You know," confides Sherie Cole, "it's not the biggest part of it, but I definitely had a breast reduction because of the names I used to get called — they would call me 'Big Titty Rie Rie.'"
While music in general has always been a male-dominated field, hip-hop, in particular, has a strong undercurrent of misogyny flowing through it. Cole — or Rie Rie, as the rapper is better known locally — is one of the most prominent female voices in Denver's hip-hop scene. A Colorado native, she's made quite a name for herself with her Mob Ruled Productionz, showcasing her hard-as-nails rhymes and fierce presence. Yet the rapper, who came up among guys who were at the top of their game, still finds herself at times having to shout above the din in order to be heard.
"I always hung out with the guys who were rapping," she recalls. "They would see me in the cipher and know that I could rap, but for a long time, I held back because there was no one except me.
"It was hard then," she continues, "and it's hard now. Once you take your place, though, it doesn't make the playing field even; it gives you more encouragement."
Rie Rie's struggle with being marginalized is just one example of the many obstacles that female MCs have faced throughout the history of the genre, whose misogynistic roots go as far back as the early '80s, when Roxanne Shante earned fame by enlisting the help of Juice Crew's Marley Marl to clap back at UTFO's misogynistic track "Roxanne Roxanne," which detailed with unctuous glee how each member went through a variety of circumstances in order to "bang Roxanne."
After Shante's famous face-off, a legion of talented women emerged. Empowered, these ladies fearlessly spit unapologetic, incisive rhymes aimed at overcoming the undeniably testosterone-infused music. Artists like Queen Latifah were heralded for the messages in songs like "U.N.I.T.Y," which effectively took a hammer to hip-hop's glass ceiling with aggressive lines like "Who you calling a bitch?!"
For Rie Rie, walking the path set by Latifah, Monie Love and others gave her a more consistent drive to make it. "I have so much respect for myself," says Rie Rie. "People will treat you like you treat yourself. So, for me, there were examples like MC Lyte that showed me there is a way to be pretty and also rap."
Jeff Campbell, founder of the Colorado Hip-Hop Coalition and an MC himself, offers a broader perspective on the subject of misogyny, which he sees as one of the biggest things eroding the culture of hip-hop.
"Misogyny in hip-hop," Campbell notes, "is something that is reflective of society at large. You see misogyny in movies; you see it in everyday life. So hip-hop artists are really reflecting what they see, and there hasn't really been a movement toward checking people on misogyny. There's disrespect toward women, and it's become so commonplace in society that it almost seems like the norm, and people don't pay attention to it, I suppose.
"As far as hip-hop being something that amplifies that," he adds, "we reward people in hip-hop, in particular, who have that message, and we reward them with our attention, record sales and ticket sales, and we don't reward those with positive messages."
A great point. Terms like "bitch" and "ho" — or the latest variation of the former, "bottom bitch" — plague the verses of rap's hottest songs. And when women aren't being derided, they're being objectified in songs like "Every Girl in the World," in which Lil Wayne proclaims that he'd like to "fuck every girl in the world." (Granted, he does so with such exuberance and artful stamina that even a gal with the most conservative of agendas might find some humor in it — but still.)
Ever since its inception as a genre fueled by creatively coined insults over beats and rhymes, the blatant bravado and lawlessness of rap has been both a major attraction and an Achilles heel. And the latent misogynistic overtones are tucked into the behavior between men and women like slips of fortune-cookie paper. But while most conversations regarding the sexist nature of rap lyrics invariably revolve around the wanton use of derogatory language, there's more to it than that, says Campbell.
"It's not just simply calling a woman a bitch and a ho," he insists. "It's reducing the woman into objectification; it is relegating a woman in hip-hop to a sex object that you've got to be butt naked. Even if she's selling her own records, she's still gotta be butt naked."
Indeed. Take Lil' Kim, for instance, who gained substantial notoriety by flaunting her sexuality and using it as a means of control to generate controversy. For example, when she dropped the artwork for her debut album, Hardcore, with her legs splayed, leaving nothing to the imagination, she took the conversation about sex to a new level. She represented the other side of the spectrum. Her scantily clad body and braggadocious lyrics about cunnilingus and stripteases were a proverbial middle finger to the former view of women in boys' town, and they completely unhinged the ultra-sensitive concept of the over-sexualized female.
In contrast, Lauryn Hill took a more intellectual approach, relying on her wit and skills as an MC rather than exploiting her body. In doing so, she took emceeing to another level both on her own and with the Fugees. Hill's rap skills were on point, and she proved she could go bar for bar with any man. Her solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, released more than a decade ago, still holds up as one of the classic hip-hop albums of all time. Male or female.
Bea Shepard is a woman steeped in hip-hop who's observed the game's progression and seen it at its best and absolute worst. Affectionately dubbed the "Hip-Hop Mom," Shep — as she prefers to be called — is a former English teacher for Denver Public Schools who can most often be found delivering sandwiches and other goodies to artists before their shows ("Black Thought and ?uestlove from The Roots love my pie," she says with a shy giggle). In addition to being a hip-hop aficionado — seriously, her knowledge borders on encyclopedic — she's a wellspring when it comes to feminist and alternative thinking. On the subject of an inherent gender bias and whether it propels misogyny in hip-hop and everyday society, Shep offers a different perspective.
"The realities of male sexuality are somewhat staggering compared to those of most women," she explains. "Men have thousands of orgasms by age 21. A woman might have anywhere from none to a few. There's a reason for this. If men weren't as driven as they are sexually, they would never be motivated to be around women, much less marry them, because women are basically a pain in the ass — yeah, I said it — and it would be a lot easier to just hang out with the fellas, hunting and fishing and playing with balls."
In hip-hop, from 2 Live Crew to Ice-T to Pimp C to Lil Wayne, there seems to be an inherent and consistent need for males to dominate, which has spurred a pronounced gender bias. And this influences our perception. As far as Shep is concerned, men and women are different and should not be expected to express themselves using the same language. The cover art of a 2 Live Crew album, for instance, does not translate the same way for men as it does for women.
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"What seems very normal to a man seems crass to you as a woman," she explains. "That will probably never change, and your choice is to develop sufficient empathy that you take no offense where none is intended, or you can leave the world of hip-hop behind and move in circles where men are still pretending to be much less coarse than they are by nature, and then you would not have to see their rough edges."
Female MCs frequently feel the brunt of this catch-22. To that end, Nicki Minaj, this generation's highest-profile female rapper, has adopted an "If you can't join 'em, beat 'em" approach and has chosen not to compare herself to "the boys," unless it's in a sexual reference. In Rolling Stone recently, she proclaimed, "I'm not Jasmine, I am Aladdin," going on to point out that the only distinction between herself and men is that they have a "twig and berries, and I don't."
For her part, Rie Rie, who has felt the heat from day one, has chosen to persevere.
"I look at these guys like they are my brothers," she concludes. "Maybe because I'm pretty, it makes things harder to focus on the music, but these guys I work with have known me for years. They make sly comments here and there, but for the most part, they know I spit fire and they respect it. It took some time, but it's real."