Holding it Down for Women: Nicki Minaj and the Problem of Gender Inequity in Hip Hop
On June 3, Hot97 DJ Peter Rosenberg took to the stage at MetLife Stadium to address the crowd at the radio station’s annual hip hop concert, Summer Jam 2012. While warming up the crowd, Rosenberg shouts, “I see the real hip hop heads sprinkled in here…I see them. I know there are some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later – I’m not talking to y’all right now…I’m here to talk about real hip hop.” Rosenberg’s comments referred to Nicki Minaj’s hit song. In one swift moment, Rosenberg not only alienated Minaj and her fanbase, he drew the line between “real” hip hop and “pop” not just in terms of aesthetics, but in a disrespectful, public, and gendered manner.
Minaj confirmed reports that her boss at Young Money Entertainment, rap star Lil Wayne, advised her not to perform. Wayne also withdrew all Young Money-affiliated artists from the show. Lil’ Wayne explained his decision: “I don’t know what anyone else believes, but I believe females deserve the ultimate respect at all times no matter, when or how…I feel like a woman’s supposed to be respected at all times, therefore I believe I made the right decision.” Rosenberg responded to Lil’ Wayne’s comments by asking whether or not stating his opinion about a song constituted a lack of respect for women. Then Rosenberg sought to illustrate Wayne’s hypocrisy by playing some of his misogynistic lyrics. Rosenberg punctuated his point by declaring, “Weezy F. – the ‘F’ doesn’t stand for feminist, alright.”
Nicki Minaj defended her’s and Wayne’s actions to Hot97’s DJ Funkmaster Flex the following day. In her phone call with Flex, she firmly pointed out Rosenberg’s sexism: “…For this person to single out the one female on the bill. I’m holding it down for women.” She elaborated (and I am paraphrasing), “Every woman needs to know that it does not matter what people say about you. After a certain amount of time, when you put in a certain amount of work…you deserve respect.” Flex grew defensive, denying Rosenberg’s comments constituted an attack on women. Then he protected Rosenberg’s right to express his opinion although he admitted that Rosenberg voiced it at the wrong time.
Observers like New York Times’s Jon Caramanica called attention to Rosenberg’s ethnicity (He’s Jewish.) and his backwardness. Essence writer Demetria L. Lucas and Rosenberg, pointed to Lil’ Wayne’s (misogynistic) lyrics as a sign of hypocrisy and opportunism. Their insights, of course, are productive. Yet, this spat between Rosenberg and Hot97 and Nicki Minaj, Lil’ Wayne, and Young Money highlights the embeddeness of gender inequity in hip hop.
Flex correctly asserted that criticism has been a crucial component of hip hop in his interview with Minaj. But Rosenberg’s dismissal of Minaj and her, presumably female fans, is tantamount to an attack on women because, 1.) It is tough to imagine Rosenberg publicly admonishing a male headliner right before his company’s concert. 2.) Although women have always participated in hip hop culture, men have defined its values since its beginning, thus, 3.) Many of us participants and critics base our evaluations and criticisms (on what’s “real”) of hip hop music on heterosexual masculine values and aesthetics and, 4.) Yes, while there are more female rappers on the public radar than ever before, only few paths to relevancy and stardom remain for women in comparison to men.
In his radio show, Rosenberg sought to one-up Wayne’s support for women with his acknowledgement of women in their traditional social roles: “Wayne is right about something—Women are mothers, are sisters, are daughters…” Yet, he marginalized female artists. Like hip hop’s other elements, rapping is a method in style and presentation as well as in lyrical skill and content. Even when a prevailing form of masculine performance dominates hip hop’s imagination, heterosexual male artists can inhabit and perform various identities and styles—the thug, gangsta, hustler, pimp, revolutionary, smoker, hipster, etc.—without “selling out” and while remaining relevant and financially successful.
Women, on the other hand, do not always have this option. It is no surprise that many in the industry tend to view women as one-dimensional artists. Hip hop fans know Lil’ Kim as the aggressive and sexy “Queen Bee.” Many think of Queen Latifah as the strong, Afrocentric black feminist before she graced television screens as an actress and as a Covergirl spokeswoman. Minaj has recently emerged as hip hop’s “Barbie.” So, when Peter Rosenberg publicly condemned the “softness” of Minaj’s music (or calls it “bullshit”), he closed a lane for female hip hop performance. He also told fans what music was acceptable to enjoy. Ultimately, his comment—“I’m not talking to y’all right now…”—excluded women from the fundamental conversation around defining “real” hip hop.
This controversy begs the question: Should we not ask why particular female (and male) artists seek to broaden their appeal instead of criticizing them for “selling out”? I could sum up the answer in one word: relevancy. I provide two more: financial security. Then I will offer several very important more: they are artists who seek to control their own artistry, like (gasp) male artists.
Top notch female rap performers have had a very short shelf life compared to male artists. Male rap veterans like LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Nas, Jay-Z, and Diddy transformed themselves and remained relevant over the course of three decades. Female artists usually cannot brag about such longevity. Lil’ Kim has boasted the strongest career in terms of longevity and commercial music success. Her career is bookended by the releases of her classic, Hard Core (1996) and the critically-acclaimed, The Naked Truth (2005). She strengthened her viability by engaging in various collaborations with artists from other genres and in undertaking non-hip hop ventures in the 2000s. Kim has criticized Minaj for not paying homage to her, but Minaj has paid attention to Kim’s business model—swim against the conservative currents within hip hop so that she does not fade into obscurity like many of her female predecessors. Male artists can develop and cultivate a “traditional” (heterosexual) male fanbase to remain relevant. Female rap artists do not always have this luxury, thus crossover success represents a path toward long-term relevancy, financial security, and artistic freedom—three goals that all rap artists seek in some sort of fashion. So, if one is in Nicki’s position why not experiment and cater to multiple audiences? We appreciate Jay-Z’s and Diddy’s business acumen, but why not Nicki’s?
Of course, Rosenberg did not think of the ramifications of his statements. He, and Flex, thought he was engaging in the everyday act of hip hop criticism. Yet, this is how power, privilege, and inequity works—we, in this case male critics (I am guilty.), participate in everyday practices (criticism) that reinforce values maintaining hierarchical structures within a particular cultural space. And our actions usually reflect how we take the established values, or, in hip hop’s case, its “realness,” for granted. This constrains paths for artists who are not male, properly “masculine,” and heterosexual. Calling out misogynistic and sexist lyrics has always been a worthwhile tactic in addressing gender inequity, but that is not enough. Even Wayne’s and Rosenberg’s quest to demonstrate who respects women more missed the point. Questioning the fundamental internal divides and taboos within hip hop will push the culture to represent a space for one to exercise their artistry and to push the boundaries of American pop culture and society freely.
I cannot brag about being a fan of Nicki Minaj’s music. Yet, one does not need to own a Nicki Minaj album to recognize her right to exist and prosper as an artist. One must admit that Minaj has carved a niche for herself musically in a hip hop world where executives are not afraid to push copycats once a particular style blows up. Only a minority of male and female artists can boast about accomplishing this feat. True, we have a right to criticize anyone’s music, but, and most importantly, we have a responsibility to evaluate every artist—male, female, transgender, self-identified as straight, and queer—fairly, especially if we dare to speak of ourselves as some sort of collective that values artistry. Rosenberg’s public denigration of Minaj exemplifies how sexism remains a core problem within hip hop.
Fortunately, we may be witnessing a cultural opening despite the Hot97 and Young Money squabble. Observers are recognizing Minaj’s influence on the genre despite the controversy. Many female artists such as South Africa’s Jean Grae (who has been rolling in in NYC’s underground circles for more than a decade) and Detroit’s Invincible have paved their own lanes for themselves. Upstarts like Azealia Banks are positioning themselves for mainstream success as well. But does that signal that the decline of gender inequity? Probably not. One cannot solve this problem by calling for a greater number of female artists, executives, and moguls. Yet, this does not mean that we should not have a conversation about how to address this issue. We have to develop means of determining “what’s real” justly (if that’s possible). This can only be accomplished if we honestly reexamine our values, own up to our problems within hip hop, and live out whatever solutions we can generate. Of course, in doing so, we will hopefully embrace and emphasize our diversity, every artist’s rights to exist, and institute values ensuring that every performer can enjoy success.*
*Versions of the article appears on Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity’s blog–Race-Talk.org and on my Facebook page. I also want to shout out to everyone who listened to me talk through my ideas for this article and to everyone who offered me critical feedback in person, on Facebook, and/or whatever.
 “Nicki Minaj Skips Festival After a DJ’s Remarks,” New York Times, June 4, 2012, accessed June 9, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/05/arts/music/nicki-minaj-backs-out-of-summer-jam.html?_r=4&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1338829536-7lRrYz3PYzHx4SxWQDMXLg&pagewanted=all.
 Demetria L. Lucas, “Real Talk: Really, Lil Wayne? You Respect Women?,” Essence , June 20, 2012, accessed July 3, 2012, http://www.essence.com/2012/06/20/real-talk-really-lil-wayne-you-respect-women/.
 “Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg Responds to Lil Wayne About Respecting Women,” HIPHOPDX, June 20, 2012, accessed, July 3, 2012, http://www.hiphopdx.com/index/news/id.20158/title.hot-97s-peter-rosenberg-responds-to-lil-wayne-about-respecting-women.
 Minaj made a serious point here. Rosenberg probably could have made similar comments about what’s real and what’s not regarding some of the men scheduled to perform, but he did not. Nicki Minaj Interview with Funkmaster Flex, Hot97, June 5, 2012, accessed July 3, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wF8ksIC0–0.
 Carrie Battan’s Slate article covers the gender aspect of the controversy very well. See, “What the Nicki Minaj Hot 97 Feud Says About Women in Hip Hop,” June 6, 2012, accessed July 10, 2012, http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2012/06/06/nicki_minaj_and_hot_97_what_the_feud_says_about_women_in_hip_hop.html.
Battan rightfully points out one problematic aspect about the controversy: the conversation has largely been one amongst men. I agree with Battan’s observation that Wayne, Rosenberg, and Flex “thrust” Minaj “in the middle of a tug-of-war between two camps of ego sparring men…” I am not sure if I totally agree with Battan’s characterization of Minaj as “a diplomat…trotted out to patch burned bridges and assign motives…” True, Minaj served as a spokeswoman for Young Money at the moment, but it’s clear that she sought to defend herself as a female artist, not to necessarily mend the burned bridge. Battan is correct in her description of Flex, though.
Battan cites how some female artists have had to rely upon the mentorship of male artists as well. While there is an unspoken custom of artists “putting their people on,” male artists still have a better chance of breaking themselves than women. Queen Latifah and MC Lyte are the only two female artists I can think of who appeared to put themselves on without an acknowledged close male mentor (That’s unless one considers Naughty By Nature as Latifah’s mentors. I do not know much about their early relationship besides the fact that they were part of the Flavor Unit collective. Latifah headed that collective, though.). One can name fewer male rap stars who can point to close mentors–Jay-Z (Jaz-O), Lil’ Wayne (Baby), and Big Pun (Fat Joe) are a few that come to mind.
 Only a few female artists have been able to rise to the type of stardom that Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliot, and Nicki Minaj have at one time. In the hip hop world defined by masculine competition—who’s the “king” and who’s the “queen”—there’s only room for one or a few women in rap crews, on year-end top ten lists, and on performance bills.
 Hip hop consists of several elements that include rapping, break dancing, graffiti art, deejaying, beatboxing, fashion, slang, and entrepreneurialism. Of course, participants in hip hop debate the content of the culture.
 See Ice Cube in the early-1990s and 50 Cent in the early-2000s as two prominent examples of how “the gangsta” reflected the dominant paradigm for black masculinity in hip hop.
 In fact, Queen Latifah had to go outside of hip hop before she could demonstrate the various facets of her personality. True, plenty of male artists like LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Mos Def, and 50 Cent have also ventured into other realms of entertainment, but they have also demonstrated the ability to release albums to hungry fan bases willing to support them.
 Lil’ Kim has been struggling to regain any momentum ever since her jail stint in 2006.
Queen Latifah has been one of hip hop’s most commercially successful women in American pop culture, but she experienced her zenith as a rap artist during the 1990s—I would argue between 1989-1993.
 Minaj does possess serious lyrical abilities. Listen to her verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” on his latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Her verse is crazy.
 Brent Staples, “Nicki Minaj Crashes Hip-Hop’s Boys Club,” New York Times, July 7, 2012, accessed July 10, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/08/opinion/sunday/nicki-minaj-crashes-hip-hops-boys-club.html.