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I will never forget the first time that I saw the video for the TLC's "Creep." Those melodic trumpets juxtaposed against that sick hip-hop beat were a version of cool that was hard to ignore.
I was barely walking when the song came out, but I rediscovered it around the age of 12. Even now, at 22, I can still remember how much I wanted to be like those women. I was used to teen pop stars who peddled mixed messages about sex and power, like the famously virginal Britney Spears. But T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli owned their sexuality completely and still seemed strong, like they didn't need a man to define anything for them—like they were making their own rules musically, lyrically, and stylistically.
Luckily for me, the '90s boom of female MCs provided me with lessons in feminism that would stick with me for life.
Hip-hop's presence in my life goes so far back that I can't remember a time when I wasn't obsessed. With parents who grew up in Brooklyn and Queens, my family's world was heavily defined by hip-hop. One of my first memories is my grandfather proudly recounting tales of his friend's grandson, LL Cool J. As an African American woman, hip-hop was ingrained in my cultural upbringing from the start, and as l grew, so did my love for it. It was impossible for me to escape becoming a hip-hop head.
But becoming a hip-hop head meant acknowledging that it was mainly a boy's game. Luckily for me, the '90s boom of female MCs provided me with lessons in feminism that would stick with me for life. Idols like Missy Elliott and Aaliyah played with the boys and dressed like them, yet they still owned their femininity. They stood up for themselves, and were ultimate boss ladies. At a time when so many women in music videos were barely more than window dressing, they were the stars of the show. And when you saw their music videos or live performances, you knew that every element, from their music to their choice of outfits, was aligned with their strong, self-created feminist personas.
Take TLC's "No Scrubs," for instance. To me, this song is Left Eye and her girls saying that they're financially and romantically independent. They don't need to lower their standards just to win the love of some scrubby guy. At the end of the song, Left Eye says "If you can't spatially expand my horizon, then that leaves you in the class with scrub." In other words, if you can't bring her to another level intellectually, then she'll never be into you. Women talking back to the men hollering at them on the streets, all the while wearing leather outfits that could be mistaken for S&M gear—for a 12-year-old feminist in training, this was mind-blowing. Here were women who looked like me, who I could identify with, giving me an early lesson on how to be a feminist who owns her style and doesn't bow down to men.
Here were women who looked like me, who I could identify with, giving me an early lesson on how to be a feminist.
By the time I was in high school, I'd come to realize that not every feminist would see my hip-hop heroes—or their undeniably sexy style—as admirable. I can remember one particular instance when I was around 15 involving one of my friends who called herself a feminist. At the time, Soffe shorts were all the rage, and rolling the shorts to make them shorter was essential. I've always been tall, so when rolled, the shorts looked different on me than on my shorter buds. One afternoon in gym class, my friend pulled me aside and said,"No offense, but those shorts look a little bit slutty on you. You better watch it if you aren't trying to bring all the boys to the yard." I was taken aback. Here was one of my so-called partners in feminism making me feel awkward about my body, judging me on a style choice, and instructing me to curb my behavior because of it.
I remember recounting this incident to another friend and wondering, does it have to be mutually exclusive? Why can't a woman stand up for herself and dress how she wants, provocatively or not? Why can't it be about clothing as self-expression, not clothing to get attention from guys? Thankfully, the ladies of hip-hop unknowingly had my back, proving to me that you can in fact dress how you want, giving zero fucks about the opinion of others.
Fast forward about 10 years post TLC. The era of female-dominated hip-hop was long gone, and powerful female rappers were few and far between. Hip-hop was churning out videos such as Nelly's "Tip Drill," in which he slid a credit card up a video girl's butt. Or Jay Z's offensive (but catchy) hit "Big Pimpin'," the lyrics of which he has since apologized for—maybe thanks to his union with one of my all-time favorite feminists, Beyoncé. I still loved hip-hop, but I was always conflicted. How I could be a feminist and still enjoy music that I agreed was misogynistic?
Missy Elliott brought a new type of eccentricity to hip-hop and became a superstar—all the while dressing exactly how she wanted.
Luckily, by then I had Missy Elliott as a personal feminist idol. Everything about her was a breath of fresh air. She wasn't at all a size two or the stereotypical version of "sexy," but it was clear that she was trying to be something so much more interesting than that. She was ferociously confident and skilled at toppling the strict gender norms hip-hop seemed to enforce. And like the ladies of TLC, she expressed herself through her unique personal style, adorning herself in futuristic costumes in all of her videos. Take her video for "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)," in which she parades around in what can be considered a literal trash bag, repeats "Me, I'm super fly, super duper fly." By the end of the video, it's hard to disagree. She brought a new type of eccentricity to hip-hop and became a superstar—all the while dressing exactly how she wanted.
Nicki Minaj, one of today's most recognizable hip-hop feminists, is famous for the same reason. Before her, most of the world had never seen a woman who could spit so hard, but still come off as soft when she wanted to. Her rhymes and delivery were so powerful that when she rapped "I feel like a dungeon dragon" on a song from her first album, listeners had no choice but to agree. It quickly became evident that she was in complete control of her aesthetic, whether she wanted to come across as sexy or kooky. Nicki was never not herself, and I really appreciate that. Her refusal to "girl herself up" or tone things down is exactly what I think feminism should be.
Online, you can find plenty of feminist writers who love Nicki's personality. Even when Nicki released the video for her smash hit "Anaconda," featuring more shots of butts than most male rappers' videos, you still got the sense that she is in charge. In fact, she told Complex, "I wanted to create a song that embraced curvy women. I wanted to be sexual but be playful with it." She's commenting on sexuality, not just performing it.
"If you got a big ol' butt? Shake it! Who cares? That doesn't mean you shouldn't be graduating from college."
Nicki's version of feminism also comes back to being a strong example for other women. In a recent interview with Vogue, she defines herself as a "woman who wants other women to be bosses and to be strong and to be go-getters." And in December, she told Rolling Stone, "If you got a big ol' butt? Shake it! Who cares? That doesn't mean you shouldn't be graduating from college."
As a lover of hip-hop, I'm always pushed to question what my ideal of feminism is, but I think that Nicki has the right idea. Modern feminism deals with challenges that didn't exist 20 or 50 years ago, and in our current culture of anonymous online commentary, women are judged more than ever before. It's hard to balance loving fashion, feminism, and hip-hop both IRL and online, but I'm so happy to have these feminist idols in the hip-hop community that remind me that owning my personal style—and my personal opinions—is the way to go.