If I had to speculate on why female artists are excluded from hip hop, I would start with my training as a finance professor. When I analyze corporate models and what makes people put millions of dollars behind a commodity, the reality is that the group responsible for providing the funding must feel that the commodity can be sold. In the case of hip hop, the powers that be have yet to be convinced that female artists can sell as well as male artists, and that's what keeps the gate locked.
One of the most famous people in the hip-hop business, Sean "Puffy" Combs' story has become a blueprint for young people aspiring to be in the business. While attending Howard University, the Harlem native interned at Uptown Records and his tenacity helped him run an entire division there after a while. Once he got fired, he took his stable of talent with him to form Bad Boy Entertainment and became bigger and better than his former company ever could imagine being. From film ('Monster's Ball') to TV ('Making of the Band') to advertising (Chiroc Vodka, Burger King), Diddy's brand has become synonymous with effective brand marketing. Let's not forget the fact that he's a platinum-selling, Grammy Award winning recording artist/producer, too. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Business of Black Music
What we also know is that the corporate models are often incorrect. There was a time when gangsta rap as an industry couldn't be funded because no one believed that NWA would sell records. The group not only went on to sell millions of albums (after being funded in part by drug dealers), but they created a multi-billion dollar industry. Another educational example is the unwillingness of Hollywood to fund African American filmmakers, leaving the door wide open for Tyler Perry to step in and build a gold mine. When it comes to females in hip hop, the lack of vision of corporate America continues to be the avenue of lost opportunity.
Here are some thoughts about Nicki Minaj within the context of what she represents as a female in hip hop:
1) We know that sex sells, and female artists are being asked to sell it: Nicki Minaj, like Lil Kim, Trina and other artists who are able to find the light of day in this male-dominated industry, sells her sexuality as much as her lyrics. The need for her to subject herself to selling sex in order to stay potent is partly due to the hyper-masculine nature of the hip hop industry, where every other song is about big booties and poppin bottles at the club. If only we can get to the day where a woman can rap about something other than the creative things she can do with a Coke bottle, perhaps then, we might actually be making progress.
2) I don't necessarily like Lil Wayne, but I applaud him: As I listened to the song, "Roger That," where Lil Wayne and the entire "Young Money" clique were throwing their amazing rhymes on the airwaves, I was impressed. I noticed that they've done an outstanding job of branding Weezy, Drake, Nicki Minaj and other artists in their camp. Most of my business students at Syracuse couldn't have done a better job.
3) Women are constrained by the ugly turn the industry has taken: By only financing artists who make the same boring songs designed to push the limits of their sexism, the industry is shoving women further and further out of the industry. Listening to hip hop on the radio is almost like being in a porn shop, where every song goes deeper into what men will do to women when they get them naked, or finding even more degrading ways to describe a woman's body. Even the Grammy Award-winning group, Three Six Mafia, has a new song called "Azz and Tittiez," which is about as blatant as an untalented group can get. Any woman forced to enter an industry that has become so invested in female degradation is going to be expected to become something she may not want to be.
4) The artists aren't going to be the ones to change this industry: Sorry to tell you this, but your favorite rapper probably has almost no power. Corporate America signs the artists and decides whose records will get promoted. While this doesn't deny the artist's responsibility for their own lyrical content, it is a reminder that consumers must empower themselves to speak out against various forms of hip hop, and to also hold corporations accountable for the images they promote of the African American community. When gangsta rap started to sell less than in the past, companies started moving toward slightly more positive music, like that of Kanye West (who was once told that his style would never sell). One can only hope that supporting artists like Nicki Minaj might be an avenue toward opening the door for other female artists who don't have to wear a g-string to get a man's attention.
5) A black barbie? Are you kidding me? We can't study the impact of Nicki Minaj without noticing how well she has branded herself. Nicki has this odd and interesting "Black Barbie" persona that works quite well for her. Little girls all across America now want to be black Barbies, so I guess it comes with the territory. So when one factors in Minaj's over-the-top sexuality, the rumors of butt implants and the barbie doll imitation that she does on demand, you can see that someone spent a great deal of time creating this character. The problem for Nicki, however, is that when I listen to her lyrics, I only see brilliance 40% of the time. We have to wonder if Nicki Minaj is simply a fad. At the very least, if Nicki's celebrity is short-lived, there should be dozens of other female artists lined up behind her. Women deserve a place in hip hop.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the author of the new book, "Black American Money." To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.