Skip to content

PART 1/3: Nicki Minaj and the Paradox of Hip Hop Feminism

February 6, 2010

In as much as Hip Hop as a culture and rap as a musical genre are highly misogynistic, the term “Hip Hop Feminism” may seem more a paradox than anything else. In his article “Re: Definitions: The Name and Game of Hip Hop Feminism,” Hip Hop feminist Michael Jeffries begins his attempt to conceptualize a Hip Hop feminism and a Hip Hop feminist agenda with the following preface: “In hip hop culture, women’s collective and individual performance or criticism is not feminist by nature; only if performers act with the goal of challenging male domination are they practicing feminism” (Jeffries, 215) [emphasis added].

What does it mean to “challenge” male dominance? How do these challenges take shape in a rap genre where the women act like men in order to grant themselves agency as women? In light of the intense focus on sexual politics, where does one draw the line between sexual liberation and sexual exploitation?

As Hip Hop scholar Gwendolyn D. Pough theorizes, Black women participants in Hip-Hop culture “bring wreck to the patriarchy” and “disrupt dominant masculine discourses” in part by remixing (male) rap(pers’) songs. As a rhetorical practice, the remix is a convention of rap music which allows rappers to Signify on, or revise one another’s songs.* Typically, unsigned artists (or artists at the outset of their career), such as Nicki Minaj, make their musical debut by releasing mixtapes. Unlike official albums, mixtapes often consist of remixes of other artists’ songs. Essentially, a remix is a recreation or remake (get it, “re-mix?”) of an original song and a mixtape is a compilation of these remixes.

By remixing male rappers’ songs, female rappers are able to inject and inflect feminine discourse into dominant masculine discourse. However, as Jeffries states, there is a distinct difference between feminine discourse and feminist discourse.

Simply because female rappers are Signifying on the male rap narrative does not necessarily mean that they are disrupting the patriarchy. On the contrary, given the restrictive conventions of the rap genre- which force female artists to straddle identities of heterosexist sexiness and simultaneous masculinity-as much potential as there is for female empowerment in hardcore rap through women rappers’ Signification on the male narrative, its full potential is rarely ever realized.

Female rappers, or femcees, operate as performers of gender and are most harshly judged by an injurious rubric of masculinity. These women are forced to negotiate “androgynous” identities as visually feminine, yet rhetorically masculine artists. A self-identified feminist and pioneer of hardcore female rap, Lil Kim, through her sexually explicit lyrics and calculated inversion of gender paradigms via exaggerated performances of masculinity, has led a virtual sexual revolution in Hip Hop.

Although this sex-positive revolution claims to be “feminist” in theory, there are many aspects of its ideology that are disempowering to women. Given that women rappers are expected to be rhetorically masculine, hardcore female rap grants women limited agency within Hip Hop and debilitates female rappers’ feminist attempts. While there are infinite opportunities for female empowerment in Hip Hop through femcees’ embrace of the erotic, (this is to say that the problem lies in the masculinization of the female narrative, not necessarily its sex-positive approach) female rappers’ feminist leanings are often severely undermined by their own pseudo-masculinity. This pseudo-masculinity is exemplified by “Queen Bitch” of rap Lil Kim’s bold assertion of her ambivalent gendered identity as a “female king” (Little Drummer Boy; Notorious K.I.M.).

Having made her debut by referencing Lil Kim’s hypersexual and sexually promiscuous image via the infamous open-crotched pose, Nicki implicitly aligns herself with a sexual and gender politic which purports to be feminist in nature, yet presents a rather regressive portrait of female empowerment. I say this not to discredit nor undermine Lil Kim’s position as a feminist, but rather to concede that while feminism does in fact exist in Hip Hop, within the context of hardcore female rap it is routinely bastardized and assumes a rather perverse form.

Although in contemporary Hip Hop, especially within the female narrative, hardcore rap is a dominant force, this was not always the case. Historically, there have existed several subject positions represented by and representative of women in Hip Hop. In her article “Empowering Self, Making Choices, Creating Spaces: Black Female Identity via Rap Performance,” Cheryl L. Keyes theorizes about several key subject positions: Queen Mother, Fly Girl, Sista with Attitude and Bad Girl, and their respective female subjectivities as observed in mainstream female rap. Performing masculinity, inverting gender paradigms, combining the “hardcore” elements of masculinity with the eroticism of female sexuality, maintaining a hypersexual and sexually appealing image, all the while lauding female promiscuity and self-objectification as means of erotic empowerment: the Bad Girl reigns supreme in contemporary Hip Hop. Primarily concerned with sexual politics and sexual power, the Bad Girl, through performance(s) of gender, attempts to empower herself as a woman by acting like a man. Essentially, the Bad Girl redefines womanhood and women’s empowerment in exclusively masculine terms.

Since Lil Kim’s debut in the late 1990s, this form of rap, which combines masculine hardcore lyrics with female eroticism, has dominated mainstream Hip Hop. This has ultimately led to a decrease in diverse images, portrayals and representations of Black womanhood and Black women’s roles in the culture at large. In previous decades different forms and styles coexisted and subject positions were represented simultaneously: “rap’s profile in popular music [was] broader during this period [late 1980s and early 1990s] and a range of music categories [had] developed (including pop, Afrocentric, sexually explicit ‘booty’ rap…message rap, and gangsta rap…as well as mack/player rap…)” (Muhammad 124).

In contemporary Hip Hop, however, the culture has become so oversaturated with the hardcore, gangsta and hypersexualized images and politics of hardcore female artists that the Bad Girl subject position has become largely normative.

The Bad Girl motif virtually birthed hardcore female rap, whose foundational crux is the imitation of the hardcore (male) rap genre; the hardcore female rapper is the female counterpart of the hardcore male rapper. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Nicki Minaj, and femcees in general, define themselves in masculine terms and assert their power and agency through their performances of masculinity.

*Signifyin(g), as defined by Henry Louis Gates, is “the practice of formal revision and intertextual relation between texts and refers to ‘the manner in which texts…address their antecedents. Repetition, with a signal difference, is fundamental to the nature of Signifyin(g)’” (Gates, 1998:51; ctd. in Schumacher 451).

  1. February 7, 2010 7:12 pm

    Why I feel so compelled to pick at this piece is that it seems so far removed from its subject material. It reads like material from someone who has only ever observed hip-hop from the outside, like an unsanctioned visitor – a tourist, or maybe at best an anthropologist. And I think that in order to really understand hip-hop – it’s voice, its origins, its “spirit”, for lack of a better word, you have to have genuinely participated in the culture. I think that that distance weakens the author’s credibility.

    If your audience is those of us who love, appreciate, or engage in the hip-hop culture, then that credibility is important. If you’re only writing to other academics, who themselves are probably just as distant, then you’re only maintaining that distance and not bringing them any closer to hip-hop.

    For example, the term “femcee”. No one in hip-hop uses that term. For that matter, hardly anyone uses emcee anymore. The Wu-Tang clan talk of “slaying emcees”, and they’re not the only ones. Using weird “clever” portmanteau neologisms doesn’t lend itself to speaking authentically about hip-hop.

    Beyond that, much like how I take issue with using “actress” as separate from “actor” because there is an implicit qualitative distinction between the two, I think even creating the term “femcee” is patriarchal. It’s as if to say that a female rapper must necessarily be separated out from the general ranks.

    Granted, this article is paying special attention to female rappers, but creating a new term for them creates an unnecessary distinction.

    I don’t know. I think perhaps the author needs to experience more hip-hop, more of what life is like where hip-hop proliferates (i.e. “the hood”) instead of relying exclusively on academic treatments. That’s my two cents. Or five. =)

    • February 11, 2010 12:59 pm

      Thank you for you insight. If your main concern is my usage of “portmanteau neologisms,” then you my dear are missing the bigger picture here. Whether the author labels Nicki Minaj a “femcee” or not does not speak to her, as you seem to insinuate, inexperience with Hip Hop art, life and culture. To be very blunt, these articles are pieces of a much larger thesis that was in fact targeting an academic audience; does that then deem me an “anthropologist?” You would sorrily mistaken if you were so naiive as to assume so. I myself an M.C. (and yes I choose to use that term deliberately) and am in fact a part of an all-women Feminist Hip Hop and Poetry Collective. Not that it matters, (but becuase you seem to place an undue emphasis on “authenticity”) I am in fact from the “hood” and participate in Hip Hop culture everyday of my life-always have and always will, because similar to many young men and women of my generation, Hip Hop is my heartbeat. So your perception of the author’s “distance” is merely that-a perception, and if that is the only part of argument you find compelling enough to be worthy of a response, well then, you have missed the point completely.


      • Jessica Mack permalink*
        February 12, 2010 8:41 am

        Francois, thank you for speaking up and saying what many of us were thinking!

  2. April 13, 2010 7:55 pm

    Personally, Lil Kim and Foxy Brown turned me off to female MCs. As a male listener, I always thought of them a shocky gimmicks. Give me MCs like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, or Lauren Hill any day. Unfortunately, most female MCs need a gimmick to stand out.


  1. uberVU - social comments
  2. Celebrating Gender Across Borders’ one-year blogiversary « Gender Across Borders

Comments are closed.

  • Previous Series at GAB

  • TWITTER: What’s going on @GABblog

  • Top Posts

  • Recommended Reading

  • We participated in Blog for International Women’s Day 2010.

  • NetworkedBlogs

  • %d bloggers like this: