‘Ladies First: A Story Of Women In Hip Hop’ Explained: Who Are Sha Rock & Roxanne Shante?


If you have even the remotest interest in hip-hop music, Ladies First documentary series is a must-watch. The four-episode documentary revolves around American rap culture and how women played not just a significant role but created a space for themselves in a male-dominated industry. The documentary is skillfully categorized, with each episode addressing issues pertaining to female MCs. The documentary features some of the biggest names in rap music—Roxanne Shante, Sha Rock, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, and Rah Digga, to name a few. Most hip-hop artists came from humble backgrounds, and the hustle culture was all that they knew. For many, rapping was a ticket out of the ghetto, and they did whatever they could to somehow make their voices heard. For women, the struggle was twofold: not only were they a part of a new movement that was not yet mainstream, but they were also not readily accepted by the men dominating the space. 

What Is The Documentary Series About? 

Sha Rock and Roxanne Shante are inspirational for most female rappers. Sha Rock started her journey in the 1970s, when the rap era was yet to begin. She is the first female MC that ever was, and her music career began with Funky 4+1. At the time, hip-hop was not celebrated, and none of the artists involved ever assumed that the industry would grow as big as it is currently. Women were not just taking up space on stage from the very beginning; they were also producing the music, and Sylvia Robinson is remembered for it. “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang had an everlasting impact on the listeners. It was the first taste of rap music for many listeners, and they could not get over it.

When it comes to paving the road for female hip-hop artists, Roxanne Shante is a name that is repeated over and over again. From living in public housing to hustling her way and participating in a rap battle for $50 that she borrowed from her mother and ultimately won, Lolita Shante, aka Roxanne Shante’s journey, was phenomenal. She was 14 when she began rapping, and she is one of the first hip-hop artists to create a diss track. It was a hard-hitting reply to the “Roxanne Roxanne” track created by UTFO. Needless to say, that was how Lolita came to be known as Roxanne overnight. Lolita became iconic not just because she was young and talented but also because she was fearless and dared to stand up and speak her mind. Even though Lolita was still a child, she was sexualized by KRS-One in their lyrics. It speaks volumes about the misogyny that existed within the community.

MC Lyte, one of the pioneering figures in hip-hop music, incorporated social issues into her lyrics. Lyte was the first solo artist to release her own album, Lyte as a Rock. Queen Latifa wanted her lyrics to address issues pertaining to the Black community, and she was inspired by MC Lyte. Latifa decided to go back to her roots and chose to dress in African clothing. She was all about celebrating Blackness, and her purpose had always been to inspire her audience. Gradually, more and more artists started to express their political opinions through music, thereby establishing the connection between hip-hop and politics.

What Hurdles Did Black Women Face In The Hip-Hop Industry?

During the early years of hip-hop, a female artist had to be signed by a male group, and that was how they could begin their musical career. The catch was that only one girl was selected to be a part of the team. The men were controlling the entire scene, and there was a lack of fair opportunities for female artists. Moreover, it was always assumed that the verses that the female artists were rapping were written by their male team members. Women artists had to repeatedly state that they were coming up with the lyrics to establish that they could be creative as well. The double standard that women faced is also addressed in Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip Hop.

The music videos of male artists, more often than not, objectified women. When it comes to expressing sexuality, Lil Kim and Foxy Brown paved the way for upcoming talents. Lil Kim immediately became a controversial figure as a result of her lyrics and her choice of clothing. Lil Kim and Foxy Brown were labeled as hypersexuals, and they were often invited to talk shows and insulted for the choices that they made. It was their battle against moral policing that today allowed Cardi B to release WAP. The song was controversial from the moment it was released, and many consider it to be a celebration of female sexuality. As long as the male artists were the ones controlling the narrative, expression was never a problem, but the moment Black women stepped in and explicitly stated their desires and owned their sexuality, it became concerning. Whether one hates or loves WAP, there is no denying that it is one of the most iconic moments in popular culture. Even when it comes to beauty standards, Black women in hip-hop had to struggle to allow MCs of every shape and shade to become a part of the industry. Overcoming the fascination of light-skinned Black women with the idolized figure was a huge task for many artists, and Lauren Hill is one such artist who helped redefine the beauty standard.

Ladies First documentary addresses the controversy around Dee Barnes and Dr. Dre. Dee Barnes was 19 when she started hosting “Pump It Up,” a hip-hop show, in 1989. But her life completely changed after she was physically assaulted at a nightclub by Dr. Dre. While most within the community remained silent, journalist Dream Hampton stood up for her. Dr. Dre’s life was not impacted at all, whereas Dee’s was reduced to that violent incident, and her career came to a halt.

Black women artists are often not paid fairly by record companies. They recognized the desperation of the artists to make it big, and the companies exploited them. Even after releasing one hit single after another, artists barely made any money out of it, and many went broke as a result. It was not just the music that Black women had to focus on; they also had to understand the business aspect of it. Chika mentions how she was handed a contract in which the record company stated that the sole beneficiary of her life insurance policy would be her manager, essentially implying that if she ever took any step against the company, they would probably get rid of her and even get money out of it.

How Are The New Age Artists Challenging The Status Quo?

Sisterhood has become important in the hip-hop circle. While women were always assumed to be competing with one another, new-age artists have started collaborating to a great extent. Black women in hip-hop are supporting each other, and telling stories that are important in their lives has become critical.

When it comes to the business aspect of the industry, Queen Latifah is the pioneer. She understood the business unlike anyone else. She did not agree to any dubious record deals and established her own management company when she was a teenager. Following the example of Queen Latifah, artists such as Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and Tierra Whack have expanded their businesses. New-age artists are also using social media as a platform to launch their careers. From Saweetie to Chika, they have all used social media to reach out to their audience. New-age artists are also aware of how predatory record companies are, and they prefer being independent to signing off on a dubious deal that would leave them broke. Female rappers have started taking a stand against the exploitative ways of record companies, and they are no longer afraid of them.

New-age artists are more open about their sexuality, and Chika is one such example. As a queer artist, she has been challenging heteronormativity from the get-go. Black queer artists are not shying away from expressing their identities any more. It is the contribution of Black female rappers who created the space to own and express sexuality that has helped new-age artists express themselves in an unhindered fashion. The fruit of the struggle are the authentic stories that Black female rappers are able to convey in their music that were previously unthinkable. Black women have successfully created a safe space for themselves where they can now think beyond the stereotype and put forward their ideas without any inhibition. As educational as it is, Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip Hop is a celebration of the history of Black women rappers, something that was long overdue.

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Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni has worked as a film researcher on a government-sponsored project and is currently employed as a film studies teacher at a private institute. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies. Film History and feminist reading of cinema are her areas of interest.

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