Marisa Torres


queen latifah
Queen Latifah

To most people, hip hop is just the latest trend of music that is taking over the radio waves and blasting up the Billboard charts. It has even infiltrated our television time because many companies such as Coca-Cola, Burger King, and Old Navy use hip hop artists to sell their products. But hip hop is more than a colorful commercial or a platinum record, it's a culture.

Hip hop has its roots in New York City and contains the elements of rapping (and now singing), deejaying, breakdancing, and graffiti art. Rap music is a very powerful and influential part of the hip hop movement. It's a form of poetry that is recited over musical instrumentation and is a vehicle for self-expression and social reflection of the urban community. Rap is known for being honest, but unfortunately it has developed a reputation for being misogynistic as well.

Like rock, hip hop is a male-dominated industry, and most mainstream rap artists follow the typical formula of being about the "bling-bling," having half-naked women shaking their asses like it "ain't no thang" in their videos. They also rap lyrics that describe women as being good only for sex and talk about how men resort to violence to keep their "hoes" in line -- and then follow it up with a catchy hook.

salt n pepa
Salt 'N Pepa

It's a good thing that the female population does not sit back and take this. Instead, artists like Lil' Kim, Eve, Missy Elliot, and Foxy Brown get gritty in their rhymes and let men know that yes, we may wear tight shirts and yes, we may shake our ass on the dance floor, but that does not give them the right to disrespect us. These women could go head to head with any male rapper. They get down and dirty, but they stay feminine.

Although the history of hip hop often focuses on male pioneers such as Grand Master Flash, Run DMC, and Public Enemy, women also played a part in the early days of rap, paving the road so that Eve, Foxy, Missy, and Kim could be as successful as they are today.

In 1988 a girl at the ripe age of 18 released her first single, "Wrath of My Madness." A year later she dropped her LP, "All Hail the Queen." With a style that was influenced by jazz, soul, reggae, and dub, she rapped lyrics and rhymes that addressed the misogynist attitude of her male peers. By her third album she was a member of the Motown family and had collaborations with the likes of hip hop legends KRS-One, De La Soul and Daddy-O. These great feats could only have been accomplished by rap's first lady, Queen Latifah.

Around the time Latifah was getting her start with the rapping crew Ladies Fresh, another hungry young female MC was coming straight outta Brooklyn and going by the alias M.C. Lyte. She released her first album, "Lyte as a Rock" in 1988. Two albums later in the early 90s, her single "Ruffneck" was nominated for a Grammy and was the first gold single by a female hip hop performer.

Even before Queen Latifah and M.C. Lyte was the Queens trio Salt 'N Pepa. Their first 1985 single "The Showstopper" -- a reply to Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick's "The Show" -- not only got them noticed, but was the first of their many contributions to female empowerment in hip hop. The sexually suggestive single "Push It" in 1988 brought them mainstream success and a Grammy nomination.

Queen Latifah, M.C. Lyte, and Salt 'N Pepa were very influential to the hip hop industry because they were some of the first female rappers. They broke down the boundaries of female inhibitions and killed the myth that women should not speak about their sexual desires.

mary j. blige
Mary J. Blige

Besides rap, there is also neo-soul, which has created another avenue for women to become successful in the hip hop industry. Mary J. Blige is a pioneer of this genre, and her 1992 Uptown Records debut album "What's the 411?" sold over two million copies. Since then, she has had a continuous succession of personal and soulful hits, as well as two Grammy awards. By fusing hip hop and soul, Mary J. Blige opened the doors for other women to express themselves within hip hop.

Neo-soul was not only big in the hip hop industry, but crossed over to have mainstream success as well. Erykah Badu, for example, has taken what several music critics have referred to as "warm jazz textures" and mixed them with hip hop and soul rhythms. Her largely self-written 1997 debut album, "Baduizm" won two Grammy awards and peaked at number two on the Billboard charts. Like Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu has followed her debut success with a succession of hit songs and critical acclaim.

erykah badu
Erykah Badu

The new wave of female neo-soul singers also includes the poetic Jill Scott and of course, the amazing Lauryn Hill, whose 1998 solo album, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" was a critical and commercial smash. All these performers are empowering in their own way and they let women know that they are beautiful and do not have to tolerate the drama that men may put them through. They also show how women can make it in this male-dominated industry of hip hop.

Some women, like Res, may find success within the mainstream. Her 2001 debut album, "How Do I" won her critical acclaim and airplay on MTV and radio stations. Other artists, such as the Bay Area's Goapele, make it within the underground scene. Her album "Even Closer" blends hip hop and classic soul with rhythm and new-age funk. Goapele's lyrics of female empowerment let women know that they can reach their goals and dreams if they just keep at it and don't give up. All these women are living proof of that message.

Women are not the only ones who are creating positive music, and there are some men in the industry who don't perpetuate sexist and misogynist stereotypes. Mos Def and Talib Kweli for example, formed the group Black Star, and in their song "Brown Skin Lady" off their self-titled album, they talk about their dream woman in a positive light. "All I can say is all praise due/thank you god for a beauty like you." They show respect to women and speak about them in an encouraging way. But it doesn't stop with Blackstarr. LMNO from the Visionaries also shares their view, and in his album, "Leave My Name Out" he dedicates a track to a special woman who he calls his "natural beauty." And on Sage Francis' "Personal Journals" album he breaks it down in a poem titled "Hopeless," in which he says, "I played connect the dots with your beauty marks and ended up with picture perfect sheet music/I read your musical notes with a composers eye and heard out song play for the first time." Many other underground hip hop artists see the beauty within women and express it in their music. They portray women as positive beings, not as scandalous hoes who are only good for sex.

There are many women (and men) in hip hop who refuse to accept sexism and are trying to fight against it, but the problem is not always taken seriously. It's encouraging to know that there are musicians who are speaking out against misogyny and have chosen to record music that is positive. As hip hop fans, we need to support these artists and speak out against the exploitation of women -- not just within the hip hop movement but in all cultures.

Marisa Torres is a 19-year-old student at San Francisco State University.

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