Gender, Sexuality and Hip-Hop: A Brief History of ‘Bad Bitch Music’

It’s February 2021. WAP by Cardi B and Megan thee Stallion still lives in all of our minds, rent free. The TikTok empire would literally crumble without its ability to access sixty-second long clips of Doja Cat, City Girls and Saweetie songs. A confident, sexy, and unapologetically feminine rap is dominating in America and across the globe currently. For the sake of ease, I will refer to this music as bad bitch music. These rappers are unafraid to rap about sex, money, and how cute they are; a refreshing and liberating response to the popular depiction of women in rap by male artists as disposable, sexual objects. Music that at one time would have been labelled “hardcore” is now receiving its flowers in the mainstream.

Rewind. It’s the 1970s in the Bronx, New York. DJ Kool Herc (popularly deemed the father of hip hop) is running parties. He is credited with inventing the technique of DJing that cuts two of the same records together, consequently extending the middle instrumental, or ‘break’, of disco and funk records. The Jamaican idea of toasting over records has begun to be adopted at these parties, which develops into MCing. Hip hop is born. Hip hop acted as a realm of freedom of expression for black folk in America, who were, and continue to live, under oppressive structures.

It cannot be denied that women played an equal role in cultivating the hip hop scene. From the outset, in the ‘70s, there were b-boys and b-girls, generally known as break-dancers (they would dance in the ‘break’ cut by the DJ), and MCs of all genders. Roxanne Shanté was one of the first female MCs, rising to prominence at the age of only fourteen with her track Roxanne’s Revenge (her biopic is on Netflix, I would highly recommend the watch Roxanne Roxanne [2017]). Her unapologetic and fearless style of MCing inspired Nas to start rapping, a fellow resident of the Queensbridge Projects, Queens. Sha-Rock, a female MC who also emerged from the Bronx in the ‘70s, became part of the Funky 4+1, the first hip hop group to appear on SNL. In an interview in 2019, Sha-Rock asserted that at the time, grassroots hip hop was less focussed on gender than it is now.¹ She maintains that women were integral to the take-off of hip hop culture, and their place in the culture was not overly contested at the rudimentary level.

As the genre came to be increasingly more commercially successful in the ‘80s, it became more heavily gendered, with record labels tending to favour male over female rappers. However, the mid-1980s saw Salt-N-Pepa rocket into fame. Salt-N-Pepa provided a turning point in women’s place in rap as the first women in the genre to garner success with music in which they boldly rapped about sex. The group were instrumental in women reclaiming the narrative in rap. Songs such as Push It and Let’s Talk About Sex saw the group positioning themselves as autonomous sexual beings. This was pivotal as, previous to this point in rap, women were popularly positioned by male artists as passive sexual objects.

The overarching theme affecting all the female MCs I have mentioned so far is that they were economically exploited by their producers and managers. Roxanné Shante and Salt-N-Pepa had to break with their producers as they felt the financial royalties for the music were being unfairly divided. It is fair to say that hip hop in the ‘70s and ‘80s was, on the whole, not taken very seriously in the corporate realm, regardless of gender. However, women were perceived as even less profitable, which can clearly be seen by the fact that not until 1988 was the first full album from a female solo rapper released (Lyte as a Rock by MC Lyte).

Although the ‘90s saw an increased entrance of women into the rap game, the same barriers remained in place. Nonetheless, they continued to build on the groundwork laid by their forbearers. The likes of Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim gained prominence, and they all made listeners aware, through their music, that they owned their own bodies, and were conscious of their own sexual prowess. Consequently, the ‘90s saw the real sexual awakening of rap music. In particular, bad bitch music as we know it today was born – and Lil’ Kim was the architect. If, when you first listened to Megan thee Stallion’s Body you had to scramble to turn the volume down on your laptop so your mum didn’t think you were watching porn, just know Lil’ Kim was the first to pull this move. In her track Custom Made (Give it to You) the sound of moans mark the commencement of the song, and are laced into the beat throughout, just as in Body. If you also chuckled at the iconic line from Girls in the Hood by Megan thee Stallion: I’mma make him eat me out while I’m watching anime, remember that in Queen Bitch, Lil’ Kim spat the seminal line: Got buffoons eating my pussy while I watch cartoons. Lil’ Kim set the precedent and triggered a canon of truly authentic and uncompromising music celebrating female sexual autonomy and self-ownership. Kim and her peers in the ‘90s subverted the narrative in rap; these women asserted their own agency in their relations with men through their rap flows.

The word bitch also began to take a more fluid form in this period. The roots of the word bitch are found in the Oxford English Dictionary in the nineteenth century, in which the insult meant a lewd or sensual woman. The word was adopted as a slang term, and was most commonly used by men as a way to disregard or diminish a woman. The word became heavily used in hip hop, especially by male artists seeking to degrade women (see: A Bitch Iz a Bitch by N.W.A.), specifically black women. Bitch became a term to denote that a woman is ‘too much’, an extreme on either end of the spectrum: either as too uppity, or too sexually liberal. In an interview for MTV in 1999², Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, Aaliyah, and Da Brat (all influential and trail-blazing women in their own right) agreed that they themselves used the word bitch in their own music to uplift themselves. They saw proclaiming “I am that bitch” as a way to assert their own independence, and anyone calling them uppity as really just jealous of their ability to ask for and get what they want.

However, women celebrating their own sexual autonomy and sensuality, especially for black women in America, has always been a point of contention. Seven months after the release of her first album, Hard Core, Lil’ Kim sat down for an interview with the writer and social activist bell hooks, in which they discussed the double standards that female celebrities face when embracing their sexuality in comparison to their male counterparts (I highly recommend the read – two iconic women). hooks concluded the interview by saying: More dangerous than any words that come out of Lil’ Kim’s mouth are the forces of repressive puritanical morality that seek to silence her

The problem is two-fold. Not only do women in rap who choose to create rap music about sex and money (something men have been doing for decades and labelled as icons for doing so) already struggle within a misogynistic industry, they also face backlash from a public who sees their lyrics as threatening. The problem, of course, is not the existence of rap music, or women creating music about sex and money. The problem is the way society frames women (particularly black women) who are autonomous, not dependent on men for sexual pleasure, and vocal about it. This is because society itself is inherently misogynistic. Specifically, in the American context, as bell hooks infamously states throughout her academic work, society is structured as a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (see: bell hooks discuss how misogyny in rap is framed by the public in her piece Sexism and misogyny: Who takes the rap? …Misogyny, gangsta rap and piano for Z Magazine).⁴

This means for Black women producing rap music in America, they face an onslaught of both racist and sexist stereotyping. Two of the historic stereotypes of black women in America are commonly evoked in rap music: the Jezebel (the sexually promiscuous black woman) and the Sapphire (the domineering female who usurps the role of the man). Terri Adams and Douglas Fuller, in their journal article The Words Have Changed but the Ideology Remains the Same: Misogynistic Lyrics in Rap Music, posit that the terms have just changed: the Jezebel is the ho in hip hop, who is the sex object used to satisfy the man, and the Sapphire is the bitch, the money-hungry and demanding woman.⁵ These racist, sexist stereotypes enable the demonization and dehumanisation of black women, in rap music and society at large. I have continuously seen rappers such as Cardi B and Megan thee Stallion being delegitimised, dehumanised and looked down upon purely on the basis that they unapologetically rap about sex and pleasure, and the way that they dress.

These racist and sexist stereotypes are not only psychologically damaging, but also physically dangerous. We can use the rap industry again as a lens to analyse the manifestation of patriarchy as physical violence, especially against Black women. Journalist Dee Barnes revealed in a heart-breaking but extremely compelling article the erasure of not only the influence of female artists (e.g. the group JJ Fad) on N.W.A. from the movie Straight Outta Compton, but also the erasure of the violent attacks that Dr. Dre exerted on women, both in his personal and professional life (namely Barnes herself, Dre’s ex-girlfriend Michel’le, and Tairrie B, Eazy E’s protégé)⁶. Barnes states that it was easy for Dre to erase women from the narrative of Straight Outta Compton, which Dre himself produced, because he does not respect most women. To name a more recent manifestation of this violence, a few months ago, RnB singer Tory Lanez shot Megan thee Stallion in the foot after she refused his advances on her. The reduction of women both in and out of rap to racist and sexist stereotypes is directly violent and harmful.

And this is why I believe bad bitch music is so important. In 2021, we are now at a point where this style of rap music is mainstream and profitable, with Nicki Minaj having dominated the charts for a decade now, and the rise of various artists I have previously mentioned, such as Cardi B and Megan thee Stallion. This music shatters the structure within which women are supposed to live, a structure that tells us that women are not allowed to be sexual beings in the same way men are (from the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech famously sampled in Beyoncé’s song ***Flawless).⁷ Bad bitch music uplifts women, regardless of race; but it is especially important for Black women in reclaiming a space of freedom that is so often taken from them. Furthermore, it is incredibly important that all listeners continue to view these artists as rounded beings; the confident and uncompromising nature of their music is only one of the manifestations of their personhood. Reducing Black women to stereotypes, even subconsciously, sets us back after the steps that they have taken for us all.

Additionally, sexually liberal female rappers are often accused of being ‘anti-feminist’ due to their often brash lyricism and dress. Charges of playing into the male gaze are often levelled at them. Is this not the problem? Patriarchy will have us believing that sexually liberal women are only trying to pander to the attention of men. This is because patriarchy places men at the centre of every structure in our society: from politics, to music, to the personal. Why should women in rap be restricted from talking about sex, when men who have done this for decades have been continuously celebrated?

To begin to unpick this many-layered problem, writer and scholar Joan Morgan posits the theory of hip hop feminism.⁸ Morgan asserts that we can indeed exist within the grey areas – everything does not have to be so binary. You can be a woman, and a feminist, and listen to hip hop – everyone has the ability to listen to music critically and recognise the double standard that women face in the industry. The more that people change their perception of women who are living authentically and liberally (sexually and economically), the more we all can live authentically.

However, as music is deeply related to the personal and political, this conversation is extremely nuanced. Just because a particular type of music is liberating for one person does not mean it is liberating for all, and it also does not mean it is always liberating for the artists themselves to make. I recommend watching the video titled WAP and the Spectacle of Sexual Liberation created by writer and cultural critic Kimberly N. Foster⁹, who provides an alternate perspective than that which is posed in this article. Foster highlights the very real problem of black women, from Lil’ Kim to Cardi, often being expected to fit into a hyper-sexualised box in order to achieve large commercial success in the music industry. Thus, she questions whether there is full, true agency in this process. Amongst so many other insightful and thought-provoking comments, Foster argues that it is important for there to be a full variety in representation, sentiment which I wholeheartedly agree with. We should be uplifting all women in rap, in all their multifaceted-ness, such as the ever-talented Tierra Whack, Rapsody, and Noname. As rapper Rapsody stated in a piece for Billboard: Music is supposed to be a soundtrack to your life, and there's a woman who can fit in every part of that.¹⁰

Lastly, but most importantly, if you found the contents of this article interesting, I urge you to consult the bibliography which I have included below. I am by no means an expert or, as a white British woman, someone who can speak from personal experience on the topic. I just hope to act as a vessel to encourage people to further research and consider the topic themselves.

References

¹ "The First Woman Rapper MC Sha Rock Talks Women in Rap, Sugar Hill Records, & Her Movie Project”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8UBKxJg1SQ >

² “On set w/ Aaliyah, Da Brat, Missy Elliott & Lil’ Kim (1999): You Had To Be There”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOzcH9Fim1M >

³ hooks, bell. “Hardcore Honey: bell hooks Goes on the Down Low with Lil’ Kim”, (May 1997), < https://www.papermag.com/lil-kim-bell-hooks1-1427357106.html?rebelltitem=62#rebelltitem62 >

⁴ hooks, b. (1994, February). Sexism and misogyny: Who takes the rap? . . . Misogyny, gangsta rap, andpiano. Z Magazine. < http://s18.middlebury.edu/AMST0325A/hooks_Sexism%20and%20Misogynywho-takes-the-rap.pdf >

⁵ Adams, Terri M., and Douglas B. Fuller. “The Words Have Changed but the Ideology Remains the Same:Misogynistic Lyrics in Rap Music.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 36, no. 6, 2006, pp. 938–957, JSTOR, < http://www.jstor.org/stable/40034353 >

⁶ Barnes, Dee. “Here’s What’s Missing From Straight Outta Compton: Me and the Other Women Dr.Dre Beat Up”, < https://gawker.com/heres-whats-missing-from-straight-outta-compton-me-and1724735910 >

⁷ “Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche Flawless Speech”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75BknhBhWVg >

⁸ “Joan Morgan Talks Hip-Hop Feminism & The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeYRRzt2ikQ >

⁹ “WAP and the Spectacle of Sexual Liberation”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=ILApR36KgQw&fbclid=IwAR23XawseazqgOGpZJ-VknYVIx3SuO_qkbtovWHiPO5_KP3Z3IwTRmtCrp8 >

¹⁰ Gracie, Bianca. “How Women Reclaimed Hip-Hop in 2019 by Making Their Own Rules”, 19 December 2019, Billboard, < https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/hip-hop/8546781/female-rappers-2019-dominance >

Music never lets you down
Puts a smile on your face
Anytime, any place
Dancing helps relieve the pain
Soothes your mind, makes you happy again
Listen to those dancing feet
Close your eyes and let go
But it don't mean a thing
If it ain't got that swing
Bop-shoo-wa, bop-shoo-wa, bop-shoo-wa

Chic - Everybody Dance from the album: Chic (1977)