Each One, Teach One | What generations of women in hip hop teach us about perseverance
Author Kathy Iandoli explores the stories of women in hip hop in her new book with great care and nuance.
As KRS-One articulated throughout his catalog and in his many teachings, “Rap is something you do, hip hop is something you live.” As the culture continues to evolve today, many feel it’s not only important, but vital to preserve and honor the fundamental elements: Graffiti, emceeing, breakdancing, deejaying and knowledge. This column called “Each One, Teach One” aims to do exactly that. It will highlight various lessons that can be passed between new and old generations alike.
Throughout the past several years, hip hop has been treated to a brilliant resurgence of women dominating the spotlight and the charts. Such hot takes like “women are running rap right now” not only are frequently boasted around on Twitter these days, but are also easily supported in a variety of ways.
To start by bringing it to the charts, 2019 has already yielded the highest total of women rappers making their mark on the Billboard Hot 100 this decade. Saweetie, Iggy Azalea, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, Nicki Minaj, Lizzo and City Girls have all had songs enter the chart so far this year. On top of that enchanting slice of contemporary history, Lizzo also impressively became the sixth woman rapper to ever hit the No. 1 slot, and the first to do so in two years. As of last month, her single “Truth Hurts” officially became the longest-reigning No. 1 single performed by a female rapper without any features in the chart’s history. Lauryn Hill became the first to top the Billboard 100 chart with “Doo Wop (That Thing)” in 1998, helping pave the way for the next generation to make an impact much like the previous generation did for her.
However, while the impact of women in hip hop has undeniably been felt since the genre’s conception, it unfortunately has not been adequately preserved, elevated and honored in the same manner as the men who have been celebrated for shaping the culture. Veteran hip hop journalist and author Kathy Iandoli’s new book, God Save the Queens, looks to change the direction of this discourse by amplifying the stories of women whose journeys and contributions have traditionally been inexcusably omitted or overshadowed. Instead of harping on how women, black women especially, are wildly under-appreciated or criminally slept on in hip hop and in general, God Saves The Queen is a collection of nuanced stories that explain a larger cultural context behind the history, and ongoing obstacles that our favorite rappers have been dealing with for decades and continue to deal with today.
Throughout Iandoli’s thorough and vibrant tribute, which centers on the women pioneers and the tastemakers of today, there are countless examples of perseverance to draw inspiration from. To further echo the powerful testament of women making it happen against all odds, let’s take a look at five women who found their voice doing exactly that.
“No, I’m not cute,” Monie Love declares to me emphatically, her faint British accent accentuating her point. “That’s why I shaved my hair off. I taped the boobies down. Not cute. I’m a mess. I’m a deadly, venomous mess on this microphone. Do not sleep on me.” – Excerpt from ‘God Save The Queens’
Hailing from London, Monie Love is a Grammy–nominated rapper, actress and radio personality who landed in the United States in the early 80s as a teenager, determined to make a name for herself.
”Monie was really hip to things that were making an impact here, maybe in the late 70s, but were coming there to the UK closer to the early 80s,” Iandoli recalls during her interview with REVOLT TV. “International audiences tend to be a few years late when it comes to trends that are in the United States on a niche level. She was getting them right on time because she was so obsessed with hip hop.”
When Monie landed in the scene, especially looking at who the biggest names at Def Jam were at the time, she stood out against other women, and had men being magnetically drawn to her accent and physical beauty alike.
”A lot of people in The Bronx especially hadn’t traveled, right? So, they didn’t know what a girl with an accent was,” Iandoli continues. “She was a unicorn, but she was also pretty. And now you have all these guys who are feeling themselves and she’s like, ‘But, I rap.’ And they’re like, ‘Pffft OK. You’re cute. Date me.’ I think the important rule of perseverance when it comes to Monie Love was how she shaved her head, and taped down her breasts and wore these baggy clothes. She had to strip herself of certain aspects of her identity in the interest of being lyrics forward. I think that is a huge indicator of perseverance when you are willing to take away your own physical attributes and your own aesthetic in exchange for making people actually listen to you. I think it worked. Later on, she was able to go back to more of a style of who I presumed she was before that.”
Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes
“There was so much more for Left Eye to do, both with TLC and as a soloist. Thanks to Left Eye, TLC brought a renewed spirit to outspoken female hip hop artists. The year after their debut, many of their peers followed suit.” – Excerpt from ‘God Save The Queens’
Another great example of dedication can be found in Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. In the early 90s when TLC first entered the game, they were being touted as a hip hop group. This began to change with 1992’s “Baby Baby Baby,” as the track pushed Left Eye to the side due its primary singing and it landed on the R&B charts. A couple years later, Left Eye’s rap verse was completely removed from the radio version of 1994’s “Waterfalls.”
”Who didn’t listen to that song and think of, ‘I seen a rainbow yesterday…’ Like, why would you take that part out?” Iandoli poses. “It’s because they wanted TLC to be looked at as an R&B group and during that time period, there was a separation between church and state. Meanwhile, in 2019, we have Juice WRLD singing through a whole song and he’s considered a rapper. Left Eye’s perseverance was her being regarded as a super slick lyricist who still did all of these side projects and had all of these other bars on other tracks just to prove what an MC she was. She did a lot of different things in the interest of reminding people that she was actually a rapper and not a singer, so to speak. She could harmonize, but she ultimately was a rapper. And when she released her Supernova project before she passed away, it was a testament to the fact that this was a girl who just wanted to remind everyone that she was hip hop.”
“With an upbringing like Missy Elliott’s, she had no room for weakness or flimsy commands from those around her. In her 2011 episode of VH1’s ‘Behind the Music,’ Missy reveals an early life filled with sexual abuse (she was eight years old when her sixteen-year-old cousin began molesting her, which went on for nearly a year), poverty to the point of having no running water, and domestic violence so extreme that she saw her father pull a gun on her mother. These were just a few of the experiences Missy Elliott endured as a child, though that survival instinct and unending resilience are what made her firm in her creative stances and unabashed in her artistic risk-taking. She never feared hitting rock bottom; she had spent her childhood there. Music was her constant, the thing she held closest to her. No one could sway her on her vision for it.” – Excerpt from ‘God Saves The Queen’
As Iandoli reminded me of Missy’s legacy during our conversation, “Missy came from a really terrible background and her survivor’s tale is the reason why she’s still releasing music. Nothing can break that woman.”
“‘I knew she was going to blow up, I knew she was going to,’ Monie says. “I was like, ‘You are going to carry on your shoulders the heart and blessings of all the greats in hip hop that came before you because you are about to do so much damage right now. You are really about to make men get back into their books and start re-creating stuff. You’re that dope!’ It was in the cards for Nicki to blow up, and Monie Love herself predicted it.” – Excerpt from ‘God Save The Queens’
Over the years, Iandoli’s introspective takes on Nicki Minaj, her career, her music and her impact on the culture have led her to become a trustworthy scholar and a refreshing voice of reason. This rings especially true when others, including myself, tend to count Minaj out in recent memory due to whatever may be bubbling on her Twitter page. At the end of the day, no matter where you may land on the Barbz spectrum of standom, Nicki Minaj has undeniably and unapologetically earned her place in history as a legend.
”Nicki was the first product of a post-Lauryn Hill era that actually made this significant splash in the mainstream and stayed on the charts for a decade,” Iandoli says. “It may not have been without pushback and angry tweets, but her story is one of consistency because she has the longest consistent track record.”
Megan Thee Stallion
“So, here we are, over forty years later, and that same dilemma still exists for female rappers. How do you express your individuality and creativity without being labeled as one or the other? The difference now, I suppose, is how the artist handles that situation. Megan doesn’t have a male mentor advising her to pick a side. She has instinct and her mother’s spirit. That kind of drive doesn’t come with a road map, but she’s ready for the ride either way.” – Excerpt from ‘God Save The Queens’
Megan Thee Stallion has risen to prominence as everyone’s favorite rapper whose got next, myself included. Her 2019 project, Fever, remains on repeat and all of hip hop is keeping a close eye on the moves she’s making. While it’s incredible to see, another component of Megan’s allure can be found in her ability to empower other women including artists. While her career is evolving at rapid speeds, in tandem with her “hot girl summer” movement, it hasn’t been without grave sacrifice and loss.
”As for Megan, Megan is going through the motions while she’s going through the fame,” Iandoli explains, referencing how Megan revealed that her mother-turned-manager passed away earlier this year, right as her career was taking off on a mainstream level. “She endured a very significant trauma that we’re watching her fight through. Everyone in the book, every woman in hip hop has had something really horrible happen to them in some way, shape or form. They still recorded music. I think the difference is we’re watching it happen to Megan in real time.”
Iandoli also points out how, similarly, Queen Latifah also recently lost her mother and pushed through to continue with everything she’s working on.
”Megan just started this journey whereas Queen Latifah has had decades to settle into fame and could probably take some time off to do what she had to do,” Iandoli explains. “Megan might not have had that luxury because it’s like your album just came out, everyone loves you, you need to get on a tour. For me, personally, that’s why I connect with her, so well. I understood the need to have to still deliver under terrible circumstances.”
‘God Save The Queens’ arrives on October 22 via Dey Street/Harper Collins.