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.'"

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Patriarchy Stress Disorder is A Real Thing and this Psychologist Is Helping Women Overcome It

For decades, women have been unknowingly suffering from PSD and intergenerational trauma, but now Dr. Valerie Rein wants women to reclaim their power through mind, body and healing tools.

As women, no matter how many accomplishments we have or how successful we look on the outside, we all occasionally hear that nagging internal voice telling us to do more. We criticize ourselves more than anyone else and then throw ourselves into the never-ending cycle of self-care, all in effort to save ourselves from crashing into this invisible internal wall. According to psychologist, entrepreneur and author, Dr. Valerie Rein, these feelings are not your fault and there is nothing wrong with you— but chances are you definitely suffering from Patriarchy Stress Disorder.

Patriarchy Stress Disorder (PSD) is defined as the collective inherited trauma of oppression that forms an invisible inner barrier to women's happiness and fulfillment. The term was coined by Rein who discovered a missing link between trauma and the effects that patriarchal power structures have had on certain groups of people all throughout history up until the present day. Her life experience, in addition to research, have led Rein to develop a deeper understanding of the ways in which men and women are experiencing symptoms of trauma and stress that have been genetically passed down from previously oppressed generations.

What makes the discovery of this disorder significant is that it provides women with an answer to the stresses and trauma we feel but cannot explain or overcome. After being admitted to the ER with stroke-like symptoms one afternoon, when Rein noticed the left side of her body and face going numb, she was baffled to learn from her doctors that the results of her tests revealed that her stroke-like symptoms were caused by stress. Rein was then left to figure out what exactly she did for her clients in order for them to be able to step into the fullness of themselves that she was unable to do for herself. "What started seeping through the tears was the realization that I checked all the boxes that society told me I needed to feel happy and fulfilled, but I didn't feel happy or fulfilled and I didn't feel unhappy either. I didn't feel much of anything at all, not even stress," she stated.

Photo Courtesy of Dr. Valerie Rein

This raised the question for Rein as to what sort of hidden traumas women are suppressing without having any awareness of its presence. In her evaluation of her healing methodology, Rein realized that she was using mind, body and trauma healing tools with her clients because, while they had never experienced a traumatic event, they were showing the tell-tale symptoms of trauma which are described as a disconnect from parts of ourselves, body and emotions. In addition to her personal evaluation, research at the time had revealed that traumatic experiences are, in fact, passed down genetically throughout generations. This was Rein's lightbulb moment. The answer to a very real problem that she, and all women, have been experiencing is intergenerational trauma as a result of oppression formed under the patriarchy.

Although Rein's discovery would undoubtably change the way women experience and understand stress, it was crucial that she first broaden the definition of trauma not with the intention of catering to PSD, but to better identify the ways in which trauma presents itself in the current generation. When studying psychology from the books and diagnostic manuals written exclusively by white men, trauma was narrowly defined as a life-threatening experience. By that definition, not many people fit the bill despite showing trauma-like symptoms such as disconnections from parts of their body, emotions and self-expression. However, as the field of psychology has expanded, more voices have been joining the conversations and expanding the definition of trauma based on their lived experience. "I have broadened the definition to say that any experience that makes us feel unsafe psychically or emotionally can be traumatic," stated Rein. By redefining trauma, people across the gender spectrum are able to find validation in their experiences and begin their journey to healing these traumas not just for ourselves, but for future generations.

While PSD is not experienced by one particular gender, as women who have been one of the most historically disadvantaged and oppressed groups, we have inherited survival instructions that express themselves differently for different women. For some women, this means their nervous systems freeze when faced with something that has been historically dangerous for women such as stepping into their power, speaking out, being visible or making a lot of money. Then there are women who go into fight or flight mode. Although they are able to stand in the spotlight, they pay a high price for it when their nervous system begins to work in a constant state of hyper vigilance in order to keep them safe. These women often find themselves having trouble with anxiety, intimacy, sleeping or relaxing without a glass of wine or a pill. Because of this, adrenaline fatigue has become an epidemic among high achieving women that is resulting in heightened levels of stress and anxiety.

"For the first time, it makes sense that we are not broken or making this up, and we have gained this understanding by looking through the lens of a shared trauma. All of these things have been either forbidden or impossible for women. A woman's power has always been a punishable offense throughout history," stated Rein.

Although the idea of having a disorder may be scary to some and even potentially contribute to a victim mentality, Rein wants people to be empowered by PSD and to see it as a diagnosis meant to validate your experience by giving it a name, making it real and giving you a means to heal yourself. "There are still experiences in our lives that are triggering PSD and the more layers we heal, the more power we claim, the more resilience we have and more ability we have in staying plugged into our power and happiness. These triggers affect us less and less the more we heal," emphasized Rein. While the task of breaking intergenerational transmission of trauma seems intimidating, the author has flipped the negative approach to the healing journey from a game of survival to the game of how good can it get.

In her new book, Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Barrier to Women's Happiness and Fulfillment, Rein details an easy system for healing that includes the necessary tools she has sourced over 20 years on her healing exploration with the pioneers of mind, body and trauma resolution. Her 5-step system serves to help "Jailbreakers" escape the inner prison of PSD and other hidden trauma through the process of Waking Up in Prison, Meeting the Prison Guards, Turning the Prison Guards into Body Guards, Digging the Tunnel to Freedom and Savoring Freedom. Readers can also find free tools on Rein's website to help aid in their healing journey and exploration.

"I think of the book coming out as the birth of a movement. Healing is not women against men– it's women, men and people across the gender spectrum, coming together in a shared understanding that we all have trauma and we can all heal."