The name game: female emcees, where’s the real power at?

“Where there is power, there is resistance” (Michel Foucault-The History of Sexuality)

It’s amazing the type of baggage that is in a name. What you choose to call yourself has so much baggage, so much history. It denotes hope, desire, aspiration and inspiration. Whatever we choose to call ourselves though, one thing must always remain clear, by doing just that, we are placing ourselves under a category, we are categorizing ourselves.

People in Hiphop culture have given birth to a category of people called ‘female emcees’, or more popularly ‘femcees’ here in South Africa. As the name suggests it is designated for female emcees. In the early years of Hiphop that misnomer was not such an audible presence in Hiphop (maybe because there was such a small presence of females in Hiphop at the stage?) however in the last two decades it has become quite a distinct but somewhat insignificant presence in Hiphop. It’s is a presence that shouts in a voice that desires to be heard and given recognition.

Now we have very ‘dope’ female emcees and female rappers, we hear it all the time, “Nicky Minaj is the best female rapper”, “Lauren Hill produced the best female rap album” and so on. There have been and continue to be a number of somewhat prolific ‘female emcees’ or ‘female rappers’. Sisters are doing it for themselves, taking back the power! But that’s just where the problem is. Sisters think that they are taking back the power, but under whose auspices is this power even vested in? let me just share with you what I think is problematic about all this talk about power and ‘female emcees’ and ‘female rappers’ and ‘dopeness’ and so on.

That word ‘female emcee’ or ‘female rapper’ is a word that carries historical baggage, the baggage of unequal power and gender relations. Judith Butler (2005) has spoken about the ‘constitutive other’, that in order to define yourself you define yourself against an ‘other’, someone/thing that you are not. So to define yourself as a female emcee is to knowingly define yourself as not a male emcee. In terms of gender relations what is the position of a man in society? He is powerful, has many more privileges than a woman, he is a thinker and so on. To be a female emcee is to work under the auspices of a male emcee. This means that female emcees are always being compared to male emcees. In fact if you really have to think about it, to be a male emcee is to be by default, better than a female emcee. That is something that operates at an unconscious level for many people. That is is because heteronormatively speaking, society thinks that males are better than females in many things. But it is not true.

It categorizes rappers into males and females where no such distinction is necessary to begin with. So for example, we will have magazines compiling a list of the top 25 female emcees of all time. Why are we essentializing difference? Why can’t there be just dope emcees period? Most of these lists have very little female presence if at all. Are women not emcees? Male emcees do not have their own special category of ‘male emcees’. They are just emcees.  Or are we saying that women deserve their own special category? That’s nonsense! We have dope emcees, period. Any other category is unnecessary and suspect according to me. We are all Hiphop, we are not male Hiphoppas and female Hiphoppas. We do not need a list of top 25 female emcees, females should be in the same list that has men.

So female emcees and female rappers come up saying that they are free, that they are doing things for themselves, they are empowered by their freedom. But look at the image of who is considered to be the one very successful female rapper right now: Nicky Minaj. She has essentialized all traditional feminine qualities, just by appearance alone. And the world is loving her! She is the object of gaze right now. Is she empowering women. Is she resisting the essentialized notion of what it means to be a woman? Is she a rapper or female rapper? Most women do that, they play into the power of the male gaze and they work within its limits, doing the best that they can under its limits and when they have done the best under those very same limits that that constrain them they think they have liberated themselves. Foucault wrote that the best form of power is not one that uses force on its subjects, but one that convinces them that they are free when they are actually not. I find it hard to believe that calling yourself a bitch is a form of liberation, or categorizing yourself as soft but lethal No she has boxed herself under female emcee (sometimes it’s the ‘baddest bitch’). If you are a female emcee you will always be seen as second best to most emcees even when you are doper than them. That’s because of the historical baggage in the word female, with all its connotations today. You are not a female emcee, you are an emcee. Do not serve the interests of those who want to retain power over you by using that name over yourself. When you are in a box, and you are free to move within that box it does not mean you are free. You can try and shrink you body to the point that you are able to do hand stands in that box and even when you do, you are still not free.

Hiphop is about self and social transformation. The position occupied by women in society is one of subservience and second class citizen status. That should not be repeated in Hiphop culture. There is no empowerment in putting yourself under the category female emcee. Because of the connotation of being female, ‘femcees’ will always be seen as secondary to male emcees who are unjustifiably called the better emcees. You will always be expected to be a female emcee, and in ‘female emcee’ the word female comes before emcee, so you are conceived of as more a female than an emcee. Resist that word. Challenge yourself to be an emcee.


Brother Eleyejah

(@eleyejah on twitter)