A glance at Justin Bieber’s stacked trophy shelf will tell you music awards shows generally reward sales over all other criteria. When they deviate from this rubric, there’s a price to pay, as when the enormously talented jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding nabbed last year’s “Best New Artist” Grammy from the Biebz and his fans hijacked her Wikipedia page in anger and retaliation. Smaller musicians are rarely rewarded if even recognized, and with the exception of shows geared towards niche audiences — MTVu’s Woody Awards, for instance — the shows generally serve to reinforce the machinations of the corporate music industry, so the masterminds can pat themselves on the back.
Which is partly why the nominees for next week’s BET Awards 2011 caused such an outrage — the “Best Female Hip-Hop Artist” category, in particular. Headed up by last year’s winner Nicki Minaj — a clear shoo-in — the rap chops (and broad appeal) of the nominees dropped precipitously thereafter. Atlanta diva Diamond, the former Crime Mob rapper who’s shined on a series of mixtapes since that group split, was a respectable runner-up. But the last two nominees seemed to dip into absurdity. There was Lola Monroe, who rap fans knew first as video girl and frequent King magazine model Angel Lola Luv, but who has made efforts to shed the “eye candy” trope and refashion herself as a rapper with a high-pitched, mafia moll flow. And then there was Cymphonique, a 14-year-old singer with a Nickelodeon contract and the honor of being Master P’s youngest show-biz progeny. To many rap fans, the line-up looked like a joke. Upon the announcement, Twitter lit up with “#Fail” hashtags. Blogger The Hip-Hop Diva suggested that “Every female hip hop artist should submit every video they ever release to BET.” And XXL summed it up succinctly with a headline bearing the unprintable acronym “FOH.”
The line-up was thin, but there was also a noticeable snub: longtime Miami rapper Trina, who’d not only released the independent chart-topping album Amazin, but had been featured in several videos in heavy BET rotation — including Lola Monroe’s “Overtime,” on which the veteran handily bested the newcomer. Trina took to Twitter to protest her exclusion — as did Nicki Minaj and Diamond — which resulted in a long, soul-searching phone conversation with BET head Stephen Hill in which he explained that she’d submitted her video outside of the qualifying dates, blah blah blah. And yet, barring Trina, maybe there really were no other viable contenders for the Best Female Hip-Hop Artist category — for one, it takes big budgets and industry clockwork to place a video in BET rotation, and what labels are pulling that kind of weight for lady rappers today?
Mini-controversies go down practically every minute on the rap internet, beef and battles inherent to the genre, so this one blew over within a matter of weeks. But it illustrated a deeper problem within the music industry. BET felt like it had to stretch for nominees because there is a constant dearth of space for female rappers. Since the heyday of strong, powerful, positive and feminist MCs piqued in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s — with Queen Latifah, Salt n Pepa, MC Lyte and YoYo at the helm — at any given time there have only been three or so female rappers topping the industry.
Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill remain the gold standards, and Lil Kim, Foxy Brown and Eve had their day. But before Nicki Minaj stomped and snarled her way into mass consciousness, arguably the last female rapper to gain as much industry respect and recognition as her male counterparts was Remy Ma — who’s been incarcerated since 2008 after shooting her best friend in a Manhattan parking lot.
“Since ‘97 it’s really just been Kim, Foxy and Missy, and then a rotating feature of crazy ladies,” says Judnick Mayard, rap and R&B columnist at Fader’s Suite903. “But they were never included or even paid attention to unless they could at least stand a bit on the level of those top three. If you’re a female rapper, you have to prove yourself on so many levels and be so many different things.”
This is not to say there is a paucity of female rappers, nor do any of them have to fit in a sexed-up Kim/Foxy mold — though some do. The Georgia rapper Lady became a web meme in February for her song and video “Yankin,” which described in detail her particular anatomical talents. A personal favorite, Atlanta’s Rasheeda, flips explicit sex rhymes into calls for female liberation — it’s not exaggeration to say every other track she cuts includes a line advocating cunnilingus.
But in the wilds of the internet, there’s infinitely more space for varied personalities and styles. There’s been a small flurry over Kreayshawn, an off-kilter, diminuitive white girl from Oakland, who parlayed her infectious summer hit “Gucci Gucci” into a million-dollar contract with Columbia Records. (The race issues — and the Ke$ha vibes — around that deal are a whole other column entirely.) The slow but steady rise of Kid Sister and Amanda Blank — not to mention the acceptance of MIA, more of a chatter than a rapper, into mainstream hip-hop — has ensured those with less conventional styles have a place. Chipper Florida teen Dominique Young Unique raps like confetti over electro beats, UK grime divas like Lady Leshurr are gaining wider acceptance in America, and more traditional hip-hop modes live on in Brooklyn through inveterate spitter Jean Grae and rising star Nitty Scott. Another favorite of mine, Azealia Banks, barely 20, has transformed her biting, Harlem-cut style into multiple flavors, spanning double-dutch battles and pounding, ravey rap anthems complete with diva vocals.
Meanwhile, Cymphonique’s newest song is undeniably, 100% R&B (BET Awards have a whole separate category for that). It’s also quite good, the type of hip hop-informed love jam that dominated the mid-’90s and made Keyshia Cole’s first album a classic. (Cole, in another dramatic turn, was also snubbed.)
I’ve just barely touched on the lady rappers I’m into (for a daily dose of old and new, femalerappers.tumblr.com is a good source). So why does it seem like the music industry has no room for more than two or three at a time? Partly, it seems, it won’t let them be great. Meaning: industry executives seem to bet on the idea that men won’t want to listen to talented female rappers, and they’re given less opportunities in general. In some cases, they might be right — even with a history of skilled lady rappers, hip-hop still sometimes seems like a man’s game, with a glass ceiling just as impenetrable as the corporate one. Trina, who’s completing her sixth album this year, is the only female rapper outside of Missy Elliott to release so many albums. Longevity in hip-hop is tough to attain, but even so, that fact seems insane. Surely my friends and I aren’t the only rap fans dying to see a multiplicity of voices in one of our favorite genres, dying for an alternative to the dense hypermasculinity that rules it. Nicki Minaj has been a godsend and possibly a lifesaver, but how much more interesting would things be if she had formidable opponents? (Sorry, 2011 Lil Kim doesn’t count.)
Like so many lady CEOs before her, Azealia Banks’ solution is to come at the game like a man. “It’s kinda like, if you punch a dude in the face, don’t expect him not to hit you back just because you are a girl,” she says. “If you’re gonna fight a man, be prepared to fight a man, right? Sounds crazy, but it’s the same deal. I definitely think the novelty of being a female rapper has worn off completely, so you’re not getting any points for being cute anymore. As a hip-hop artist who just so happens to be female, I definitely have to step my shit up and keep stepping my shit up. Not only because of male pressure, but just because of musical pressure. I want my music to be able to stand up against everyone’s music, not just other rappers.”
It’s a reasonable response — and certainly the right attitude for an artist who’s trying to win on every level. Still, to me it doesn’t seem like the problem is that female rappers can’t go toe to toe with their male counterparts — it’s a matter of who’s willing to listen in an industry where gender bias is still entrenched at every level.
So I’ll watch the BET Awards this Sunday, psyched to see Lil Wayne and Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige and Rick Ross. But when no female rappers perform — not even Dear Old Nicki — I’ll be stewing and salty on the couch, wondering when, or if, we’ll stop being seen as second string.