“The African Queen”: From Classic Blues to the Hip-Hop Feminist

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.

Bessie Smith

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.” [1] 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”. [2] And yet, the blues women sang with confidence about what it was to be a female in a masculine dominated world.

Nicki Minaj

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.” [3] 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?

[1] Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (Vintage Books, 1998), 41.

[2] Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (Vintage Books, 1998), 122.

[3] April Gregory, “Nicki Minaj: The Flyest Feminist”, http://www.racialicious.com/2012/02/23/nicki-minaj-the-flyest-feminist/

9 thoughts on ““The African Queen”: From Classic Blues to the Hip-Hop Feminist

  1. I find the comparison between blues music in the 20s and hip hop music today to be very intriguing. While looking for other examples of the existence of hip hop feminism in today’s society, I came across an article in The Root ( http://www.theroot.com/views/hip-hop-feminism ) that speaks about the importance of the hip hop community as a whole. In order to really get across the message of hip hop feminism, the cooperation of the entire community, including men, is needed. Just like women needed the voice of men in order to gain the right to vote in 1920, women today need the support of men to give a voice to hip hop feminism.

    1. Women today also need the support of other women to give a voice to hip hop feminism. Awhile back, I remember hearing about some tensions between Nicki Minaj and Lil’ Kim. Lil’ Kim, also a female rapper, was popular in the late 1990s and early 2000’s, and has accused Nicki Minaj of ripping of her style. In a number of interviews, and even in some songs, the ladies take stabs at each others’s lives and music careers. When on the Andy Cohen show on Bravo, someone asked Lil’ Kim about Nicki Minaj’s song “Stupid Hoe” and Kim said something along the lines of…. “If you have to make a song called “Stupid Hoe”, then you must be the stupid hoe.” In order to strengthen the voice of hip hop feminism, women need to stop tearing each other down in the name of originality.

  2. I don’t listen to rap music so I can’t really comment on the genre, but I do listen to country music and I feel like the community is different. The country community is incredibly supportive of each other and the women of country music don’t tear each other down. I wonder if it’s because in hip-hop there’s a sense of individualism bred amongst the singers and not really a sense of community as in country music. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but if “image” dictates how you have to act within your musical genre then won’t it take that much longer for people to support each other instead of tearing each other down? And was it the same way for the women during Bessie’s era?

    1. I completely agree, I am much more of a country music listener, and I really do think that within country music there is a strong sense of community and an emphasis on building each other up. I don’t know enough about many other musical genres, but it would be interesting to look at the perceived motivations of each.

  3. I find it to be an incredible irony of life that while we are discussing the role of blues and rap artists in expressing sexual freedom and autonomy for women, the radio personality Rush Limbaugh is under fire for declaring a woman to be a “slut” for discussing why birth control should be covered by health insurance. In an even greater twist of Fate, earlier this week Mr. Limbaugh expressed displeasure at the response to his statements saying

    “One of the greatest illustrations of it is that rappers can practically say anything they want about women, and it’s called art.”

    While I find both of his statements reprehensible for many reasons, I do find it interesting that misogyny and feminism can exist in the same medium. And, while misogyny is at least somewhat tolerated, expressions of sexual freedom by women seem to engender a more vociferous negative response from American society.

  4. I have a very difficult time thinking about the rap world and the complex relationships that take place. Every time I think of women in rap I think of a documentary I saw some time back about Nicki Minaj(http://www.mtv.com/shows/nicki_minaj_my_time_now/series.jhtml) revealing both her background and her thoughts on being one of the only ladies in a male dominated field. Any woman who tries to be on par with men today, especially in rap culture, has an uphill battle. While Nicki and others get bad press for being brass and loud mouthed, I can’t help but stick up for these “out of the box” women. She is self confident. What would Bessie Smith do?

  5. I can’t help but think about how strategic the music industry is … Producers, recording studios, labels, contracts … People do not become famous merely for their talent – they are chosen to be where they are by a delegation of people often hidden from the public gaze for reasons not always revealed. One thing we do know: sex sells – but what are the other factors for the promotion of one artist or genre over the other? Is this hidden delegation merely reflecting society or are they purposely molding society by the artists that they choose to promote and sign on? I have a hard time seeing any majorly famous musician or artist as wildly individual or out of the box and unique when I have it in the back of my head that they fit someone’s idea of a box to have gotten as famous as they did.

  6. Hummm…I have lots to say. I would have to disagree with you on this one; I don’t see any parallels between Holiday, Smith and Rainey and artists such as Minaj. She a sensationalist, overly sexualized by the industry, misogynistic (yes)…i’ll leave it at that. I would be more open to comparisons between Blues women and female artists such as Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Erykah Badu, N’Dambi, Meshell Ndegeocello, Lizz Wright, Toshi Reagon, etc. Similar to Rainey, Smith, and Holiday, the works of Latifah, Lyte, Badu, et al transcend the effort to become undermine men and women. Their music has a message, they address historical and contemporary issues, they don’t use their body/sex to sale records, and most importantly they have longevity. I’ll end here.

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