From the block parties that gave birth to it in the 1970s up to today, East Coast hip hop has always evolved with its women. From MC Lyte to Queen Latifah (a pillar of the Native Tongues collective alongside Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Monie Love), via Missy Elliot, Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, many have asserted themselves and transformed their unique visions into music. Through their distinct voices and flows, as well as their sense of melody, they have contributed enormously to the elevation of rap.
However, it was not until 2019 and the arrival of Cardi B that a woman received the Grammy for Best Rap Album. A significant recognition considering 90% of the nominees for these awards are still men. The music industry has often promoted an image of a sexualised and dominated woman, but self-production and social networks have enabled many female rappers to reverse this trend. They can reclaim their bodies, their freedom, and their individuality in the public space.
Take New York rapper Princess Nokia, who not only supports women but also the trans and queer communities through her songs, as well as practicing what she preaches: in February 2017, during a concert at Cambridge University, she slapped a man in the audience who was uttering obscenities at her (‘show me your boobs’ etc...). Then she got back on stage and declared, ‘That is what you should do when a guy disrespects you!’
In a slightly different vein, the impetuous and explosive Young M.A. has no qualms about dropping lyrics as raw as any of her male counterparts, but from a different point of view. With her charismatic nonchalance and raspy voice, she dominates the Big Apple rap scene:
She not a bitch, she a queen (Ooh, ooh)
But if you say a bitch, say she that bitch (Say she that bitch)
And if you say a bitch, say a bad bitch (Say a bad bitch)
She bad in the real life, she no catfish (She not no catfish)
This not a man song (No), this the bad bitch anthem
(Young M.A. - “Bad Bitch Anthem”)
In a slightly less overt style, in Brooklyn, the elusive and sweet flows of Chelsea Reject and T’nah attack inequalities through humanist and positive lyrics. Like Che’Noir, they follow that pure East Coast tradition of laying down soul and jazz samples. These two genres are fundamental for OSHUN, a rising star of the New York scene, whose soulful spirit meets that of Jorja Smith on Bittersweet Vol. 1.
In every branch of hip hop, female rappers stand out: on the DMV scene – an acronym that represents the three states that have popularised this overlapping flow: District of Columbia (D), Maryland (M) and Virginia (V) – Kelow Latesha demonstrates impressive vocal dexterity with confidence-boosting lyrics. Emulating a pure East Coast style of rap – based on dirty yet classy minimalism and cutting boom-bap – Armani Caesar is a member of the Griselda collective (alongside Westside Gunn and Conway). In New Jersey, 070 Shake explodes musical boundaries with a hybrid style infused with pop, rock and electro. With the masterful interpretations that fill her lyrics with emotion, she even inspired Tame Impala to remix her track “Guilty Conscience”.
Inspired by their elders, more and more female rappers are emerging as creative and influential artists. Thanks to self-production, it has never been easier to make music without constraints, and these East Coast rappers have understood this. From the underground to the top of the charts, whether they play traditional, current or pioneering rap, they are all helping to transform dead ends into boulevards.