It’s simple, according to Carl Chery, head of urban music at Spotify. We’re in a golden age of female hip-hop.
“A year and a half ago in comparison to now, the field has expanded so much,” said Chery. “You’re seeing women who emerged as early as two years ago become stars. We’ve never seen this. I don’t think there’s ever been this many female rap stars, ever.”
Men have long dominated hip-hop, and White executives have long dominated the music industry. In the (very recent) past, most Black female artists trying to make it big have found success by leaning on either of these pillars. Between the late ’80s and early 2000s, Eve, Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim, Trina and Foxy Brown were among one of the first waves of successful women in hip-hop. But most were either led onstage by all-male recording agencies (Eve and the Ruff Ryders) or famous male rappers (Lil’ Kim and Notorious B.I.G., Trina and Trick Daddy).
Recent female duets and features may prove this phenomena moot as Black women are now producing some of their most listened-to songs by collaborating with other Black women. And they’re doing so while discussing sex, drugs and female friendships.
“It’s incredible,” said Chery.
In 2019, Chery noticed the beginnings of this new wave of Black female artists. Acts such as City Girls, Lizzo, Doja Cat, Cardi B, Saweetie, SZA and Megan Thee Stallion were making a name for themselves on the heels of Nicki Minaj, Rihanna and Beyoncé's seemingly stand-alone successes, without the scaffolding of big names or record labels to prop them up.
“Meg isn’t connected to anyone like that,” said Chery. “She’s standing up on her own.”
“WAP,” Megan Thee Stallion’s collaboration with Cardi B, broke the record for the biggest 24-hour debut for an all-female collaboration on YouTube and currently has more than 876 million plays on Spotify, the most of any of Megan Thee Stallion’s songs. In second place? “Savage Remix,” her song with Beyoncé.
“Women are ruling,” said Bktherula, a female rapper from Atlanta. “It’s really amazing to just hear women everywhere all the time. You open TikTok, music apps, what do you hear? Black women.”
The 18-year-old musician began recording music four years ago, but her career took off when her single “Left Right” went viral in 2019. Now she has over 1 million monthly listeners on Spotify with her hit song nearing 15 million plays. Like Megan Thee Stallion, Bktherula doesn’t shy away from broaching any subject matter in her music — but she does know listeners, especially men, aren’t used to seeing such confident Black women.
“They’re seeing women, Black women, talking about whatever the hell we want to talk about, and for some reason they don’t treat us like male rappers,” said Bktherula. “When a guy talks about the same stuff, they’re silent. If anything, I think it’s better when women talk about sex and speak their mind.”
When women do rap and sing about sex with the vulgarity typically reserved for men, however, it becomes mainstream news. The vivid lyrics and anatomical subject matter of “WAP” evoked ample pushback, especially from conservative pundits, and inspired Megan Thee Stallion’s next single (the title of which is unprintable in a family newspaper) released earlier this year. The follow-up song — which has lyrics like “I don’t give a f--- about a blog trying to bash me/I’m the s--- per the Recording Academy” — has been listened to more than 90 million times on Spotify.
Over the past two decades, American culture has changed to allow for the release and praise of a song like “WAP,” said Prince Charles Alexander, professor of music production and engineering at Berklee College of Music. Women speaking (or singing) about taboo subjects, while still considered risque, has become more commonplace and accepted. For instance, every time Rihanna dropped music between 2007 to 2013, her songs would chart. Her tongue-in-cheek 2011 hit “S&M” was no different, he said.
“The line from [S&M], ’Sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me,’ didn’t evoke a lot of controversy,” said Alexander. But there are still perceived limits to what a woman can rap about. Despite their often bawdy lyrics, female rappers are still viewed as nurturers.
“This is still an evolutionary response to things that men have been doing since the early ’80s,” said Alexander, who has worked with Usher, Mary J. Blige and Diddy. “What’s interesting is not that women are responding, it’s that it’s being done by artists with a family-friendly brand. Because women are moms, aunties, sisters. Even though they are strippers, they are still nurturers. Even though they are prostitutes, they are still nurturers. Even though they are lawyers, they are still nurturers. In our male[-dominated] society, they still provide a certain amount of nurturing that males are still trying to figure out.”
It is easy to highlight how far women have come in hip-hop. Chery has curated the “Feelin’ Myself” playlist on Spotify for the last two years, highlighting female hip-hop artists and their breakthrough songs. “Even just by working on the playlist, I’ve seen so many new women rappers,” he said. But the music industry is still led by men, regardless of how it may seem times have changed.
“Every woman that I know who’s in the industry has had to fight, claw, scratch their way for their existence,” said Alexander. “That energy can be used to your advantage if you know how to channel it, but that channeling still has to go to a male-dominated industry. That’s from the top down — most executives at Universal, Sony and Warner are all male.”
But the men in charge seem to have realized that women are popular and therefore profitable, said Alexander. That’s due, in some part, to social media. Instagram, Facebook and even streaming services such as Spotify allow users greater control over the music they discover and choose to listen to. Once a song becomes popular, it can make the leap from your TikTok feed to a playlist like “Feelin’ Myself,” which boasts more than one million followers.
With an increase in popular female musicians, however, comes gendered insults and assumptions — especially from men within the industry. Jermaine Dupri, a 46-year-old producer and rapper, referred to Cardi B and other female rappers who discuss sex as “strippers rapping.” DaBaby, who has collaborated with Megan Thee Stallion several times, made news for seemingly retweeting a joke about her allegedly being shot by Tory Lanez — an incident for which she was mocked and questioned. She later wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about the need to protect Black women, writing specifically about her experiences in the rap genre: “In every industry, women are pitted against one another, but especially in hip-hop, where it seems as if the male-dominated ecosystem can handle only one female rapper at a time.”
Bktherula doesn’t let that sort of hate bother her, though; being a Black woman in the industry is already difficult enough. She knows she’s talented, and was before her music went viral.
“I think we’re really starting to realize how freaking powerful we are,” said Bktherula. “Us Black women are extremely talented. Other people are starting to see that and they’re starting to gravitate toward us. But the hits have been there. And the talent has been there — for all of us.”