The Acceptance of Women & LGBTQ Artists in Hip-Hop

Nicki Minaj
via Jennifer / CC-BY-2.0

Despite serving as a massive platform against racial injustices, hip-hop hasn’t always been the most accepting genre for women and LGBTQ minorities. Throughout late 1980s and ’90s, hip-hop’s aggressive portrayal of masculinity, objectification of women, along with liberal use of homophobic and misogynistic slurs, often portrayed the genre as a “man’s game,” or more specifically, a genre for straight men.

While issues such as homophobia and misogyny are still prevalent in the genre, in the past few years, many female and LGBTQ rappers are becoming more prominent in hip-hop. Groups like Odd Future and Brockhampton have shown straight peers embracing their openly-gay members, while female rappers such as Rapsody and Noname have challenged the perceptions of women in hip-hop.

Women in Hip-Hop

The struggle for acceptance and representation women in hip-hop dates back to the late ’80s with groups like Salt-N-Pepa, who rose to prominence as one of the the first all-female rap group’s to achieve moderate chart success. Their songs, like “Let’s Talk About Sex,” openly discussed topics typically unheard of for rap at the time; subjects that dealt with the perception of sex and men through a woman’s perspective.

Yet, their mild success was nothing compared to Lil Kim, who’s raunchy lyrics and public persona subverted the masculinity prevalent in mid-90s hip-hop. Lyrics like, “You ain’t lickin’ this, you ain’t stickin’ this . . . I don’t want d*ck tonight / Eat my p*ssy right,” made many straight men uncomfortable, as it displayed a woman taking control over her own sexual desires.

Lil Kim - Hard Core album
via Bad Boy Records

These artists also had their problems however, to some Lil Kim and Salt-N-Pepa were too sexualized. Their heavy reliance on wearing scanty outfits during music videos and performances, and the subject matter in their lyrics, often came at the expense of meaningful discourse for women.

That was until Lauryn Hill arrived and challenged these perceptions through her work with the Fugees and her classic solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Her brand of politically conscious hip-hop challenged masculinity and sexism, through her messages of female empowerment and condemnation of immature and abusive men.

Her hit single “Doo Wop” from the album is a perfect example, stating: “Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem/Baby girl, respect is just a minimum/N*ggas f*cked up and you still defending ’em”; and “Money taking and heart breaking, now you wonder why women hate men/The sleepy, silent men/The punk, domestic violence men/ quick to shoot the semen, stop acting like boys and be men.”

Lauryn Hill
via The Come Up Show / Eddy Rissling / CC-BY-2.0

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill‘s success has been matched by few artists: male and female. The album was the first hip-hop album to ever win a Grammy award for Album of The Year, an award that only one other hip-hop artist, Outkast, has ever managed to win. In addition, it was a massive commercial success, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 after it’s release.

However, after this album and a successful MTV Live performance is 2002, Lauryn Hill began to fall out of popularity and relevance. Nikki Minaj, who relies heavily on her sex and cross-over appeal to sell records according to her detractors, is arguably the most prominent female figure in hip-hop.

Despite this, releases such as Noname’s Telefone and Rapsody’s Laila’s Wisdom from 2016-2017 have shown that conscious female rappers are still relevant, despite Lauryn Hill falling under the radar.

Telefone’s eclectic Jazz-rap, R&B, pop and hip-hop fusion, along with the rapper’s diverse subject matter, has garnered critical praise that matches contemporaries such as Chance the Rapper. The songs range from love songs like “Sunny Duet,” to songs about social justice and death on “Casket Pretty,” where Noname wonders if  her loved ones will “make it home.”

via Steven Pisano / CC-BY-2.0

Laila’s Wisdom, on the other hand, named after Rapsody’s grandmother, displays a strong root of self-confidence and ambition, with lyrics such as “I’m the underdog and gold is what flossin’/When they told me my chances of losing was higher than divorces/You gotta know your worth and work ‘cus I can’t force ya.” In addition, it showcases her refusal to conform to standards set by the industry, and the desire to control her self-image and art, with: “I never signed paperwork without reading the clauses”; and “I rock Nike and New Balance, I drink water by gallons, y’all should call me captain.”

Despite Laila’s Wisdom’s moderate commercial success and Telefone being a free release, the critical praise both albums have received show a re-emerging acceptance for conscious female hip-hop. Laila’s Wisdom’s Grammy nod for Best Rap Album, in particular, is generating a lot of buzz, for an album that may have otherwise gone unnoticed by the mainstream.

Acceptance of LGBTQ Artists

While hip-hop has had prominent female rappers since the ’80s, LGBTQ figures in hip-hop were virtually unheard of.  While “homo-hop” groups that dealt with same sex issues, such as Deep Dickollective, existed in the late ’90s, the road to popular acceptance arguably began in 2004 with Kanye West. West initially shocked the hip-hop world by saying, “Hip-hop does discriminate against gay people. I want to just come on TV and tell my rappers, my friends, just stop it, fam. Seriously, that’s really discrimination.”

Kanye West
via Mathieu Lebreton / CC-BY-2.0

His public persona also challenged masculinity, as he wore pink polo’s and designer backpacks in public, while saying things such as, “You can still love a man and be manly, dog,” on “Family Business,” one of the closing tracks for 2004’s College Dropout. These statements marked one of the first times a mainstream hip-hop artist defended the homosexual community and was likely due to the influence of West’s own personal life, as his cousin is an openly gay man.

Yet, acceptance isn’t representation, which arguably wasn’t be achieved in mainstream hip-hop until 2012, when Frank Ocean publicly admitted that he had fallen in love with a man at the age of 19 in a Tumblr letter. Ocean had been generating buzz for a while, with promising features on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne and his acclaimed mixtape Nostalgia.Ultra.

His admission carried risks, as he publicized it six days before he was about to release Channel Orange. The album’s success, however, quashed these fears, as it eventually landed at No.2 on the Billboard 200 and received critical praise. Songs such as “Forest Gump,” dealt with themes such as same-sex love explicitly, and its release saw many in the hip-hop industry — including Jay-Z, Russell Simmons and Tyler the Creator — supporting Ocean’s decision.

Frank Ocean
via David Hwang / CC-BY-2.0

Ocean’s previous group, Odd Future, is also responsible for launching the representation of LGBTQ themes and artists into popularity. Syd Tha Kyd, an openly-lesbian woman, was responsible for producing much of the groups early work and has gone on to a successful career as a singer in her own right, releasing her album Fin this year.

OF frontman Tyler the Creator’s 2017 release Flower Boy, was seen as the rapper’s “coming out”, as it held lyrics such as “Garden shed, garden shed, garden shed/Garden shed for the garcons/Them feelings I was guarding,” with some implying that the shed represented “the closet” where Tyler held same-sex desires. Previous lyrics off of albums, where he describes himself as a “f*g”, and a 2015 tweet where Tyler states he tried to “come out of the closet,” left many puzzled as to whether or not the rapper was gay, or merely trying to remain controversial like his idol Lil B who released the infamous album I’m Gay.

The past year saw the rise of Young M.A., a lesbian trap artist who gained popularity last year through her hit single “Ooouuu.” The single’s music video, displayed the artists androgynous appearance and masculine demeanor subverted the stereotypical “sexy” female emcee, and showed her as equal to the men in her crew.

In regards to trans artists, Mykki Blanco gained prominence through her song “Wavvy,” which received over 2 million views on YouTube alone. In addition to her music, Blanco has received praise for her high energy performances, making a strong case for her acceptance into the hip-hop scene.

These achievements aren’t just limited to emcees either. Last year, Kaytranada made headlines when he came out in an interview with The Fader in 2016. This hasn’t slowed his career at all, as he still managed to release an album and EP right after, collaborating with rappers such as Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa and Goldlink.

Kevin Abstract
via Twitter / @KevinAbstract

Arguably, no other LGBTQ hip-hop artist, however, has received the praise, attention and prominence this year as Kevin Abstract. The Brockhampton frontman released an album in 2016, titled All American Boyfriend, which dealt openly with themes of same-sex attraction and has discussed the subject numerous times with his Brockhampton group releases in 2017.

With lyrics such as “Heath Ledger with some dreads/I just gave my n*gga head,” off “STAR” and “Why you always rap about bein’ gay?/Cause not enough n*ggas rap and be gay,” off “JUNKY,” Abstract makes it clear that he wants to represent the gay community more in hip-hop. With these explicitly gay lyrics, it’s astounding how much support he receives from the straight members in the group, and fans — something that was unlikely to happen in hip-hop as soon as a decade ago.

While homophobia and misogyny still have a presence in hip-hop, it is slowly phasing out and is becoming more accepting of women and LGBTQ minorities. This acceptance has spread to images of straight artists in hip-hop as well, with Young Thug sporting a dress on the album cover for Jeffrey, and Lil Pump dressing in bright colors and dying his hair pink. With this new generation of artists, the hyper-masculinity that dominated the ’90s has come to a decline, and with it has changed the soundscape and image of the genre entirely.