Invisible and Utterly Underrated: The Plight of the Modern Femcee

Last week, I mused over Nicki Minaj’s intentions behind her branding as a hypersexual emcee. This week, I realized I always refer to Nicki Minaj because she’s virtually the only mainstream female rapper consistently newsworthy enough to talk about.

My friend, mentor and fellow hip hop head Lisa says she thinks Nicki is ruining hip hop for women. In her eyes, if there’s only one bad chick at the top who rarely works with other female rappers and uses sex as a basis for her bars, that doesn’t leave much room for anyone else—much less room for innovation—to step into the cypher.

My eyes see something different. King Nicki is sitting high and lonely on her throne as the world’s most famous female rapper that is currently in the game. But there’s plenty of other female rappers that are producing meaningful work and are touching people—newsworthy or not.

During a recent conversation with the journalist and author of When the Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, Joan Morgan expressed similar concerns to Lisa’s. “Compare the number of female rappers working at the beginning of the 1990s to the number of female rappers you have now in fully operating, commercial labels…The fact that there’s only one female rapper on the Forbes list is seriously significant.”

I get it. Hip hop veterans are worried that having a token represent all women in the cypher will negatively affect the young men and women that are listening and watching from afar. If there’s only one woman telling one kind of story, it suggests that there’s only one way of being seen and tolerated (not necessarily respected) as a woman in hip hop. If there’s a variety of personas in the game like Roxanne Shante, Monie Love, Rah Digga, Queen Latifah, Salt & Peppa, Missy Elliot, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, MC Lyte and the zillion other female hip hop artists you could add to the list, it shows young black women that it’s okay to be different and to have your own style. Furthermore, it shows young black men that there’s many different kinds of girls to love and appreciate.

It certainly is a problem if there isn’t diversity in female hip hop artists for the public to listen to and support. But I don’t think that my generation within the hip hop world is as deprived as my elders suggest. There’s always been a presence of “underground” female hip hop artists serving as a counter to what is seen in the mainstream. If we don’t recognize that, then we’re unnecessarily silencing them, making them seem invisible when they’re very much alive and kicking.

I place the term underground in parenthesis because I don’t think that word connotes being as buried in the music industry as it used to be. Just as the demands of the commercial music industry are changing, the technology world is changing along with it, too, thereby affecting the career strategies and visibility of all creatives. There is now a growing number of artists working independently, using the Internet as their sole tool for promoting themselves and releasing their content. As a result, one doesn’t need to be in the commercial realm to be seen, successful and influential.

Female bloggers like Franchesca “Chescaleigh” Ramsey and Issa Rae have managed to do this. I think female hip hop artists have the same potential. Nitty Scott, MC has dozens of videos in her YouTube channel featuring her music videos, public appearances, fundraising projects and freestyle and poetry sessions. As a result, she’s gotten almost 20,000 subscribers on her YouTube and Twitter accounts combined, and is also touring the world and is being featured alongside other respected, more famous MCs like Kendrick Lamar, Rah Digga and D.M.C. Bahamadia, a rapper who started in the 90s, is still performing and now has fan bases in Europe and Japan. She’s churned out a fourth album that’s being released on iTunes this year. Akua Naru is another talented and successful female emcee, having done countless performances and media appearances in America, Europe and even Australia. She’s one of the most respected and frequently referenced hip hop artists in the world of academia because of the political messages in her work. I could go on about Rapsody, Likwuid Stylz, Sa-roc, Signif, Gavlyn and BoogBrown but I think you see my point—that although these artists’ names may not be so familiar to you, they’ve made wonderful accomplishments that should count for something.

We need more female artists in the commercial world, but as it stands, the least we could do is meet them where they’re at. That could mean buying their releases and merchandise online. That could mean looking out for their latest music videos on their blogs and YouTube Channels. That could mean following them and talking to them through Twitter and Facebook. That could mean funding their efforts on their Indiegogo and Kickstarter campaigns. Or that could mean checking out their latest show at that cool lounge in the next town over you’ve never tried before.

For those of us who are aware of the wheeling and dealing corporate music execs do to get only certain kinds of artists played on the radio waves, it is our responsibility to seek out the kinds of music artists we want to hear from. The alternate sounds, personas and storylines are all out there. We just need to find them. And we should take on the responsibility of exposing our children to them, too. That shouldn’t be too much of a challenge seeing as how a two second Google search can pull up any artist’s most recent work at the top of the results list. We have no right to complain if we’re not acknowledging and consistently engaging with the female hip hop artists that have already been present and working hard to promote themselves.

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