Black Women Defining Themselves in the Music Industry

by Monica Stancu

Editor’s Note: In light of this year’s Women’s History Conference, “Breaking Boundaries,” we are happy to present this previously unpublished work from last year’s conference.

In Check It While I Wreck It, Gwendolyn D. Pough, a Women’s Studies scholar, argues that many scholars have ignored the achievements of black female rappers and limited themselves to criticizing the sexist portrayal of black women in hip hop culture. The author claims that although hip hop is indeed dominated by men, black female singers use this type of music to disrupt dominant masculine discourses.

At the Women’s History Conference hosted by Sarah Lawrence College (Bronxville, New York) on March 5-6 2010, scholars explored the ways black women expressed politics through music. The theme of the conference, “The Message is in the Music: Hip Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music and More,” reflected Pough’s belief in the potential social and political influence of hip hop. The presenters argued that although hip hop can be problematic at times, female artists are not just marginalized or victimized by it: they use hip hop to offer counter narratives.

The scholars present at the panel “Love, Sex and Magic: Hip Hop Feminism as a Tool for the Creative Renegotiation of Black Female Desire” on March 6, argued that hip hop is not unique in its use of sexist representations of women and its commodification of black women’s bodies. The exploitation of these bodies for the privileged is one of many shameful relics of slavery, when they were used as cheap labor and objects for sexual relief.

While bearing in mind the argument put forward in the keynote address by Carmen Ashhurst, the former president of Def Jam Recordings, that people look to popular culture primarily for entertainment and not education, the scholars present at the conference agreed with Pough that hip hop has, nevertheless, been used as a space where black women can claim a public voice, agency, and self-definition. Hip Hop, through the use of spectacle to claim power and to channel change, becomes more than just music: it has political potential. Women rappers resist the stereotypes that plague black womanhood (the gangster girl, the chicken head, the Sapphire, the gold-digger) and by doing so, they defy easy categorization.

Hip Hop and black feminism can work together to help the black community and African American women claim space in the public sphere. Black female singers can use this space to achieve social change and progress by pointing out social inequities: racism, sexism, and homophobia.

At the panel “Say What: The Message is in the Music”, Vankita Brown from Howard University offered Me’ Shell Ndegeocello, a singer and a womanist, as an example of a black woman using “art to create a space for activism.”[1] In the song Dead Nigga Blvd, Ndegeocello accuses the media of reinforcing the stereotypes of the “welfare cases, rapists and hoes.” In addition to this, the artist warns that even though black people are physically liberated, they are still being exploited because they are slaves to capitalism and money: “You sell your soul like you sell a piece of ass/Slave to the white dead leaders on paper.”

Musicians like Me’ shell Ndegeocello use their art and their voice to challenge the social constructions of race, gender and sexuality. In Mary Magdalene and Leviticus: Faggot, she accuses organized religion, the Christian church- especially the Black Church-of being patriarchal, sexist and homophobic:  “The wages of sin are surely death, that’s what mama used to say/ So there was no sympathy”(Leviticus: Faggot). As a bisexual woman, Ndegeocello refuses to accept homosexuality and spirituality as incompatible and rejects the notion that God would reject her for her sexual preference.[2] These songs triggered a fruitful conversation among the scholars present at the panel proving Pough’s point that hip hop has pedagogical potential. The panellists argued that the Bible has been wrongfully employed to justify the hatred and the oppression against those people whom our society defines as “deviant.” They claimed that in fact the Bible preaches love: it is not your responsibility to judge and condemn those who make mistakes. According to the Bible, God is the only one who can judge our actions. In addition to this, the panellists recognized that in order to end racism, the black community also needs to fight against homophobic mentalities because homophobia, like racism, is part of an ideology of oppression.

It was observed that African American women must be careful about the methods used to gain freedom and fight oppression.  C. Chic Smith from Howard University notes that “freedom is not free”: it comes with a price tag. To further her argument, Smith brought into discussion Lil Kim’s video “No Matter What People Say” in which the singer asserts the right to define herself on her own terms.  Lil’ Kim boasts about her fame, money and her success with men, confirming the stereotype of the materialistic and sexually available African American woman: “Every other week a different dude and other crews.” The scholar argues that black female rappers need to think about who pays the cost for their personal freedom and their mode of self-definition: are these representations paralyzing for her African American sisters? Are they confirming the old stereotypes regarding black womanhood? Although musicians such as Lil’ Kim would claim that the ability to define themselves in whatever way they choose is empowering, Smith concludes that they still should be mindful of the way they represent black womanhood in the media in order to avoid reinforcing the harmful stereotypes.[3]

Hip hop can be a space where black musicians “bring wreck” and offer a response to racist and sexist messages by offering alternative representations. The image of the Independent woman offered by Destiny’s Child in the soundtrack for the movie Charlie’s Angels offers a positive departure from the old stereotype of the materialistic black woman who uses her body to entrap men. The image of the independent woman in hip hop is a celebration of women’s economic independence and expresses a resistance to patriarchy and a desire for equal partnership. At the panel “Love, Sex and Magic: Hip Hop Feminism as a Tool for the Creative Renegotiation of Black Female Desire”, Brittney Copper from the University of Alabama distinguished between the figure of the independent woman and that of the strong black woman. According to Copper, the strong black woman is an unhealthy image because this woman is supposed to suffer in silence and bear all the burdens and oppressions inflected on her by her man while the independent woman excludes from her life the men who do not prove to be worthy of her.[4]

While Black male musicians define love relationships by what women are willing to sacrifice for them, black female musicians complicate the rap conversation. These women express the needs of black women and stress the importance of self love. In her paper “F Love: Sex, Violence, and Hip Hop’s Turbulent Struggle to Define Love Against The Grain”,  Emily Unnasch from the University of Alabama argued that black female singers use hip hop to define love and relationships in healthier ways. She gives the example of Rihanna who, after she was physically abused by her boyfriend Chris Brown in 2009, decided to speak out against domestic violence.[5] Understanding her role as a social role model, Rihanna encouraged women to leave toxic relationships.

The conference “The Message is in the Music: Hip Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music and More” recognized how black female musicians imagined new ways to disrupt prevailing images of black womanhood and encouraged social change.  ▢

Monica Stancu graduated from the University of Bucharest, Romania with a degree in American Studies. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and is currently a graduate student studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College.

Works Cited:

Brown, Vankita. “Me’Shell Ndegeocello and Womanist Music” (paper presented at the 12th Annual Women’s History conference at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, March 6, 2010).

Cooper, Brittney. “She’s a Movement by Herself”: Black Sexual Politics and Independent Black Womanhood in the Hip Hop Feminist Era”(paper presented at the 12th Annual Women’s History conference at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, March 6, 2010).

Pough, Gwendolyn D. Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip Hop Culture, and the Public Space. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004.

Smith, C. Chic. African American Women in Hip Hop Music and Videos”( paper presented at the 12th Annual Women’s History conference at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, March 6, 2010).

Unnasch, Emily. “F Love”: Sex, Violence, and Hip Hop’s Turbulent Struggle to Define Love against the Grain”( paper presented at the 12th Annual Women’s History conference at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, March 6, 2010).


[1] Brown, Vankita. “Me’Shell Ndegeocello and Womanist Music” ( paper presented at the 12th Annual Women’s History conference at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, March 6, 2010).

[2] Brown.

[3] Smith, C. Chic. African American Women in Hip Hop Music and Videos”( paper presented at the 12th Annual Women’s History conference at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, March 6, 2010).

[4] Cooper, Brittney. “She’s a Movement by Herself”: Black Sexual Politics and Independent Black Womanhood in the Hip Hop Feminist Era.” (paper presented at the 12th Annual Women’s History conference at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, March 6, 2010).

[5] Unnasch, Emily. “F Love”: Sex, Violence, and Hip Hop’s Turbulent Struggle to Define Love against the Grain”( paper presented at the 12th Annual Women’s History conference at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, March 6, 2010).

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