Holding it Down for Women: Nicki Minaj and the Problem of Gender Inequity in Hip Hop

Posted on August 17, 2012

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On June 3, Hot97 DJ Peter Rosenberg took to the stage at MetLife Stadium to address the crowd at the radio station’s annual hip hop concert, Summer Jam 2012. While warming up the crowd, Rosenberg says, “I see the real hip hop heads sprinkled in here…I see them. I know there are some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later – I’m not talking to y’all right now…I’m here to talk about real hip hop.”[1]

Minaj confirmed the reports that her boss at Young Money Entertainment, rap star Lil Wayne, advised her not to perform. Wayne also withdrew all Young Money-affiliated artists from the show. Lil’ Wayne explained his decision:  “I don’t know what anyone else believes, but I believe females deserve the ultimate respect at all times no matter, when or how…I feel like a woman’s supposed to be respected at all times, therefore I believe I made the right decision.”[2] Rosenberg responded to Lil’ Wayne’s comments by asking whether or not stating his opinion about a song constituted a lack of respect for women. Then Rosenberg sought to illustrate Wayne’s hypocrisy by playing some of his misogynistic lyrics. Rosenberg punctuated his point by declaring, “Weezy F. – the ‘F’ doesn’t stand for feminist, alright.”[3]

Nicki Minaj defended her’s and Wayne’s actions to Hot97’s DJ Funkmaster Flex the following day. In her phone call with Flex, she recognized Rosenberg’s sexism: “…For this person to single out the one female on the bill. I’m holding it down for women.” Then she elaborated (and I am paraphrasing), “Every woman needs to know that it does not matter what people say about you. After a certain amount of time, when you put in a certain amount of work…you deserve respect.”[4] Flex went on the defensive, denying Rosenberg’s comments constituted an attack on women. He then protected Rosenberg’s right to express his opinion even though he thought that Rosenberg voiced it at the wrong time.

This is not the first time that popular hip hop artists have been dissed on the Summer Jam stage.[5] However, Rosenberg’s actions were peculiar. He was not an artist, but a DJ who worked for the station who scheduled Minaj as one of the concert’s headliners. More importantly, and despite what Rosenberg and other Hot97 deejays like Funkmaster Flex said, Rosenberg drew the line between what’s “real” hip hop and what’s not just in terms of aesthetics, but in a disrespectful, public, and gendered manner.

Observers like New York Times’s Jon Caramanica have called attention to Rosenberg’s ethnicity (He’s Jewish.) and his backwardness. Essence writer Demetria L. Lucas and Rosenberg, have pointed to Lil’ Wayne’s (misogynistic) lyrics as a sign of hypocrisy and opportunism.[6] While these are worthy topics, this spat between Rosenberg and Hot97 and Nicki Minaj, Lil’ Wayne, and Young Money highlights the gender inequity in hip hop.

In his interview with Minaj, Funkmaster Flex correctly asserted that criticism has been a crucial component of hip hop. But Rosenberg’s dismissal of Minaj and her, presumably female fans, is tantamount to an attack on women because, 1.) It is tough to imagine Rosenberg publicly admonishing a headlining male artist right before his company’s concert. 2.) Although women have always participated in hip hop culture, men have defined its values since the beginning, thus, 3.) Many of us participants and critics base our evaluations and criticisms (on what’s “real”) of hip hop music on a heterosexual masculine aesthetic and, 4.) Yes, while there are more female rappers on the public radar than ever before, only few paths to relevancy and stardom remain for women in comparison to men.[7]

In a subsequent radio show, Rosenberg acknowledged women in their traditional social roles:  “Wayne is right about something—Women are mothers, are sisters, are daughters…” Yet his comments about Minaj’s music implicitly reflected a preference of a particular masculine (“hard,” “real,” etc.) aesthetic (Female artists can be “hard” as well.). The advocacy for this aesthetic and the denigration of more “popular” music like Minaj’s pigeonholes female artists.  Like hip hop’s other elements, rapping is a method in style and presentation as well as in lyrical skill and content.[8] Even when a prevailing form of masculine performance dominates hip hop’s and the broader public’s imagination,[9]  heterosexual male artists can inhabit and perform various identities and styles—the thug, gangsta, hustler, pimp, revolutionary, smoker, hipster, etc.—without “selling out” and while remaining culturally relevant and financially successful over the long term.

Women, on the other hand, do not always have as many available styles to perform. It is no surprise that many in the industry, and in the larger popular culture, tend to view women as one-dimensional artists. Hip hop fans know Lil’ Kim as the aggressive and sexy “Queen Bee.” Many think of Queen Latifah as the strong, Afrocentric black feminist before she graced television screens as an actress and as a Covergirl spokeswoman.[10]  Minaj has emerged as hip hop’s “Barbie” in recent years. So, when Peter Rosenberg publicly criticizes the “softness” of Minaj’s music (or calls it “bullshit”), he is closing a lane for female hip hop performance generally. He is also telling fans what music is acceptable to enjoy. Importantly, his comments literally excluded women from the fundamental conversation around defining “real” hip hop (“I’m not talking to y’all right now…”).

This controversy begs the question:  Should we not ask why particular female (and male) artists seek to broaden their appeal instead of criticizing them for “selling out”? I could sum up the answer in one word:  relevancy. Then I could also give you two more:  financial security. Then I will give you several very important more:  they are artists who seek to control their own artistry, like (gasp) male artists.

Top notch female rap performers have had a very short shelf life compared to male artists. Male rap veterans like LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Nas, Jay-Z, and Diddy have been able to transform themselves and remain relevant for almost 20-30 years. Female artists have not been able to brag about such longevity. Queen Latifah has been one of hip hop’s most commercially successful women in American pop culture, but she experienced her zenith as a rap artist during the 1990s (I would argue between 1989-1993.). Lil’ Kim has boasted the strongest career in terms of longevity and commercial music success. Her career is bookended by the releases of her classic, Hard Core in 1996 and the critically-acclaimed, The Naked Truth in 2005.  She also strengthened her viability by engaging in various collaborations with artists from other genres and in undertaking non-hip hop ventures in the 2000s.[11] Kim has often criticized Minaj for not paying homage to her, but Minaj has paid attention to Latifah’s and Kim’s business model—she has to swim against the conservative currents within hip hop if she does not want to go the way of the many female artists that came before her. Male artists can develop and cultivate a “traditional” (heterosexual) male fanbase to keep themselves relevant. Female artists do not always have this luxury, thus crossover success represents a path toward long-term relevancy, financial security, and artistic freedom—three goals that all rap artists seek in some sort of fashion. So, if one is in Nicki’s position why not experiment and cater to multiple audiences? We appreciate Jay-Z’s and Diddy’s business acumen, but why not Nicki’s?

Of course, Rosenberg did not think of the ramifications of his statements. He, and Funkmaster Flex, thought his comments were an exercise in hip hop criticism. Yet, this is often how power, privilege, and inequity works—we, in this case we male critics (I am guilty.), engage in everyday practices (in this case, criticism) that reinforce values serving to maintain a hierarchy and one’s relative dominance within a particular cultural space.  And our actions usually take the established values, or, in hip hop’s case, its “realness,” for granted. This all can contribute to narrowing the artistic paths for artists who are not male, properly “masculine,” and heterosexual. Calling out misogynistic and sexist lyrics has always been a worthwhile tactic in addressing gender inequity, but that is not enough. Questioning the fundamental internal divides and taboos within hip hop will push the culture to fulfill its promise, which is to represent a space for one to exercise their artistry and to push the boundaries of American pop culture and society freely.

I cannot brag about being a fan of Nicki Minaj’s music. Yet, I do recognize her lyrical abilities.[12] One must admit that Minaj has carved a niche for herself musically in a hip hop world where executives are not afraid to push copycats once a particular style blows up. One does not need to own a Nicki Minaj album to recognize her right to exist and prosper as an artist. Yes, we have a right to criticize anyone’s music, but most importantly, every artist—male, female, transgender, self-identified as straight, and queer—has a right to fair treatment, especially if we dare to speak of ourselves as some sort of collective. Rosenberg’s criticisms represent how sexism remains a core problem within hip hop. However, internal criticism has also functioned as a means of self-reflection and self-correction within the genre. And, at its very best, internal dialogues have provided hip hop with some vibrancy. But we can not always let conversations about “what’s real” close creative lanes for artists and/or dictate what music others should like, lest we forget how diversity and pushing boundaries has also contributed to the legitimacy, the dynamism, and the rebelliousness of hip hop.

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Fortunately, we could be looking at an cultural opening despite the Hot97 and Young Money squabble. Critics are recognizing the influence that Minaj has had on the genre in the wake of this controversy.[13]  Many female artists such as South Africa’s Jean Grae (gained prominence in NYC) and Detroit’s Invincible have paved their own lanes for themselves. More upstarts like Azealia Banks are positioning themselves for mainstream success as well. But that does not mean that the problem of gender inequity will be solved by merely increasing the number of female artists, executives, and moguls, either. Nor does it mean that we should not have a conversation about how to address this inequity. We have to develop means of determining “what’s real” in a fair and equitable fashion (if that’s possible). This can only be accomplished if we honestly reexamine our values, own up to the problems found within hip hop, and live out whatever solutions we can generate. Of course, in doing so, we will hopefully embrace and emphasize our diversity, every artist’s rights to exist, and institute values ensuring that every performer can enjoy success.

*Originally posted on my Facebook page July 11, 2012. Versions were also published on Ohio State’s Race-talk.org on July 17, 2012 and Nursing Clio on July 25, 2012.

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[1] “Nicki Minaj Skips Festival After a DJ’s Remarks,” New York Times, June 4, 2012, accessed  June 9, 2012,  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/05/arts/music/nicki-minaj-backs-out-of-summer-jam.html?_r=4&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1338829536-7lRrYz3PYzHx4SxWQDMXLg&pagewanted=all.

[2] Demetria L. Lucas, “Real Talk:  Really, Lil Wayne? You Respect Women?,” Essence , June 20, 2012, accessed July 3, 2012, http://www.essence.com/2012/06/20/real-talk-really-lil-wayne-you-respect-women/.

[3] “Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg Responds to Lil Wayne About Respecting Women,” HIPHOPDX, June 20, 2012, accessed, July 3, 2012, http://www.hiphopdx.com/index/news/id.20158/title.hot-97s-peter-rosenberg-responds-to-lil-wayne-about-respecting-women.

[4] Minaj made a serious point here. Rosenberg probably could have made similar comments about what’s real and what’s not regarding some of the men scheduled to perform, but he did not.  Nicki Minaj Interview with Funkmaster Flex, Hot97, June 5, 2012, accessed July 3, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wF8ksIC0–0.

[5] Jay-Z declared war on Mobb Deep and Nas in 2001 when he performed verses from “Takeover” and flashed a picture of a young Prodigy in his dancing outfit on the big screen.

[6] Carrie Battan’s Slate article covers the gender aspect of the controversy very well. See, “What the Nicki Minaj Hot 97 Feud Says About Women in Hip Hop,” June 6, 2012, accessed July 10, 2012, http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2012/06/06/nicki_minaj_and_hot_97_what_the_feud_says_about_women_in_hip_hop.html.

Battan rightfully points out one problematic aspect about the controversy: the conversation has largely been one amongst men. I agree with Battan’s observation that Wayne, Rosenberg, and Flex “thrust” Minaj “in the middle of a tug-of-war between two camps of ego sparring men…” I am not sure if I totally  agree with Battan’s characterization of Minaj as “a diplomat…trotted out to patch burned bridges and assign motives…” True, Minaj served as a spokeswoman for Young Money at the moment, but it’s clear that she sought to defend herself as a female artist, not to necessarily mend the burned bridge. Battan is correct in her description of Flex, though.

Battan cites how some female artists have had to rely upon the mentorship of male artists as well. While there is an unspoken custom of artists “putting their people on,” male artists still have a better chance of breaking themselves than women. Queen Latifah and MC Lyte are the only two female artists I can think of who appeared to put themselves on without an acknowledged close male mentor (That’s unless one considers Naughty By Nature as Latifah’s mentors. I do not know much about their early relationship besides the fact that they were part of the Flavor Unit collective. Latifah headed that collective, though.). One can name fewer male rap stars who can point to close mentors–Jay-Z (Jaz-O), Lil’ Wayne (Baby), and Big Pun (Fat Joe) are a few that come to mind.

[7] Only a few female artists have been able to rise to the type of stardom that Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliot, and Nicki Minaj have at one time. In the hip hop world defined by masculine competition—who’s the “king” and who’s the “queen”—there’s only room for one or a few women  in rap crews, on year-end  top ten lists, and on performance bills.

[8] Hip hop consists of several elements that include rapping, break dancing, graffiti art, deejaying, beatboxing, fashion, slang, and entrepreneurialism. Of course, participants in hip hop debate the content of the culture.

[9] See Ice Cube in the early-1990s and 50 Cent in the early-2000s as two prominent examples of how “the gangsta” reflected the dominant paradigm for black masculinity in hip hop.

[10] In fact, Queen Latifah had to go outside of hip hop before she could demonstrate the various facets of her personality. True, plenty of male artists like LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Mos Def, and 50 Cent have also ventured into other realms of entertainment, but they have also demonstrated the ability to release albums to hungry fan bases willing to support them.

[11] Lil’ Kim has been struggling to regain any momentum ever since her jail stint in 2006.

[12] Listen to her verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” on his latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Her verse is crazy:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ona42jz8w0k.

[13] Brent Staples, “Nicki Minaj Crashes Hip-Hop’s Boys Club,” New York Times, July 7, 2012, accessed July 10, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/08/opinion/sunday/nicki-minaj-crashes-hip-hops-boys-club.html.

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Posted in: Archives, Hip Hop