Where Are the Female Rappers?
“Where are the female rappers?” is a question Google surprisingly didn’t antiquate. That query invites men who are eager to say women don’t have the talent or appeal because they whine about “girly” things. This mansplaining comes from Christian men, yet none are telling the truth.
Misogyny in Christian Hip Hop looks a lot like verbal abuse, wage disparity, and closed doors with “sis” and misused scriptures peppered in. Stephen Wiley and fellow Christian Hip Hop progenitor Michael Peace set that foundation. Women were deemed as sexual beings “ready to attack the nearest male” in Wiley’s 1990 “Attitude”. When women were mentioned in a positive light, they were presented as an idyllic Proverbs 31 woman who never challenged gender norms (Peace’s 1988 She’s A Christian Girl!”).
This is the hostile environment women placed themselves in, yet somehow managed to thrive. Now, Jackie Hill Perry is a signed Humble Beast artist, despite women rarely signed to Christian labels out of fear they will seduce men on tours. Instead of waiting for an invite to the table, women have started their own tours and grant programs. Artists like Natalie Lauren work with mainstream artists and dynamic rappers Zane One and Elsie of the Tunnel Rats are often named to prove that women are not only skilled, but can rap circles around men. Those cultural shifts required grueling work from forgotten women. Lady J, MC Ge Gee, and Alisha Tyler are just a few of the women who were re-written out of the genre’s history. This is their story.
“It didn’t make that much of a difference for me because the churches who didn’t like me didn’t invite me anyway.” Lady J has a determined, strong rasp that sounds like she was speaking from her diaphragm since the day she was born. Lady J fell in love with Hip Hop the moment she heard Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” in 1982, then fell in love with God when she wrote her first rhymes three years later. 1985 was the same year Stephen Wiley released the first Christian Hip Hop single, but Lady J had no record contract or music mentors.
“It was all self-taught. It was all self-done. I didn’t get into a professional studio until 1993.”
Lady J’s resources were nothing other than an old drum machine and a Yamaha keyboard. Word of mouth and homemade cassettes led to performances in parks and small churches across the midwest. “I would get on the stage, and here comes the beat, and here comes me rapping and all around the park you would see kids running to come up to the stage. I’m having them chant and raise their hands, I’m jumping off the stage and walking through the audience if my cord is long enough. I’m doing everything I can to engage them so the kids were instantly attracted. And then you would have the grandparents and auntie level. And they’re dancing, and they’re happy because their kids are happy.”
There were few Christian spaces where women could speak outside of being a Sunday school teacher, a missionary, or an evangelist, and that still exists today. Lady J’s rapping was a revolutionary act that attracted fans of Run-D.M.C. and Mahalia Jackson alike, but she was forced to present a cookie cutter message. “When I came out, if you didn’t have the name of Jesus in your rap, you wasn’t doing stuff right,” says Lady J. Your community, travel expenses, and concert fee were tethered to how much you pleased church leaders who were predominantly men. Fear of losing acceptance and being associated with “demonic” Hip Hop fueled much of the fervor behind preachy rap.
For many women like Genie ‘MC Ge Gee’ Rodriguez Lopez, they had no room to express their experiences because their careers were chosen for them. Genie became the first female Christian rapper signed to a label in 1990 and didn’t even want to.
“I was in the studio with [D-Boy] and some record executive came through and they’re like, man, we really need a girl to do this. I’m like do not look at me, Danny’s the rapper, I just drum songs for him, and he’s like come on, you can do this, we’ll tour together.”
At the time, Genie’s brother Danny ‘D-Boy’ Rodriguez was considered the chosen one of Christian Rap. He had an energetic flow, respectable beats, and was a street minister in some of Dallas’ most dangerous neighborhoods. Hip Hop became just another way for D-Boy to protect and nurture his sister who already had gifts in poetry.
“He wrote all my raps. It was about just spending time with my brother. He literally walked me through the ABC’s of rap. Like, ‘I want you to do the alphabet with attitude,’ and I’m like, ‘What?’ He put A-Z on top of a piece of paper. And had me go through and pronounce words with attitude.”
Genie discovered that her New York accent from her family’s Bronx years came out with each emphatically pronounced word. Under D-Boy’s mentoring, Genie grew in confidence with the 1990 release of I’m For Real on the Christian label, Frontline Records. “I walked around a little bit cocky. If you’re going to talk to me you have to talk to D.” That brashness just didn’t translate into being a feminist.
“It was hard to be offended by [misogyny] because I didn’t know who I was. I had no identity. When you become more full of Christ, things will stand out to you,” says Genie. “A lot of times I felt like a marionette, just put on a string. Nobody really asked anything about me. Who are you? How do you feel about this? It wasn’t until later that I addressed these things. I wrote about a girl who had problems with parents who had alcohol and drug issues and guess what, that girl was me.”
To the outside world, Genie was a preacher’s kid (PK) raised by two evangelists who started inner city and sex trafficking ministries with the help of Teen Challenge founder David Wilkerson. But for Genie, she was the child of two former heroin addicts who met in rehab. “Nobody taught them how to make a family, just to make converts.” There was very little space in the early 90’s to be anything other than a happy PK, but when the music cut off, that’s when Genie’s true ministry began.
“It was hard to be offended by [misogyny] because I didn’t know who I was. I had no identity.”
“There were a few tracks here and there that weren’t terrible, but if people met me in person or see me do other stuff, they might go, okay, she knows how to do something,” says Genie with a humble laugh. Much of Genie’s two albums were cheesy pop rap full of Christian braggadocio. Her onstage transparency offered the authenticity that her albums didn’t have. “Kids would look and say, ‘But is [God] real?’ And I would say, ‘Am I standing here talking to you? Because personally right now I want to be dead.’ This was a week after we buried Danny that I’m doing concerts.”
D-Boy died in 1991, after being shot in his car. He had the consciousness to drive towards a nearby hospital, but passed out shortly before his car flipped over. Emergency professionals thought he was a drunk driver until they noticed blood gush out of a bullet hole in his chest. With no identification, his family was unaware of D-Boy’s post surgery death for fourteen hours.
The news sent Genie into a mind state her studio engineers could not pull her out of. Recording was difficult since she stayed by the phone waiting for D-Boy’s call and woke up at the time of his 4:30 am death everyday wracked with guilt that she couldn’t save her brother and best friend. “Grief is surreal. It is a parallel reality. Your feet are in this world and your mind and body are floating somewhere else.”
D-Boy died at the hand of an unknown killer after barely entering his 20’s. Police considered a failed carjacking as a possible motive, but an enduring theory exists that D-Boy was martyred for getting kids out of gangs. People who believe this theory overlook a precious fact: gang members were so heartbroken that they sought to kill the murderer themselves.
Genie’s voice glows when she remembers her older brother. This was the guy who took her homecoming and prom photos like a proud dad. D-Boy had a way of making the ugly things beautiful. And with D-Boy gone, no longer offering both his protection and approval, Genie saw how women rappers were really treated.
“I would show up and they would be like yeah, if it was D-Boy we were going to pay him $1500. Sorry. After they agreed with my brother’s management that they were going to pay me what he was going to get. I took care of myself getting there or a DJ there and they would hand me a burger and $50 dollars. Or not even food. I remember landing in California and I had to call my mom for money to eat because they had warm milk and old pizza out.” At the time, Genie was 90 pounds and hardly eating out of grief. She had to muster all of her strength to carry her depressed mother to the shower.
Genie thought getting out of the house would lift her spirits, but the sexism she faced made her feel worse. “I got ridiculous questions. What are you going to wear? If you wear a skirt will you wear pants underneath the skirt?” When Genie’s clothes weren’t policed, she was relegated to perform in smaller venues. “Someone told me that if it was Danny he would perform in the inner sanctuary, but now it’s going to be me so we need to set something up outside because women can’t take that platform. And at that church, I remember the pastor apologizing to me after because kids got saved.”
Out of wanting to continue her brother’s legacy, Genie wrote her second album. But she recorded many filler songs to get out of her contract with Frontline. The desire to rap died with D-Boy.
To this day, D-Boy is honored as the first martyr of Christian Hip Hop. Genie received promises from many of his peers that they would be her big brother. “Danny died in October and that November was a cold, sleeting November. My parents were falling to pieces. I ran out of the house in shorts, no socks, no shoes, and I called from a pay phone. And said, ‘It’s bad at my house right now.’ They said ‘Where are you?’ I said ‘I’m at this grocery store’s pay phone.’ They said, ‘Can you give us the number because we’re heading out to church but we’ll give you a call back.’ I was left in that state, not just once, not just twice, but many, many times, and now there’s girls that I mentor and everyone of them say, how did you know to come to find me. All I do is say what didn’t I have?”
“There was an attitude that rap is a man’s game…I think we were regarded as novelties,”
Making something out of nothing is what makes women so powerful. Several years after Genie left Christian Hip Hop, women were building an infrastructure for the genre that rejected them. In the mid-90’s Lady J started her own distribution network as a remedy for poorly stocked Christian bookstores. In 1996, Lady J accomplished another landmark in making Who’s Who of Christian Hip Hop Resource Directory. “The first edition I did had over 200 Christian rap artists, mind you this was really 10 years after gospel rap got started. The genre started to explode and solidify in a short period of time.”
Much of Lady’s J’s accomplishments are forgotten history. The internet era made her resource directory obsolete. The proliferation of online stores and message boards elevated male rappers, and left already marginalized women behind.
“There was an attitude that rap is a man’s game…I think we were regarded as novelties,” says Lady J. “We’ll just bring you to speak to our girls. You’re only relevant as a rapper if you say something relevant to the girls rather than accept that we can have a ministry that can bless the whole entire body.”
Lady J then breaks down the biblical misperception that is at the heart of Christian misogyny. “It appears to say that women should not have authority over men, women should not teach and be silent and sit down somewhere,” Lady J says while giving a hearty laugh. “What it really says in the Hebrew and the Greek is if a woman wants to teach, first she must learn and study. But you have to dig into the original language to find that, and that’s for all genders.” Lady J picks up steam with each word, exposing her simmering frustration. “As soon as it says wives should submit to their husbands, the very next verse is submit to each other in love. It’s not she should basically sit at home and expect her husband to do everything and teach her and she doesn’t have any authority in life. The Bible is the most feminist document we could ever read because in the Old Testament days women were property.”
That theological shift made Lady J question other areas of her life. “I went through a personal life change about what does it mean to be a Christian. I went through some wounding by church people. Not wounding by Christ, but wounding by church people. I struggled with why am I limiting my music to only talking about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus when there’s so many other topics in life that of interest to me.”
Alisha Tyler of the husband and wife duo A-1 Swift seemed poised to go beyond “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” and address women’s issues. Her husband Chris taught her how to rap, but by the late 90’s, she regularly performed with gospel’s biggest stars. Opportunities abounded for Alisha. Unlike Genie and Lady J, Alisha had paid flights to perform in main sanctuaries and secular stages. But while Kirk Franklin could wear a tight, low buttoned shirt showing off his man cleavage, Alisha had to wear baggy jackets in the same “You’re The Only One” remix video.
“In every video and every performance that I did, I was covered up from the neck to the wrist to the toe. My record company, I always heard the same thing. We got to tone down her sexy.” Alisha, with her large brown eyes, glowing brown skin, and long curled hair, looked like a 90’s R&B star on Bad Boy. “God made me that way. How do you tone down a person’s look?”
When Alisha wore a loose fitting leather outfit on Kirk Franklin’s David Letterman appearance, the criticism got out of control. “I had people tell me I shouldn’t look men in the eye when I talk to them because if you look at a man in the eye he’s going to think something is sexual or that you want him. How do you not look at a man in the eyes when you’re dealing and you’re working in a male driven industry?”
There was an endless list of responsibilities that were beyond Alisha’s control. She had to affirm her husband’s ego as her solo career was soaring, cover every part of her body as if she could control the sexual desires of men, and be a role model for both her female fans and her children.
Alisha wanted to create an uplifting anthem for women but found out she could only speak the way her label wanted her to. “I wrote a song called ‘I’m Not Your Hoe.’ I was really going there. The song was biblically based and was about respecting me as a godly woman and not calling me out my name. There was so much constant conflict,” says Alisha. “Gospocentric was more concerned about not being offensive to traditional gospel radio stations because that’s where they tried to market. And I understand that but it got to the point where I felt creatively confined.”
Alisha may not have had rapid fire lyrics or access to the best production, but her solo features had a melodic g-funk flow smooth enough to be crossover ready. Despite her potential, Alisha experienced one last straw after the other when she abandoned her solo album and exited the music industry in 2000. “It was not one single thing. I was going through things in my marriage because when I started doing solo things, the label wouldn’t pay for [Chris] to come,” says Alisha. “It was the beginning of the end of many things not even the gospel [career], but our marriage. It took a toll.”
The gospel industry in the late 90’s was just not ready for an attractive woman rapping “I’m Not Your Hoe.” Alisha spent countless hours away from her family only to be censored at every turn. But this is the artist who received thousands of letters from girls and toured the world. “You live and you learn. I don’t regret one single moment of it. Not one.”
In the 2000’s, the firsts of Lady J, MC Ge Gee, and Alisha Tyler were largely unknown. They were considered novelties with laughable rhymes, yet few pondered what they overcame just to grip the mic. As mainstream stars like Missy Elliot reclaim their legacy, more unknown pioneers should reclaim their own.
Imade Nibokun is a writer exploring music, race, gender dynamics, and mental health. After a childhood steeped in Christian Hip Hop, she’s gone on to cover musicians in publications like LA Weekly and WNYC. Follow her on Twitter at @imadeintruth.