Hip Hop’s New Narrative: Embracing A Culture Of Female Empowerment And Male Vulnerability


Despite still being in its infancy, in the 90s, hip hop was a progressive and groundbreaking culture. It was a period when a multitude of queens reigned supreme, with resiliency and distinction, and the kings were free and vulnerable enough to growl their way through their pain like a DMX, or pour their hearts out to their mamas like Mr. Shakur, without anyone batting an eye or calling them “soft." It was a special time. A golden era.

But soon gold wasn't enough. As the culture moved on to platinum something happened. For a number of reasons, the expressions from mainstream male artists became more stagnant and unoriginal - less liberated and emotional - and the female emcee became, well, damn near non-existent. With the exception of Missy Elliott, Lil' Kim, Eve, and later Remy Ma, there weren't any ladies making noise in hip hop on the mainstream level until Nicki Minaj arrived in 2010, and Iggy Azalea in 2014.

And although artists like Kid Cuddi, Drake, and Kanye West haven't been afraid to fly the vulnerability flag, they're often questioned about their manhood because of it. The mainstream artists who could do it and do it well, without anyone questioning their masculinity, were either deceased or just not doing it at all. There were no Biggie's to rhyme about the hauntings of having suicidal tendencies the way that he did on Ready To Die in 1994. Pac was gone and so was Big Pun.

And although Pun may not be the first person to come to mind when you think of emcees being vulnerable in their rhymes, with his hit “It's So Hard" released in 2000, he let his guard down and told us, albeit in a fun way, that being obese, famous, and paranoid about the imminent danger of street violence, was hard work. DMX was still around but he was no longer going triple and quadruple platinum the way that he was in the 90s. And although Nas and Eminem remained relevant, both extremely talented rappers took five and even ten year breaks when releasing solo projects in the 2000's.

Kathy Iandoli. Photo: Dove Clark

So where are we at now, in 2018? Well, hip hop culture still rests comfortably at the intersection of everything popular and important, whether it be art, other genres of music, fashion, advertising, education, business, or politics. Because of this, it continues to grow, adapt to, influence, and reflect both the streets and all that is popular culture. But how does this manifest itself in today's mainstream hip hop music? Here's two ways.

Male hip hop artists and culture shapers like Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, and J. Cole are making it okay for men to unabashedly and publicly address misconceptions about manhood, while women like Rapsody, Cardi B, Princess Nokia, Remy Ma, and Oshun are breaking barriers, collaborating, and curating careers that allow them to embody success in individual and creative ways. To further explore these emerging themes we enlisted the help of Billboard contributor and hip hop journalist Kathy Iandoli.

Ladies First

Following in the footsteps of Salt-N-Peppa and Roxanne Shanté, some would say that Queen Latifah's debut album, All Hail The Queen released in 1989, and the aptly titled first single “Ladies First," ushered in a new wave of female hip hop artists who represented a mosaic of styles and viewpoints. On the West Coast Yo Yo released three consecutive albums from 1991 until 1993. In 1994, Da Brat dropped Funkdafied and became the first ever platinum selling solo female hip hop artist.

Then two years later Kimberly and Inga, out of Brooklyn, surfaced and forever changed the game. Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown dominated 1996, with their unadulterated brand of hypersexualized empowerment anthems that women adored and men weren't mad at either. That same year the culture was also blessed with albums by Heather B and Bahamadia, two progressive thinkers who added their not as popular, but equally as important voices to the mix.

Then one year after that The Lady Of Rage released her debut album. And let's not forget about MC Lyte and Lauryn Hill, who both made their presence known for the better part of the decade. And of course we all remember what happened when Ms. Hill dropped The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998 (five Grammy awards, one of which included Album of the Year).

Unfortunately and by all accounts, there has never been another era in hip hop that has celebrated and valued female rappers the way that the 90s did. Despite this, there's definitely something brewing today. And whatever it is, it's difficult to squeeze it into a box because it's both mainstream and underground, raunchy and intelligent, vulnerable, self-aware, and most importantly, necessary. It's intersectional too, and it makes sense that it is. “Going into 2018 there's definitely more women in hip hop that are just actively out there, but not only just out there, but on the charts and making records and hitting the radio and touring and doing all the things that I think in the past were only given to one woman at a time, and now we're on more of a level playing field," says Iandoli, whose book Ladies First (Dey Street Books/Harper Collins) will be released next year.

Hip hop's leading ladies, both in the underground and mainstream markets, are not sitting by idly letting their stories be told for them. “I think there's been growth in the number of female hip hop artists over the past few years that have brought a greater awareness to the concept that there's diversity amongst women in rap," said Iandoli. “I think we're starting to see it a few years earlier but in 2017, I think it really came into its own especially with Nicki Minaj still being out and about, Remy Ma with her comeback, Cardi B blowing up and even Rapsody releasing her latest project."

When it comes to female rappers and mainstream recognition, Cardi B and Rapsody are leading the pack. Both women were the only two female rappers to earn Grammy nods this year (Cardi B for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance for her breakout smash hit “Bodak Yellow," and Rapsody for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Album for her critically acclaimed Laila's Wisdom album). While Rapsody may not be as visible as Cardi B, she's no newcomer either. The 34-year-old has been verbally sparring with the best of them since releasing her debut album She Got Game back in 2013, and signing with Jay-Z's Roc Nation imprint three years later. While Cardi B's message may sound a bit different from Rapsody's, who quotes Maya Angelou on her hit “Sassy," both ladies are using their voices to insight empowering and thought provoking dialogue. “I think their messages are both very strongly leaning upon empowerment just in two different ways," says Iandoli. “I think Cardi B has a very unapologetic approach to stating what's on her mind and demanding certain things of herself or other people, and Rapsody has a message that is more demanding of the world at large, society, politics, things that…attacking the system and pointing out where the inconsistencies are and urging others to empower themselves and to show who they are and bring awareness to change. Laila's Wisdom had such empowering music but I think to just a casual listener they won't listen to “Bodak Yellow" and hear that it's empowering in its own way as well."

The fact that Cardi B and Rapsody have completely different styles speaks to the type of resurgence that is taking place for and because of female rappers. While both have been recognized by the elite institution that is the Grammy's, there are a slew of other female rappers, at various levels, making just as much noise. Take Princess Nokia for example, the New York Bruja tomboy who's independently toured the globe and released consecutive albums every year since 2014. Although you may not hear her songs “Tomboy" or “Brujas" on the radio, you might catch an ear full of her music at an Alexander Wang show or in a Marc Jacob's ad campaign. These are the types of moves this Princess is making without the backing of a major label. Then there's Niambi Sala and Thandiwe, also known as Oshun, who have made a name for themselves on the festival circuit all the while paying homage to their African ancestry and using their art as activism (The group's latest offering is a poignant number entitled “Not My President"). The hip hop/soul duo who met at NYU started off their 2018 with an 11-city tour that included three sold-out dates in Washington, D.C., Philly, and New York City. And of course there's Remy Ma who's had a stellar past few months, signing a multi-million dollar deal with Columbia Records and collaborating with Lil' Kim on the menacing “Wake Me Up," and most recently with Chris Brown on “Melanin Magic."

So what does all of this mean? Well, it means that similar to the way that women and those who support them are saying “time's up" and “me too" in regards to sexual misconduct and abuse in the workplace, females in hip hop are saying “time's up" and “me too" when it comes to the way that their stories are being told and their voices amplified as rappers, entrepreneurs, and grown ass women. And quite frankly, we're here for it, and you should be too.

Vulnerability is the new black

Because of the parameters in which hip hop was birthed, when we explore vulnerability (or lack thereof) within the culture we must examine black male masculinity among a slew of societal ills, like: generational poverty, systemic racism, and mental health. Without a doubt, these are issues that frame the vulnerability in hip hop conversation, and furthermore, influence the way that the culture is promoted and consumed. For many of hip hop's creators and the audience that it was invented to uplift, vulnerability, or any type of display of emotion is frowned upon. But thanks to Jay-Z's groundbreaking 4:44, this type of toxic masculinity might be on its way out, or at minimum looked at as uncool. “With 4:44 Jay-Z has created a new branch of hip hop where you can talk about adult issues that you never really could discuss before, because theoretically hip hop was perceived as a young man's game," says Iandoli. “Jay-Z's success continuing into his forties, and pretty soon his fifties, proves that he can start talking about subject that his peers and his grownup core base is going through too because issues of mental health and life challenges don't just end in your twenties."


Although Jay-Z appears to be setting the trend, it may be artists like Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, and the often overlooked but well-respected J. Cole, who first made it okay for today's hip hop artists to begin addressing these types of issues. 33-year-old J. Cole dropped his critically acclaimed 4 Your Eyez Only LP six months before Jay-Z's 4:44, and Lamar's soul-baring To Pimp A Butterfly was released back in 2015.

On “She's Mine Pt. 1," a two-part love letter to his daughter and wife, featured on 4 Your Eyez Only, Cole raps: “I would like to paint a picture, but it'll take more than a day/It would take more than some years to get all over my fears/Preventing me from letting you see all of me perfectly clear/ The same wall that's stopping me from letting go and shedding tears/ From the lack of having a father, and the passing of my peers/While I'm too scared to expose myself it turns out, you know me better than I know myself/ Better than I know myself, well how about that?"

“I think as the mental health awareness [issue] was raised in this country and in other parts of the world, and as younger generations are looking for some thread of relatability to what they're consuming, artists stepped up and kind of showed their vulnerable side, says Iandoli. “I think it's helpful. J. Cole has a really significant fan base and there's young kids that probably listen to that and are pretty thankful that they can relate to that."

On the catchy and funky “Foldin Clothes" Cole somehow makes helping his significant other do house chores sound hip and even masculine. “I wanna fold clothes for you, I wanna make you feel good/Baby I wanna do the right thing, feels so much better than the wrong thing," he sing raps over a menacing guitar lick.

And while J. Cole is exposing his deepest fears and helping his wife fold clothes, Jay-Z is apologizing to the women he's mistreated, namely his insanely famous wife and mother to his three children. On the opening track of 4:44 he raps: “I apologize to all the women whom I toyed with your emotions because I was emotionless/ I apologize cause at your best you are love/ And because I fall short of what I say I'm all about your eyes leave with the soul that your body once housed/ And you stare blankly into space thinkin' of all the time you wasted on all this basic shit/ So I apologize"

Maybe by recognizing their own shortcomings Jay-Z and J. Cole are attempting to sway hip hop's narrative to one that is more thoughtful, more genuine, and more considerate. “I think what it speaks to is the current state of mental health in the world and the ability to kind of reflect emotions in a way that is not seen as weakness or being soft," says Iandoli. “People are dealing with depression and other kind of demons that in years past they kept so bottled up. Some people turn to drugs, some people unfortunately turn to suicide, and I think that artists are taking more of a stand, exposing their vulnerabilities so that everyday people can listen to their music and be like 'oh he's going through a similar thing as I am, he's just like me.'"

5 Min Read

How Fitness Saved My Life and Became My Career

Sometimes it takes falling to rock bottom in order to be built back up again. I learned this many years ago when the life I'd carefully built for myself and my family suddenly changed. But in those times, you learn to lean on those who love you – a friend, family member or someone who can relate to what you've been through. I was lucky enough to have two incredible women help me through one of my lowest moments. They taught me to love myself and inspired me to pass on their lessons each da

If it weren't for the empowering women who stepped up and brought fitness back into my life, I wouldn't be standing – in the door of my own business – today.

In 2010, I was a wife, a mother of three, and had filtered in and out of jobs depending on what my family needed from me. At different points in my career, I've worked in the corporate world, been a stay-at-home mom, and even started my own daycare center. Fitness has always been a part of my life, but at that point being a mom was my main priority. Then, life threw a curveball. My husband and I separated, leading to a very difficult divorce.

These were difficult times. I lost myself in the uncertainty of my future and the stress that comes with a divorce and found myself battling anorexia. Over a matter of months, I lost 40 lbs. and felt surrounded by darkness. I was no longer participating in my health and all efforts to stay active came to a halt. I didn't want to leave my home, I didn't' want to talk to people, and I really did not want to see men. Seeing my struggles, first my sister and then a friend, approached me and invited me to visit the gym.

After months of avoiding it, my sister started taking me to the gym right before closing when it wasn't too busy. We started slow, on the elliptical or the treadmill. This routine got me out of the house and slowly we worked to regain my strength and my self-esteem. When my sister moved away, my good friend and personal trainer started working out with me one-on-one early in the morning, taking time out of her busy schedule to keep me on track toward living a healthy life once again. Even when I didn't want to leave the house, she would encourage me to push myself and I knew I didn't want to let her down. She helped me every step of the way. My sister and my friend brought fitness back into my everyday routine. They saved my life.

I began to rely on fitness, as well as faith, to help me feel like myself again. My friend has since moved away, but, these two women made me feel loved, confident and strong with their empowerment and commitment to me. They made such an incredible impact on me; I knew I needed to pay it forward. I wanted to have the same impact on women in my community. I started by doing little things, like running with a woman who just had a baby to keep her inspired and let her know she's not alone. I made sure not to skip my regular runs, just in case there was a woman watching who needed the inspiration to keep going. These small steps of paying it forward helped me find purpose and belonging. This gave me a new mentality that put me on a path to the opportunity of a lifetime – opening a women's only kickboxing gym, 30 Minute Hit.

About four years ago, I was officially an empty nester. It was time to get myself out of the house too and find what I was truly passionate about, which is easier said than done. Sitting behind a desk, in a cubicle, simply didn't cut it. It was hard to go from an active and chaotic schedule to a very slow paced, uneventful work week. I felt sluggish. Even when I moved to another company where I got to plan events and travel, it was enjoyable, but not fulfilling. I wanted to be a source of comfort to those struggling, as my sister and dear friend had been to me. I wanted to impact others in a way that couldn't be done from behind a desk.

I began to rely on fitness, as well as faith, to help me feel like myself again.

When I heard about 30 Minute Hit, I was nervous to take the leap. But the more I learned about the concept, the more I knew it was the perfect fit for me. Opening my own gym where women can come to let go of their struggles, rely on one another and meet new people is the best way for me to pass on the lessons I learned during my darkest times.

Kickboxing is empowering in itself. Add to it a high energy, female-only environment, and you have yourself a powerhouse! The 30 Minute Hit concept is franchised all over North America, acting as a source of release for women who are just trying to get through their day. I see women of all ages come into my gym, kick the heck out of a punching bag and leave with a smile on their face, often times alongside a new friend. 30 Minute Hit offers a convenient schedule for all women, from busy moms to working women, to students and senior citizens. A schedule-free model allows members to come in whenever they have a free half hour to dedicate to themselves. Offering certified training in kickboxing and a safe environment to let go, 30 Minute Hit is the place for women empowerment and personal growth.

Through my journey, I have learned that everyone is going through something – everyone is on their own path. My motivating factor is knowing that I can touch people's lives everyday just by creating the space for encouragement and community. It's so easy to show people you care. That's the type of environment my team, clients and myself have worked hard to create at our 30 Minute Hit location.

Fitness saved my life. If it weren't for the empowering women who stepped up and brought fitness back into my life, I wouldn't be standing – in the door of my own business – today. The perfect example of women empowering women – the foundation to invincibility.

This article was originally published September 12, 2019.