Hip Hop’s ‘Hidden Figures’: The Feminist Herstory and Future of Hip HopBreaking News
tags: African American history, music, popular culture, womens history, hip hop, African American culture, Cultural Studies
With the recent opening of the Universal Hip Hop Museum, the cultural phenomenon called hip hop is on everyone’s mind. But where are the women? How are they represented?
The gender omission of women as architects of hip hop, from its humble beginnings up to the current moment with its global impact, is not a new issue. Despite hip hop’s cultural contributions globally of music, beats, rhymes, dancing, clothing and lifestyle, women have been noticeably absent from its origin story and the pantheon of Black men who are thought to have “made” hip hop what it is today.
Moreover, there have been huge debates over how Black women especially are described and portrayed in hip hop. In the early days of hip hop, there were strong discussions and critiques over its glamorization of violence via gangsta rap and the degrading representation of women, and especially Black women, in music videos and in the genre’s lyrics.
This social critique of hip hop actually resulted in a 1994 congressional hearing on the matter, spearheaded by political leaders like U.S. Representative Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). Those who participated regarded the glorification of violence and the pornographic portrayal of women to be a cause for national concern. The Congressional Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice entitled this report “Shaping Our Responses To Violent and Demeaning Imagery in Popular Music.”
Fast forward, and almost three decades later women still have not been sufficiently recognized and given their props for contributions they have made to the full spectrum of hip hop culture, and challenging the gender stereotypes, which still persist.
What follows is a herstory to celebrate Women’s History Month and reveal some of hip hop’s “Hidden Figures.”
The Beginnings of Hip Hop Feminism
Hip hop, the largest cultural phenomenon to ever grace the globe, emerged in 1973 after Cindy Campbell, a Black woman from the West Bronx, birthed the brilliant idea to host a back-to-school party to fund her school wardrobe. She asked her brother, DJ Kool Herc, to DJ at the party—and the rest is hip hop history. DJ Kool Herc is credited with birthing hip hop, while his sister’s contribution is lost and she remains a “hidden figure” in hip hop’s history.
In 1999, the term “hip hop feminism” was first coined by Joan Morgan in her seminal work, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. However, in action, hip hop feminism began much earlier and in various forms: from Lady Pink’s graffiti resistance in 1979 to the rappers of the 1980s and 1990s such as Queen Latifah’s Ladies First, Monie Love’s Down To Earth, the sexual revolution of MCs like Foxy Brown and Lil Kim challenging gender power dynamics. Internationally, women like Las Crudas (Cuba) remind us that Black women in the hip hop movement have been a steady force in its evolution.
Fast forward to the 2000s, there were several academic interventions made—like Tricia Rose’s Black Noise, Gwendolyn Pough’s Check it While I Wreck It in 2004, Ruth Nicole Brown’s Black Girlhood Celebrated: Toward a Hip Hop Feminist Pedagogy, Kyra Gaunt’s The Games Black Girls Play, Imani Perry’s Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop, Susana M. Morris and Brittney Cooper’s Crunk Feminist Movement, Rachel Raimist, Zenzele Isoke … the list goes on.
In every facet of hip hop music and culture, women have been innovating and setting new precedents, yet most connoisseurs of hip hop remain unaware of how women have actively shaped its culture and music from inception. From pioneering fashion designers that create fresh new styles, to shape-shifting entrepreneurs who helped globalize the art form, talented B-girls, daring graffiti artists, undefeated and unmatched MCs, versatile DJs and dynamic educators, women show up and show out.