Friday, May 13, 2011

Feminist Rapper Friday: Lil' Kim

I haven't really written anything for my Feminist Rapper Friday posts, but I want to say a few things about Lil' Kim because she's not as clear of a choice for a feminist rapper, but I think she is really important to the history of women in rap and there are some really good discursive elements about her music, so this is an adaptation of something I wrote in a paper on female rappers this semester from a section called, "Queen Bitchery: Lil' Kim, Eve, and the Sexualization of Hardcore."

Lil' Kim belongs to a subgenre within rap called gangsta rap. This is very different from the rap of Salt-N-Pepa. Jason Haugen wrote in his article, "‘Unladylike Divas’: Language, Gender, and Female Gangsta Rappers," that:

It is perhaps here that the appearance of females, given dominant notions of gendered expectations for women, is most unexpected, in that femininity is widely associated with vulnerability and masculinity with dangerousness, which is often reflected in disjunctive levels of perceived threat. Not only do the women of gangsta rap engage in the discourse about violence that occurs in the narratives of their songs; they place themselves within those narratives and often at the heart of the violence (437).

Which I think is a really good way of contextualizing female gangsta rappers. When Kim raps about killing an unfaithful ex, she is both playing into the norms of gangsta rap and appropriating masculinized, gangsta rap power. Male gangsta rappers are notoriously sexist, and that's usually what alarmist stories about the degradation of women point to when hip-hop gets stigmatized. (I think it's not that simple. Not all gangsta rap is degrading to women, and there is a lot of important cultural expression even in raps that aren't female-friendly. Anyway, that's not my area of study, so I will leave that discussion to someone more informed than I.) Kim is undoubtedly a skilled rapper, and even though her music has some questionable content for women, she's not simply participating in her own domination.

From my paper:
Lines like “Titty out like what—I don’t give a fuck!” (“Notorious B.I.G.”) and “If you ain’t lickin’ no clits, we don’t want it, we don’t want it” (“We Don’t Need It”) are both assertions of aggressive personal sexuality and acceptance of a certain type of sexualized role within a genre that has narrow options for women. I don’t think Kim should be immediately written off as simply a product of a male environment; there is a considerable amount of agency in her work. At the same time, I think she is a really problematic figure in rap and gangsta rap. While on the one hand she promotes the gangsta rap status quo by representing gangsta rap norms fairly consistently in her music, she also pushes against them. If gangsta rap is viewed as a completely male environment where only men are violent and women there for only men’s sexual needs, Kim (sometimes) flips that script.
Gray areas are important. And there's a lot more to discuss about Lil' Kim (especially her feud with Nicki Minaj!) but I think this is enough for one post.

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