Gender Rap Against the Sexisms

Laura Akinyi, rap artist from Cologne
Laura Akinyi, rap artist from Cologne | Melting Pot Records

In the beginning the roles were clear: male subjugates female. But the more nuanced gender discourse has become, the more diverse the role assignments in German hip-hop. A scene is in motion.

“If we […] give credence to rap videos, women have nothing to say in hip-hop. They remain mute and passive: women don’t act, they adjust themselves and think only about the men they are after, for whatever reasons.” The diagnosis of women in rap as “decorative accessories” delivered by Kiwi Menrath and Clara Völker in the 2007 anthology female hiphop still applies: in the imagery of hip-hop, women serve active men as “status symbols” and, at best, as extras who are reduced “to their sexuality and corporeality”.

Yet such a one-sided finding about the overall panorama would be just as false today as it already was back then. Exactly this is shown by the two authors as counter-factually as it is impressively in their presentation of the variety of female roles in hip-hop, ranging from Queen Bitch and Conscious Sista to female gangsta rappers. For “Turn it this way or that, the rap scene is and remains simply an odd bunch full of ambivalences,” as the queer feminist Berlin rapper and label operator Sookee says in the same volume.

Stereotypes and rejection

These contradictions still mark the public image of hip-hop which, as an urban African-American music style, has stood and still stands more than any other pop music genre in the crossfire of criticism because of its sexism. Rap is looked upon as a misogynistic, ultra-masculine field, while at the same time women have always been present as self-confident actors in the scene. They have, however, been perceived less markedly then men or, at most, as an exceptional phenomenon. German-language pioneers such as Cora E, Aziza A, Nina MC, Sister S (alias Sabrina Setlur) or Tic Tac Toe (often treated hostilely because of their mainstream success) are largely inactive today and known only to specialists, whereas Beginner, for example, consistently successful since the 1990s, have only just released a new album. Their album Advanced Chemistry pays homage to the eponymous crew, who from the end of the 1980s on were part of the same Heidelberg scene as Cora E.

At the latest since the 2000s there has been in Germany intensified efforts to make women visible in rap and address gender issues – through platforms such as femalehiphop.net, the magazine An Attitude, festivals such as Female Focus and We B* Girlz, and public discussions and scholarly articles. Yet even today you can still find internet debates about the question “What female rappers are there?” and journalistic articles with titles such as “Five female rappers you should know”, while it is unthinkable that a rapper with male sexual characteristics could treated with comparable generalizations. Actors such as Lady Bitch Ray and Schwesta Ewa, who flaunt their sexual potency like their male colleagues, are regularly reviled on Youtube portals as “sluts”, hatefully ordered to “get back in the kitchen” or racially insulted because of their Turkish or Polish roots.

Reinterpetation and normalization

At the same time, however, a process of normalization is taking place. The more clearly and diversely women and people who refuse to conform to an unambiguous gender grid mark their presence in hip-hop, the less they have to legitimize themselves. Deliberately “crass” musicians such as Antifuchs now rap “not like a woman” but “like a man”, the duo SXTN “fuck your mother” and Kitty Kat demands like Sido “suck my cock”. Macho gestures are thus appropriated independently of gender, while men groups such as K.I.Z., who originally based at Royal Bunker, a label known for aggressive, sexist battle rap, now increasingly stage the sexism of their texts as genre satire and organize “women only” concerts at the International Women’s Day.

Haiyti, the mysterious female trap rapper from Hamburg, like the Bulgarian-born hipster rapper Dena (“the M.I.A. from Neukölln”), leaves all gender attributes behind her. She produces a sound just as psychedelically druggy as her colleagues and in which gender is not an issue. Female conscious rappers such as Akua Naru and Leila Akinyi from Cologne, on the other hand, address racism and sexism in connection to their being black or women with the greatest naturalness. Miss Platnum und Eunique, who move as veteran and as newcomers respectively in the area of neo-soul and hip-hop, give vent in their texts to their anger over sexism.
Rap artist Haiyti from Hamburg

Sookee’s Berlin label Springstoff continues to strive, with a decidedly political and educational awareness, to convey feminism and anti-sexism in music in a low-threshold manner. It thereby provides a forum not only for musicians such as FaulenzA and Msoke, but for transpersons who, through their self-confidently lived identity, erode the dividing lines between the sexes, which are so often held to be essential to hip-hop. The same applies to the Berlin-based African-American experimental rapper Black Cracker, who artistically philosophizes about his transition to manness.

Not only have woman in hip-hop always gone beyond the status of decorative accessories; rap, thanks to the most diverse actors, has also arrived in a time in which the existence of only two clearly defined sexes is being constantly put into question – whether by hypersexualized performances that function like a masquerade, by girls who are “one of the boys” and so put in question what being a boy consists in, or by people who live beyond any gender norms. Because the most successful popular music genre, often scolded as sexist or homophobic, is fortunately exactly what its main figures make it.