Mona Haydar And Beyond: Female Storytelling In Hip Hop
In case you’ve not heard, a Syrian-American woman called Mona Haydar has recently released a rap song focused entirely on the experience of wearing a hijab. It’s deep, it’s evocative, and, in light of the anti Muslim rhetoric circulating at the moment, very current.
Hijab (wrap my hijab), which dropped march 27, is all about female empowerment; of escaping the trappings manifest in religious dress. Not mincing her words, Mona raps: “Power run deep…So even if you hate it/ I still wrap my hijab/ Wrap my hijab/ Wrap my hijab”. Accompanying her in the music video are women from across the cultural spectrum, all of whom can be seen sporting hijabs in a show of solidarity.
Women like Haydar aren’t exactly a common occurrence in hip hop. Between the dick swinging and misogyny, girl power hasn’t quite been given the same attention.
Discounting the obvious merits of artists like Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj, messages of female strength are nowhere near prevalent as they should be. Which seems strange when you consider the attention feminism and equality have been getting of late. Instead, the ethos underlying a lot of female rap songs is sex. But that doesn’t mean that hip hop isn’t without its bold female storytelling.
Here are some of the boldest examples of it, topic by topic:
Nonchalant – 5 O’Clock
Killer lyrics: “It’s not a white man’s finger on the trigger/ Car-jacks, drive-by’s, callin’ each other ‘nigga’.”
A number one track from an artist who seemed to disappear as quickly as she came on the scene. 5 O’Clock addresses gang banging and drug dealing from a female perspective, adopting a somewhat mother-like tone of disapproval.
Queen Latifah – U.N.I.T.Y.
Killer lyrics: “But don’t you be calling out my name/ I bring wrath to those who disrespect me like a dame.”
Better known for her acting these days, Queen Latifiah was once a socially conscious rapper and an integral part of the Native Tongues collective.
In arguably her greatest song to date, she sends out a firm warning to all the men complicit in sexual harassment and domestic violence: “Who you calling a bitch?”
Lauryn Hill – Doo-Wop (That Thing)
Killer lyrics: “You know I only say it cause I’m truly genuine/ Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem.”
No list like this would be complete without the incredible Lauryn Hill. She quite literally has it all. She can rap, she can sing, and she’s even partial to a bit of protesting.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill may be her only solo album, but it’s a Grammy award winner which spawned three hit singles. Doo Wop, the lead track, is a cautionary tale with a lighthearted tone, alerting African Americans to the dangers of the struggle.
Jean Grae – Don’t Rush Me
Killer lyrics: “I’m attached to this looseleaf, stand on my two feet/ So it’s hard enough to even have to physically move me.”
You heard her – take it easy! Like most New York rappers who’ve risen up from the underground, Grae retains a certain rawness and refusal to conform. Don’t rush me, as the name suggests, is all about taking time to get to know oneself, for fear of embarking on the wrong path.
Heather B – Do you
Killer lyrics: “And I’ll take it there end your career with one stroke of my pen/ And I got enough love, I don’t need no mo’ friends.”
Who is Heather B, you ask? She’s only a former member of Boogie Down Productions – the same group which held KRS-One. If you’re not familiar with her song, Do You, then you need to give it a listen, pronto. In it, Heather lays down one of the fiercest shows of self-reliance.
Monie Love – It’s a Shame (My Sister)
Killer lyrics: “Get back on your feet please/ I’m beggin’ you to check out all your own needs.”
It’s easy to forget that Monie Love is British, given the work she’s done with American rappers. De La Soul fans may recognise her from the song, Buddy. She also appears in Queen Latifah’s feminist single, Ladies First.
Making her rhymes count, Monie prefers to rap about things that matter, rather than dwell on the superficial. It’s A Shame offers a listening ear and words of wisdom to women who’ve been messed around by men.
MC Lyte – Cappucino
Killer lyrics: “It’s somewhat like coffee, then again not quite/ It’s creamy and smooth, and it goes down light.”
As the first solo female emcee to drop a full album, with ’88s, Lyte as a Rock, MC Lyte holds a place in the history books of hip hop. Make no mistake about it – she’s baddass. 10% dis – a battle rap directed at MC Antoinette – is proof alone of that.
Cappucino is creativity at its best. Lyte somehow manages to package drug taking as coffee consumption, perhaps as a stark reminder of how readily available drugs are.
Nikki D. – Daddy’s Little Girl
Killer lyrics: “Daddy’s little girl, but not the girl that daddy knew/ Daddy never had a clue of what his little girl would do.”
We’ve all heard the expression “daddy issues” banded about, but what does it really mean? In her hit single, Daddy’s little Girl, U.S. rapper, Nikki D., offers a compelling answer.
Nikki D is one of the original queen’s hip hop. Her early signing to Def Jam Recordings marked a notable turn for the record label, who, up to that point, had never taken on a female rapper before. Ice T was the first to discover her, and since then she’s received kudos off everyone from LL Cool J to Dr Dre.
Noname – Reality Check
Killer lyrics: “Opportunity knockin’, a nigga just got her nails done/ Skeletons in my closet gone, open the door when Yale come.”
Noname, as you may recall, previously featured in our 2016 breakthrough list. And for good reason. The girl’s got bars. But, we’re not just talking punchlines. Owing to her background in spoken word, Noname is a poet as well as a rapper.
Reality check recalls the difficulties she encountered as an artist in seizing opportunities presented to her.
Angel Haze – Cleaning Out my Closet
Killer lyrics: “One night he came home and I was asleep in my bed/ He climbed on top of me and forced himself between my legs.”
Sometimes, you have to go through a lot in order to be creative. For Angel Haze, a troubled childhood ignited the spark for this brutally vivid track.
Cleaning out my closet updates an earlier Eminem release of the same name. In it, Haze contemplates the sexual assault she suffered at the hands of two male family friends. Now five years into the game, she’s got two albums and a host of mix tapes behind her.
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