Songs like Cardi B's 'WAP' have provoked strong online reactions about female sexuality and empowermentTwitter/BardiUpdatess

Since its inception in the 1970’s, hip-hop has been a heavily male-dominated genre. From Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. to Drake and Kendrick Lamar, the biggest stars have always generally been men, supported by teams of male producers, managers and agents. However, women have never been completely excluded.  The history of female rappers includes the household names of Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott and Queen Latifah, who paved the way for their contemporary counterparts such as Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. Their place within the context of a genre that oversexualizes and objectifies women has been a topic of discussion for years; their relationship to feminism has also been continually debated. 

On the one hand, there are many who would argue that they are feminist icons, who ought to be championed for reclaiming their sexuality and for boldly entering an area where women are scarce. Others, however, suggest that the issue is more complex, and that their efforts may in fact perpetuate the patriarchal and misogynistic values which have always been at the heart of hip-hop. The arguments for both sides make it difficult to arrive at a conclusive answer, but the approach of some artists indicates that trying to reconcile and utilise the two in conjunction may be the most profitable way forward in the debate.

Missy Elliott shows that controversy over female rappers is nothing newTwitter/MissyElliott

Female rappers have historically used their sexuality in a way that reflects the misogynistic sentiments of the genre, resulting in notable commercial success. The most obvious example happened last year, when ‘WAP.’ by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion broke numerous streaming records.  The title alone (WAP is an acronym for “Wet-Ass Pussy”) highlights their use of female sexuality. The lyrics and music video stirred much controversy, despite explicit sexuality in hip-hop not being a new phenomenon: Missy Elliott’s hit “Get Ur Freak On” may not have been as salacious or commercially successful, but it garnered similar attention when it went platinum 19 years earlier.

The significance for both hip-hop and the wider music industry is that the success of female rappers makes them commercially equal to their male counterparts. The British artists Stefflon Don and AJ Tracey illustrate this as, due to their similar net worths (£1.2m and £1.5m respectively) and status within the music industry, they are likely to receive comparable offers from concert venues, festivals and their record labels. Therefore, both the presence and commercial potency of female rappers reinforce the notion that they have a substantial place in hip-hop, undermining the sentiment that a woman’s value within the genre is limited to her being a sexual object.

“Both the presence and commercial potency of female rappers reinforce the notion that they have a substantial place in hip-hop.”

In addition to the evident commercial success, many would argue that female rappers achieve an equal – if not greater – social success with their music. The fact that many of the most prevalent artists’ stage personas are centred around their sexuality demonstrates its importance. This is reflected by the common perception that it is almost impossible for women to become successful rappers without acknowledging or utilising their sexuality. 

This is not, however, necessarily a bad thing. The social impact of normalising women’s sexual freedom undermines patriarchal views on female sexual repression,  which clearly correlates with many current feminist values. The idea that women should be proud of their bodies and sexual identities is one of the central doctrines of modern feminism, and the fact that female rappers so frequently embody and champion this belief inherently normalises this idea to our current generation. Furthermore, this is enhanced by music’s nature as a widely-accessible medium, which arguably allows artists to promote these values to a larger audience than for example politicians, authors and film directors, and on a more regular basis.

Youtube has allowed feminist artists to engage with a wider audience than ever before

On the other hand, it could be argued that the impact is at odds with some feminist values and therefore has a detrimental social effect. Although the messages of sexual autonomy and confidence cannot be denied, there is scope for saying that the objectification which accompanies this is harmful. Many of the current issues we face with rape culture, misogyny and other forms of sexism relate to, or in some cases even stem from, the oversexualisation and objectification of women. The fact that many female rappers’ lyrics and music videos embrace this view of women – whether or not with the intention of reclaiming their sexuality – could be seen to both perpetuate and reaffirm the idea that these views are acceptable.

“This persistent focus on their sexuality suggests that women’s place in hip-hop is only ostensibly beneficial.”

Moreover, the commercial success of these artists in itself perhaps reflects the perception that a woman’s value is proportional to their appearance and sexuality. This persistent focus on their sexuality suggests that women’s place in hip-hop is only ostensibly beneficial: instead of being “authentic” gender diversity, it indicates that women are only welcome in hip-hop on the condition that they accept its misogyny, and utilise their sexuality for commercial gain.

Nicki Minaj's 'Anaconda' notably sparked much criticism of its explicit female sexuality on its release

This makes placing the role of female rappers a difficult task. While the arguments for their positive impact cannot be ignored, it is difficult to dismiss these questions surrounding its authenticity, leading to a relative stalemate in the current discussion. There are, however, rare and often overlooked cases which balance both perspectives. Queen Latifah is one such example: her singles ‘Ladies First’ and ‘U.N.I.T.Y’ offer similar messages of female empowerment to other artists’, but with a uniquely strong focus on rejecting misogyny and sexism. Her success highlights the potential for feminist ideas to be received within hip-hop without accepting its misogyny and instead, refuting its core values.


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This example perhaps gives us an answer to the debate by demonstrating the ability to be successful without exploiting or gratifying the desire to objectify women. However, it is clear that, in a capitalist society, the reduced commercial incentive makes this approach less popular, even if it could be the most socially beneficial. Queen Latifah’s example therefore serves as a reminder that although the popularity of ‘WAP.’ and other sex anthems may increase the tendency to indulge hip-hop’s misogyny, this is by no means a necessity. Hip-hop can be a vehicle for social change if artists choose to challenge its problematic principles.