Women rap artists a driving force as hip-hop turns 50

As the “Planet Hip Hop” series continues, we talk about female rappers who help nurture the sound and give the expression a different voice — showing their male counterparts that they’re just as important, talented and influential.

The World’s Marco Werman caught up with Msia Kibona Clark, director of graduate studies in African studies at Howard University in Washington, to talk about how women have helped shape hip-hop around the globe. She also hosts the “Hip Hop African” podcast.

Marco Werman: The big hits in the early days were almost exclusively from men. When you started digging into hip hop and appreciating it, I’m curious: who was the first truly global female rapper, a pioneer in the genre, and what message was she sending to young women in parts of Africa, Asia or South America?

Msia Kibona Clark: Godessa from South Africa. They were the first recorded group out of South Africa. They’re based in Cape Town, where South African hip-hop emerged. They actually came out around 2000 or 2001, which is fairly late. The first song I heard of theirs was “Social Ills,” they talk about being yourself and putting out unrealistic images and not trying to keep up with fashion trends and just learning to be yourself. Those were the early messages that came out.

Our hip-hop series has shown us that everyone has a voice and a story, and sometimes their stories are heard, suppressed and even censored. Is there a country with a thriving hip-hop scene but a country where female rappers have struggled to get heard?

Yes. Senegal. Senegal has a very strong hip-hop scene, very rich in social commentary. The minimum movement there was very influential and political change. But when it came to releasing music, you didn’t see women rappers engaging in that way. So even though they may have been on the ground, they weren’t doing so through their music.

What about Jamaica? We’ve heard from up-and-coming young toasters there who are women with things to say, but they also perform in a very macho place. How is that working in Jamaica?

I think the universal experience of women emcees is confronting misogyny and patriarchy. Hip hop itself is a very misogynistic space. You know, it’s a very sexist space. So, you have to navigate hip-hop’s culture. Then you have to navigate, kind of, local cultures. So whether you’re talking about South Africa, Jamaica or Nigeria, you’re also navigating misogynistic patriarchal structures and institutions, making it very difficult. When a woman decides to get into hip-hop on her own terms, she’s already challenging those structures. One of the things the women are doing now is rejecting the fancy label and just wanting to be recognized as emcees, period.

You just hit on this, in some subgenres of hip-hop — it’s misogynistic, even violent toward women. There’s also the flipside that hip-hop has been empowering for many female rappers. I know you’re a fan of Sampa the Great from Zambia. Tell us about her.

Sampa is, yeah, Zambian. She did her undergrad in the US and then moved to Australia. She won a couple of ARIA Awards in Australia and is living in Botswana, I believe now, but has written many songs, not only celebrating being a woman but also being African. I think one of the narratives that isn’t talked about as much is the experience of the African in the diaspora. I was born in Tanzania and came to America and experienced kind of anti-African sentiments; And so, what it’s like to be an African in America, this sense of loneliness that’s there, and kind of finding community artists like Sampa the Great represent that for African women immigrants. I connect to her a lot because of these multilayered intersecting identities in Tanzania, and I’m African American. I’m all of these things.

Sampa the Great is on the title track to the Netflix series Supa Team 4. This series is a superhero story about girls’ strength and African ingenuity. It does really fit into the theme we’re talking about here. I’m wondering, is that double hit of feminist culture coincidental, or is there kind of an intentional crossfertilization between media like film and music among these women creators?

I think it’s very intentional. Women nowadays are very intentional about their messaging and understanding the importance of crossplatforms and having a lot of content coming out that addresses or has many of these messages in it. It’s a great thing that’s happening. I think that some artists also produce, sure, because I think Samba the Great has a short documentary or something that goes along with some of their music. So there’s this whole visual art piece that goes along with her music.

What country right now are you looking at? A place that’s really bubbling up with the female rap artists of the future.

If I had to pick one that wasn’t South Africa, it would probably be Ghana or Kenya. I probably would have said Nigeria, but Afrobeats really has kind of taken over Nigeria. For hip-hop, Ghana or Kenya would probably be the other two places.

As you look around the world, has global hip-hop been its best self for women as opposed to its American iterations? And have women successfully flipped the script, do you think?

Yes, I think globally hip-hop has done a lot more for women than what it has done for women in the US. That it has been a much more positive influence, that women are able to really use hip hop as a form of empowerment, much more outside of the US and much more globally, which I know is, you know, for some, controversial. I know that American hip hop is very American-centered, and most Americans are not familiar with hip hop outside of America. I think the most innovation happening right now in hip hop is happening outside of America. And that’s, you know, it’s just the truth.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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