While these ladies may or may not consider themselves feminists, as a young hip-hop fan looking for tracks that I could rap along to without 1) contorting my voice into deep tones, 2) having to change all the pronouns, and 3) convincing myself that the “hoes” referenced in the songs I was rapping to had nothing to do with REGULAR black women, I found them inspiring and much easier to enjoy. Roll call!

Salt-N-Pepa debuted in 1985 with “The Showstopper” but didn’t hit it big until 1986 with the release of Hot, Cool and Vicious which included the platinum hit “Push It”. I LOVED these ladies. They were the first female rappers I heard when I started listening to hip-hop in the early nineties, when they came out with “Let’s Talk About Sex” which actually was what made me aware of the issue of AIDS. Not only were they politically aware, they were sex-positive, too! And they could drop HITS that I shook my little 11 year old booty to. I did that dance from “Push It” to pretty much every song. When I got into my BMG/Columbia House scamming days, Very Necessary was one of the first albums I got with my penny. And if she/ wanna be a freak an’/ sell it on the weekend/ IT’S NONE OF YO’ BIZNASS!

Queen Latifah first got on my radar with “U.N.I.T.Y.”, which I recognize was pretty late. But the song provided a bumpin’ counterpoint to all the “bitch” and “ho” shit going on in hip-hop during the gangsta rap days (which have now become decades since “bitch” and “ho” never went out of style). And I have to admit I am a huge West Coast gangsta rap lover, but I internalized Latifah’s message, which enabled me to brush off the insults and characterize them as what they were — ignorance. With a bomb beat. Latifah’s been on the scene since 1989 with All Hail the Queen, which included the hip-hop feminist anthem “Ladies First”.

The Lady of Rage doesn’t get mentioned much, but as I stated before I was heavy into West Coast gangsta rap in the nineties so naturally I was interested in Rage, since she was featured on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. She released “Afro Puffs”, which has since become one of my favorite nineties tracks, in 1994. She has AMAZING flow. I love rapping along to anything she does. She didn’t drop a solo album until 1997’s Necessary Roughness, but made appearances on Snoop Dogg and various other Death Row artists’ albums in the meantime. Without her, I couldn’t rock ruff an’ stuff with my Afro Puffs.

Da Brat was another one with amazing flow. She dropped her debut, Funkdafied in ’94. Her lyrical gymnastics give me chills and again, I pride myself on being able to sing along. The embed is one of my favorite songs, and she also did a HOT song with B.I.G. called “The B Side” that I count among my favorites, too. Brat is pretty much the only thing Jermaine Dupri did for me. She often collabs with my ultimate rap role model, see below.

Lil’ Kim ROCKED MY WORLD when the above track hit my ears. I was in love. Tight rhymes, fanciful subject matter, and the video was incredible. All those wigs! Hardcore dropped in 1994 and my life was not the same. I can quote Kim lyrics at will — the woman shaped my sexual philosophy. If you ain’t lickin’ this, you ain’t stickin’ this became my motto. I used’ta be scared of the dick/ Now I throw lips to the shit/ Handle it like a real bitch opened up the world of fellatio for me. Yes, I was at the tender age of 14 when it came out, but I rocked that CD until 2000 when she came out with Notorious K.I.M.. I will be the first to admit she is problematic. But when that woman ripped the mic out of Puff Daddy’s hand in the “All About the Benjamins” remix video, she ripped the mic out of the hands of all male artists. SHE CAN RHYME, y’all. I’ve heard her freestyle and it is on point. Her fashion is atrocious, the plastic surgery is awful and the feuds legendary, but Lil’ Kim still holds the crown of Queen of Rap. I could write an entire article on the institution that is Kim. Maybe I will.

Bahamadia will take us out of this article. Her style is so laid back, you might not notice that she’s a lyrical genius. Her album Kollage came out in 1996. She takes me back to the days of Latifah, when female rappers were more concerned with rhyming than catfighting. (I see you, Kim.) When I want to kick back but keep my mind stimulated, I put on either Kollage or her EP Bb Queen. She’s kind of an underground/indie type rapper (aka no guns or Gucci), performing with The Roots and Talib Kweli. That’s pretty much the main type of hip-hop I listen to now, besides Kim and old school rappers. I get tired of the horrible production value of the recycled crap they play on the radio these days. Now get off my lawn!!

This is by no means a comprehensive list of women in hip hop, and I know some of y’all are going to object to some of these women being labeled “feminist”. But they each empowered me in SOME WAY, and that shaped my worldview and thus my feminism as it is today.

18 thoughts on “We’re in effect: hip hop’s feminist role models

  1. Salt-N-Pepa's music was key to the soundtrack of the late '80s early '90s for me — I too have been known to sign-shout "And if she/ wanna be a freak an’/ sell it on the weekend/ IT’S NONE OF YO’ BIZNASS!" out of the window of my white toyota corolla driving down Santa Monica Blvd. late at night to the first apartment. The sex-positive, body-positive music and dance were exactly what I needed to push back against my suburban San Fernando Valley upbringing and carry my Women's Studies degree with me into the work world (I got my first "real job" post college and I was — unbelievably — married, in 1992). Queen Latifah's U.N.I.T.Y. is something I find myself singing all the time — still.
    Thanks for this journey down memory lane. I need those songs on my (hand-me-down from my tech-savvy sister's) ipod. I was shaped by them.
    I am completely blown away by Lil' Kim's look when she's wearing the green frosted wig.
    Any chance you might DJ a radio show on the web? I would tune in and be a huge fan (pun intended).

  2. Thank you for these! I just recently got back into my Salt-N-Pepa roots and have been dancin' my ass off ever since! I had forgotten about Da Brat, love me some Latifah. I listen to Hard Knock Radio on KPFA.org every day! Lovin' every minute of it. Just wish there were more positive female role models today.

  3. A Random Claire says:

    Hip Hop has never been my favourite genre, but I do enjoy listening to it now and then, and your reaction to Salt n Pepa also (almost) describes the evolution of my love for them – I have always admired their kickassery.

  4. Where the Lyte? That Lyte As A Rock was amazing! She has a diary, a turntable & some other swag in the Smithsonian!

    • I actually included MC Lyte in the first draft of this but I took her out ONLY because I did not really listen to her music and this was about artists that shaped my feminism. But yeah, I know she is definitely an important part of female hip-hop history, being as how she was the first female hardcore rapper to get signed to a major label. And I heard about that when they put her stuff in the Smithsonian.

  5. I was going to mention Missy Elliot as one, though I don't know what your thoughts on her would be. This is a great article.

    • I love Missy! I just don't own any of her CDs, I have singles downloaded on my iPhone. There's some ladies people are bringing up that I didn't even think to put in there, but it's not meant to be comprehensive.

  6. I really wanted a Salt-N-Pepa style haircut when I was 11. I expressed this wish to my mother after seeing them on MTV at a friend's house. Mom was game until she actually saw the ladies. "But…honey…they're…um…and you…we…Charlotte, those women are black."

    My smart-ass-11-year-old-self responded "Yeah, so? Are you a RACIST, Mom?"

    And thus began the beginning of my education about the politics of hair, race, and feminism.

  7. Okay, I have a confession to make. I am OBSESSED with female rappers. I'm 32 now, and it started when I was VERY young and absolutely obsessed with MC Lyte when her first album was released. I would still rank her as the greatest MC of all time. I still love hip-hop and my most recent obsessions are Trina (more like a renewed obsession since her new album came out…and yes I know she is problematic too, as well as being a weak lyricist) and Nicki Minaj, who is just an incredible rapper. I also found these women to be incredibly formative for me in terms of helping me find my own feminist identity, despite most of them being imperfect feminist role models.

    Also, did you know that Bahamadia had an album more recently than the BB Queen EP? The title is Good Rap Music and it came out in the mid-2000's. It's worth seeking out. She left me a comment on my now-defunct MySpace page once after I'd commented hers telling her what a big fan I am, and it totally made my day/week/month at the time. 🙂

    • OOH I have to find that Bahamadia album.

      I liked that Trina/Trick Daddy song "Nann Nigga" but other than that she doesn't do it for me. I love the title of that one album though "The Baddest Bitch". Although I feel Kim deserves that more than her.

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