Will New Female Rappers Shatter Hip Hop’s Glass Ceiling?

Can chart successes bridge genre’s gender gap?

Following her five-time platinum chart-topping single “Bodak Yellow” last fall, Cardi B’s debut album Invasion of Privacy shot to the top of the Billboard 200 upon its release in early April, steadfastly holding the number two slot for several weeks thereafter.

The spitfire rapper with razor-sharp, famously unfiltered word skills is currently at the top of the hip-hop game. Saturday Night Live, Time magazine, and The New York Times readily lined up to ratify Cardi B’s rule. However, this Bronx-born artist’s mainstream chart success actually highlights a glaring fact: while male rappers and women R&B singers may chart high en masse, but women rappers more rarely figure in those figures.

 

Cardi B performs at SXSW 2017. Photo by Benedict Jones

 

“The rap industry is a microcosm of the wider world… Hip-hop isn’t special, it’s a reflection of a wider illness.”

Is hip-hop a man’s world?

“Yes,” answers Michelle McDevitt, a 2017 SXSW speaker and founder of New York City-based PR firm Audible Treats, whose roster is comprised mainly of hip-hop artists. Her reply to this not easily-answered question is hesitant — “But things are changing,” she adds. “Hip-hop is responding slowly to change, but people’s attitudes are at least changing.”

Despite the gains made in urban music in past decades by women like Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim, and Lauryn Hill, rapping as an art form has remained as welcoming to treating women as equals as a turn-of-the-20th century logging crew.

“It is a masculine type of music, and women are held to a higher standard within it,” McDevitt says, but she doesn’t feel hip-hop is alone in gender inequality. “The music business in general isn’t a female-dominated ecosystem where women are working with a lot of other women. In a 20-person team, the majority are male. It can be exhausting working in that kind of atmosphere for women.”

As recent events highlighted by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have proven, sexism — from verbal and physical assault to wage discrimination — creates a general standard of challenges women everywhere face.

“Sexism exists in white-collar and blue-collar jobs in general, and it does also apply to the artistic space,” says McDevitt, who has represented female rappers Remy Ma, Kreayshawn, Bhad Bhabie, and Rah Digga.

 
Princess Nokia. Photo by David Brendan Hall

Princess Nokia. Photo by David Brendan Hall

 

“The rap industry is a microcosm of the wider world,” agrees Brooklyn-based rapper Miss Eaves (real name Shanthony Exum), who performed at SXSW 2018. “Hip-hop isn’t special, it’s a reflection of a wider illness.”

As was seen at SXSW 2018, there is no shortage of talent or enthusiasm as a new generation of women rappers are working hard at their craft, with showcasing artists such as Princess Nokia, Kamaiyah, Bad Gyal and Rapsody all racking up critical notice.

“Women and female-identifying rappers have a lot of talent that’s ignored by the mainstream,” says Miss Eaves. “I love pop music. There is artistry in that. But there is a lot of misogyny and homophobia there.”

Miss Eaves isn’t waiting for the mainstream to offer her a seat at the table. “Why would I want to work so hard to create a space in a place where I’m not welcome? I can create a new space where I can be me,” she says.

That space is on social media, which she uses to communicate directly with her audience.

“Social media allows artists to be true to their style — that helped me,” the 35-year-old says. “I feel my audience is predominantly female and my music speaks to women. Indie rappers are able to be public and grow their audience and bypass the sexist industry. That’s very freeing. I don’t know how I would feel if I were not able to market myself.”

 
Saweetie. Photo by Alexa Gonzalez Wagner

Saweetie. Photo by Alexa Gonzalez Wagner

 

24 year-old Californian rapper Saweetie, who is signed to Artistry Worldwide/Warner Bros. Records and also appeared at SXSW 2018, agrees: “Social media opened up the playing field for women to have their voice be heard. My music touched a lot of women who wrote to me saying how inspiring it is to see a woman doing this. It’s important for us women to come together and support each other, and collaborate.”

Miss Eaves agrees: “That’s what I hate in hip-hop… women going up against each other when they should be supporting each other. We are in an era when females are coming together, and they can get the attention they deserve in a male-dominated industry.”

There’s a knock-on effect, with the women rappers who hit the top of the charts bettering the situation for all female hip-hop artists. McDevitt thinks the music industry is much more open to female rappers since Cardi B hit the number one spot, even if it’s only for commercial reasons: “Music executives are already looking for the next Cardi B,” she explains.

Saweetie hopes Cardi B’s success helps debunk attitudes towards women rappers in general: “Women can be in the top tier. On that, Cardi B is an inspiration. She’s a good performer, her music is good. She deserves to be where she is.”

Rather than copycat knockoffs, Miss Eaves’ individuality will become more widespread, if not mainstream. But, she says, a female figurehead is empowering.

“Cardi B and I are not the same, but it is really, really good to see people who look like you being successful,” she emphasizes. “When you see people like yourself continually beat down, it’s harder to reach goals that should otherwise be achievable.”

 
Kamaiyah. Photo by Lisa Walker

Kamaiyah. Photo by Lisa Walker

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