Dance As Hard As A Man: how female Hip Hop dancers have had to man up to try to get a place in the hip-hop scene
Even if this recurrent subject has been poorly covered by the mainstream media over the past decades – and it’s not because women in the industry haven't been vocal about it - it's time to try and identify the broken parts of a Hip Hop system which allows it to rule out the importance of female Hip Hop dancers. A system that is based on competition, brotherhood, masculinity, and the erasure of female involvement in the blueprint of Hip Hop...and reinforced in many other structures in our society.
I was around 12 years old when I fell in love with Hip Hop. Hip Hop dance made sense to me. This was a free form of expression, a space where everything was allowed, a culture where I could actually recognize myself! But this story is about what really happened when I decided to get entangled with Hip Hop.
Like anybody else who got interested in this movement, I learned that Hip Hop culture was a combination of DJing, graffiti, B-boying/B-girling, and MCing. I was stunned by the dancers, but what really captivated my attention was the music. I understood Hip Hop through music. The rhythm, soul, harshness, and the unadulterated combination of words rapidly attracted me. I started to wonder: “How could these voices that have expressed so beautifully their anger, their reality, their despair, and their pride be part of a community?” Musically, for me, Hip Hop was calm. Hip Hop was also hard, sometimes joyful, sometimes heartbreaking, but an undeniable source of motivation.
Hip Hop represents a sanctuary where music - more especially rhythm and movement - eased my mind. What I felt connected to the most was the genuine and sensitive narration of an environment, the richness of imagery, and the poetry on show. I felt lucky to have glimpsed inside the mind of these artists and be granted this invisible fuel which let me enter a meditation mode and find a place where my inner self felt appeased. Hip Hop was music, music was Hip Hop and a life without music or movement quickly became impossible.
Yet as a young French girl from Paris, I could never fully understand the layers that represented this movement. I had to make my brain work quite a lot. The music I was listening to was in English, so I had to internally translate it and from there I started to get interested in deciphering the real meaning of the words and stories they were telling, singing, even shouting…but how could I even partially grasp the depth of narratives I was listening to whilst growing up in Paris? The Bronx and the history and stories of Afro-Americans were quite different from a French-born girl of African descent. But it didn’t stop me, I still felt I belonged in this community.
However, I didn’t have a clear perspective or information about women's representation in the movement, even if women were at the forefront of the movement as I grew up. I became more and more aware of the misogynistic lyrics and the hyper-sexualization of women which was to become common practice. This undermining and invisibility of female voices and perspectives were not being acknowledged.
When looking for the best rappers you won’t even find a trace of some of the best rappers in history. Female MCs.
According to Billboard (published December 11th, 2015), of the top 10 best rappers of the time, only one woman was listed, Lauryn Hill.
According to Complex (published February 3rd, 2021), of the best rapper alive every year (since 1979) only one woman made it to the list. Nicki Minaj in 2014.
I was astounded by what I was reading…how could the “Grandes Madames” of Hip Hop be disappeared like that?
According to a Google search, it seems that Hip Hop music was originally just made by men. Only Lauryn Hill and Nicki Minaj appeared again in the search.
“Oh! You have to put the gender into the mix to be able to find the best female rappers of all time”. May I remind you that the previous search I made was for best rappers, not best “male” rappers…
According to HHW’s (March 25th, 2021) Top 30 Greatest Female Rap Artists of All Time, the list is as follows:
1. Queen Latifah
2. Lil’ Kim
3. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott (who controlled the charts from the mid-’90s to the mid-aughts but some rap fans seem to forget her impact. Missy is one of the few artists to come out in 1995 who completely changed the idea of what a female rap artist “should” look and sound like. She focused on being as creative as she wanted to be visual whether she was in a trash bag or a rhinestone-studded denim suit.
4. Lauryn Hill
5. Nicki Minaj
7. Foxy Brown
8. Da Brat
9. Rah Digga
10. Remy Ma
11. MC Lyte
12. Salt N Pepa
13. Lady of Rage
14. Left Eye
16. Jean Grae
17. Cardi B
19. Megan Thee Stallion
21. Mia X
22. MC Sha-Rock
23. Gangsta Boo
25. Roxanne Shante
26. Ladybug Mecca
28. Young MA
29. Monie Love
30. 3D Natee
The recording industry is clearly not supporting and promoting as many female artists as their male counterparts; you can see how the new queens of the game have understood the rules of the game and the place that was given to them.
I can see clear parallels with the Hip Hop dance scene; how the best b-girls and female Hip Hop dancers have been hush-hushed but are still “recognised” without getting their rightful place or flowers that they deserve.
If you thought that the Google algorithm was biased for Hip Hop music, you won’t be surprised if you type “Hip Hop dancer” and find a random list of some great male dancers and female celebrities such as Beyonce, Ciara, and Paula Abdul. Some of these people are dancers but do not specialise in Hip Hop, except maybe Sofia Boutella, Mona Berntsen, and Lizzie Gough…
And if we want to be more specific and type the fatal words “Hip Hop female dancer” and you won’t even get a list, because apparently, they don’t exist. The next option is to click on Google Images to see if you can find them here…but the only thing you will find are random pictures of girls dressed in “Hip Hop clothes” all crop-tops and baggy or simply drawings of “girls” striking a pose or in power moves.
Let’s not forget the “best Hip Hop dancers” search…the same people from the first search are present in addition to Aaliyah, Missy Elliot, Young B., Laurieann Gibson, Chachi Gonzales… some of them are part of the current generation, so having at least this tiny island of representation is something but it’s clear that they are a drop in the ocean of the many talented female Hip Hop dancers out there.
All these facts are: checkable, painful, demeaning, and somehow embarrassing. But I digress.
What does it really mean, to man up? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to "man up" is to "demonstrate toughness or courage when faced with a difficult situation." Another phrase for it: suck it up, be a man? But what does it really mean to be a man in Hip Hop? It’s as if there is no diversity in this gender.
I think that starting with the basic idea that “we” as “women and men” should fit the mould endangered our own capacity to demonstrate our complexity and non-conformism.
Society always projects this idea that men should be certain things and women should be other things. As if the prerequisite for men was always to demonstrate strength and manliness, never showing any trace of sensitivity and vulnerability. Reality is that men are also beyond caring what people think about their masculinity.
Nowadays some of the recurring questions which are available online often open the discussion about men questioning their place, distancing themselves from the mould into which society pushes them to fit in.
A publication for the United Nations Development Programme TACKLING SOCIAL NORMS: a game-changer for gender inequalities says: “despite decades of progress closing the equality gap between men and women, close to 90 percent of men and women hold some sort of bias against women, providing new clues to the invisible barriers women face in achieving equality.”
“Gender disparities are a persistent form of inequality in every country. Despite remarkable progress in some areas, no country in the world—rich or poor—has achieved gender equality. All too often, women and girls are discriminated against in health, in education, at home, and in the labour market—with negative repercussions for their freedoms.”
Another interesting article from Gender Spectrum “Understanding Gender” speaks about the dimensions of gender.
The equation is quite simple, sex is either male or female (some US states and other countries offer a third option) based on the baby’s genitals. Sex is assigned = child’s gender = gender aligns with gender-related ideas + assumptions associated with their sex. And it goes deeper with “a person’s gender is the complex interrelationship between three dimensions: body, identity, and social gender”.
So, with all this information in the conversation is “to man up” even a good thing for “both” genders?
As Sara LaBoskey, a performer and student of Hip Hop dance for many years, wrote in her essay Getting Off: Portrayals of Masculinity in Hip Hop Dance in Film: "...hip hop dance has provided the arena for the expression and affirmation of masculinity. Built into this artistry are competition and domination, sexuality and libido, and hero worship."
The essay won a first-place award from the African-American Studies department at Duke and was later published in the Dance Research Journal.
As a 12 twelve-year-old what I really understood about Hip Hop as a dance, was that it was a way to express and free my own body without putting limits on my imagination. A sort of indescribable freedom happened when I danced.
Starting my baby steps in this new environment I shared space with my co-partners in crime, all these young women who were ready to eat the world and express themselves. Like in nearly all styles of dance we “again” were the majority. I don’t believe the best ones of us lacked power, precision or technique, but I had the feeling, we had to prove that we were as strong as our male counterparts.
I didn’t try or want to embrace my own femininity, I was concerned with showing how strong and masculine I could be. Not all of us chose this path, but remembering my many years of competition in France, being part of schools of Hip Hop or Hip Hop projects and companies in other countries, the main thing which stuck with me was that I had to show my strength.
I gradually understood the silent codes that I had to follow to find a place within Hip Hop dance.
I understood it was to do with showing fearlessness, you had to demonstrate that you could put on this armour which makes you seem invincible. I learned the masculine coolness and power needed to be able to enter the cypher. I understood through watching my teachers and male friends that showing femininity was ridiculed.
I assisted in many high-level Hip Hop competitions where male counterparts were battling against female dancers; both had strong technique, both were creative, but it happened so many times where male dancers would begin to mimic the female dancer’s traits, in an act of - well I can do what you can do.
These incredible women were demonstrating creativity, flawlessness, incredible technique, musicality, femininity and art but in too many “respected” worldwide competitions that I’ve watched or assisted they are never given the chance to be fully recognised.
Of course, I was still a woman, I didn’t want to lose myself but when I looked around, I could see how the best of the best were behaving, the way they sometimes were emulating men, and how the only things said about them was mainly about the fact they could do it as hard as men as if it was needed.
So, what really happened when I decided to get entangled with Hip Hop. The simple answer is that I fell into the cauldron containing the magic “Hip-Hop” potion, just like Obelix. It became part of me, part of my personality I learned the hard way that effort won’t always give you the results or a place in it. I did decide to leave it for a moment but never with the idea or intention to not come back to it. The real lesson learned is that hardship will always be on the way and you’ll have to surf into a complex sea that is not so far stretched from other seas.
Being active or not isn’t even important, even if of course I don’t dismiss the possibility of being active again, because I will always feel I belong to this world and I don’t think I’ll be over with it any time soon. I travelled to Seoul a few years ago and one of my friends - who’s a Hip-Hop dancer/MC - invited me to assist in several dance battles. I didn’t know anyone, but I still felt at ease. We all shared the same love for music, we felt it in our bodies and I kept having the indescribable feeling I always get when I’m part of it.
Is Hip Hop Dance masculine? According to a Google search, the top answer comes from... Jonathan Lee, a Hip Hop dancer and teacher who explains that in the past, Hip Hop dance was predominantly masculine because of its origins. “Hip-hop music's pioneers were men and the culture has been dominated by men.” (published June 1st, 2010).
I’ll be curious to know if his vision of Hip Hop dance has changed. 2021, has it changed?
They say representation matters…so how come when I look in the direction of the judges stand of Summer Dance Forever, Red Bull or Juste Debout competitions, I barely see female dancers for the Hip Hop categories… why is it so rare to see any of these talented Hip Hop dancers/B-girls reaching first position, let alone a quarter-final?
Not long ago I was taking a Hip Hop dance class in Berlin and the majority of the dancers were female dancers; we trained our technique for hours and I felt quite happy about it. We ended the class with a cypher which allowed us to challenge ourselves, try new things and I was left with a positive feeling until the end. But the atmosphere changed drastically when we all started to have an open conversation about how we felt. I recall one of the dancers in her 20s started crying because she had set herself the goal to become the best one and compete in Juste Debout, which in her mind was the ultimate goal but she suddenly came to the realisation that she will never make it. Silence took over and our faces were like open books. I remembered having a flashback about how I felt many years ago and while looking into each other eyes realising we had all shared a similar feeling…if the best ones of us were not “allowed” in the top-tier, how could we ever get there?
Thankfully we do have talented artists in the choreographic world, with amazing examples such as Bintou Dembélé. A dancer, choreographer and artistic director of her own dance company Rualité since 2002 recognized as one of the pioneering figures of Hip Hop dance in France. We also have B-girls and Hip Hop dancers Ana “Rokafella” Garcia aka Bgirl Rokafella, Judi 'JuLo' Lopez, Sunny, Pep-C, Snap1, Shortbread, Dora, Ayumi, Rawgina, L’Abeille, Angel, Logan "Logistx" Edra, Bgirl YELL, Babysleek Newtribe, Antoinette Gomis, Niki Awandee, Martha Nabwire, Dassy Lee, Marie Poppins, Marisa Ragazzo, Amari Monster, Mizzko, Theodora Guermonprez, Laura Nala, Julia Funkij, Delanotché Young Dee, Jaja Vankova and so many more…
Yet so many of them still don’t get the chance to be platformed, supported and offered opportunities.
It would be wrong to think that different actions haven’t been taken to empower this much-needed evolution. Wrong to not acknowledge the different approaches and steps that have already been initiated. For example, Ladies of Hip Hop (LOHH) - founded by Cindy Campbell one of the OGs of Hip Hop, the 1st Lady and Mother of Hip Hop provides artistic opportunities for girls & women in Hip-Hop culture and many organizations more.
Nevertheless, a real debate about changes should have taken place a long time ago with all the members of the community and real opportunities should be given to all the members of the community regardless of gender-biased sex selection.
Let’s not wait until the next generation must face the same struggles, let’s act now for this generation because I believe that if we don’t make changes, there will be a continuous exodus of women from the Hip Hop scene. I would also be immensely happy if the support shown by the community to the younger generation of girls transpose to them when they are older.
As for now, I long to see the day where we see commissioned articles with titles like “Meet Three Men Doing Their Thing in the Hip Hop Dance Scene” or “Celebrating Four Men Changing the Face of Hip Hop Dance.”
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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Godlive Lawani is a cultural promoter, distributor, manager, producer - freelance dancer/performer based in Berlin. Originally from Paris, France, where she graduated in Applied Foreign Languages (translation, interpretation, economics, and law) in the German and English languages. Later on, she graduated in Sound Engineering/Recording techniques in Germany and trained as a professional contemporary dancer in Spain.
She is the founder of Stane Performing Arts Management, a versatile arts management agency based in Berlin, Germany. Her speciality and mission are the management, international promotion, production, and distribution of Contemporary Performing Arts and Physical Theatre. Through her agency, she offers a distinctive artist representation for established and emerging dance companies she believes in and supports worldwide.