I have a strange relationship with my womanhood. I love being a woman. I think we are divine, with bodies and minds that are capable of breathtaking things. However, it’s also the source of a lot of my frustration. It makes me angry that I’ve had to leave or second-guess positions because of men who don’t know how to treat me with respect and professionalism. It makes me angry that I’m not always taken seriously and that my appearance will often be the main focus. It makes me angry that people think they can treat me like a second-class citizen. And it really makes me fucking angry that I go out in public fully clothed, just for people to undress me with their eyes, invading my personal boundaries with no possibility of consent because the advances are unspoken and indirect. Even after everything women have done for this country, we still often find ourselves demanding respect. On the final day of March, I want to celebrate Women’s History Month with Hip-Hop lyrics that uphold the names of women who have overcome obstacles to leave an imprint on history, cementing their legacies in poetic raps. No matter how others treat me, I’ll forever cherish being a strong woman with the stubbornness and willpower to continue fighting no matter what life throws at me.
As Run-D.M.C. commemorates the ferocious spirits who fought for equality in their track “Proud to be Black,” they open up the song with the story of Harriet Tubman. Run concludes his introductory verse by rapping, “it’s not a mystery, it’s history, and here’s how it goes: Now Harriet Tubman was born a slave. She was a tiny black woman, but she was brave. She was livin’ to be givin’ there’s a lot that she gave. There’s not a slave in this day and age.” Rather than diving into what Harriet Tubman did with the Underground Railroad, Run-D.M.C. describes her qualities as a person. History books, stories, and movies often make it difficult to remember that these are real people and not just legends. We remember Harriet Tubman for her strength and her bravery, but we forget to acknowledge the compassion and selflessness she had to possess to help others gain freedom while risking her own. We remember her for what resulted after her fearless acts, but in doing so, we forget her humanity and just how incredible of a person it would take to do something so remarkable.
In Jay-Z’s “My President Is Black (Remix),” he toasts to the momentous occasion of the US’s first black president. In the song, he lists the steps it took to progress to this point, rapping that “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk, Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run, Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly, so I’ma spread my wings, you can meet me in the sky.” Although the wordplay actually does not belong to the rapper and was widely popularized during the election as a poem, it’s amazing to see the correlation between the diction used and the respective person; for instance, Rosa Parks remained seated on the bus, MLK walked in protests, and Obama ran in the election. The New York rapper highlights that without Rosa Parks’ contributions to history, these influential Black men would have had fewer liberties to make their own. There’s a reason why Congress named her “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement.” We always hear the idea that one person’s actions lead to another person having the capability to do something similar, and that analogy is used for MLK and Obama quite often. Unfortunately, Rosa Parks’ name is often excluded from that conversation, despite the level of resilience that she demonstrated, especially as a Black woman. Additionally, her work as an NAACP member tends to be neglected, especially considering how many awards she has received. Without her protest to move from her bus seat, the ruling of bus segregation being deemed unconstitutional may not have occurred until much later, if not at all.
Reflection Eternal, also known as Hi-Tek and Talib Kweli, re-created Nina Simone’s song, “Four Women,” in their track hidden within the “Expansion Outro.” Nina Simone, a jazz singer, songwriter, and musician, harbored copious talents and skills while remaining outspoken in the plight of Black people through her music. She even had to use a pseudonym for her artistry to hide what she was doing from her family members, as jazz was viewed unfavorably. In Nina Simone’s original song, she narrates the stories of four different Black women, describing each by their physical features and how society treats them. While Nina Simone embodies each woman, Talib Kweli maintains their energies by describing his encounters with them. The first woman is Aunt Sarah, a dark-skinned woman who endured the hardships of slavery. While Nina Simone describes the strength in her body because of what she experienced, Talib speaks of her with the respect that you would show your elders, looking up to her and seeing the pain she had to undergo as well as the solidity she needed to get through it. The second woman that Nina Simone embodies is Saffronia. Contrary to Aunt Sarah, Saffronia is light-skinned with blond hair; the product of a white slave-owner raping a Black woman. Talib elaborates on the confusion in her identity, “[feeling] like she belongs in two worlds.” Unfortunately, Saffronia is expected to choose which half she identifies more with and realizes just how muddled her history is. Simone describes Sweet Thing, the third woman, as a sexualized Black woman-one who makes her ends meet through sex work. While Simone takes on a more empowering approach, Talib recounts a sadder story, describing how Sweet Thing was just a child who got pregnant and had to grow up at a young age without any guidance to make a life for her and her baby. The final woman, Peaches, was the child of slaves who was separated from her family and most likely sold for sex work given her name. As a result, she’s angry. Angry with the world, angry with what she and her family went through. In Talib’s version, Peaches is actually the mother, willing to do anything but go through the pain of being separated from her children, even if it means killing them. She refuses to have kids who will just become slaves, determined to find freedom no matter what happens to her. Both of these songs tell the stories of tragic realities. These aren’t fables, passed down through generations. These are the lives of their ancestors, histories that are full of trauma. When Nina Simone sings about these women, she’s telling real historic accounts.
In his song, “Big Bidness,” Big Sean alludes to Coretta Scott King when he raps, “King of my city, man, I feel like I’m Coretta child. I’m my mama son, I gotta rise. I can’t let her down.” Coretta Scott King was the wife of Civil Rights Activist, Reverand Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, she was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement as well, standing with MLK Jr. from the start and continuing his legacies after his death by traveling around the world to educate and speak in the name of equality. Additionally, she raised their children as activists who are still sharing their missions, while also starting and running The King Center. In fact, without Mrs. King, MLK’s birthday might not be a holiday. Big Sean invokes her name by seeing himself as her child, comparing her to his own mother. He sees his mom in Mrs. King, recalling how she pushed him to make a difference in his communities by donating, volunteering, and educating. As a result, he’s gone on to open the Sean Anderson Foundation in Detroit, which is dedicated to improving the community. By referencing Coretta Scott King, Big Sean calls attention to the ever-lasting legacy that the Kings created; the legacy to do right and good by others, and to always treat those with kindness. Mrs. King’s representation as a maternal figure in this song highlighted her ability to be a strong mother, a role model for women everywhere, and a public figure in the civil rights movement.
Maya Angelou inspired a lot of thought-provoking Hip-Hop lyrics with her poetry. Both Nicki Minaj and Tupac created songs around her poem, “And Still I Rise,” which was also the name of her poetry book. The works served as a beacon of light, one that echoed the necessity to remain hopeful and proud of the color of your skin. Nicki Minaj took a modern approach to her version of “Still I Rise,” using the motifs of perseverance and vigor to motivate her when critics are attacking her. She mentions the cruel comments and false rumors that are spread about her to try to break her down. However, channeling Maya’s strength from the poem, she uses the chorus to share how she rises above the situation, reminding herself to stay focused on her goals and ignore the negativity. Although it’s a bit more vulgar than Maya would have liked, it shows a vulnerable and relatable side for Nicki Minaj that we don’t see very often, especially as she’s usually coined the villain. In Tupac’s take of “Still I Rise,” he discusses his upbringing and the pain his mother endured, ultimately resulting in his birth. He raps about being neglected by his father, forcing him to resort to “tryna hustle/on the spot where everybody and they pops tryna slang rocks.” He offsets his tragic story with the bridge, “Still I, I rise, please, give me to the sky,” and follows it up with his rise to fame, showing that despite everything he went through, he ended up on top, making all of the struggles worth it.
In his song, “The Dreamer,” Common approached Maya Angelou to recite an original piece of poetry at the end of the track. The track starts with him recounting a more difficult moment in his career when he lost the Grammys to Kanye West twice but then shifts focus to demonstrate how he’s grown. In a clever play on words, he compares himself to both John Legend and John Lennon while conveying how much money he’s earned, solving some of his earlier problems. He ends the song with a spoken-word piece by Maya Angelou, in which she begins by talking about getting comfortable with your routine rather than always dreaming of something bigger. She continues by expressing how much people dreamed to get to where we are today as a developed nation; without their ancestors’ continuous dreams of a life of freedom, slavery wouldn’t be abolished. You can’t get a better life if you can’t envision it. Moments like these exemplify why Maya Angelou’s poetry has been used throughout Hip-Hop, even just as inspiration. She debunks the cockiness Common displays in his track by telling him that his work isn’t done; he has to continue to dream of higher accomplishments. Furthermore, that tough-love energy continued when Maya Angelou and Common had a minor argument over Common’s use of the n-word. The disagreement demonstrated their generational gap present as well as different reactions to evolving times and past traumas. While she views the word as disrespectful and demeaning, he views it as a representation of his upbringing and where he comes from.
In her 2014 single, “Angela Davis,” Rah Digga tributes the feminist, author, and activist. In the first verse, the rapper separates herself from other female emcees when she relates her style and subject matter to the outspoken Angela Davis. She emphasizes the importance of vocalizing important beliefs, looking to Angela Davis for the courage and power to do so. In the second verse, she continues to rap about being the Angela Davis of Hip-Hop, explaining how listeners depend on her to keep the essence of the culture alive with her rhymes. They praise her for continuing to love her Black features, refusing to alter anything about her appearance to conform to society’s standards of Westernized beauty. She’s always been in-tune with speaking out and being proud of where she’s from no matter what sorts of beliefs were pushed on her. She continues to end the song by recognizing that her music may not be made for mainstream media, directly affecting her album sales, but that she won’t change because she’s making a difference. Angela Davis was no stranger to counter-culture ideas, no matter how unpopular they were. When advocating for things such as Communism, Angela Davis was seen as quite radical. But a lot of her beliefs are now becoming more prominent decades later; ideologies such as advocating for intersectional feminism, defunding the police, and reforming the prison system. She predicted and fought for human rights before it became mainstream, and Rah Digga hopes to do the same with her music.
Common wrote “A Song for Assata” about Assata Olugbala Shakur, a crucial member of the civil rights and Black Panther movements. Assata, who was found guilty of 1st-degree murder, escaped prison in 1979 and then fled to Cuba, where she currently lives in political asylum. In an effort to fight for equality, Assata became labeled a domestic terrorist with a price for her head. However, her devastating story exposed the corruption and discrimination plaguing the law enforcement system. Common’s “A Song for Assata,” opens up by recounting the very scene that demonstrated this, describing how “scandalous the police were as they kicked and beat her.” He continues her story by painting the picture of her in the hospital, still enduring the abuse while being interrogated over “who shot the trooper,” the very reason she ends up arrested. Cee-Lo Green takes over the chorus, singing an ode to Assata that captures just how much she did to fight for the rights of Black people, a fight that left her name and record tarnished, and a fight that is still being fought today. In the second verse, Common explains how she finally ended up in prison after charge after charge was thrown at her, both real and falsified. The third verse lays out the tragic plot twist: Assata was proven innocent through medical examinations. Gunshots in her own body showed that she was in the process of surrendering when she supposedly killed the cop. Unfortunately, before finding out about this news and reuniting with her family, she fled the prison and ended up in Cuba where she was granted political asylum. Common closes the song with an excerpt from Assata, explaining how she could never define what freedom was, but rather what it wasn’t. She could list all of the ways that she was robbed of her liberties, but she would never know what it means to have the right to live her life the way others could. I love this song because of the way Common breaks down her story. He idolizes her throughout the track but never in a way that softens her. He keeps trying to put himself in her shoes, only to realize that he has no idea what he would do. Because she’s a warrior, one who never gave up or gave in. This story tells of her strength and everything that she gave up to progress to where we are today. The work that the Black Panthers did, especially Assata, is not to go unrecognized, and her story is not over. She never received justice, and similar stories are still occurring. This song is a beautiful example of what it means to share someone’s story, and it shows how influential and educative Hip-Hop can be.
Lauryn Hill made history during the 41st Grammys when The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill became the first Hip-Hop project to win album of the year and when she became the first female artist to take home five Grammys in one night. So in a touching tribute to his friend, Talib Kweli penned the song, “Ms. Hill.” Lauryn Hill, who has been treated pretty badly due to her public, toxic break-up, exposed a lot of the sexism prevalent in the Hip-Hop world and unfortunately, it affected her quite deeply. But that doesn’t take away from the creativity and raw talent that she possesses. He reiterates this on the hook when he repeats that, “Ms. Hill, you got skills, that’s a gift, it’s real. Get ill, what you spit got the power to uplift the heel” in efforts to give her words of encouragement. He recognizes that she’s suffering because of everything she’s facing and that it even caused a distance in their friendship. And yet, even then, even as she’s fighting off demons and losing herself, her music is still better than what’s on the radio. He expresses how he wanted to be there to help her, to keep track of her talent, and to help her like a brother. But despite how incredible her voice is, people kept trying to suppress it. The song wraps up on the hook, reminding her how much her music is needed because it’s just that influential.
Taking a different approach, Common paid homage to his ex-girlfriend, Serena Williams, in a romantic walk through their relationship. Although the song doesn’t exactly focus on her accomplishments, such as having the most Grand Slam singles titles in the Open Era, it does illustrate just how influential she is as an athlete. In addition to causing a supposed beef between Common and Drake, the song opens with the rhyme that Common “never played a game but [he] heard about them sisters.” Even if you aren’t the least bit familiar with tennis, you know the names, Venus and Serena Williams.
In a beautiful tribute to powerful Black women throughout history, Rapsody’s album, Eve, pays homage to a different individual with each song. While including some of the women already mentioned, she also has songs titled after Michelle Obama, Whoopi Goldberg, Sojourner Truth, and Afeni Shakur. In the album, she uses the names that have become synonymous with freedom, strength, and bravery in contrast with the names of prominent rappers to show that it’s her womanhood and the way that she channels it that puts her at the top with the men. Her gender doesn’t compromise her lyricism, and if anything, the inspiration she draws from these women gives her a fire to tackle any of life’s obstacles, no matter what they may be. She describes how these very women were treated, objectified, and abused, emphasizing that it’s torture that men don’t typically endure, and even then, they accomplished so much. Songs like “Aaliyah” act as a tribute to the incredible women who passed too soon, whereas others like “Oprah” inspire the subject-matter, demonstrating her ability to get her money while still holding on to the compassion that urges her to help others in need. Songs like “Iman” and “Tyra” reference models throughout America’s entertainment that explored the beauty of diversity and taught Black women that they are all beautiful, even when society tries to say otherwise. It takes you on the journey of the different complexions and features that Black women have, each deeply rooted in a culture so vivid and vibrant. This album is a dichotomy of triumphs and tribulations; it tells of the terrors and struggles that Black women have endured, and then names the women who have overcome them throughout history, and sets the precedent that others can do so as well.
To sum up this post, I want to give a shout-out to Common’s “The Day Women Took Over.” In the song, he hypothetically poses the idea of putting influential women like Michelle Obama, Oprah, and Rosa Parks on US currency. He mentions Liz Dozier, a former Chicago school principal and founder of Chicago Beyond, an organization pushing for improvements within the community, especially for the youth. He refers to Beyonce’s “Drunk In Love,” which is extremely relevant now as she just made Grammys history and fueled women empowerment with her soundtrack for the cause. He mentions the beautiful way in which Maya Angelou uplifted young women everywhere through influential poetry. He even mentions how Mother Nature comforts us with her natural beauty and maternal instincts, rooting our world in divine feminity. He dreams up a place in which we display statues and monuments of Fannie Lou Hamer and Harriet Tubman, who devoted their lives to ensuring freedom and equality. He colligates all of these unbelievably incredible women with the trivial issues that we face daily; ones rooted in inequality. Issues that are as incredulous as unequal pay between women and men, and others far scarier, such as having our bodies policed with concerns that should only involve ourselves, like our menstrual cycle. He shows that even as women have had to endure all of these problems, they have still successfully accomplished all of these things, and still haven’t received the proper recognition.
Throughout history, women have been coined as caretakers: nurturing, and motherly. While we are intuned with our emotions, it only works with our strength to make us that much more astounding. When taking into consideration the expectations society has set for women, these accomplishments only feel that much more revolutionary. We were expected to be mothers, so we did that and more. We were to be complacent and obedient, so we fought back with polite smiles and sharp tongues. We continued to rise above the occasion. To see the adversity that we face now, in 2021, only makes the times these historic women faced feel that much more daunting. Women are versatile beings; we can be sweet and compassionate. But we can also be fiercely loyal, dedicated, and protective. However, for years, that versatility was to be suppressed. And thank goodness we never listened. We take care of our own, while continuously dreaming of ways to improve the world that we live in. We are mothers, we are fighters, we are lovers. We come in all shapes and sizes, and we will continue to take pride in that no matter what is deemed acceptable. This post is dedicated to the incredible women in my life; my best friends who support me no matter what kind of mood I’m in. My mother, who has been the epitome of strength and fearlessness. The women whose minds are overshadowed and downplayed by their appearances. The girls who have endured life-changing traumas, but who continue to push through for everyone around them. I am so very thankful that I’m in such an amazing company.