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Embracing ‘losing control’ through female rap

staff note

My first exposure to female rap was Lauryn Hill’s “MTV Unplugged No. 2.0,” which my mother had on vinyl and would play most evenings after school. I remember feeling that there was something inherently different about Hill, that she held some kind of secret that could only be revealed by letting each interlude play its course — that this kind of music came from a different planet than what I heard on the radio, which at that point consisted of mostly Top 40 Disney hits and the occasional Christmas carol. Even as a kid, I felt something in Hill’s acoustics, something rich in the rasp of her voice. And while she became the first woman to be nominated in 10 categories in a single year of the Grammys, her success did not absolve her from the cultural backlash that female artists have come to know all too well. Because she challenged the basic structure of the music industry and refused to fit the pre-established mold of an up-and-coming star, she was incredulously torn down by the media.

This cultural instinct to prod the lives of women we don’t even know, searching for weakness or wreckage, causes women to embody a sense of distrust in themselves, as explained by Elana Dykewomon in the literary journal “Sinister Wisdom”: “Almost every woman I have ever met has a secret belief that she is just on the edge of madness, that there is some deep, crazy part within her, that she must be on guard constantly against ‘losing control’ — of her temper, of her appetite, of her sexuality, of her feelings, of her ambition, of her secret fantasies, of her mind.”

In female rap, I have found refuge from this constant, nagging sense of mistrust in myself, from the belief that any form of self-expression is “too much,” that it pushes me closer to “losing control.”

The way Hill was colored in a light of madness is ironic in 2019, as her work is directly sampled in top-charted hits and her influence can be seen at almost every level of our culture, musically and otherwise. The groundwork laid by artists like Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Lil’ Kim and countless other female rappers established a unique space for today’s female creatives to directly craft their own narratives, thus rejecting the rigid cultural scripts pushed before them.

Female rap is inherently an act of sociopolitical resistance, as it defies the messages that tell women they can’t be confident, intelligent, sexual beings, much less all of these at once. The fact that hip-hop has become the most widely-consumed genre of music adds another layer. Female rap not only demands a certain level of renewed empowerment, but it also has the audacity to both rebel against cultural messages and demand mainstream attention for it. 

I was fortunate to be able to see Tierra Whack live twice in the last two months. The first time I saw her, she brought fans onstage to sing with her; the second time she gave a fan her only pair of shoes after finding out it was his birthday. Her positivity and aura of total acceptance for both herself and others is simply radiant, and reflects the attitude she brings to the industry. Pitchfork called her 2018 debut “Whack World” a “theme park of an album,” as each short song defies categorization in its own right yet flows into the next effortlessly. The album was accompanied by Whack’s self-directed audiovisual project, which further speaks to her emphasis on creating her own narrative. She doesn’t take herself too seriously while at the same time validating some of the deepest and most salient anxieties that many young people experience today, creating space for humor and playfulness alongside very real issues. Whack ultimately represents a generation less concerned with following the linearity of past cultural scripts and more interested in creating a sort of kaleidoscopic playground to explore each other and ourselves in all of our ridiculousness, passion, sorrow and anger.

In the same way, when Doja Cat came onto the scene by posting tracks on Soundcloud and uploading a homemade Photobooth music video of herself sporting a cow-print skirt and top with french fries in her nose with the single, “MOO!”, she made no attempt to shrink herself to fit prescribed norms. Instead, she opted for a sense of irreverent absurdity that sees taking oneself too seriously as a waste of time. The 24-year-old rapper blends an uplifting harmony of pop vocals with a ridiculously danceable beat in her celebration of female sexuality throughout her album “Amala.” Powerhouse tracks like “Go To Town” contribute to larger conversations on how gender inequity is perpetuated in the bedroom, undercut with a beat that could stand on its own for its pure electricity and fun. Whether it be speaking candidly about her period on Instagram or munching on Takis during an interview, Doja’s “quirky process has birthed delightfully imaginative bangers,” as The Fader wrote, and started important conversations in the process.

The up-and-coming female rapper Leikeli47 similarly represents this generation’s lack of patience with traditional expectations to be either one thing or another. While she produces some of the most danceable tracks of the decade that make no attempt to censor the splendidly messy, sexual and sometimes superfluous experience of being young and female in this country (see: “Girl Blunt”), she wears a mask over her face during interviews and concerts because of her supposed shyness. In this way, Leikeli47 proves that female rappers don’t need to caricature themselves into flamboyant figures of sexuality and power to gain recognition — vulnerability plays just as much, if not more, of a role in true creative freedom. 

Beginning college as a young woman in 2019 brings with it a heavy load of baggage. Before even arriving, we are told to beware of sexual assault at parties, we’re encouraged to dress a certain way to avoid being over (or under) sexualized. Once here, our thoughts and ideas are minimized in and outside of the classroom, our voices are talked over, explained over or, more often than not, completely silenced. While generations above us, including certain waves of feminism, may see female rap as obnoxious or even digressive from movements towards gender equality, I would argue that female rap is the most powerful tool we have right now. From Lauryn Hill to Leikeli47, women have been using the art of rap to express themselves loudly and honestly, to undermine long-held traditions that seek to corner women into a self-sabotaging labyrinth of self mistrust and to simply have a good time — which, in a persistent patriarchal society is a political act in and of itself. As I’ve progressed through college into my sophomore year, I’m coming to realize just how much I rely on these women to allow myself a breath, to let myself laugh, dance, say and do things that supposedly mean I’m “losing control.”

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