Everyone knows that an excellent song has to have a first-rate title to draw listeners in and a killer “hook” to keep them wanting more. Apparently, blogs are no different. As I sat pondering what to name this particular post, In Defense of the African Queen came out as a forerunner. But when I thought about it, black women of the classic blues era and beyond do not need defending – through their music they have shown the world that they can do just fine on their own. Blues legacies such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainy, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday paved the way for generations of women to take control of their lives through music and to discover their own version of female empowerment.
Who is the blues woman? She is a woman who challenges the status quo, who refused to bow down to gender conformity, and who oozes a natural air of confidence. Bessie Smith and others “forged and memorialized images of tough, resilient, and independent women” who weren’t afraid to defend their rights to being “autonomous human beings.”  In post-slavery America, when gender stratification was at its peak, blues women dared to touch on subjects that were rejected by society. Bessie proved to her listeners that she was both sexually aware and in control of her body when she confronted gender-based authority and domestic violence in the home. In the song Hateful Blues she even entertains the thought of violent revenge against a man who has left her. By counteracting traditional thoughts of what it means to be feminine, she gave countless other women the power that they needed to fight back against the norm.
Through her music, Bessie helped to articulate the struggles of her black female subjects and usher in the beginning of an era of music as political protest. I find it ironic that she came to be known as the “Empress of Blues” – and even in her infamy no one would consider calling her the “Emperor of Blues,” another highly gendered term. Today in the hip-hop culture, black women are often portrayed as “African queens” that demand respect and yet can never gain the symbolic power of the male “kings”.  And yet, the blues women sang with confidence about what it was to be a female in a masculine dominated world.
That same confidence, cultivated decades earlier, continues to help hip-hop artists like Nicki Minaj become models of empowerment for women. As she states in her song recent rap hit Monster, “you could be the king but watch the queen conquer.” Minaj, a Trinidadian-born American musician and rapper, has become a controversial symbol for female empowerment in the twenty-first century. Her sexualized image, often-violent lyrics, and abrasive tone have turned some feminists off. The problem is, I consider myself a feminist, but I also consider myself a fan of rap. This begs the question – are the two reconcilable? Writer April Gregory explains on the blog Racialicious that Nicki “takes patriarchal notions of femininity and womanhood, reclaims them, and makes them work for her.”  She dresses the way that she dresses because she chooses to. She writes the lyrics of her songs for herself, not for anyone else. People are uncomfortable with her sexuality because of the feminine norms of sexual starvation that are still prevalent in our lives today.
Like the blues women did centuries before her, Nicki challenges gender norms by proving that she can have an impact in a male-dominated field while still embracing her own version of femininity. Not many people think of females when they think of rap or the blues. Just like Bessie Smith, Nicki Minaj presents a form of music that is all her own. Using voice as a medium for social change, she empowers herself and other women to embrace the ideas of self-awareness, sexuality, and nonconformity. The feminism that began with Bessie has taken root in the current music world. What do you think, is hip-hop feminism alive in 2012?
 Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (Vintage Books, 1998), 41.
 Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (Vintage Books, 1998), 122.
 April Gregory, “Nicki Minaj: The Flyest Feminist”, http://www.racialicious.com/2012/02/23/nicki-minaj-the-flyest-feminist/