—by Biba Adams
With 12 number one records, Diana Ross and the Supremes remain America's most successful vocal group. Raised in Detroit's Brewster Projects, the group was the marquee act of Motown Records. While operations of the label moved to Los Angeles in 1972, its legacy and history are inextricably linked to the city of Detroit. Berry Gordy's manufacturing process, inspired by Henry Ford, and the legendary artist development department created a blueprint that still echoes through the streets of Detroit.
Bo$$ first gave the world a glimpse of what Detroit's female rappers had to offer the culture in the early 1990s, but she quickly moved to Los Angeles, enlisted production from DJ Quik and signed to Def Jam West. It was easy to ascribe the success of her single "Deeper" and her debut album Born Gangstaz to California, instead of to her hometown. And Detroit rapper Cha-Cha also made a splash with her Epic Records debut Dear Diary. But it was a rapper named Smiley who set the pace for female rappers in Detroit.
Released in 1990, the single "Smiley, But I'm Not Friendly" was an instant Detroit classic. The song stayed in heavy rotation, something that was previously unheard of by a local rapper. In fact, it went gold with the help of hometown audiences and surrounding Midwest support. Smiley was a devastating lyricist, and despite being in high school, she "don't need nobody to take care of me / Not a mom, a dad / not a boyfriend or a nanny." The high-tempo hit also had a popular music video where she basically walked into a meeting and ate bitches up. As significantly, for years, Smiley was also a radio personality and program director at a top urban station. She remained a visible force in the city for years before relocating to Texas.
"Music needs female rappers," she told REVOLT via email. "It needs that voice. There are a lot of them in Detroit who have been at this a long time, honing their craft. That definitely gives them one up on the competition."
Detroit women combine street sassiness and a flair that is a signature of the city, giving them an identity distinct from other areas. Read below for a list of Motor City ladies making their stamp on the industry.
She has a regal air, a beautiful face, and a banging body. Born Arkeisha Knight, the eldest of six children, Kash Doll has a strength that was bred into her, shaped by the early loss of her biological father. After graduating from high school, she entered the exotic dance industry and became one of Detroit's premier dancers. One of her favorite stories to tell is about how she once earned a whopping $26,000 in one night. While Cardi B's stripper-turned-princess tale is the popular image of former exotic dancers who become rappers, it is not the only one. Kash still moves like she could take center stage, and it wouldn't be a step down. Her braggadocious lyrics reveal no regret for her past career. Let her tell it, she was a boss then, and is just an even bigger one now.
But Kash Doll is more than her looks: her relaxed, effortless flow has stood out on appearances like Big Sean's "So Good," the BET Hip Hop Awards Cypher, and her own single, "For Everybody." A strong social media following of over two million followers on Instagram that she calls her "Brats" made her a winner at the BET Social Awards. Her most recent EP, Brat Mail, is a strong introduction for the Doll. In their review, Pitchfork said that it "often feels like a victory lap run before the official race has even started." It just might be that they don't understand that Detroit women don't compete against anyone but themselves.
With striking beauty and a series of fascinating tattoos all over her neck and chest, Neisha Neshae's rock star presence is the first thing you notice about her. One of the newest signees to Roc Nation, the diminutive self-proclaimed "queen of R&B Trap" is poised to break barriers—and soon. While she isn't necessarily a rapper, her swag and lyrics are all hip-hop. One of her earlier singles, "On a Cloud," tells the story of her evolution from a foster care kid born to drug-addicted parents to gaining success and confidence through her music. With production from Detroit's hottest producer, Helluva, Neisha is poised to deliver officially introduce herself to the world with Queenin', her debut album executive produced by fellow Detroit star Big Sean.
"Queenin' means being a boss lady, overcoming obstacles and being an overachiever as a woman," her Roc Nation bio reads. The LP doesn't have a release date yet, but she continues to drop new music and engage with her 100K fans on Instagram, where she shares her eccentric wardrobe choices and workout regimen. More than anything, Neisha Neshae hopes to inspire young women who may have had the same difficult experiences that she did growing up. She is fascinated by the creative process and sharing that message and energy with her fans.
At only 19 years old, Molly Brazy is one of the most recognizable names in Detroit largely because of the large investment of the team behind her. You can hardly drive down 8 Mile Road without seeing one of the many billboards advertising her debut project, Big Brazy. She ripped show after show at SXSW this year, putting her name and face in front of influencers. She's already been featured on The Fader and dozens of other outlets after the success of her single, "Trust None," which has garnered over six million views on YouTube.
Brazy is signed to her own label and distributed by Empire, where the push behind her is ambitious. Her lyrics reflect her youth, mostly bragging about fictitious crimes and being better than other girls. Still, the talent and the drive are there.
Southwest Mook is the lesser-known rapper of this group, but her lyrics are incredible. She was raised primarily in the rough and obscure neighborhood of Southwest Detroit, the same area that birthed and bred the Black Mafia Family founders Demetrius and Terry Flenory. By age 12, she was a drug dealer herself with the unlikely help of her grandmother who was a known bank robber. By 16, Southwest Mook was financially supporting her family as a high school dropout and foster care runaway with a police record.
She invested money from her street activity into her career, using her earnings to pay for studio time. She counts her two music influences as Jeezy and Aaliyah which, ironically, is exactly what she sounds like. In 2014, Mook sustained a life-threatening gunshot to her chest, and earned a short stint behind bars. She is preparing music right now to keep her name out while she spends the next three years in prison.
"Detroit girls hustle harder" is a common saying in the city. We are known for our energy and our toughness that comes from our environment. This is a city where, whether male or female, success is expected, and the hustle is necessary.
Biba Adams is a Detroit-based hip-hop writer and scholar. Her work has been featured on REVOLT TV, The Root, Ebony Magazine, and more. She was recently named one of AllHipHop's Most Powerful Women in Hip-Hop for her work in founding The Detroit Hip Hop Organization, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving, promoting, and protecting the legacy of Detroit Hip Hop. Find her on social media @BibatheDiva.