Rapsody Fearlessly Tackles Gender and Colorism in Hip-Hop
Hip-hop has entered another progressive renaissance.
Look no further than the Best Hip-Hop Album category at the 2018 GRAMMY Awards®, where a record interwoven with queer themes (Tyler, The Creator’s Flower Boy) stood alongside an album about infidelity (JAY-Z’s 4:44), with Rapsody’s seminal Laila’s Wisdom, a tenderly made tapestry of the experience of being a Black woman in America, wedged in between.
As hip-hop grows more inclusive and multi-dimensional, we still have to confront the problematic facets of the culture. To that end, we spoke with Rapsody, whose music has taken the uneven treatment of men and women in the industry to task. On Laila’s Wisdom, “Black and Ugly” unpacks the insidious nature of colorism, and the ways in which her present success is the only way society seems to accept her appearance.
Even so, Rap contends this issue is bigger than music.
“I don’t think it’s any different in any industry to be honest,” Rapsody explains over the phone. “How women are somewhat devalued, not put in the same boxes or held to the same skill level. In the music business, from what I have seen, is really no different. We have to fight a little bit harder to prove our worth, to prove we’re talented enough, to prove we can coexist together, to prove that there can be more than one.”
Rapsody notes that there is a concerted effort to typify women in music, having them either be sexy and forcibly dumbed down or super lyrical, but presented as almost asexual. These tropes are derivative and steeped in a long history of white supremacist thought but Rapsody is optimistic that women are fighting against these reductive images with an inspiring zeal.
“We come in all shapes, different sizes, all styles and flavors, and that’s what it is,” she says proudly. “You can’t box us into cookie-cutter versions of what you want to sell to the mainstream or what you think women are supposed to be. That just takes us sticking to our guns and saying, ‘No! I’m gonna do my own thing.’ That’s what I’ve done, just tryna keep the blinders on and not look left and right. This is what I stand for and this is what I do, and I’m not gonna compromise who I am to fit someone’s agenda.”
Rapsody has kept her blinders up since day one, and with the support and mentorship of legendary producer 9th Wonder and esteemed engineer Young Guru, she continues to feel empowered to forge her own way even as the industry is gunning to shuffle her down a different path.
“One of the first things both 9th and Young Guru told me: ‘Define a line. Say what you won’t do. You don’t have to be this,’” she recalls. “I was never going to compromise who I was as a person or my artistic integrity.”
There was no singular moment for Rapsody wherein she felt slighted because of her complexion or gender. Colorism and sexism play out in a series of small and needling micro-aggressions but Rapsody has an unwavering resolve.
“I can sit and mope and complain about it, or I can create my own path,” she says. “You don’t have to take the road that’s been taken. You can knock a tree down and create your own path. It might be harder, it might be longer, but it’s our path and maybe it’s a path that we can create for others to follow, too.”
In creating her own path, Rapsody has been able to inspire young women from around the globe. In turn, those same women inspire her to keep pushing forward. “There would be moments where I would go to South Africa and a little girl would be like, ‘I wanna be like you,’” she fondly remembers. “Those things really make me hold on. You can’t quit, not only for yourself, but for the people, for the girls and the women you’re trying to inspire and represent for, and show them that you can do this and be yourself, coming in all different styles, shapes, colors and attitudes.”
In addition to the support she receives from 9th, Guru and her inner circle, Rapsody has also overcome the odds by leaning on the sisterhood she’s built within the industry. Women like Rah Digga, Karlie Hustle, Remy Ma, Cardi B and many others are now banding together and holding each other up in an industry that would rather pit them against each other. In working together, Rapsody contends that this is how we undo the one-woman-at-a-time mentality.
“I think things are changing, and it’s going in a positive direction because we have the support of other women,” she says. “In hip-hop especially, we’re starting to support each other more and work together more and champion ourselves.”
Should men want to be effective allies — as 9th Wonder, Young Guru, and Kendrick Lamar have been to her over the past nine years — Rapsody believes they must educate one another. Alternatively, as was the case with Lamar, male artists can use their artistic platform to support their female colleagues and level the playing field.
Fans are also far from powerless in the fight to undo systemic inequalities in the industry. They have, as Rapsody says, the power of the “almighty dollar.”
“Support who you like and give everybody a chance,” she adds. “Especially if we’re talking about music and we’re talking about colorism and supporting women, let your dollars speak.”
The roots of the music industry’s brightest talents sprout from young artists with big dreams, making music in their bedrooms. To those young girls writing their first songs, worrying about fitting into a mainstream mold for women in music, Rapsody has a very clear message:
“You can’t let anyone else define your worth, your beauty, your talent. You have to believe in yourself, be patient with the process and take your time. Know that you’re not perfect, and that life is a learning process, and as long as you continue to grow and we all continue to grow, we’ll reach the heights and the God-given purposes that we’re supposed to have. I would tell her to keep going, and to not stress, and that she is enough.”
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