In honor of Women’s History Month, GRAMMY.com highlights some of the culture-shifting women who have changed the course of rap, spotlighting one artist who is moving the genre forward
Women have always been essential to rap and, today, they’re getting their deserved recognition more than ever before. Female rappers have continuously contributed to rap’s sound, fashion, commercial success not just compared to their male counterparts, but across the genre — increasing its global impact.
The lyrical prowess of early pioneers such as MC Sha-Rock and MC Lyte demanded respect in a male-dominated industry, while rappers such as Queen Latifah, Monie Love and Yo-Yo advanced conscious hip-hop and confronted misogyny. Salt-N-Pepa owned their sex appeal, while Lil’ Kim introduced a feminine perspective to a sex-positive narrative that had previously been controlled by men.
The current and future landscape of women in rap appears even brighter. Gone is the genre’s unwritten rule that only one female superstar can exist at a time, and women are thriving in new ready-to-be-conquered rap territory. In 2020, Nicki Minaj and Doja Cat’s “Say So (Remix)” topped the Billboard Hot 100, marking the first time a female rap collaboration led the chart. That same year, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” broke the record for the biggest debut steaming week in U.S. history. Today, more women rappers are finding success than ever before — from City Girls and Latto, to Saweetie and Flo Milli.
In honor of Women’s History Month, GRAMMY.com highlights some of the pioneering, culture-shifting women who have changed the course of rap and one promising up-and-comer who is at the forefront of the genre’s future.
MC Lyte: The first GRAMMY-nominated female hip-hop artist and first woman to release a solo rap album
A 16-year-old MC Lyte broke onto the rap scene with the single, “I Cram To Understand U (Sam)” in 1987. The following year, she released her debut album, Lyte As A Rock, becoming the first female rapper to release a solo album.
Lyte’s first three albums spawned hits like “Cha Cha Cha,” “Paper Thin,” “10% Dis” and “Poor Georgie.” In 1993, the acclaimed anthem “Ruffneck” became Lyte’s third No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot Rap Singles chart and was certified gold, making her the first female rapper to achieve the feat. “Ruffneck” was also nominated for Best Rap Solo Performance at the 36th GRAMMY Awards in 1994, designating Lyte as the first-ever GRAMMY-nominated woman rapper.
MC Lyte’s conscientious records and classic hits drew critical acclaim and commercial success, making her an influence on female rap for generations to come. A true pioneer, she was honored with the I Am Hip Hop Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2013 BET Hip Hop Awards.
Sylvia Robinson: Sugar Hill Records founder and “Mother of Hip-Hop”
Rightfully nicknamed the “Mother of Hip Hop,” Sylvia Robinson helped push rap into the public music arena. Robinson started out as a chart-topping R&B singer, releasing “Love Is Strange” in 1956 with her duo, Mickey & Sylvia. After a solo singing and songwriting career, Robinson founded Sugar Hill Records in the 1970s. With the label, she assembled Harlem rap trio the Sugarhill Gang and produced their 1979 hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” which went on to be the first rap single to break the Billboard Hot 100 Top 40.Besides having a hand in one of hip-hop’s first hits, Robinson was also instrumental in one of the genre’s most impactful records. In 1982, she co-produced “The Message” for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The track broke ground lyrically — detailing the gritty realities of growing up in poverty — and creatively, as it was the first rap song where the DJ was not involved in its creation, setting the stage for MCs to become the stars of hip-hop. In an interview, Grandmaster Flash conceded that without Robinson’s insistence and direction, “The Message” would never have been created.
Lil’ Kim: The “Queen of Rap” who reinvented hip-hop fashion
Salt-N-Pepa introduced feminist sex appeal to hip-hop, but Lil’ Kim took it a step further. The Brooklyn native burst onto the rap scene in 1996 with her solo debut album Hard Core, quickly gaining attention with her raunchy lyrics and feminine style. Prior to Kim, rappers like Queen Latifah and MC Lyte had gained entry to the male-dominated hip-hop space with masculine swagger and fashion. Choosing instead to steal the spotlight with jaw-dropping and sexy styles, Kim created a new avenue for women rappers — owning their sexuality — which is still mimicked today.”[Lil’ Kim] was the first time for me that I saw that much sexiness in female hip-hop,” Trina, whose own explicit lyrics catapulted her to success in the late ’90s and early 2000s, recounted in “The Real Queens of Hip-Hop,” TV special. “She created and started that.” Kim also pushed the boundaries for female rap music success. Her debut album Hard Core debuted at No. 11 on the Billboard 200, the highest-ranking debut for a woman MC at the time. Kim was also the first female rapper to have three consecutive No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot Rap Tracks chart; her GRAMMY-winning collaboration with Christina Aguilera, P!nk and Mýa, “Lady Marmalade,” was the best-selling single of 2001.
Cardi B: Pushing female rap to new commercial heights
Cardi B’s commercial success ushered in a new era of mainstream domination and profitability for female rappers. Creating her own celebrity through social media and reality TV, the Bronx native made history with her 2018 debut album, Invasion of Privacy. The record was the best-selling female rap album of the 2010s and won Best Rap Album at the 61st GRAMMY Awards in 2019, making Cardi the first solo female rapper to win the award. Her breakout hit, 2017’s “Bodak Yellow,” also became the first diamond-certified single by a woman rapper. She’s since tacked on two other diamond records: Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You” and “I Like It” featuring Bad Bunny and J. Balvin.Cardi’s commercial success, brand partnerships and social media appeal helped break hip-hop’s one woman superstar at a time mold by proving female rap’s lucrative potential to the masses. As Cardi tweeted in 2019, “I didn’t say I pave[d] the way for female rappers, but I deff gave the hood and women hope. Nikkas wasn’t collabing with female rappers. Labels where [sic] signing female rappers and putting them in a shelf and not focusing on them, not giving them proper attention… How many female rappers before me where [sic] getting chances or getting pushed? They wasn’t believing and now they are!”
Tierra Whack: Rising rap artist leading the next generation
Tierra Whack continues to push the envelope with both her eclectic style and lyrics. At a time when sex-positive femcees rule the charts, Whack instead leads with creativity and quirkiness. Innovative and wildly eccentric music videos ( à la Missy Elliott) are an artistic staple for the 26-year-old, who earned her first GRAMMY nomination for Best Music Video with her 2017 “Mumbo Jumbo” visual.Whack first gained fame for her freestyling and battle rap skills in her native Philadelphia , but her 15-minute debut album, Whack World, skyrocketed her to viral acclaim. By blurring genre lines — most recently through her Rap?, Pop? and R&B? EPs —Whack is poised to remain at the forefront of hip-hop’s future and brings a fresh wave of variety and uniqueness to the female rap landscape.