50 years of Hip-Hop: women as trendsetters

As the Ancienne Belgique’s celebrations for fifty years of hip-hop come to an end, it’s an excellent time to reflect on the genre. Who is at the root of creating this genre bending force that we call hip-hop? Akua Naru gave us a wonderful insight into the influence of women on hip-hop during her reading in: Is hip-hop still a force for social change? She relays us the history on why women hold an incredibly important place in the creation of the genre.

Tekst: Isla Howie

It goes without saying that there have always been plenty of female rappers and other hip-hop artists. Miss Lauryn Hill was the first female hip-hop artist to reach number one on the Billboard hot 100. Artists like Little Simz have solidified women as an irrefutably important force within the genre. Moreover, black women have always been at the root of hip-hop, yet often got erased or written off as a form of sexual relief within a genre made for and by men. This contributes to a form of masculinity which most of these women want to fight. Where do these women fit into the origins of hip-hop?

Rhythmic clapping

Most people who love hip-hop know that its birthplace is The Bronx, New York. It all started on the streets, where the sounds of music mixed with playing children and the general bustle of New York. For a moment, I want to focus on these playing children. What are they doing? Between the basketball court and the school, we can hear them. Clapping games. A very simple pastime, which many little girls globally enjoy. But here in The Bronx, they sound like something more. They come with a folklore, and a very noticeable rhythm. Simple rhymes put on top of the sound of claps. 

Down, down, baby
Down by the roller coaster
Sweet, sweet, baby
I’ll never let you go

Turned into: 

 I‘m goin’ down, down baby, yo’ street in a Range Rover (c’mon)
Street sweeper baby, cocked ready to let it go (hot shit!)

These lyrics above are from Nelly’s Country Grammar. If I may oversimplify for a moment, this is what rap is. Rhyme put on top of a beat.

In the wider sense, that very concept formed the base and concept of rap as we know it. It was little girls throughout different generations who gave us these games, and therefore, rhythms to play with. Nelly, a male hip-hop artist, is one of the most literal examples of using these clapping games in his music. When we hear this song, most of us would never realise where its roots came from.We can thus agree that black women and girls have had incredibly important roles in laying the soil in which hip-hop grew. Yet somehow, it still feels like women in hip-hop are pushed into a different category altogether. Once the genre became something bigger, women’s contributions to its origin seemed to be forgotten.

Key cultural change

Hip-hop was created as an opportunity to challenge the status quo, a cultural force that bled over from music into activism and further. From a small niche often associated with poverty, it has undeniably grown into something that no one expected it to be. It has changed all aspects of culture. And it has undeniably brought along meaningful cultural change, and has destigmatized many parts of black culture. 

Despite pushing social change for over fifty years, there is still a lot of work to be done within hip-hop. Women are still pushed to the periphery of a genre that they helped to create. Women should no longer have to explain why they deserve to be in hip-hop, as if they were not at the crown of its creation. 

So, with this, I would like to ask hip-hop to keep pushing change in the wider world. Keep influencing culture, keep spreading awareness through art. But perhaps we should ask ourselves to look at the flaws within the genre and reflect on how we can better ourselves from within. Hopefully when we celebrate a hundred years of hip-hop, we will no longer need to have these conversations.

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