapters. To an extent, Iandoli's choice is understandable; these producers and artists didn't have the widespread popularity or commercial clout of the mega-divas of the '90s and beyond, so their influence on the contemporary rap scene is more below-ground than blatant. But when the early rap group The Sequence, which featured a teenaged Angie Stone, is only given a paragraph of analysis — and that pattern follows suit when it comes to Sugar Hill Records impresario and Blondie's pivotal rap single "Rapture" — it's hard not to feel that the earliest era of women in hip-hop is being given short shrift.

Ultimately, though, the book's minor imbalances pale before its primary message. "This industry has continuously othered us," Iandoli writes — and that otherness is what God Saves the Queens seeks to rectify. She isn't saying it's easy. "There are common misperceptions about the strength of women in hip-hop," she claims, and her goal goes far beyond simply hoisting her heroes upon a pedestal. In rendering them as conflicted, complicated artists struggling against sexism and patriarchy, Iandoli wields an illuminating fury. But she also never loses touch with the power of hip-hop itself — an artform that so many women have seized as their own, and changed the world by doing so.

Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the new book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. He's on Twitter: @jason_m_heller