It's one of the most regularly-asked and least-satisfyingly answered questions in pop culture: why aren't there more terrific female rappers? This time, the feud between hot up-and-comer Nicki Minaj and fading veteran Lil' Kim's spotlighted the problem again. Kim's jabbed Nicki for stealing her image and place in the spotlight, even as Nicki's both acknowledged Kim as an influence and swiped back at her gripes. Are women in hip-hop tearing each other down? Or are they fighting over scarce space for female emcees in a market that's dominated by men? Atlantic correspondent Alyssa Rosenberg, POLITICO editor Sara Libby, and Pop Matters columnist Tyler Lewis discuss hip-hop's woman problem.
There are times when keeping an eye on top-flight female emcees makes me feel like I'm watching Highlander: for some reason, there can only be one. Eminem and Jay-Z can burn equally brightly without diminishing each others' lustre, but after Nicki Minaj's long-awaited first album, Pink Friday, was finally released, the diss track that followed from Lil' Kim felt inevitable rather than biting. For some reason, women in hip-hop, especially women at the very pinnacle of the form, seem stuck between the demands of sisterhood and excellence.
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Maybe it's silly to dream of a hip-hop feminist utopia. But how much more fun would it be to live in a world where female rappers were collectively "hyper happy overjoyed / Pleased with all the beats and rhymes my sisters have employed," as Monie Love was when she and Queen Latifah shared a mic more than 20 years ago? Diss tracks like Kim's "Black Friday" are exhausting, and in this case, not even very good. M.I.A. made better, more generous music when she sang backup for Rye Rye on "Sunshine," stepping back to help a younger woman build her career.
Nobody seems to be particularly immune from this tension. In the same track, "I'm the Best," Minaj declares both that "I'm fightin' for the girls that never thought they could win," and calls herself a "Lion of Judah." She's not the only female emcee to embrace that exceptionalist title: Robyn, on her self-titled 2005 album, riffed on Lil' Kim's nickname by dubbing herself the "Queen of Queen Bees, Lioness of Judah."
But maybe women rappers aren't wrong to try to fight for a place at the top, to insist that they're something special. If you're a woman in hip-hop, the market seems to dictate that you can either fight fiercely for one of a tiny number of places at the top, with all the income and gratification it guarantees, or be Jean Grae or Janelle Monae and reap the alternate rewards of artistic freedom and critical respect, but without some of the guarantees of continued employment. This isn't a new complaint, really. Nicki v. Kim is just the latest illustration of the challenges for women in the game—and the ways women don't always make it easy for each other. So what do you two think? Do we have a collective action problem among women in hip-hop? Or a market that only has enough demand to support one Queen Bee?
NEXT: Sara Libby weighs in on Saturday, and Tyler Lewis offers his thoughts on Monday.