Home News Opinion “Femcee” and the Paradox of Gender Empowerment in Hip-hop
“Femcee” and the Paradox of Gender Empowerment in Hip-hop

“Femcee” and the Paradox of Gender Empowerment in Hip-hop

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WRITTEN BY CASSIDY KAKIN

This is far from the first time I have thought about or written about these ideas.  The term “Femcee” has been bouncing around my head for a decade or more, since I first realized that every dope track with a “girl” on it that I loved had a lady on the hook and a couple hard thug dudes on the verses, or was an all out machismo fest with no pretensions of including a female’s perspective.  But this particular line of thought was inspired by International Women’s Day, and the excellent cypher that came out of Toronto to mark the occasion.  Watch Keysha Freshh, Lex Leosis, Haviah Mighty, and pHoenix Pagliacci kill a beat by Lil Sister below if you haven’t peeped this important moment in underground hip-hop yet.

I hate the term “Femcee.”  I always have.  That’s not a knock on any female rapper out there, or on the right for every artist to label themselves however they would like to label themselves; on the contrary, I don’t think that anyone in the world could have beaten Jae the Lyoness Bar for Bar on that MULA stage.  I don’t think that anyone in the world can write songs like Lauryn Hill wrote in her prime.  I don’t think any rapper who has faced obstacles like Nikki has faced could have been expected to drop more pop crossover hits in this day and age; love or hate Ms. Minaj, it takes one hell of a catchy hook to land Pepsi billboards and one hell of a wicked pen to rap circles around Ye on his best album to date.  I believe all of that, irrespective of gender or gender identity or the “female” status of each artist mentioned.

And that’s why I hate the term “Femcee;” it’s a loaded bullshit qualifier in my opinion.  And I don’t think it has any value in defining what an artist can or should be.  

At some point, my opinion is bullshit too.  For two reasons, which you can agree with or discount as you see fit; I ain’t a female rapper, and many female emcees themselves wear the term “Femcee” as a badge of pride.  But that phrase to me, and the underlying dichotomy that it brings to the surface of cultural discussions, means something important.

It is unarguably harder to make it in hip-hop as a female rhymer.  That’s just facts.  Check billboard or dig into the deep underground if you don’t believe me; even if you don’t agree that the industry has been heavily weighted against female spitters since the start, it’s a straight numbers game these days, with fewer rappers on every level of the playing field sporting two X chromosomes.

All of that might sound like BS as well; in any case it complicates the term. Which is why I asked Las Vegas MC Ashley Bank$ what “Femcee” means to her as an underground hip-hop artist.

“The term femcee doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t see it as a separating factor but more as a term of endearment and almost like a status symbol.” Bank$ weighs in, “I never call myself that because it lacks substance in my opinion. (But) as a femcee or emcee you’re up there with the likes of Lauryn hill, 2pac and all the greats […].  I feel like its let’s you know I’m here to stay and enrich the culture.”

“This one for my sisters,” Bank$ raps in her soulful single “Ain’t Gone Love You.”

That’s a powerful perspective, and it acknowledges a few powerful things.  There have ALWAYS been  female rappers who can stand toe to toe or rap circles around their male counterparts, on every level of the game.  Foxxy Brown, Lil Kim, Nikki Minaj; these aren’t names of “good lady rappers,” they are cultural icons who have earned their infamy and place in this art form’s lineage.  Lauryn hill EARNED that Billboard top ten nod, even if others who may have earned a space near her name were left by the wayside.

As controversial as that shitty list was, I don’t think that ANYONE who was left out, from Reggie to Pac, should have replaced Lauryn Hill.  That’s not just because I have been putting her on my own top ten list for years; it’s because she had to work a whole lot harder, especially during her time, to earn those kinds of historic accolades.  Lauryn did it as an artist first and foremost, never as a sex symbol, and never through compromising her integrity.  That’s important.  The term “femcee” is not; it wasn’t nearly as common in Lauryn’s day to my knowledge, but I’d bet my B-sides collection that Queen Hill would have laughed her Afro off if anyone had the guts to qualify her artistry with what, to me, is a dismissive and unflattering moniker.

Lex Leosis KILLED her official cypher debut.  She has killed everything her voice has touched for a minute now.  So why the hell do we as a culture find it necessary to stick any qualifier next to her name?

“I hate when people use that word to limit what I do. For example “she’s good for a femcee” or “I don’t usually like femcees, but you go in”. I hate that shit.”  I can feel Lex’s anger through the keyboard after asking her about what the term means to her, in the context of her recent Cypher verse for International Women’s day. “I hate when people have to lower other women’s talent, to make the compliment bigger. I’m not here for it being my only descriptor either, I don’t like that they won’t compare me next to a man…like they have to do it in a different category because of our gender.”

Always one to keep a light perspective in the face of obstacles, Lex’s tone changes quickly.  “With that being said I’m a female emcee who is proud to be a woman and if the term is used correctly in a loving and respectful way..I don’t have a problem with it.”  Pure positivity; hip-hop shit.

Jazi, that MULA top 12 finisher with the hard AF bars who has been making noise ever since, takes Lex’s positivity to another level, embracing the term completely.  ” I feel honored when I hear the term to be referred to as a Female MC, simply put, a woman who can rap, freestyle, spit, perform, whatever you want to call it.”

But even as Jazi focuses on her grind, and what a fuckin grind homie has to her name these days, it’s impossible not to recognize the expectations and nuances of “femcee” as a loaded phrase that can get misconstrued.  “Yes, true, the art is one ‘term’, but embracing yourself as a woman is NEVER a bad thing.”  Real. “You can still be a woman and be Hip Hop, it’s who you are, and it’s who I want to be seen as.”  Realest.

Jazi hasn’t let gender hold her back.  You can’t argue with them bars. 

So, back to the start maybe, in a roundabout way.  Femcee is a bullshit term, in my opinion; my opinion may be bullshit, since I never deal with being a female in hip-hop and don’t even rap.  But I am an artist, with a voice, albeit a privileged one.  I spend all day thinking about intersectionality, and gender, and empowerment, and the power of language, and hip-hop as a particular and revolutionary culture.  It’s part of who I am, even if I can’t empathize with Lex’s or Rapsody’s struggle directly.

Back to the beginning, then; “Femcee” ain’t something that I ever use to refer to a female artist, because I don’t call any of the dudes who got bodied by Jae at MULA “mencees.”  And because I don’t really give two shits about a rappers physical organs, except for their brain and heart and vocal chords and lungs and mouth and everything else it takes to make a dope spitter dope.  Those factors aren’t influenced by gender; it’s easy to say “gender doesn’t matter.”

It’s harder to take a deep and meaningful look at who we are, as a culture and as a movement as as hip-hop heads, and admit some unsettling realities.  Gender DOES matter, but not like any ignorant bigots might have you believe.  Females can rap just as well as males, often better, depending on the artist, depending on the circumstance, depending on the story and the truth of their rhythm and poetry.

But to take a hard line stance and say that “gender doesn’t matter anymore” is naive.  Girls can rap like boys; the fact that we have to say that at all matters.  And the face that so many “femcees” never get the chance to share the stage with their male counterparts matters too.

“I think being a woman in general men always have preconceived notions. That’s in anything work, sports, what have you. But I have always been a girl who runs with the boys so I got use to that a long time ago on the playground.”  Ashley Bank$ elaborates on her time as a “femcee” struggling through the ranks of a judgmental industry. “I have learned that letting your work speak for itself is the best medicine.  I have had people try to jip me at shows or not get the love I deserve because I’m a female and I know that’s why. But I have learned to keep going until they can’t help but give me the respect I earned.”
“Earned;” that’s an important word in hip-hop culture.  And it’s one that you have to apply in a different way to artists like Jazi, Lex, Jae, and Bank$.  Not because their rhymes are the best in the game, though that’s of course an argument I’d have after a beer or two for the fun of it.  Respect that hustle, and respect the obstacles that each artist has overcome.  And respect that every female artist, from Rapsody to Jae the Lyoness to Lauryn Hill, has had to work harder to earn their place at the table in the eyes of a culture that too often silences dissenting identities.

Jae the Lyoness is one of the hardest working and smoothest flowing artists in underground hip-hop.  Bar none.  Respect that, and respect what she had to work through to earn her accolades.

“When I first started out people wouldn’t listen to me because I was a female,” Jae laments, “(But) over the years people have been more accepting. I think people care more about talent rather than gender now. Its been tough but there’s hope and I’m hopeful.”

That hope is important; just as important as recognizing the persistent obstacles that are still present.

“It’s been harder to navigate getting on a larger platform without being overly sexualized or just solely compared to other women,” Lex Leosis explains.  “I think there is this mentality in Hip Hop that there can only be ONE woman. And I’ve seen women take on that mentality and start trying to take out other women when we need each other. When I see females like Phoenix Pagliacci, Haviah Mighty, Keysha Freshh, Alyssa Marie, Jae the Lyoness and Lily Fangz…i feel inspired, proud and motivated…not threatened and I know those women feel the same way.”

That’s important too; from an artists perspective, there is power in embracing a marginalized identity.  N.W.A. was always “us against the world.”  That “femcees” in 2016 take the same approach is truly revolutionary, for the culture and the artistry.  And it’s revolutionary from a movement perspective as well.  The more we all build together, irrespective of identity, the further this culture can move.  But the more that marginalized voices band together, the louder their collective voice will ring.

Some of the most powerful TeamBackPack Cyphers in history are based on the premise of sisterhood against an oppressive industry.

But I am not a rapper; I am not a femcee, and not a label exec who can change the game by offering Jazi and Jae and Lex and BAnk$ and Babii Cris and G.L.A.M. and Rev and Rapsody and every other female artist that deserves their millions a golden contract.   That’s not me; I’m a humbleish blogger with a pen that is often left rusty.

So why do I care so much about “femcee” and the place of female artists in underground hip-hop culture?

Because words matter.  My words matter; I would never call a female artist “femcee” unless they call themselves that or embrace the term.  Even then, I am cautious to do so, since the industry as a whole usually ignores the artists’s story in favor of a marketable quip or a charming gimmick.  Femcee to me is still a qualifier first and foremost, and an unneeded and destructive one.

How do we as a culture change our habits, then, and speak and act in a way that uplifts all artists rather than holding female artists down?  That’s a big question, but there are small steps we can all take.  Don’t say “femcee” unless you know exactly what it means.  To the industry, as a marketing gimmick.  To the mainstream, as a subconscious qualifier.  To the culture, as a thinly veiled denial of the obstacles that still exist.  Most importantly, to the artist that you are labeling; know what a label means, and if an artist embraces that label themselves, or keep your mouth shut and leave labels and qualifiers to die quietly.

We all WANT to empower female artists, for the most part, or most of us on the right side of history.  If you are on the winning side of justice, the arc is indeed long, but morality rests somewhere in the direction of a more equal world than the one we all live in now.

That’s where the paradox arises; “femcee” can be a term of empowerment.  But not if you use it wrong.  And not if you don’t understand what it means, to hip-hop, in every sense.

There are more layers to this paradox, and more questions that I still need to answer for myself, as an ally and advocate and “conscious” :social justice” “warrior” dedicated to pushing the culture.  Is it really a good thing to put three females on a cypher, rather than giving each artist a cypher irrespective of gender, letting names like Jae body anyone in their path?  A big question, that I don’t know how to answer.  And a small peek deeper, in to the dark and heady underbelly of underground hip-hop’s grimy basement; a sturdy foundation, but cluttered with skeletons of our past.

For now, I will keep wearing my hatred of “femcee” on my arm.  And I beg you to be careful how you use the word in your own daily denials and culture contributions to hip-hop discourse.

And for the female artists out there, struggling against labels that they don’t always embody?  Ask Jazi.   “Yes, you will always run into people who will try to take advantage of you in this game because you’re a lady, and they think you’re.  But if you carry yourself like that, then you will be that. I have learned as a young woman in this industry that its about how you come off, how and what you rap and sing about.  How you respect yourself that will tell others how to come at you.”

Respect, to every female rapper out there making their voice heard in the loud and too often oppressive rap game.  From international women’s day to the next cypher to the next drop from Jazi or Jae or Rap or whoever else you ride for; remember what those labels mean, and don’t fuckin say “femcee” unless you mean it.

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  • I hate the term “Femcee” as well. I feel like it goes against what Hip Hop is about. In Hip Hop race, gender or any other factor involving labeling a person doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is who you are and what you do. The term Femcee serves no purpose unless the term Emcee meant males and that isn’t what Hip Hop is about.

    • Cassidy M. Kakin

      One hundred percent agree, it’s important to keep this hip-hop thang a big tent.