In 1998, Vibe magazine ran their revolutionary "Rap Reigns Supreme" cover, fronted by female heavyweights Foxy Brown, Lil' Kim, Missy Elliott, and Lauryn Hill. Over 20 years later, Paper magazine ran "Women in Hip-Hop: The Voices of Our Generation," which had 14 of rap's rising stars and an instantly iconic photo shoot featuring Saweetie, City Girls, Rico Nasty, and CupcakKe, among others. The feature felt like a watershed moment: The last shoot Paper magazine had done featuring more than one female rapper that garnered this amount of interest was the 2017 #BreakTheInternet “Minaj à Trois,” depicting three different versions of Nicki Minaj. At that time, she was arguably occupying the bronze, silver, and gold spots herself.
If a British publisher were to create a similar, seminal cover in 2019, we’d have more contenders than ever: Ms Banks, Nadia Rose, Br3nya, Flohio, IAMDDB, Stefflon Don, Trillary Banks, Alicai Harley. On the whole, UK rap is in a very healthy place — among the boys, Dave’s debut album charted at number one, and rap and grime artists crop up in the top 10 weekly. And though female rappers here have historically been few and far between, the general consensus is that this is a big year for them, too.
“This is a great time for UK music,” says West London rapper Br3nya, who felt this year it was now or never for her career. “So much is going on. If I don’t come out this summer, what am I doing? I’m just playing games.”
Over the years, there have only been a handful of well-known female grime artists — Lioness, Cleo (formerly known as Mz Bratt), and Lady Leshurr, to name a few — and arguably even fewer rappers. There are industry legends Ms. Dynamite and Speech Debelle (who both went on to be Mercury Prize winners), the controversial but relatively successful Lady Sovereign, Natalie Stewart (formerly of Floetry), and Paigey Cakey.
The cliché of catfights and habit of pitting female artists against each other won’t die that easily.
But mainstream interest in female rappers in Britain is at an all-time high. Last month saw the launch of the Queens of Art tour, the first in the UK to feature an all-female lineup. It has been a brilliant year for Ms Banks, who performed her most high-profile gig yet at the BRIT Awards alongside Little Mix, and released a single with BBC Sport ahead of the FIFA Women's World Cup. There is Keedz, an MC who straddles both grime and rap and who released her first EP, Let Me Introduce Myself, last year, and 17-year-old Lewisham lyricist Dis, who just signed to GB records.
The past few years have seen an uptick in collaboration. This week, super-producer will.i.am enlisted powerhouses Ms Banks, Lady Leshurr, and grime artist Lioness for his new track "Pretty Little Thing," in partnership with the retailer. Even Nicki Minaj (who is often characterised as the genre’s Cersei Lannister, hellbent on maintaining her throne) brought out British female rap talent Lisa Mercedez, Lady Leshurr, and Ms Banks during the Manchester Arena stint of her world tour last year. But the cliché of catfights and habit of pitting female artists against each other won’t die that easily.
Due to a history of animosity amongst artists in the Paper magazine shoot (Rico Nasty, Bali Baby, Cuban Doll, and Asian Da Brat have had very public feuds with each other), Photoshop was required to create the final image. Though this may be the case if the same number of prominent male rappers were photographed together, the stereotype that women don’t support each other was immediately drawn on in reports. Abigail, one half of British rap duo Abigail and Vanessa, feels there is a grain of truth to it:
“Females in the UK don’t like to support each other. That’s a very big factor. We’ve noticed most of our supporters are men — 70 percent of the support comes from men. I think there’s a bit of envy there.”
For Br3nya, it’s been a very different story. She says that as soon as she entered the scene, she was inundated with support from the likes of Nadia Rose, Alicai Harley, and Ms Banks as well as male artists Dave, Stormzy, and Not3s. What she does feel, however, is that we see more coordinated, campaign-type support amongst male musicians, such as when artists encouraged fans to get Stormzy’s "Vossi Bop" to number one, as well as Dave’s album Psychodrama. She said:
“With the UK, I feel like there’s this sort of brotherhood. When one person releases something, all of them are like 'guys let's get this to the chart' and vice versa. With women, we obviously do support each other but not enough of us are in a higher place to make a difference.”
As well as the success of British men in the genre, the increase of UK female rappers' visibility can be equally attributed to the success of female counterparts in the United States. Cardi B’s meteoric rise from 2017 onwards seemed to spell the end of an era where Minaj was the solitary face of female rap. There have been other notable acts over the years — Azealia Banks, Angel Haze, Junglepussy, Dej Loaf, Young M.A, Rapsody — but the one in, one out policy so often applied to black women prevailed. It says a great deal about the state of things when you consider the only woman who came close to being considered a real commercial contender was Iggy Azalea.
Rap is already a heavily male genre, but the ultra-violence of drill means there is an even smaller minority of women represented in it.
Post-Cardi, however, rap more closely resembles a golden age. At one time, Da Brat, Eve, Trina, and Rah Digga were all in the top 100 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums — the most female rappers to appear on that chart ever. Whilst still not quite there, we’re closer than we have been in a long time, with Audra the Rapper, Kash Doll, Tink, HoodCelebrityy, Tommy Genesis, Ling Hussle, Megan Thee Stallion, Ace Tee, Wynne, Tokyo Jetz, Queen Key, Dreezy, and their contemporaries.
The UK [female] scene, we don’t like to allow others to come up. In the male scene, they’re for it, but when it's females it’s not the norm. It’s seen as "what are you doing? You’re a girl. You should focus on Instagram.
The UK is very difficult, I can’t lie. The support here is very minimum compared to America. People message us and say "you lot need to go America, you would get big over there." But it’s sad because if everyone was positive I’m sure there would be more rappers in the UK.
The idea that black women need to move stateside to see success is common, whether it be singers (Estelle, Sade Adu), actors (Naomie Harris, Letitia Wright), or comedians (Gina Yashere). Support for black women in the United States is still minimal, but much better comparatively. British female rappers struggle to receive BRIT and even MOBO nods but are acclaimed overseas: Stefflon Don made history last year, being the first British musician featured on the XXL Freshman Class cover and one of the few women. Little Simz was the only Brit and woman in BET’s 2017 cypher. Lady Leshurr, who is considered criminally underrated in the UK, is widely celebrated in America, largely because of building an online following through her "Queen’s Speech" freestyles.
The internet has been crucial in the rise of female rappers everywhere — acts such as Princess Nokia, Lizzo, and Chika Oranika have found fans through platforms like YouTube, Twitter, SoundCloud, and Instagram. Cardi B is a Vine star, turned Instagram star, turned rapper, and more alternative rappers like Noname, Tierra Whack, Leikeli47, Doja Cat have found fans outside of the mainstream first. For female rappers in the UK, it has been game-changing, opening them to an international, more receptive market and allowing them to circumvent industry gatekeepers who are notorious for having issues marketing black women.
Br3nya’s first outing was a viral accident over 10 years ago, after a drunken sing-along with friends called "All Types of Bread" was uploaded to Facebook and went down in British hood history. She started taking music seriously at 14 by freestyling at parties.
“Without [the internet] I don’t know how people would know me,” she said. “That’s how I started, because I posted a freestyle. Nicki Minaj did a Chun Li challenge and because of the response I got, I turned it into [my single] 'Good Food.'”
Social media is largely responsible for the music careers of Abigail and Vanessa also, neither of whom had musical ambitions prior. Vanessa was an influencer (known online as Ivorian Doll), aspiring model, and YouTuber. That all changed when she and her friend Abigail became notorious on social media, after an altercation with another online personality that ended up going viral. Off the back of it, the pair recorded a song for fun a few days later called "The Situation."
“This is just all so funny,” Abigail says with a laugh. “We were like, what we’re going to do is release this song, we’re going to call it ‘The Situation,’ and it’s going to be so funny because the way we released it, people thought it was a diss track. When it came out it was like 'oh, they’re actually good at music,' and everyone forgot about the situation.”
The response to the song was primarily shock — not at the misleading title, but that the song was actually good. They soon released follow-up tracks "Snapchat" and "Spare Me," girly-bops over gritty drill beats that they hope will “pave the way for all the female drillers.” Rap is an already heavily male genre, but the ultra-violence of drill means there is an even smaller minority of women represented in it. Abigail and Vanessa don’t take themselves remotely as seriously as their male peers, however, talking about dating and money-making in songs reminiscent of the 2018 drill-inspired ear worm "Fleek Bop" from the Mela Twins.
“There’s female rappers here, but why is it in a particular genre, we’re scared to go there?” Vanessa says. “We don’t have to rap about shooting people and stuff, you can rap about what you want to rap about but on a drill beat. We were like, let’s do that and confuse the nation.”
They hope to “confuse” listeners globally, too, with plans to make waves in America specifically and eventually, internationally. Whilst it is clear at least in the states that the future of rap is for now female, women in the UK are doing all they can to ensure theirs is as bright. The issue isn’t a lack of women making this music — it’s about a lack of support that stops them from being heard.