Home Arts & Life All ‘rapped up’ in a male-dominated industry

All ‘rapped up’ in a male-dominated industry

In a time recognized as the golden age for female rappers, where are all the women?

by Stephanie Leonardelli
Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash

“There’s a privilege to being a man in hip hop and music in general,” says Akintoye, an up-and-coming Toronto male rapper and TikTok star.

This is not an opinion; it is the verifiable truth.

And it’s ironic. The fact that we are living in a time dubbed “the female rapper renaissance,” where women are putting up numbers equal to their male counterparts, yet their voices are still missing on prominent rap albums. The fact that collaborations between Black women have sparked a golden age for female hip hop, yet the conversation of forcing a collaboration for the sake of filling a quota still has to be had.

The fact that Akintoye was able to say with full confidence, “for every male rapper, there’s a female rapper who does the shit a little bit better,” yet countless music industry reports benchmark the long-whispered-about-but-rarely-quantified demographic imbalances of the music business.

The most ironic part? Everybody is exceedingly aware that this disparity exists, but it continues to persist nonetheless.

The industry’s gender gap has existed for decades; simply Google “The greatest rappers of all time.” From old-school hip hop to today’s top rap artists, these so-called “definitive lists” claim to compile the names of the best rappers to have ever existed. Yet I have not found a list where I can count the number of female artists on it with more than one hand. Or more than three fingers for that matter.

Take a look at this list of rap legends. Over 6.6 million fans from all over the world voted on a ranking of “The Greatest Rappers Of All Time.” Of the top 100, two are female artists.

Many attribute women’s under-representation among “elite” rappers to the lack of women across all major music roles in the industry, songwriting and production in particular. But Toronto’s very own podcast creator and co-host of Album Mode, Demar Grant, offers a unique perspective as to why we aren’t seeing more female features on popular rap albums.

“For the most popular women in the genre, you don’t need to be on anybody’s project other than your own,” he says, and uses American rapper and songwriter, Doja Cat, as an example.

“Low-key, Doja Cat is one of the most popular artists in hip hop. And I’m saying low-key because people don’t seem to realize that she is, but if you look, she typically goes the most viral out of any hip-hop artist; she’s one of the most listened to artists on Spotify. She doesn’t need to be anywhere else.”

The University of Toronto’s Hart House Hip-Hop Education programming team agrees. Zoë Dille, the learning and community manager of hip-hop education, describes why we aren’t seeing more rap artists collaborate with females.

“Female artists are doing it for themselves these days and doing it so much better. We question the notion that men need to feature female rappers/artists on their albums to validate them,” says Dille.

She and her team — a program co-ordinator, program associate, and two students — refer to Drake’s song Nice for What as an example of the work female artists, singers, and producers are doing behind the scenes without obtaining full credit.

“Nice for What featured the hook from Lauryn Hill, a long-established and highly successful female artist. It might be more appropriate to say that her contributions made Drake’s song, rather than the other way around.”

Either way we view it, the team says there is no disputing the fact that male artists are normalized and their work is privileged over female artists. And the team is not wrong. Female rappers have a narrow and stereotyped window of opportunity to enter the hip-hop game that demands they be the best dancers, have the best costumes and put on the best shows, all while being the best lyricists.

Dille emphasizes that “within rap and hip hop, male artists seldom have their work criticized or scrutinized at the same level… Vulgarity and hyper-sexualization and masculinity are celebrated for male rappers. Female rappers have to prove themselves so much more.”

Akintoye describes the problem as being that so much of pop culture is rooted in misogyny. “Women have it harder, point blank. There’s a criteria that [women] have to reach to be able to be considered somebody that’s worth listening to… They have to go above and beyond.”

He makes his point by contrasting what he does on stage in comparison to his female counterparts.

“Quite frankly, I could get on stage, grab a microphone, jump around, and people would be like, ‘That’s a great show.’ I could get on a song and talk about whatever the hell I want to talk about and people would be like, ‘That’s a great song.’ We get to do the bare minimum. And people love it.”

Grant alludes to this imbalanced gender expectation by calling attention to what seems to be two separate “implicit” spaces in the rap genre. There is one space for rappers, and one for female rappers. “If I were to say Megan Thee Stallion is one of the best rappers right now, people would be like, ‘What? Really?’”

Grant points out how he would have to explain to somebody the reasons why he believes she is one of the top. “Whereas if I was like, Kendrick Lamar is top five, people would be like, ‘Yeah, for sure.’”

Grant believes that women are actually doing everyone else a favour. “Women in hip hop [are] probably the best thing that’s happened to the genre because it also draws in women to a genre that has been predominantly a male-dominated space.”

Akintoye echoes these sentiments and emphasizes that “people need to stop looking at women who rap as women who rap and instead just as rappers. At the end of the day, that’s what they are. That’s what we are. That’s what we do. We rap.”

While the rap world and music industry in general remains male-dominated, Canadian singer/songwriter, Alyssa Rubino, says it’s important to recognize how far we’ve come.

“When I was in the industry at 12 years old, I had to deal with a lot more criticism,” she says. “In present times, it’s more about the music and not as much about the image.”

While she feels women still encounter unrealistic standards to abide by, she credits the new generation of music artists for starting to break down these barriers.

So the question becomes, how do we continue to break down these barriers for female artists?

Music producers, artists and fans alike all play a role in propelling gender equality in the industry. Both Akintoye and Rubino feel as though artists of younger generations are doing a great job at looking out for fellow musicians and appreciating the music for what it is — “regardless of if you’re a man, woman, or non-binary person,” as Akintoye puts it.

“We’re getting much closer to the era of everyone being able to work together,” he says. “We’re just not there yet.”

In terms of what fans can do to help female artists break through, Akintoye made three suggestions:

  1. Fans need to put their foot down and ask the tough questions as to why certain collaborations aren’t happening or why they haven’t happened yet;
  2. Fans need to make it known what they want; they have powerful influence via social media and can exert pressure on labels or artists to see more female collaborations; and
  3. Fans need to uplift and support women.

While addressing disparities in any industry takes time, we are living in an era where talent is overflowing. Rubino emphasizes that regardless of your gender, an artist is an artist. “Today, there’s room for everybody and it’s about time we see that acceptance.”

Stephanie Leonardelli
This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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