Netflix’s “Ladies First” Centers Women of Hip-Hop in Their Fullness

Yesterday Netflix released their new four-part docuseries Ladies First, an in-depth retrospective of the foundational role that women have played in shaping hip-hop music and culture, timed to honor hip-hop’s 50th anniversary. Executive produced in part by Black feminist writer and filmmaker dream hampton (Suriving R. Kelly) and featuring the stories of queer rappers like Da Brat, Chika, Cardi B., Megan Thee Stallion, and yes Queen Latifah (who’s famous 1989 anthem is where the series gets its name) — Ladies First seeks to recenter the stories of women who built the culture from its earliest days in their complex grit, honesty, and beauty.

But even as Ladies First allows us to chronicle the evolution of hip-hop, we’re also seeing the ugly truths of history being written right in front of us, and keeping Megan Thee Stallion in our hearts and minds as news broke this week of Tory Lanez’s sentencing. Yesterday, the Canadian rapper was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the 2020 shooting of Meg Thee Stallion. It is a stark reminder that, for women, hip-hop is about more than beats and rhymes, it’s also a story of survival and sisterhood.

As much as Ladies First is a tribute to women in rap, it’s also a tribute to the women who wrote about rap. In addition to executive producing the series, dream hampton — who famously wrote for The Source — also serves as the director of the third episode. Along with the rappers and creators themselves, Black women editors and writers who had front row seats to some of rap’s biggest names such as Joan Morgan and Kierna Mayo make frequent appearances. These women transcribed the culture and made me fall in love with it in the first place. I’ll never know if I ever loved hip-hop as much as I wanted to write like how Joan Morgan wrote about loving hip-hop.

The women’s work behind this culture never happened in silo. So it only felt right for Carmen and Natalie to join together and talk about the series.

Natalie: So, I’ll start with a question I’m cribbing from Sid Shaw in the classic black rom-com, Brown Sugar: “When did you fall in love with hip-hop?”

Carmen: Ok so my hip-hop origin story is one that I’ve written about before on this website and I think in some retrospects has become my brand — at least three people sent me the trailer for Ladies First within hours of its release because of it — which is that I first fell in love with hip-hop at about eight years old, when I received Queen Latifah’s Black Reign album as a birthday present and proceed to learn every syllable of “U.N.I.T.Y.” from the backseat of my mom’s Ford Focus.

Looking back, I can’t believe I was so young!! Me and hip-hop, it’s really been a forever thing. So Natalie, when did you fall in love with hip-hop?

Natalie: I’d always grown up with hip-hop around me… and it’s a testament to my older sisters. Growing up, one of my sisters was really interested in poetry and storytelling and just saw hip-hop as an extension of that. My other sister really enjoyed the club bops that created a branch of hip-hop that you could dance to, so she listened to that all the time. So that’s where my connection to the genre really got started: just watching them and consuming what they were.

When I got to college, things shifted into overdrive. I’d liked hip-hop before, but I didn’t love it until college. I worked at the newspaper and the radio station was right down the hall… so I’d encounter people who were deep into the culture. I met DJs, producers, and emcees who just opened up the world of hip-hop to me and I fell in love with it.

Carmen: I’m actually glad we’re starting here, because one of the things I wanted to point out is that you’re actually a closet hip-hop head! Well, maybe not “closeted” but I remember that the first time I really came to understand the depth of your knowledge for the culture, it blew me out of that water.

Natalie: I think you’re overselling it, but thank you. This brings me to another issue. I think, if you’re a fan of hip-hop you know when you fell in love with the genre but if you’re a woman… and especially a black woman… and especially a black queer woman… there’s also a moment when you’re like, “okay, this is too much.” Have there been those moments for you?

Carmen: You know, interestingly, and I think this also came from me falling in love with the culture at such a young age… but for a long time, I made a lot of excuses. They were just little things that I swallowed and kept swallowing to be in the music, you sort of — I think especially as a Black queer woman who grew up loving hip-hop in the 90s and the 00s — you had to have a thick skin.

Nelly’s “Tip Drill” in 2003 changed things for me. I was going into my senior year of high school, and that entire year “it must be your ass, cuz it ain’t your face” became a teenage boy catcall that I couldnt bottle up or push down anymore. And that’s before you get to the objectification of the credit card scene in the uncut music video, in which Nelly swipes a card between a dancer’s buttcheeks, that was my breaking point.

I read Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A hip-hop Feminist Breaks It Down (Joan Morgan is a frequent talking head commentator in Ladies First) not long after that, and she broke the world wide open for me. That book, her writing, it’s what made me want to become a writer.

Natalie: We see that necessity to have thick skin represented well in this docuseries too, right? You have KRS-One rapping on “The Bridge is Over” that “Roxanne Shante is only good for steady fuckin’” and, at the time, she’s still a teenage girl… and she has to have this thick skin and return shots at him with a record of her own.

Carmen: She was 15!!!!!! A child!!!

And you just know that KRS-One was jealous, right? All of these grown men MCs, really at the starting place of hip-hop because we’re talking about the 1980s here, still in hip-hop’s first breaths, they’re jealous that they are being out rapped by a little girl.

This also brings to mind a few other places in Ladies First where we see this trend play out again and again, Black women are subjected to various shades and genres of trauma, over and over, while Black men go on their way to superstardom and legendary status. Of course, immediately I am thinking about Dee Barnes.

Natalie: So, can I ask: how much did you know about the Dee Barnes situation before this docuseries?

Carmen: I knew the basics, that at 19 years old (and we really aren’t emphasizing enough how young so many of these girls were when they were creating the culture we’re all now standing in, just another example Queen Latifah was in high school when she founded Flava Unit) — at 19 years old Dee Barnes is hosting Pump It Up on FOX, she’s a teenager with a national television show. I won’t go into the specifics because I think it only furthers the harm, but she ends up physically assaulted by Dr. Dre. He goes on to become hip-hop’s first billionaire, and her career effectively ends in 1991 where he left her bloodied.

Carmen: I think that Joan Morgan speaks to this well in Ladies First, that Dr. Dre goes on to have so many opportunities to reinvent how we know him, but Dee Barnes becomes frozen in time, not for her accomplishments, but as his victim.

Natalie: One thing I loved about Ladies First was that it gave her an identity outside what happened with Dre. We were able to learn about Pump It Up and how groundbreaking it was. I honestly would’ve loved to see more about her because, as you say, I don’t want her to be frozen in time.

Carmen: I so deeply appreciated that Ladies First brings some of these women, who are perhaps now primarily known as famous survivors of abuse, and instead reinstates them as being the experts and contributors who built hip-hop that they are.

When Drew Dixon first came on screen, I audibly gasped.

Natalie: As did I.

But did it feel like a weird omission to you?

Like Drew Dixon’s sitting there, telling this great story about how she created the greatest hip-hop love song of all time… and how she was denied any credit for that… and it feels like there’s this HUGE elephant in the room.

We should clarify, for folks who don’t know, Drew Dixon is one of multiple women who have accused former head of Def Jam, Russell Simmons, of sexual assault.

it was very awkward, to know this fact about her and to have it omitted, even as we’re having conversation about the violence that women in hip-hop are sometimes subjected to.

Carmen: Without a doubt. I found it awkward — to put it mildly — that they didn’t go into Drew’s accusations about Russell Simmons (I’m assuming there was legal reasons for this omission, the documentary On the Record featuring Dixon, about the allegations of sexual assault facing Simmons, had a difficult time getting out in the world just a few years ago, for similar reasons).

But to not include it, that’s perpetuating the exact same whitewashing that other parts of Ladies First calls out directly. The supposed “godfather of hip-hop” does not get a pass.

I was so happy to see Drew included, especially in a context where we could revisit all of the goodness of her work and how she was a part of indelible, seismic shifts in hip-hop as we know it. But he should never be given that pass, and each time we do it, we are adding to that secrecy and harm.

Natalie: Absolutely.

Carmen: Something that I liked about Drew’s inclusion was that it told me a story I hadn’t heard before — that she was the force behind Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s iconic “All I Need” — easily a top tier favorite love song of mine. I loved imagining a young Drew running around to Bad Boy records to drop off a cassette tape (!!) to Puff Daddy (!!!) to make it happen.

I wondered if there were any moments like that for you in Ladies First — where you had a surprise?

Natalie: One of my favorite things about the entire docuseries is the window they give us into the lives of these young female emcees (Rapsody, Tierra Whack, Latto, Kash Doll). You find out how they got started rapping and what other female emcees helped them see that there’s space for them in hip-hop.

I loved Rapsody spitting MC Lyte verses, as if those songs just came out yesterday… and Tierra Whack recalling how Lauryn Hill was so crucial to her seeing a place for herself in the genre…

Time is weird… it’s been so long since The Score and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill… that I forget how influential she was for me too… but then they played that clip from “Cowboys” with Rah Digga and I flashed back.

I thought those vignettes were really touching and I wish there’d been more of them to be honest.

Carmen: OK! I think we’ve warmed the mic up enough now, we should talk about a part of Ladies First that did not land well with me, which was its approach to queerness.

Natalie: I agree with you, the part of Ladies First about queerness didn’t really land. The thing that frustrated me most about it is that early in the series there’s a discussion of sexuality and how the new generation of female rappers are owning their sexuality in ways an older generation couldn’t even have fathomed.

And part of that discussion is about what’s female empowerment and what’s just appealing to the male gaze. But then we have to wait until the very end of the series to talk about sexuality as it relates to queerness. When those two things are two sides of the same coin in my book.

Carmen: Right. And to put even more context on that, the section on on “sexuality in women’s hip-hop” happens in the second episode, and is using the reign of Lil Kim and Foxy Brown in the late 90s as a gateway to talk about Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, and “WAP” — but there’s an implicit understanding (it’s never directly said but it is hard to ignore) that the sexuality they are talking about here is in a context of a supposedly straight framing. If for no other reason than because “queer sexuality” then gets its own unique section at the very end of the series that clocks in at less than 10 minutes. Honestly, I’d be surprised if it went longer than five minutes.

And even more confusingly, themes of Meg and Cardi’s explicit, in your face, sexuality are not mentioned in the queer section! Even though both Meg and Cardi are queer.

This isn’t the only reason that I found Ladies First’s discussion of queerness to unfortunately be wanting, but it damn sure is a start.

Natalie: I think at one point, there’s a clip from Meg’s instagram or something when she says she needs a new girlfriend.

Carmen: Yes! And it’s never discussed, the clip of Meg saying she wants a new girlfriend is put at the end of a section where they’re discussing Trina and Nicki’s use of women’s queerness and queer sex acts as a performance in their raps, though to the best of my knowledge neither of those rappers identify publicly as queer. So I feel like including Meg in that section is… confusing to say the least, especially with no context or discussion.

Natalie: I didn’t like the segment at all. Like, if you’re going to give us something that underwhelming, you can just keep it. Even beyond just creating a separate but unequal section for queerness, it was so poorly done.

Carmen: I have been thinking about this section non-stop to be honest! And on one hand, when the conversation finally comes around to queerness I will admit my first reaction was to sigh relief — I had been worried, since the discussion of sexuality in episode two that pointedly ignored queerness altogether — that Ladies First wasn’t going to broach the subject at all.

But as the minutes dragged on, the After School Special-ification of their approach to queerness just grated, with no balm to soothe it — because immediately following “the gay section” the documentary was over! So! What happened here?

Ironically, I feel like the narrative set up of Ladies First resulted in them “only female in the crew”ing queerness, without any sense of what that siloing implied. Even though they spent two hours discussing how separating out women in rap negates their contributions to the culture! To go around and then do that same wrongful separation to queerness, when queerness is baked right into the backbone of rap — baked right into the backbone of women’s rap, especially — it did not sit right with me at all.

Queen Latifah is a central frame point of Ladies First, the documentary is named after a song that she is a part of, she is returned to again and again. And she looks gorgeous every time, a queen on her throne. So then, how are we going to be skittish around queerness? Who is that helping?

How are we going to talk about Da Brat growing up in the Black church, and her rebellion from the church leading her to Funkdafied (a take on Sanctified) and not talk about queerness?

How are we going to talk about “WAP” and not talk about Cardi and Meg’s queerness? Or talk about the abuse Meg’s suffered and then not talk about the increased domestic violence and abuse statistically faced by bisexual women? Or the many, many famous bisexual women who have come forward about their abusers lately — of which Meg is a part of that wave?

It was just all so glaring to me.

I think just making queerness a five-to-ten minute segment at the very end, as if it wasn’t what we were talking about all along, was short sighted and leaves a bad taste on what was otherwise clearly a work of love and care.

Natalie: I absolutely agree. Weave it into the full story, rather than just tacking it onto the back-end.

Da Brat’s answers about why she stayed closeted for so long… it made it sound like, “oh, I was secret about everybody that I was dating” and then “when I met Judy and I couldn’t be quiet about it, I loved her so much.” But that minimizes the fear, right?

I just think we don’t have a picture of what the closet looks like for gay women in hip-hop and so I don’t know what the point was, if it wasn’t going to illuminate something.

I want to say, I don’t begrudge people taking their own time to come out. People absolutely should do what’s best for them and keeping themselves safe. But what I also know, as a queer woman, is that the closet is a lonely and suffocating place. And if we don’t talk about that — what it’s like in the closet — we’re both not seeing that person fully and can’t work to rid homophobia and transphobia from hip-hop.

Carmen: Yes! I think it’s also only telling half the story, in a documentary that spends over two hours going into painstaking detail of nearly 50 years of history.

Natalie: Exactly.

Carmen: Because I don’t know how you can tell a story about women in hip-hop, now that we’re really going there, and not tell a story about the closet.

I’m so happy for girls growing up with Chika, Rico Nasty, Meg, Ice Spice. But that is not the entry place of that story. A lot of the queer icons in rap that I grew up adoring, I still can’t name — even in this article — and that is also a legacy.

Natalie: We didn’t just evolve magically to this place where Chika can be unapologetically out and find the Whitley Gilbert to her Dwayne Wayne or where Young MA can rap about getting head.

Carmen: 100%

And I think part of what we’re both hashing out here in real time, I’m realizing it also makes me want to be slightly more generous to the filmmakers behind Ladies First because… how do you document something that is both so knotty, but also has been rendered invisible?

Natalie: But I think it starts with you having to ask the questions.

Carmen: Yeah, you’re right.

It seems so tender. Because you’re also trying to be respectful to a lot of people who, for a lot of various reasons, aren’t at a place where they want to talk about their own queerness (or perceived queerness).

Natalie: Right. They spend all this time opining on why Queen Latifah stayed closeted for so long… and it’s awkward because Queen Latifah’s been a big part of the series… but on this portion was about her but not with her.

Carmen: That’s such an illustrative example! Ladies First spends a relatively significant amount of time in their queer section discussing Queen Latifah’s “coming out” moment at the 2021 BET Awards. But it’s hard not to notice she’s pointedly absent — despite being in nearly every other part of the documentary — from the section that is about her own “coming out.”

Which again, there is something unspoken — in this case, quite literally — that is happening in these waters.

Which ultimately, undercuts so many other things, a lot of them great, that are happening in Ladies First.

Natalie: Agreed.

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