Although they have been featured in a number of newspaper articles, feminist rappers have not received sufficient critical attention. Three recent books on rap (Costello and Wallace; Spencer; and Toop) ignore female rappers, and as recently as March 1990, Terry Teachout could proclaim that, "not surprisingly, women in the world of rap are largely, if not exclusively, objects of transient sexual gratification" (60). Feminist rappers like Queen Latifah, Yo Yo, Ms. Melodie, Salt'n Pepa, M.C. Lyte, and Roxanne, among others, not only belie his pronouncement but deserve close attention because they are a group of African American women who are "allowed to speak their own words," a situation that Michele Wallace identifies as unusual in popular culture (3). The one exception to the critical neglect of feminist rappers is the work of Tricia Rose who, in "Never Trust a Big Butt and a Smile," calls for "broadening the scope of investigations in our search for black women's voices" (128) to include rap. Rose asserts that "women rappers are vocal and respected members of the Hip Hop community, and they have quite a handle on what they are doing" (109). Queen Latifah's music video "Ladies First" (which Rose discusses briefly in her article and in her recent book Black Noise [163-66](1)) provides ample evidence to support Rose's claims.
By examining "Ladies First" closely, this article explores issues raised by feminist rap; that is, rap that focuses on promoting women's importance, that demands equal treatment for women, and that demonstrates the need for women to support each other. While a feminist politics of entertainment is troubling and ambivalent, there are feminist entertainments such as "Ladies First" that present the viewer with moments of resistance to dominant exploitative images of women. In its serious exploration and glorification of African American women's history, "Ladies First" seizes a televisual moment and breaks the continuity of sexism and racism that dominates the music video flow. While "Ladies First" is neither ideologically pure nor completely consistent, there is a coherence to the images and lyrics that contrasts strikingly not only with music videos by male performers, but also with music videos like "Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves," performed by Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox. In Franklin and Lennox's video, for example, arbitrary, unconnected, and traditional portraits of women undercut rather than strengthen the overtly feminist message of the lyrics. By contrast, the complexity of the lyrics and images of "Ladies First" refutes the notion that popular culture texts will inevitably and exclusively exploit gender and Afrocentricity (if these concepts even appear at all).
Queen Latifah's feminism draws on the patterns of rap to assert the importance of women promoting themselves and other women. Rap, like all other forms of popular music, is not inherently feminist, but in this genre, as in other popular genres, female performers use specific generic qualities to promote a feminist message. Rap is noted for its emphasis on lyrics, and through the lyrics, female rappers make explicit assertions of female strength and autonomy. Since rap revolves around self-promotion, female rappers are able to use the form without appearing to be unduly narcissistic.(2) In "Ladies First," for example, Queen Latifah touts herself as a "perfect specimen," and Monie Love (aka Simone Johnson) spells out her professional name, which evokes the paradox of the conjunction of love and money in a capitalistic society. Love's name draws attention to the nature of the music business, which so frequently draws upon the notion of love to make money. These feminist rappers' names make their wry understanding of capitalism clear and should allay any doubts about their awareness of the complexities and ambiguities of their position.
Through her name and emphases Queen Latifah draws upon a tradition of African music and culture to make her criticism of sexism and racism. …