The history of rap is a highly interesting one. Through retellings of legendary debuts and the inventions of pioneering techniques weave compelling stories, we often leave out one important element: the involvement of women. Women have been at the forefront of rap since the genre’s very inception, but misogyny has infuriatingly prevented them from receiving the same kind of recognition as their male peers. Female rappers and the women who work in the industry are essential to the game–with them, the genre breaks free from restrictive norms and uplifts the voices of Black women.
You may credit the rise of women in rap to Salt-N-Pepa, who brought a new wave of fun, sexually-empowered lyrics to the scene in the 80s. While they are pioneers in their own right, women’s involvement in rap goes back to the earliest days of rap formation–specifically, a bumping block party hosted by DJ Cool Herc in 1973, where the very first elements of modern hip-hop were created and heard. Though not a rapper, his sister Cindy Campbell was instrumental in having the event set up; without her involvement; there’s no telling how DJ Cool Herc’s legacy would have played out.
The first actual female master of ceremonies, though? Pioneer MC Sha-Rock, whose name isn’t mentioned alongside the originators of hip-hop nearly enough. In the ’70s, the South Bronx native was a rapper in her group Funky 4 + 1, which got signed to a record label in 1979–officially making MC Sha-Rock the first female rapper on vinyl. “When I was rhyming, it was on your skills alone because I was out there with male emcees and prolific male emcees,” Sha-Rock once said. “But I had skills.”
And those skills of hers would lay the foundation for more female MC’s/rappers to come, bringing the perspectives of Black women to the forefront on a massive scale for the first time. They challenged societal conceptions of Black women in a way that I think has revolutionized culture itself. MC Lyte’s Lyte As a Rock (1988) shook the industry with her precision, flow, and refusal to censor herself in a time when modesty was expected. Queen Latifah made her mark on the world in the ’90s by explicitly rapping about the issues black women face; songs like “Ladies First” and “UNITY,” which discussed domestic violence, harassment, and the need for the community between women, made Latifah a powerful force for change. Salt-N-Pepa’s colorful and sexually liberating lyrics opened the door for Black women, both fans and future rappers, to actually own their desires–a monumental accomplishment for the sex-positive revolution of the 90s. Truly, they changed the game. They not only molded early rap but have molded our social consciousness for the better.
Modern female rappers like Nicki Minaj, Megan Thee Stallion, and Cardi B have all been a part of this amazing legacy. I’d also like to give a shout-out to lesser-known names such as Cupcakke, GloRilla, and Tierra Whack. They continue to raise the bar by showcasing their amazing lyrical diversity, flows, and perspectives on social issues as Black women, proving to the world just how needed these amazing women are.