A new book looks at the women who shaped hip-hop, despite facing ‘misogynoir’

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By Dan Sears

At a time when women rappers are more visible than ever at award shows, on songs and on the Billboard music charts – with superstars like Doja Cat, Sexyy Red and Ice Spice having a moment – writer Nadirah Simmons says it’s important to remember who paved the way.

Her new book “First Things First: Hip-Hop Ladies Who Changed The Game,” which hits stores on Tuesday, aims to do that. It’s an overview of women’s accomplishments in hip-hop and features stories about artists such as Lil’ Kim, Nicki Minaj and Lauryn Hill.

Simmons, 29, said women have been overlooked in the industry for decades and have often been reduced to their sexuality.

She founded the online platform “The Gumbo” in 2018 to celebrate women hip-hop artists, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes, and said her new book is an extension of that work.

“When it comes to women who look like me and even the women who were part of creating this culture, you run the risk of not having your story told,” she said. “I want to have a place for Black women to tell these stories about other Black women in hip-hop.”

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Gothamist caught up with Simmons to talk about the book and the challenges women in hip-hop face. The conversation has been edited.

Why did you focus on women in your book “First Things First?”

I am a Black woman in America and there are things about myself that I don’t even know because I’m not able to research. And I don’t have the paperwork or the archive.

I want people to know that this culture, with all that comes with it, is very beautiful. And the women who have created within the space are awesome, very cool, amazing, funny, fun and talented. And I want that to be at the forefront.

You mentioned how misogyny, sexism and ageism have played a role in hip-hop. How do they manifest?

It manifests in lack of opportunities, lack of access, seeing women being shut out from certain spaces.

Even the way people talk about specific women and the way they dig at them. There are so many stark examples. It’s not far from what the average woman, especially Black women, in America is experiencing.

I remember when Latto mentioned trying to get a verse for one of her songs and a dude DM’d her and basically tried to proposition her for the verse.

We’ve seen so many different things over the years, in relation to the #MeToo movement, where we know that that is the reality for so many people across so many industries.

What are challenges women in hip-hop face as they build their careers?

When I talked to the founders of Honey magazine it took them a while to get that off the ground just to get the magazine to print and to get people to believe in it.

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I remember early with the Gumbo, people were like, “You sure you want to just focus on one group? Are you sure you don’t want to include men?” And I’m like, “Yeah! I feel like there’s a void and I can’t be the only one that feels like there is a void.”

Have women had the same longevity as men when it comes to sustaining a career as a rapper?

Women aren’t afforded the same career trajectory as men. If you’re able to break through in a way that allows you to exist for a long time you’re one in a million.

Nicki [Minaj] just released her fifth album, which is amazing to be able to go for that long.

There are a lot of things that have to do with that. Again, back to all of those “isms” I just named.

Do people want to put money into this woman? Or do they want to let them do their thing for one or two albums, make a buck, and then try to make the younger version of them so they can run it up again?

So no, women aren’t afforded the same thing. And I think you’ll even see sometimes women go into different things like acting.

It takes a lot of work on the label end to make sure people are getting the money and the support to continue to put out albums. And for women that’s just going to be a little bit harder, unfortunately, because of the “isms” we’ve got to work within.

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What’s an example of a label failing a woman rapper?

When Foxy Brown was working on an album she went deaf.

The support that she found in the community that she had and the people who were there for her — I wonder what that would have looked like if she were a man. What would the rallying have been like?

Hip-hop has become this big commercial entity. And if these people at the top are only focused on making money, sometimes it doesn’t even matter who you are. They’re like “Get me the next version of this. Who is the next youngin that can come in?”

And then when you couple that with sexism and misogyny and misogynoir, it’s like, “Alright! We gotta keep it moving. We don’t have time for this.”

What do you want readers’ relationship to hip-hop to look like after they’ve read “First Things First?”

I hope not only do they leave with more knowledge and more information, but I hope that they leave with the desire to learn more and to teach someone else something.

On social media people just share an album on an anniversary and get the retweets and get the engagement and then log off.

But there’s so much context and history that gets left out. And I just want people to feel inspired to share histories of whatever it is they’re interested in.

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