The Women of Rap

25 May, 2018

Editor's note: This is part one of a three-part series.

When musician and producer Sylvia Robinson first met young artists Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Master Gee she gave them a name: The Sugarhill Gang.

And in 1979, she produced their first single, Rapper's Delight.

The song was a quick hit in the United States. It is widely considered to be the song that introduced the "rap" sound to the corporate world.

In the 40 years since, hip-hop has become a multi-billion dollar industry. According to a recent report by the Nielsen broadcast rating company, hip-hop is more popular than rock and pop for the first time in history. The report was released at the end of last year. It found that, out of the top 10 most-consumed music albums, seven of them came from hip-hop.

Sylvia Robinson on the cover of her single 'Pillow Talk'
Sylvia Robinson on the cover of her single 'Pillow Talk'

Sylvia Robinson, who died in 2011, was known as the "Mother of Hip-Hop." But, in general, women within the genre are not as recognized as men.

Hip-hop, unquestionably, remains a male-dominated industry.

Charis E. Kubrin is a professor of Criminology, Law, and Society at the University of California Irvine. In 2009, she released a joint study with Ronald Weitzer. Their research examined misogynistic themes in rap songs. The study looked at over 400 rap songs from the 1990s.

Out of all of the songs they examined for the study, Kubrin noted that only 13 of them were by female rappers.

"That doesn't mean that female rappers didn't exist...Recall that these are commercially successful platinum albums. And so, you know, of course the question becomes, ‘What happens that female rappers are not making it to these highest levels?'"

The University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative is a research and advocacy group. In January, it released the results of a six-year study on inclusion within the recording studio. The study found that, from 2012 to 2017, women represented less than 23 percent of artists whose songs made Billboard's Hot 100 list.

The study also showed that more than 90 percent of Grammy award nominees between 2013 and 2018 were male. And, it found that out of 651 music producers, only two percent were women.

This lack of female artists shows how difficult it has been and continues to be for female rappers to break through, Kubrin says.

"I keep waiting for this golden year, this golden time period to happen for female emcees, and I feel like the structural forces of the industry, right, all of these things are so strong that I'm not quite as optimistic as I used to be."

Last October, Cardi B became the first female rapper since Lauryn Hill in 1998 to have a song top the Billboard Hot 100 chart with no other credited artists. For fans of female rappers, this marked a moment of hope.

And yet, in some ways, Kubrin feels that things have moved backwards.

There have been some female artists that have broken through, like Nicki Minaj. However, they remain the exceptions.

Kubrin says that many of the difficulties female artists faced in the 1990s are still present today.

She said, "The gatekeepers in this industry, are mostly men- and there's challenges that occurred back in the 90s that we're still seeing today..."

Female artists add much-needed diversity to the sounds of the hip hop industry, Kubrin says.

"You can look today and find lots of female rappers. Perhaps they're not making it in the mainstream right, they're not having those platinum albums, but boy are they bringing a diversity of perspectives..."

Efforts like, "Where My Girls" are providing more opportunities for female involvement within the music industry.

New York-based rapper Dai Burger launched "Where My Girls" in October. She named the initiative after her 2017 song. She hopes "Where My Girls" will empower young girls and help them find their music interests.

"Just thinking with the idea "Where My Girls," it prompted us to, you know, maybe start an initiative where we could bring the younger girls in and, you know, maybe find their musical voice or production voice, you know, just something I never had when I was a kid, so if you can find out young, it's gonna be great, you know?"

I'm Ashley Thompson. And I'm Caty Weaver.

Rachel Dennis reported and wrote this story. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story:

hit - n. a song that is really popular

dominate - v. to have control over

misogynistic- adj. reflecting a hatred or distrust of women

platinum- adj. an album that has sold over one million copies

inclusion- n. to make a part of something

optimistic- adj. when someone expects good things for the future

gatekeepers- n. people who control access to something

challenges- n. difficult problems

diversity- n. the state of having different types

perspective- n. a way of thinking about something

opportunity- n. an amount of time or a situation in which something can be done: chance

initiatives- n. a program that is created to solve a problem

empower- v. to give power to