Is the world of rap finally entering the twenty-first century?

With Nicki Minaj, Azealia Banks, Angel Haze and the recent emergence of “queer rap”, we could finally be seeing some progress in a musical genre that's long been dominated by straight men and macho self-aggrandisement.

Singer-songwriter and former Everything But The Girl frontwoman, Tracey Thorn, was recently asked in an interview whether her “not being an extremely hot girl” has held her back in her career. Long-running international music monthly Rolling Stone has just announced the winner of a contest called "Women Who Rock". American lifestyle magazine, Complex, last month ran a feature on the ten “hottest women” at a New York music festival, fitting in nicely with other articles they’ve published this year, including "Ten Sexy Indie Artists You Should Know" and "The 15 Hottest Frontwomen In Rock History".

These are all examples of the sexism female artists face in the music industry, and they’re all from media that covers genres where women have long been successful. So what about a style of music where women are, historically, less likely to make a go of things, such as hip-hop?

Hip-hop has long been known for its negative attitude towards women, its commodification of them, and its view of females as being useful for little more than sex. The average rap video will tell you that, with its legion of semi-naked, booty-shaking dancers. This is a culture where behemoths Jay-Z and Kanye West have both come under fire for their use of the term “bitch” in their lyrics, yet have decided to continue to use it. The closest West came to a one-eighty was when he tweeted: “Is it acceptable for a man to call a woman a bitch even if it’s endearing?” which brings into question Kanye’s understanding of “endearing”. We’re talking about a genre where the opening line to one of its best-known and much-loved songs reads: “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks”.

All these negative stereotypes in a world of macho self-aggrandisement makes the recent success of a breakthrough band of female MCs, or "femcees", all the more heartening. Nicki Minaj is now a household name, but hot on her heels are Azealia Banks, Angel Haze, Iggy Azalea, Kreayshawn and more.

What all these rappers have in common is that they’re defiantly solo artists and are unaffiliated to a wider group or crew. Perhaps as a result of this, the music press have been keen to play up any potential rivalries, with a brief Twitter spat between Azealia Banks and Kreayshawn generating far more column inches than it should have done.

But in a man’s world, are these women able to succeed on their own terms? Minaj has sold over a million copies of both her studio albums thus far and has been vocal in speaking out against the sexism she’s faced. Yet her most recent LP, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, contains a track called "Stupid Hoe" and a duet with Chris Brown, notorious for his assault on then-girlfriend Rihanna. Critics’ darling Azealia Banks has showcased her frenetic and explicit lyrics, most notably on the song that propelled her to fame, "212", and often refers to herself as a “bad bitch”.

Banks has challenged the status quo and critics alike with her openness about her sexuality and those lyrics. Despite this seemingly anti-commercial stance, she’s received frequent radio play and has been extremely successful in 2012, so much so that she’s likely to be found on a magazine cover near you. This may have contributed to the fact that her debut album, Broke With Expensive Taste, originally due to be released in August of this year, has been put back to February 2013. Banks’ confrontational, no-holds-barred approach have given her a huge following and made her arguably the most famous female rapper behind Nicki Minaj.

Perhaps more interesting though is Angel Haze. The Michigan MC was largely unknown before the release of her debut single, New York, but had soon sold out her show at the Hoxton Bar & Grill. What’s particularly striking about Haze is her range of lyrical themes, most clearly evidenced on her mixtape, Classick, which she put online in October. She’s about as far away from the hip-hop video dancing female stereotype as it’s possible to be, as she takes on matters of confidence and self-image, and contemplates the effects domestic violence have on the wider family. Classick also features a cover of Eminem’s confessional Cleaning Out My Closet, with the lyrics rewritten into a jaw-dropping autobiographical account of childhood abuse. While it may not be a comfortable listen, it handles a near-impossible subject to cover in an unflinchingly honest but mature way.

Of the rest, Kreayshawn has followed online hit, "Gucci Gucci" (over 39 million YouTube views at the time of writing), with an underperforming album, and Iggy Azealia is expected to sign with a major label before her debut full-length LP comes out next year.

All this seems a far cry from the time when to hear of a female rapper was genuinely rare, with Missy Elliott being the main exception to that rule. Whether the new breed of MCs trade in raw, gritty rhymes or conform to a more mainstream view of what a woman in rap “should” be, their very presence can only be a positive thing. Add to this the recent emergence of a strain of hip-hop made my predominantly gay males, known as “queer rap”, and it seems the world of rap may finally be ready to enter the twenty-first century.

Nicki Minaj is now a household name. Photograph: Getty Images
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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.