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The Queen Bee Analogy & the Optics of Female Rap

Words By Ziyanda Ntloko 

There can only be one: an exploration of hip-hop’s intrinsic bias against female MCs and why the Nicki vs Cardi beef is predetermined

For anyone who watched the 2018 Grammys, one of the few highlights of the night was Cardi’s B’s debut performance in front of the star studded audience and millions of TV viewers. The regular, degular, schmegular girl from the Bronx joined Bruno Mars for a high energy showing proving without a doubt that she has really made it.

But among the mostly positive reception, there was a particular reaction that’s become part and parcel of any conversation surrounding Cardi: how did her performance match up to Nicki Minaj’s debut at the same award show in 2012? Seems nonsensical, right? What could these two things possibly have to do with the other?

Since Cardi burst onto the scene, she has found herself thrust into a clash with the reigning monarch. It seems you can’t have a discussion of one without the other. But why is that? Well to understand, you have to look at how female rappers steer their way through the hip hop landscape and how modern rap culture is unwelcoming of variety and choice in the female field. Cardi and Nicki’s beef is demanded by the culture because in the realm of Hip-hop, there can only be one queen.

As art imitates life, hip-hop is also a mirror of society. The genre is primarily male dominated, hyper masculine and overtly misogynistic. There’s a popular feminist theory called the Male Gaze which is defined as the depiction of women in visual art and literature from a masculine and heteronormative perspective. The overbearing female presence in rap is one of being an object for male consumption. For this reason, female rappers have to navigate a grossly patriarchal space where they are analyzed and held to a different and often higher standard than their male counterparts.

The female rapper is always underrated and female rap as an entity remains the unsung foundation of the culture. You merely have to look at the environment of South African hip-hop to see this at play. The local rap scene is undoubtedly a Boy’s Club. As much as we boast a bevy of well-established and successful acts in AKA, Cassper Nyovest, Nasty C, Riky Rick, Emtee just to name a few – has the space been created for local female rappers to reach similar levels?

If we’re really being honest with ourselves, is there a local female rapper with a comparable scope of popularity and most importantly visibility to the male acts aforementioned? Is the industry as readily prepared to propel the likes of Fifi Cooper, Nadia Nakai or Gigi LaMayne to the same or even greater heights? I get the sense that in order for this to happen, they would have to be twice as good as the men. In addition, would all female rappers be allowed to equally thrive and co-exist as peacefully as the guys do? I think it would be naïve to think so.

Hip hop is a sport and an unforgivably competitive one. Rap battles and beef are an integral part of this genre’s history from East Coast vs West Coast, Jay-Z/Nas, 50 Cent/Ja Rule and most recently Drake vs Meek Mill. I like to think of rap culture as a mirror of Game of Thrones, it’s all about going bar for bar and whoever has the best pen game can take the throne. HBO’s wildly popular fantasy series where different families compete for high ranking positions in medieval society serves as a great parallel to hip hop. Kings and Queens of rap declare their dominance over their realms and at the same time keep pretenders at bay and a wary eye on would be usurpers vying for their thrones.

There’s a great exchange of dialogue between one of my favorite characters Petyr Baelish and the daughter of one of the Lords from a Great House. He asks her “do you want to be queen?” She answers “No. I want to be the queen.” For over a decade of her career, Nicki Minaj has fought to be and succeeded as the only one, the queen of rap. She’s dominated in a way no female rapper has before by amassing a formidable fanbase, platinum selling singles and albums and unmatched chart success.

The 90s were the hay day of female rap with the emergence of Foxy Brown, Da Brat, Eve, Missy Elliot, Remy Ma, Trina and of course the Queen Bee herself, Lil Kim. Kim’s reign as queen was in the presence and success of other female acts. But while Kim may have coined this term, Nicki Minaj is the one who took it into overdrive. Despite her unchallenged and long reigning success, Nicki serves as the perfect example of the hurdle female rappers face to gain respect. Why is she not seen as a great rapper not just a great female rapper, considering how much she’s achieved? The conversation is always where she fits among her female counterparts but not against her male peers. You could argue it’s down to taste, but I’m skeptical to think a male rapper with the same resume wouldn’t be thought of as one the greats.

If we look at the analogy of the Queen Bee it is metaphorically a woman who is the leader of the pack and completely dominant over others. The emergence of Nicki in 2010 and her subsequent rise and decade long autonomy, as not just a queen but the queen, meant that there haven’t been many competitors for her throne. Short for the meteoric rise and swift take down of Iggy Azealia, Cardi B is the first real presence of another female rapper who commands just as much attention and star power as Nicki.

To pit one rapper against another may not exclusively be a female phenomenon but there is something to be said about a new act like Cardi being propelled to a level where she’s immediately challenged to take down a veteran. Imagine if in his rookie year, Drake was inexplicably compared to Jay Z for no reason other than their gender. Stylistically, Nicki and Cardi could not be more divorced from the other and the constant pairing off of the two is as illogical as likening Lil Uzi to J. Cole or 21 Savage to Kendrick Lamar.

21st Century hip hop largely being a Boy’s Club with only one female rapper present has fostered an environment where Nicki and Cardi are simply not allowed to co-exist. In a world where 20 dreadlocked, lean sipping, face tatted male trappers can succeed without direct comparisons, it’s indicative of the culture of modern hip hop that limits female rap to one figurehead.  It is telling that Cardi has repeatedly made it clear that she is not coming for anyone’s crown and has set aside a specific lane in trap music for herself. She and Nicki have sworn up and down that there is no beef, but the culture is wired a certain way. Whether they have real conflict or not, the bias against female rap dictates that when the worker bees no longer deem you useful, you are to be disposed of in order to make way for a new queen.

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