Why Aren’t There More Women Who Rap? A Case Study in How Sexism Works

Originally published at Opine Season

A few years ago, I wrote a piece on sexism in indie hip hop, and it’s something that continues to get traffic to this day, possibly because there aren’t a ton of people talking about the issue. One part of that piece that I think deserves a closer look is representation. At every level of the game—from platinum-selling superstars to hungry indie rappers to basement hobbyists—men outnumber women by sizable, indisputable margins.

Of course, there are many great female-identified MCs—Psalm One, Jean Grae, Lauryn Hill, Medusa, Ladybug Mecca, Ana Tijoux and more, plus locals like Maria Isa, Desdamona, The Lioness, Grrrl Party, Dessa, BdotCroc and others. But proportionately, there should be many more. And the explanations we so often hear—“hip hop is about aggression and women can’t do that as well,” or “girls would rather sing than rap” are just too shallow.

By taking a deeper look at why women are underrepresented in hip hop, I think we can shed some light on why this is true in other areas of society as well. Sexism, after all, is bigger than just face-to-face misogyny or discrimination; it’s embedded into our culture in sometimes invisible, insidious ways.

One note: this is not about hip hop’s special relationship with sexism. I’m using hip hop as a lens here because I’m most familiar with it, but I’m sure the same stuff plays out in indie rock, novel writing, competitive axe throwing, stand-up comedy, the U.S. Senate and many other cultures. I just think the lack of female representation among hip hop artists is a great entry point to exploring how sexism functions in other realms.

Level 1: Cultivating a Love for the Music
It starts with the music. You hear a song, you like it. It has a nice beat, maybe a cool video. One song leads to another, leads to an album, a discography, affiliated artists, a deluge of music. For me, it was Goodie Mob, into Outkast, into Tribe, into Wu-Tang and beyond. For a kid today, it might be Kendrick Lamar, or Odd Future, or Macklemore, or someone else. There’s the gateway, and then there’s the path.

But look at all those artists I just mentioned. They’re all men. Some of them are explicitly misogynistic men. So even at this very first level of progression, young women face a hurdle—even if they like the music on a sonic level, there are far fewer women to relate to and see as role models. Add to this the fact that a significant portion of the men on the radio are saying terrible things about women, and we’re not off to a great start.

Level 2: Exploring the Art Form
Still, many young women will persevere and develop a love for not just listening to rap, but creating it too. This process can take many forms—maybe you just start freestyling with your friends at the lunch table, or participate in a hip hop youth arts program, or you have a relative who shows you around their home studio.

But again, sexism impacts the journey. Because of the various level 1 hurdles, it’s more likely that your lunch-table friends who rap will be guys. Will they accept you? Will you feel comfortable in that space? We have an image of the fiery young woman who knocks down the door into the boy’s club and gains acceptance through sheer pluck and determination; but what if you’re not an instant virtuoso? Or an extrovert? Will the men who facilitate the hip hop arts programs push you into singing the hook or writing a poem instead of rapping? Will all the airtime be taken up by the boys? Who owns the studio? Who mixes the tracks? Who’s making the beats? Who can be a mentor? I know this is anecdotal, but I don’t think anyone will argue the fact: it’s men, men, men.

I’m not saying that women can’t relate to or network with guys. But part of male privilege is the ease with which we form these relationships. Sexism may not always be about an explicit, discriminatory act; sometimes it’s just about the lack of this kind of privilege, the additional hurdle, the uphill battle.

Level 3: Building Your Career
But again, some will persevere. Let’s say a young woman is now very much an MC, with a style, some experience, and an album’s worth of songs to give to the world. What’s next?

The answer is a lot more networking. Making music is one thing; getting it heard is something else entirely. Now you need to reach out not just to fans, but to the tastemakers and gatekeepers who can get you to your potential fans: college radio DJs, hip hop bloggers, local music writers, booking agents, promoters and other artists. I probably don’t have to say it at this point, but statistically, these are almost all going to be guys.

It’s important to note that some of them may be nice, supportive guys, too. But even if none of them are outwardly misogynistic or creepy or anything, it’s still about the ease of the relationship, the ability to relate to another person’s story, the subconscious ways we judge each other based on appearance and identity. And sure, some of them possibly will be creeps, which doesn’t help.

Level 4: Getting Famous, or Just Making a Living
If you want to be successful as an MC, it comes down to some combination of talent, work ethic, networks and pure-capture-the-zeitgeist-marketability/luck. And each one of these factors is impacted by the communities through which we move. Your talent is your own, but the quality of your music will always be impacted by your collaborators—which producers you can get to work with you, what kind of mentoring relationships you can set up, who you can call on for guest spots, etc. You may be the hardest worker in your city, but hustle doesn’t happen in a vacuum; you’re constantly building with people, attempting to persuade a particular audience to give you a shot, contacting DJs, promoters and more. ALL of this is impacted by male privilege and sexism, as we’ve seen at each level so far.

There’s more: will music writers talk about your music, or will they just talk about how you’re a “femcee?” Will potential fans give you a shot even if you’re not conventionally pretty, since our society places so much value on women’s appearances? Can you rap about whatever you want, or will you be expected to speak for all women everywhere? If you want to have a family, will your partner take care of the kids while you’re on tour, or will you be expected to do that? The list goes on.

This is what we mean when we talk about male privilege. It’s not that men “have it easy;” being successful is hard no matter who you are. It’s just that women (or more accurately: anyone who doesn’t identify as a stereotypically masculine man) face these additional hurdles, and they’re hurdles that, as men, we sometimes don’t even have to think about.

It’s Bigger than Hip Hop
I can’t stress this enough: this isn’t just about rap. This is how sexism works everywhere. It’s not always about the word “bitch” or the boss sexually harassing his assistant. It’s about the male-dominated networks that have been built over the course of decades. It’s about the “good ol’ boys” club and how advancement in any system is tied to your ability to relate to the men at the top. It’s about seeing a 95-to-5 male-to-female imbalance in a particular institution and thinking that that’s perfectly normal.

The good news is that there’s plenty we can do about all this. With hip hop, solutions may lie in more intentional concert lineups, programs set up specifically to reach out to young women who want to rap (or produce, or DJ, etc.), artists of all gender identities speaking out on this issue, and all of us as listeners actively promoting the artists we support through our Tweets, our Facebook walls, and especially our dollars.

In other cultures and communities, solutions may look different. But whether it’s through building alternative institutions or organizing for change within existing ones, we can make a difference. The first step is stepping back and forcing ourselves to see the full scope of the problem. The second step is understanding that, no matter what communities we navigate through, we have the power to do something about it.