Fifty years ago, hip hop was born amidst a raging summer in the Bronx (NY). This cultural phenomenon has sky-rocketed into a billion-dollar industry, changing the fabric of music, film, fashion, politics, and even sports. In commemoration of hip hop’s 50th birthday, Netflix released Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip Hop. This docu-series spotlights the unsung heroines, innovators, and tastemakers that make hip hop culture flourish.
The four-part series, which is directed by three women of color (Hannah Beachler, dream hampton, and Raeshem Nijhon), begins with the godmothers of rap, MC Sha-Rock and Roxanne Shante. The tenacity and talent of these two women laid the foundation for other rap legends such as MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, and Da Brat to continue to pave the way for the future generations of female rappers like Missy Elliot, Lil Kim, Rah-Digga, Nicki Minaj, Megan Thee Stallion, and so on.
Ladies First intimately explores the topic of space for black women within the black community and society as a whole.
Ladies First intimately explores the topic of space for black women within the black community and society as a whole. In an era where DEI initiatives are suddenly being prioritized, we are reimagining what inclusivity and equity looks like. Hip hop culture was created by Black and Brown people as an outlet for self-expression through dance, music, and fashion; however, hip hop has been traditionally male-dominated and rooted in misogynoir, homophobia, and transphobia.
Black women have battled multiple dichotomies throughout history: hypersexuality vs. asexuality, desirability vs. undesirability, visibility vs. invisibility. These narratives have woven themselves within hip hop for black female rappers. Black women in hip hop are often scrutinized for how they choose to express themselves, their sexuality, and their politics. This criticism is highly hypocritical considering what their male counterparts choose to convey in their music. In one episode, the show exposes a contradiction of the rapper Snoop Dogg, where in an interview, he condemns the sexual vulgarity of the song WAP by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. The scene then cuts to Snoop Dogg’s music video for his song Sweat, in which the lyrics allude to the wetness of a woman’s vagina.
The hypocrisies continue within in fashion, as black women have been the sole trailblazers for the latest fashion trends.
These hypocrisies continue within fashion, as black women have been the sole trailblazers for the latest fashion trends. The series features legendary hip-hop stylist Misa Hylton, who explains how the iconic looks she has done for rapper Lil’ Kim have become mainstream. Even popular clothing sites such as Fashion Nova have taken inspiration from Misa’s work. Despite Misa’s success as a stylist, black women’s fashion trends from cornrows to long nails to flashy jewelry, have been seen as “ghetto,” provocative, or unprofessional. But when non-black celebrities and pop artists adopt these looks (often without credit), these styles become couture and high fashion.
Furthermore, the series discusses the unsolicited competition between women in rap music. Within the different cohorts of hip hop such as Bad Boy Records, Death Row Records, and Roc Nation, they only allowed one female artist into the group. Moreover, female artists needed to prove their worth whether through their talent or their looks to be admitted into these circles. This gatekeeping of black female artists is another testament to the double standards within hip hop in that male rappers do not have the same pressures to be accepted within the industry. These pressures are especially arduous on women who are dark skinned, plus sized, queer, or have alternative styles.
The series is intentional in emphasizing the presence that black women have always had within hip hop since its founding.
Having shed light on the adversities presented to black women in the hip hop industry, the series is intentional in emphasizing the presence that black women have always had within hip hop since its founding. Black female hip hop artists, fashion designers, executives, journalists prevail in the industry not because they are actively defying its patriarchal exclusivity, but because they are the foundation for which hip hop continues to thrive and fully embody all aspects of self-expression. In the final episode of the series, they talk about how black women’s presence in hip hop has created a safety net for queer artists such as CHIKA and Young M.A. to make music that is authentic to their lifestyle. It has also paved a way for male queer rappers like Saucy Santana and Lil Nas X to express themselves wholly. And given the more progressive and accepting times we live in, it has opened doors for legendary rap artists Da Brat and Queen Latifah to come out as queer as well.
It is refreshing and empowering to listen to rap music that I as a black woman I can relate to and it is created by and for my peers.
As someone who has entered adulthood during what could be considered the golden age of female rap, I am honored to experience such a vast universe of black female rappers. There are the ratchet rap girls, gangster rap girls, conscious rap girls, alternative rap girls, pretty rap girls and many more to choose from. It is refreshing and empowering to listen to rap music that I as a black woman can relate to and it is created by and for my peers. And to think there was a time where there were only a handful of female rappers in the spotlight. But, again, the vastness of black female rap has always existed but has lacked the visibility and access. In this age of technology, artists don’t need the approval of a label or popular corporate artist in order to be vilified.
Ultimately, Ladies First is a crash course in the history of hip hop for young hip hop enthusiasts like myself and paints a different picture as to who runs hip hop.
© Courtney Stanley (11/14/23) — Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Watch Ladies First on Netflix.
Visit Queen Latifah’s Wikipedia page.
Visit Misa Hylton’s Wikipedia page.
Visit Rapsody’s Wikipedia page.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Actress/Emmy Winner/Rapper/Standards Singer Queen Latifah attends the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards at the Prudential Center in her home town of Newark NJ). New Jersey. Photo Credit: Erik Pendzich 8/26/19 / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: WK08M0
Middle Photo: Stylist and fashion designer Misa Hylton. Courtesy of Netflix. All Rights Reserved.
Bottom Photo: Rapper Rapsody in Ladies First. Courtesy of Netflix. All Rights Reserved.