Earlier this year, Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion took home Grammys for best rap performance and rap song as well as honors for best female hip-hop artist, best collaboration, and video of the year at the BET Awards. Atlanta rapper Latto’s single “B*tch From Da Souf” went platinum. Up-and-comer PAP Chanel, from Milledgeville, hasn’t even released her first album yet, but the video for her song with Future, “Gucci Bucket Hat,” has nearly 2 million views on YouTube.
This is, of course, not the first time that women have found commercial success in hip-hop. In the ’90s, Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and Lauryn Hill released genre-pushing music that put men on notice—but most of that energy was concentrated in the Northeast. Over time, OutKast, Ludacris, T.I., and Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz drew attention south, cementing their hometown of Atlanta as the capital of Southern hip-hop. Artists looking for a taste of 808s and ad-libs flocked to the city, but it would remain, for the most part, a boys club.
Today, the genre is seeing a new wave of women rise to the top—and Atlanta is the epicenter. In the last two years, most of the women who have been included on the coveted XXL Freshman list have either been from Atlanta or have called it home at some point, including Latto, Flo Milli, Rubi Rose, and Lakeyah. Even artists who aren’t from the South, such as Nicki Minaj, Saweetie, and Cardi B, are making hits here.
“Women have been a part of hip-hop from the beginning,” says Dr. Lakeyta Bonnette-Bailey, an associate professor at Georgia State University who researches hip-hop and politics. “This idea of women in hip-hop is not new. Their stories just haven’t been told.”
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Women are benefiting in part from changes to technology: The democratization of music, thanks to YouTube, SoundCloud, Instagram, and TikTok, has created a wider entryway to the industry, enabling new artists to reach audiences in a matter of seconds.
This shift started with the advent of social media, when Atlanta-based Crime Mob was in high school and releasing hip-hop classics such as “Knuck If You Buck.” Princess, one of the group’s two women, says they posted songs in chat rooms to promote skating-rink gigs.
“We were the first rap group to go platinum in ringtones,” Princess says. “When we did our second album, YouTube had started, and the label gave us camera phones and told us to talk to the fans.” The days of waiting for a DJ (often a man) to play your song were coming to an end.
Dr. Joycelyn Wilson, an assistant professor and anthropologist at Georgia Tech who researches hip-hop culture, points to Chika (Alabama) and Rapsody (North Carolina) as examples of this today: “Their songs aren’t in heavy rotation on Hot 107.9 like City Girls. But thanks to social media, streaming platforms, and just raw talent, these women continue to amass considerable success and endorsements.” Likes and follows are changing the way business is done. Latto has more than a million YouTube subscribers and four times that many monthly listeners on Spotify. Rubi Rose says she was signed to HITCO Entertainment in part because of her massive social-media following. Now, she’s leveraging that following on sites like OnlyFans, where she says she made $100,000 in two days last year.
“Women are so powerful in the world, and it’s allowing that hip-hop door to be opened even wider because we’re the buyers of music,” says rapper, entrepreneur, and Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta star Rasheeda. “We’re the ones making [the] cosmetic and clothing industries millions of dollars.”
In the past, women were most successful when they had the endorsement of a man, such as Gangsta Boo with Three 6 Mafia. But as women gain power and access, the need for a male cosign is disappearing. Today, “Cardi B doesn’t need Migos,” says Wilson. “The association is reciprocal.”
The industry still tries to force women to compete with one another. Just last year, Megan Thee Stallion wrote that people have tried to pit her against Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. Instead, more artists are rejecting manufactured drama and lifting each other up: Megan Thee Stallion’s remix for the quadruple-platinum “Savage” features Beyoncé, Yung Baby Tate’s viral hit “I Am” features Flo Milli, and the remix of Latto’s hit “B*tch From Da Souf” features Trina and Saweetie.
A cultural shift is happening behind the scenes, too: Women are stepping into positions of power as managers, producers, publicists, and executives. This year, Atlanta native Ethiopia Habtemariam, who got her start with LaFace Records, became the CEO of Motown Records. She is the third woman (and the second woman of color) to ever hold that title at a major label. Other women such as Dina Marto, Malita Rice, and Ebonie Ward run their own artist development and management firms here. As women advance, more still are gaining control over their careers and their art.
In Atlanta, Rasheeda burst onto the scene with the catchy hits “Touch Ya Toes” and “My Bubble Gum.” She recalls having to make a clean version (and a squeaky-clean version) of her records in order to get radio play. People wanted women to look sexy but not necessarily talk about sex. Now, women describing sexual pleasure is the norm—as is declaring agency over their bodies.
Bonnette-Bailey believes women in power are changing the industry culture. “When was deep in my music career, getting pregnant was a curse,” Rasheeda says. But when rapper Cardi B revealed her second pregnancy at the BET Awards this year, wearing a sheer and bejeweled black catsuit, no one questioned whether her career was over.
There’s finally room for more than one woman—and more than one type of woman— on the lineup. From the introspective rhymes of Kodie Shane to the soulful poetics of Yani Mo, these artists are creating music for generations of young women to see themselves and their experiences in the same way Missy Elliott and Da Brat made songs that still make us turn up the volume today.
“We’re in a world now where women’s voices are being elevated in a way that’s unprecedented,” says Wilson. And women are using their reach to drive the conversation forward.
“If hip-hop is being a voice for the marginalized, then women talk about submarginalized communities,” says Bonnette-Bailey. “As there are more women, we see an emphasis on a diversity of topics, such as domestic violence, resisting patriarchy, reproductive rights, and respectability politics.”
After the murder of George Floyd, Chika participated in Black Lives Matter protests, where police detained her. During the 2020 elections, Cardi B interviewed candidates and repeatedly pushed her millions of social-media followers to vote.
“Women are ruling the world and saying that we want to twerk and be bosses,” says Rasheeda.
New flavor in your ear: Read more stories about how women in Atlanta are changing the face of hip-hop
This article appears in our September 2021 issue.