Editor’s Note: Embedded material contains graphic language.
At the Grammys this weekend, an audacious breakout star from the Bronx could make history.
Cardi B is up for best rap song and best rap performance — two awards that a solo female rapper has never won.
But if you’ve followed Cardi’s rise, you’ve no doubt noticed how much the attention has focused instead on her “feud” with Nicki Minaj, another equally outspoken female rapper.
It’s a fan-led, social media-fed made-up fight. And that, says Angela Yee, is a shame.
“It makes it seem like there can only be room for one woman to be an artist at a time in this hip-hop world,” said Yee, the co-host of hip-hop radio show “The Breakfast Club.”
Pitted against one another
When Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” went viral last summer, many tried to cast her as a one-hit wonder. She shut them down quick, nabbing two Grammy nominations and breaking Beyoncé’s record by becoming the first woman with five simultaneous top 10 hits on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hip Songs chart.
Many hip-hop fans quickly pit Cardi against Minaj, who’s been topping the charts since 2011.
Every time one of their songs caught fire, fans feverishly analyzed the lyrics, hoping to find veiled shots. They passionately debated whether Minaj — who broke Aretha Franklin’s record last year, becoming the woman with the most hits ever on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart — has “fallen off” amid Cardi’s rise.
Minaj, who has been nominated for 10 Grammy awards since 2011, lamented that success doesn’t guarantee women recognition or respect in male-dominated industries and she alluded to the conversation about Cardi B to make her point.
“In any field, women must work TWICE as hard to even get HALF the respect her male counterparts get. When does this stop?” she tweeted. “Putting ppl in the same sentence as me after my 10 years of consistent winning. What are you teaching THEM? They’d never do this to a man.”
Fans certainly have a right to pick a favorite and female rappers have a right to compete. But the conversation about female artists often operates under the assumption that there can only be one on top.
“You can have an endless number of mediocre and less than mediocre male rappers and they’re not pitted against each other in that way,” Treva Lindsey, a professor of gender studies at Ohio State University, said.
“[But] there’s this pitting of women against each other that happens. And this singularity that we’ve come to expect that is deeply rooted in the patriarchy of society, which is manifested in hip-hop as well.”
Case in point: New male artists like Migos and Lil Uzi Vert.
Migos is the hip-hop trio nominated for best rap album and best rap performance at the Grammys this year. Lil Uzi Vert is nominated for best new artist.
They’ve both been topping the charts. But few are suggesting that Jay Z or Kanye West or Eminem “fell off.” In fact, new male artists are often urged to pay homage and respect to the OG’s.
Hate the game
DonMonique, a rising rapper from Brooklyn, said the environment for women in hip-hop is more toxic because there are so few that command a commercial presence.
“I’ve noticed that with a lot of beef that go on online, it’s rarely ever the actual people that’s in the beef,” she said. “It’s usually the fans that initiate stuff with the comments.”
Lindsey, who specializes in black popular culture and hip-hop studies, said that in the 80s and 90s, the industry was open to many female rappers on the scene. You had Lil Kim, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa, and on and on.
But as hip-hop became more commercially viable in the 2000s and record execs began deciding who to promote and who not to, the field narrowed. And it became more difficult for women to break through.
“I do believe that this whole environment does make it women against women and we’re kind of like insulting each other the same way that men insult us,” Yee said.
“So when we’re talking about different bodies, ‘Oh, she slept with this person,’ ‘She’s this,’ ‘She’s unattractive,’ ‘Oh, you got surgery,’ this and that — all of those stabs are stabs that men take at women … and I always feel like women need to be more supportive of each other.”
While many feuds between female rappers started out as old-fashioned rap battles, some got very personal and produced some of the fiercest diss tracks.
There’s Lil Kim vs. Foxy Brown, Trina vs. Khia; Azealia Banks vs. Iggy Azalea, and most recently, Nicki MInaj vs. Remy Ma, which produced the explosive Minaj diss tracks “Shether” and “No Frauds.”
The boys club
Let’s pause for a minute because we can’t have this conversation without bringing up Rapsody.
So, Rapsody and Cardi are both up for best rap song. And yet, the two have never been pitted in the same way.
Some argue that’s because Cardi and Nicki are more similar: They put their sexuality out there; they’re theatrical and bombastic. Rapsody, on the other hand, has a more laid back look, sporting hoodies and sneakers over glittery getups and bodysuits. Her music is also spiritual, reflective and even political.
In a sense, Rapsody, whose full name is Marlanna Evans, is more accepted into the boys club than Cardi has ever been. She’s received co-signs from greats like Kendrick Lamar and Busta Rhymes.
But even that can be a gift and a curse.
“In that sense, it becomes a space where men still dictate and still have a certain kind of authoritative role in what makes it and what doesn’t, and who is and who isn’t part of this larger culture,” Lindsey said.
That’s long been the case, Lindsey says: Many women started out as part of a male crew and had to get the co-sign of male rappers to gain exposure.
Missy Elliot was part of Swing Mob; Lauryn Hill was part of the Fugees; and Lil Kim was part of The Notorious B.I.G.’s Junior M.A.F.I.A. Even when Minaj first gained national recognition in 2010, it was as part of Lil Wayne’s Young Money crew.
Karol G, a Colombian reggaeton artist, said that she had a similar experience.
“It was very hard. No radio opportunity, no TV stations, no anything because people was not getting used to hearing women in this kind of music, especially in rap,” she said.
Karol, whose full name is Carolina Giraldo Navarro, said that by teaming up with stars like Nicky Jam and Daddy Yankee, she finally gained the exposure she was looking for.
“I think it’s very hard for me to need a male artist in my career to make me get more exposure,” she said. “But I had to do it. I worked a lot, five to seven years alone, and nothing happened and people was not very interested to see what I was doing.”
But Karol, who now has millions of followers, said the tide is now changing.
A glimmer of hope
Karen Civil, an author and entrepreneur who works in the hip-hop industry, said that while social media plays a huge role in creating a toxic environment for women, it’s also powering up a female renaissance in hip-hop.
“Now, there is a way for you to go directly to finding an artist. Before, we had to wait for XXL or The Source Magazine or MTV or BET to premiere a video. I go to (an artist’s) Soundcloud, you know, I find these talents on social media and that’s a wonderful thing,” Civil said.
And the fact that there’s room for a Cardi B and a Rapsody is a sign of hope.
As a former stripper turned reality TV star, Cardi B broke barriers and inspired fans with her larger than life personality and her “regular shmegular” come up story. And without a crew or a male co-sign, Belcalis Almanzar took hip-hop by storm.
Before her first big hit “Bodak Yellow” went viral last summer, Cardi had already begun building her brand as a star on the reality show “Love and Hip Hop,” where she gained a large social media following and a lot of attention for her honest and bombastic personality.
And in a world where sex sells and talent is not always rewarded, hip-hop fans are loving the fact that Rapsody, who has spent years building a loyal following as an underground artist, is finally getting the national recognition she deserves.
There are also many more women doing big things.