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It’s Time to Tell the Stories of Women in Hip-Hop

Tim P. Whitby/Getty

“There have been other girls (in rap), Sandy “Pepa” Denton told the Los Angeles Daily News in 1987. “But we are the ones who will be remembered. There are a lot of new groups coming up, and we have paved the way.” Salt-N-Pepa were still a relatively new group then, their debut album, Hot, Cool, & Vicious, just one year old, but Denton and fellow group members Cheryl “Salt” James and Deidra “DJ Spinderella” Roper seemed confident that their place in hip-hop history was already secure. They were right, both about their own import and about the other women emcees who followed the trail they helped to blaze; in the nearly 30 years since, countless women have shaped rap’s history.

Now that the genre is old enough to inspire big budget biopics like 2009’s Notorious and this month’s Straight Outta Compton—and given how much discourse the latter film’s omission of women has sparked since its release—I wonder: What might a hip-hop biopic about a woman look like?  

We already have high-profile examples of what not to do. In the two weeks since Straight Outta Compton—Dr. Dre’s N.W.A. hagiography—was released, critics have voiced displeasure with the movie’s erasure of women. Director F. Gary Gray left out J.J. Fad, one of the original acts signed to Eazy E’s Ruthless Records and the first female rap group to earn a Grammy nomination; journalist Dee Barnes, who Dr. Dre publicly assaulted in 1991; R&B singer Michel’le Toussaint, allegedly battered during their six-year relationship; and rapper Tairrie B, whom Dre punched at a Grammy party in 1990. In an essay Barnes penned for Gawker, which reviews the film and provides her account of Dr. Dre’s assault, she notes:

That event isn’t depicted in Straight Outta Compton, but I don’t think it should have been, either. The truth is too ugly for a general audience. I didn’t want to see a depiction of me getting beat up, just like I didn’t want to see a depiction of Dre beating up Michel’le, his one-time girlfriend who recently summed up their relationship this way: “I was just a quiet girlfriend who got beat on and told to sit down and shut up.” But what should have been addressed is that it occurred. 

Straight Outta Compton isn’t the first film to draw legitimate criticism from women who were either misrepresented or ignored completely. In 2009, Kimberly “Lil’ Kim” Jones was reportedly disappointed by the way she was portrayed in the Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace biopic, Notorious. She told MTV News: “When I spoke to the writer I felt like he was trying to play me, so I wouldn’t give up anything. I knew I wouldn’t have control of how I was depicted.” Sean “Puffy” Combs elaborated on her displeasure in a separate MTV News interview, which refers to Lil’ Kim’s role as including “several lewd sex scenes with Biggie”:

The only thing that I can say about the movie … that was great from their relationship is that he really respected her as an artist, as an MC and was into her like that [...] Kim will have her chance, her own movie will come out there. Give Kim her chance. Don’t believe what you saw in the movie; it wasn’t only about that. She was with us, that was our queen. She’ll always be the queen. She got every right to feel that way.

Hip-hop history desperately needs more women telling stories on their own terms: It’s the only way to ensure we’ll have an accurate record of their legacies. But in film—as in the broader hip-hop community, it’s important to note—would-be directors have to pass through a gauntlet of male gatekeepers in order to see their visions come to onscreen fruition.

Veteran hip-hop artist Jean Grae believes that it’s difficult for women to get their due on the merits of their talent alone, until they’re regarded as equal participants within the hip-hop community. In an email, she wrote:

We don’t get to discuss actual artistry. Technical skill. 99% of the conversation is “what is it like to be a woman emcee.” It makes me terribly depressed. Your whole life as an artist goes ignored. No matter how hard you work at your craft, you never get to discuss it. No matter how hard you push artistic boundaries, it counts for naught. Pretty sad.

In other words: It’s impossible to produce a nuanced depiction of a female rapper if you reduce her to the sum of her gender and her sexuality.

There’s certainly no dearth of material. Directors could focus on one of the many women who’ve done time following meteoric rises to fame—and the impact of that incarceration on their career. Shante “Da Brat” Harris served three years in prison, beginning in 2007, for assaulting an Atlanta Falcons cheerleader with a bottle. Already several years past her biggest commercial success—her debut album, Funkdafied, which made her the first platinum-selling solo female rap artist in 1994—the incarceration didn’t help her chances at a comeback. Beginning in 2008, Renaissance “Remy Ma” Smith served six years of an eight-year prison sentence after shooting a former friend in a dispute; similarly, the time served impeded her personal and professional progress. It resulted in considerable time spent away from her children, a broken engagement with fellow rapper Papoose, and an inability to build her music career. (She did, however, earn an associate degree in sociology during her stint.) In 2005, Lil’ Kim was sentenced to a year and a day and served ten months for perjury and conspiracy, after lying to a federal grand jury to protect friends involved in a 2001 shooting—an experience she recounted to MTV as a relatively positive one.

If directors wanted to tell the story of a West Coast rapper whose early success in the game gave way to family life and mentorship, they could tell the story of Yolanda “Yo-Yo” Whitaker Winsome, a mother of two who, in her heyday, was one of Ice Cube’s proteges and who now runs a youth program called Yo-Yo’s School of Hip-Hop. For a cautionary tale in the downside of courting a reputation as a “bad girl of rap”: Ill Nana: The Foxy Brown Story, which would tell the story of Inga “Foxy Brown” Marchand, a rapper who had no fewer than ten public feuds. Of course any of these films could genre-bend, focusing as much romance as on rage, as much on the compromises made to overcome poverty as on the inhumanity of corporate politics.

Lenée Voss, co-creator of the podcast Hip-Hop Is 4 Lovers, believes the impediment to telling women’s stories in hip-hop is one of misguided expectations. “[Women’s] biggest obstacles to full engagement in the culture mirror the same structural issues we face as everyday humans,” she said. “When it comes to mainstream representation and success, it seems to me that women rappers are often expected to fulfill everyone’s fantasies,” Voss continued. “The way a lot of women rappers are assessed has less to do with their music and more to do with what they look like, who they’re screwing, et cetera. Connected to this expectation are good old fashioned sexism and misogyny. [...] Maybe it’s time we decolonize the music and culture a little more.”

Patriarchal perceptions of women in hip-hop have long made it difficult to have candid, complex conversations about their roles in advancing the genre. In an interview with Hopes&Fears, founding J.J. Fad member Juana Burns noted how integral the success of her group’s 1988 single, “Supersonic,” was to the early success of Eazy E’s label, Ruthless Records:

Yeah, [Jerry Heller (N.W.A.’s manager) and Eazy E] did it strategically because they knew with them being so rough and hard that they needed to legitimize the label by putting us out first, letting us take off first [to] legitimize the label. Then after that, NWA just chopped the door down, but we definitely opened the doors for them to come out. They did it on purpose.

Of their exclusion from the film, Burns said, “I just wish that they would have put in a line like, ‘Hey let me finish up with J. J. Fad in the studio. Eazy, I’ll be right with you.’ And then, they could have put a little “Supersonic” in the background, so that the history would have been told the right way,” she said. “If I wasn’t sitting here telling you this, you would never know. The average person would never know how integral we were, and how pivotal we were to the whole NWA story.”

Jerry Heller’s memoir, Ruthless, confirmed J.J. Fad’s significance: “The J.J. Fad album, released on July 19, 1988, stayed on the charts for four months and eventually went platinum. It was the first rap album in the Warner Music Group family of labels to do so. Ruthless was on the map.”

The members of J.J. Fad weren’t the only women whose rap success either legitimized the efforts of their male labelmates or eclipsed them. MC Lyte, still considered one of the best women rappers of all-time, was discovered in 1986 by a rap duo, Audio Two, whose success peaked at their first single, “Top Billin’.” Audio Two officially disbanded in 1999, while MC Lyte recorded her eighth studio album, Legend, earlier this year. Similarly, Queen Latifah’s demo recording was produced by her friend, Mark “DJ Mark the 45 King” James. James, along with Latifah and a few other friends, formed a collective called Flavor Unit in 1988. The outfit eventually expanded into Flavor Unit Management, which represented male-led groups like Naughty By Nature, Black Sheep, Apache, Chill Rob G, along with a roster of women R&B and rap artists, and Flavor Unit Entertainment, the production company under which Latifah continues to create big and small screen content.

Despite women rappers’ proven track record of longevity and influence, they still contend with rap’s ingrained misogyny. When asked about N.W.A.’s excessive use of derogatory terms for women, Ice Cube told Rolling Stone this year: “If you’re a bitch, you’re probably not going to like us,” he says. “If you’re a ho, you probably don’t like us. If you’re not a ho or a bitch, don’t be jumping to the defense of these despicable females. [...] I never understood why an upstanding lady would even think we’re talking about her.” It’s the same thing he said in interviews 20 years ago. For him and many others, the needle hasn’t moved since.

Women rappers who’ve found mainstream success have adapted to these narrow confines: Queen Latifah did it by projecting regality, playing into the idea that respect from men can only be command through one’s carriage. Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown coupled menace with public performance of sexuality, reclaiming the word “bitch,” recasting it as an  affirmation of ambition and toughness. And many of the best-known women in hip-hop, from MC Lyte to Eve, benefitted from early associations with with male emcees and producers.

Still, Jean Grae, who was once mistakenly referred to as a protege of Talib Kweli—”That was very confusing, since we have both been putting out music for the same amount of time,” she says—thinks fans and artists alike would be better at fairly, fully representing women’s contributions to the rap game if we stopped placing so much emphasis on “gender before jobs.” When I asked her about the ways in which motherhood, gender identity, and romantic relationships may make women’s experiences distinct from men’s, she says, “It shouldn’t be part of the discussion at all. Unless we choose to make it part of the discussion.”

But it’s hard not to make gender part of the discussion when so much of how women are marketed in the genre relies on  it. Voss, for her part, disagrees with Grae:

When it comes to women who do anything that isn’t considered acceptable by larger society, the qualifier of their womanhood or femininity comes up. [...] It’s obvious that the concern with their womanhood or femininity is from a place of monitoring or policing,  and not a concern that these women are treated well as they participate. It’s the same with hip hop music and culture. [...] It’s not possible to discuss women who rap as “just” rappers until or unless people who consume and participate divest from basic patriarchy.

Hip-hop is a musical genre known for its braggadocio, its artists’ ability to vividly render the experiences of their community, and their lyrical and rhythmic cleverness—regardless of their gender. But hip-hop is also very much about creating a protective, creative community, often by sheer force of will and against harsh odds. For women—touring with their children in tow (as Salt-N-Pepa did), or recovering from abusive relationships without taking time off from performing or recording to heal (like Lil’ Kim)—there are, in fact, very gender-specific distinctions. It’s time we respected them.