Where are the women in hip-hop?

As you may know, sample just aired the annual Hip-Hop Honors Awards Special, and BET is set to air their own award show on Oct. 23. You may also have heard that neither has nominated a single female rapper for anything.

The absence of women from these award shows is disappointing, but hardly shocking; female emcees no longer have a high profile. Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown and Remy Ma are better known for their tabloid troubles than their music these days. Long-awaited records by Eve and Shawnna have yet to materialize, and while hip-hop groups in the ’90s from Flipmode Squad to The Firm often included a token woman, crews these days are almost always no-girls-allowed boys’ clubs.

Many of the great emcees of yesteryear have gone MIA and not many new artists of any prominence have come to take their place. Still, while obvious go-to awards show favorite Missy Elliott wasn’t up to much this year, she did have that single from Step Up 2: The Streets, and both Trina and Li’l Mama had relatively well-received new albums. As I’ve written about before, Jean Grae finally released Jeanius, and it was one of the best records of the year, period. You’d think BET could have scraped together something. And VH1′s show honors artists who’ve made historic contributions to the genre, so they were definitely allowed to dig into the past.

This problem is way bigger than hip-hop; because we live in a racist and sexist culture, there are limited spaces for black women in pop culture across the board. It’s unsurprising that the music industry is not clamoring for female rappers — hip-hop as a genre prizes aggression and a quick wit. Put these qualities together in a black woman and it’s way too threatening to a white supremacist patriarchy. Black women have and will continue to push through anyway, but it’s not for lack of obstacles.

And then there’s how the broader music industry is a hostile environment for all women, and the Bush years have closed all kinds of doors that once seemed to be opening. Back in the ’90s, the joke was that you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a female bassist — every rock band had to have one! While we all had a long way to go in dismantling sexism in the music industry, it was becoming increasingly commonplace to see women playing instruments in mainstream bands. That all changed. The most high-profile new mainstream female rock player of the recent years might be Meg White, the “muse” and quiet sidekick to “genius” Jack White of the White Stripes. She is better known as the subject of “can-she-play-or-not?” debates than for her skills.

I’ve been pondering the “why” of this broader backlash against women in music, but that’s gonna have to wait for another post.

Hip-hop is in a particular position in terms of larger trends; as it has become one of the most popular genres of music in the world, it has become serious business to record execs. Not coincidentally, the profile of what a rapper is has become increasingly narrow. At this point, it almost never seems to include the possibility of being female, with the occasional exceptions made for sex bombs. Extremely occasionally, an anomalous innovator like Missy gets attention, after putting in serious time writing and producing for huge artists like SWV and Aaliyah, and guesting on countless tracks.

Still, I have hope that the tide is turning. While hip-hop is still extremely male dominated, small cracks are starting to form in the rigid structure of acceptable masculinity. The Massacre-era 50 Cent typifies what — until recently — seemed to be the corporate ideal for a rapper: someone who once dealt drugs, had been shot, was really buff and had a limited range of emotions, was hyper-masculine and extremely defensive about it, and definitely was not a girl. This is what artists coming up had to emulate if they wanted the best chance of making it.

As 50 rose in popularity, he whittled away at his own persona until it became a humorless, two-dimensional caricature of the clever and charismatic personality first noticed on mix tapes. In 2005, The Massacre was the album to beat in terms of sales (if not artistry), and nobody was up to the challenge.

When Kanye West beat 50 Cent in 2007′s Graduation/Curtis face off, he opened up what it could mean to be the biggest name in hip-hop — suddenly it was OK to be an avant-garde-fetishizing meterosexual who rapped about his insecurities. It’s not just Kanye — the biggest hip-hop album of ’08 is Tha Carter III, the work of avowed weirdo Li’l Wayne, who raps about being from outer space, or maybe a robot, and recently told XXL that eccentric Missy Elliott was one of his biggest influences.

Am I a deluded optimist, or might the rise of Kanye and Wayne signal an opening up of the “rapper” role, one that might allow space for women?

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