Coochie Conjure: Reflections on Women's Sexuality in Hip Hop
I was raised as a tomboy and growing up my father dressed me in men’s clothes. I wore the baggiest, most unflattering shit until I was 17 years old. At the time I kind of understood but it pissed me off nonetheless: because men might look at my figure I had to cover it up? Did my father understand what it meant to wear jeans in the dead heat of a new york city summer? He didn’t care and my relationship with my body started off badly. I was taught that I had to cover up because too much skin showing meant you were “fast” or “loose” or “easy”. I never felt the urge to dress scandalously but I remember feeling upset that I didn’t feel confident to even wear skirts or anything remotely feminine because my father had conditioned me to not even recognize my own figure in clothes that were made for my body.
Growing up in New York City in the 1990’s I was exposed to hip hop really young. I listened to Ed Lover and Friends in the mornings before school. I recorded mixtapes off Hot 97 during Angie Martinez’s afternoon show. Bad Boy made most of the music that powered my preteen life. Lil Kim released her debut album Hardcore in December of 1996. I was 12 years old, in the sixth grade and had no business listening to Hardcore but I got a copy of it on cassette tape. Lil Kim changed my damn life. She had a high femme aesthetic from day one. After seeing TLC, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and even Aaliyah in unisex/baggy clothes, the first time I watched the Crush On You video I was done. There was not one outfit in the video that didn’t show off Kim’s body. To top it off she had managed to make green hair look sexy. Green!
It was around the same time that my love affair with Lady Saw began and I was in a world of trouble. My parents, especially my father, would have been pissed if they knew I was listening to all this raunchy rap but I was hooked! Not only were Kim and Saw beautiful but they were powerful. They wore incredible outfits, colorful wigs, flashy jewelry. They rapped about a life of being catered to, having men at your disposal to wine you, dine you and give you expensive gifts. They spoke candidly about the type of sex they expected and they boasted of their sexual prowess in the bedroom. It was a stark contrast to my life as a bespeckled tomboyish nerdy pre-teen.
Within two years of the other both Akinyele and Mr. Vegas had songs out about fellatio. One artist was singing about the joys of giving and receiving head; the other was telling women that they should never suck a dick and that they needed to keep their “heads high”. On Lil Kim’s Big Momma Thangs she opens up the verse with a bar that makes her position on the subject crystal clear - “I used to be scared of the dick/ now I throw lips to the shit/ handle it like a real bitch/Heather Hunter, Janet Jacme”. Meanwhile, Lady Saw recalls a similar yet contrasting and offensive encounter with a boy who requested that she give him a little love below under the sycamore tree. If “good girls” didn’t go down on boys then who was? Somebody had to be lying.
Except they were both right. Before the days of internet porn, you had to watch lascivious videos in secret. Either they belonged to an older male relative or you happened to come across it in a huddled group of kids at school. Lil Kim introduced young women into a world of sex that was a rite of passage for most boys and never really thought of for girls. Pinky and Cherokee D’Ass might be semi-popular names in pop and porn culture today but back in those days if you mentioned Vanessa Del Rio in regular conversation most people would think you were some type of sexual deviant. Lil Kim made it very clear that she was a sexual being. One could say she weaponized her sexuality but in retrospect, who could blame her? Rap has always been a male-dominated game where the men treated women like objects that were merely there for sexual gratification and decoration. Kim had simply played the game of ‘Imma get you before you get me”. She knew she was going to be treated as an object so she had fun with it. She gave us a continual lesson in glamouring men: look desirable, lure in your target and get exactly what you want. Be it sexually or financially, you should be able to win. On “Not Tonight” she leaves us with some gems:
Now one could argue, and honestly, they still argue this when new artists like the City Girls are mentioned, that Kimberly Jones was encouraging women to take on a life of prostitution but that simply isnt the case. Women are socialized to cater to men in the form of providing- emotional labor or granting them carte blanche access to our bodies while expecting little to nothing in return. We aren’t even expected to like sex but we are supposed to be good at it. We are told to maintain an almost virginal sexual persona in public and somehow are magically expected to be extremely sexually skilled in the bedroom lest some other woman “steal” our men. It is a very contradicting ideology that is firmly rooted in misogyny. But Kim telling women to be honest with men about their lack of sexual competency and/or their lack of financial resources is a direct response to the patriarchal and capitalist views that run rampant in hip hop culture. If you are going to be demonized for having sex and being seen as a sexual being then you might as well come away from the situation with more than a wet ass and a broken heart. Just saying.
It should be noted that while Lady Saw made music that would be considered sexually charged by American standards, it was still within the realms of Jamaican societal norms. She never sang about giving oral but she definitely spoke highly of her body, of her wicked wine and of her ability to steal your man. Jamaica is a very conservative and Christian country so the same rules apply with a few exceptions and allowances. Women could dress sexy because who doesn’t want to look at sexy women? But their lyrics often upheld some of the same patriarchal ideals that were oppressing them. The dancehall in those days was a very adult space with bashments starting after midnight and ending well into the daylight hours. Sexiness within that space was expected and encouraged but the dancehall was strictly for adults. My American mother remembers visiting Jamaica in the mid-1980s and being told by my Jamaican cousins that “nice girls” don’t go to the dancehall. Especially not the mother of a young child. It should also be noted that a lot of dancehall artists, particularly the women, sever their ties to the dancehall once they reach a certain age. Our beloved Lady Saw has since gone back to the church and has denounced her title as “Queen of Slackness”. Slackness is a West Indian term for vulgarity and Saw’s departure from the phrase leaves one to assume that overt femme sexuality is a young woman’s game. This is really confusing as most women reach their sexual peak in their mid-thirties and early forties.
In 1998 The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill came out and "Doo Wop (That Thing)" was a catchy tune about the virtues of self-respect. As the sole femme member of The Fugees, Lauryn was natural haired, dark-skinned and a masterful wordsmith. I had already fallen in love with her on “Ready Or Not” as she easily had the hardest verse on the whole track:
Showing off ya ass cause you thinking its a trend, girlfriend
It’s a complicated sea to navigate. On one hand, you felt where Lauryn was coming from. At the height of a natural hair movement that was gaining momentum much like its predecessor in the 1970s Hill’s message was speaking to an impressionable audience. We weren’t so quick to ditch our acrylic tips or our Korean beauty supply store fueled looks but she made her point.
Da Brat was already a popular rapper under So So Def’s label but had always played up an androgynous image. The Whatchu Like video changed all of that. Everyone went crazy over Da Brat’s body and wondered why she had never bothered to go the sexy route sooner. But I loved and respected Da Brat for choosing how and when to pull her sexy card. She obviously didn’t need as she's a super talented lyricist and that was displayed on Missy’s own coochie conjure anthem “Sock It To Me”. In the "Whatchu Like" video, it plays like the typical hip hop video du jour: lots of scantily clad male and female models playing on an idyllic tropical beach. However, a few frames in you begin to notice that the men are simply there as decoration and eye candy. One gives her a back massage as she raps. Several chiseled male models surround her at the shoreline as she gives another performance. She was already beautiful in her baggy clothes and cornrows but now she has transformed into another avatar of herself and she is sexy as f*ck.
Another artist that toed the line with sexual lyrics and imagery was Missy Elliot. When Missy came on the scene she was a fat, dark-skinned woman with a finger wave hairstyle. Wearing a little more than an oversized garbage bag in her first video, Missy was instantly known for her creative and sometimes comedic visuals. Yet Missy wasn't taken seriously nor was she the object of desire simply because the culture did not support that. If anyone remembers the LL Cool J hoopla around his summer banger "Doin It" then you will understand what I'm getting at. For those who are unfamiliar LL had a plus sized girl sing alongside him on the audio track but when it came time to shoot the video he opted for a slimmer model to lipsync. It was a very clear decision about where the sexuality and visibility of fat black women belonged in the scope of mainstream hip hop.
There was nothing about Missy that read as sexy but upon a deeper listen to her catalog would negate that theory. On “Sock It To Me” Missy opens up the Ready Or Not Sampled track saying “I’m nasty” and proceeds to give us a little story about the time she went on the hunt for a good time:
She also went on to write other sexy ass songs for other folks. My favorite being “Can We” by my all time favorite 90’s girl group, SWV.
Pussy don’t fail me now
As long as the pussy good
Pause. This is a notion that is repeatedly brought up in a lot of femme rap lyrics. The idea that a man can be kept by virtue of having a tight vagina and masterful bedroom abilities. It’s one that is deeply flawed and does a vagina holder no good in the long run. On “Beep Me 91”1 Missy low key begs a dude to page or return her call after ghosting her since they last had sex. Closure is a myth, folks. Yet and still, even 702 had to get in on the action here:
All my friends say
But I can't let you go until you take some time (say what, say what)
One thing I had observed as a kid who loved hip hop was that most of the songs were extremely anti-woman. There’s a level of cognitive dissonance that took place when a lot of us girls and young femmes were listening to rap. It was an overwhelmingly masculine genre, imbued with all the trappings of patriarchy. Most notably sexual access to lots of women without any emotional or financial responsibility and shaming women who were actual sexual beings. As women, we are taught from young that the only thing that makes us valuable is our vaginas and whether or not they are virginal and “unused”. There was no talk of courting or chivalry. There are no songs about the joys of taking a woman out on a nice date or working hard to make her your girl. The songs, while catchy and chart topping could be extremely violent and traumatizing.
I listened to plenty of sexual rap lyrics from male artists and not once did I witness the public backlash or scrutiny the ladies received. Nas and Bravehearts released “Oochie Wally” in the year 2000. I was 15 years old and still a virgin. That song is possibly one of the most disgusting tracks I’ve ever heard to this day:
Around this time I remember being deathly afraid of boys I didn’t know. I remember going to a guys house with a friend because she didn’t feel comfortable going by herself. I also remember being teased for being a virgin even though I was older than my friend at the time. My friend was very developed (thick and busty) but she had a baby face. I was still wearing the baggy clothes that my father had forced me to wear and hadn’t been blessed with the joys of contact lenses yet. The way I was dressed never made me a target and I was able to observe speculate unmolested. Still, I thought about how easy it would have been for a boy to invite his friends over to have their way with my friend while she was naked and vulnerable. The music that was fueling my generation definitely left a lot to be desired in the ways of respecting a woman's body.
One can argue that femme rap has always been an act of resistance and defiance. In a world that caters almost exclusively to men and their desires, the lady rappers of the 1990s put a lot on the line to break down barriers and express themselves. Black women, in particular, have never been afforded the true freedom to be sexually explicit and free without harsh criticism. The new wave of femme rappers (Cardi B, City Girls, Megan Thee Stallion, et al) have all managed to fully harness the sexual energy of their predecessors and have been able to dominate these still murky waters of masculine dominated hip hop with incredible success.
The essence of conjure is using what you have to exact a specific goal. When looking at the likes of Lil Kim, Lady Saw, Foxy Brown, Da Brat and Missy Elliot one could clearly see the magic that they have conjured for themselves. Lil Kim alone has influenced an entire wave of current femme rappers for daring to put herself out there in ways that have made her the butt of jokes and the recipient of heavy negativity. All in all, Lil Kim is still an icon and a master teacher on the power of looking masculinity in the eyes and taking it on head first. Even with her complicated relationship with the late Biggie Smalls, Kim’s legacy as a sexual revolutionary cannot be downplayed.
There’s still more to cover on this subject but in the next part, I’ll be examining the ways Nicki Minaj played the public with a very sexual persona and some conflicting slut shaming views after making her millions off being sex worker adjacent. I’ll also be examining the way current rappers like City Girls and Megan Thee Stallion are shaking the table, making folks uncomfortable and securing the proverbial bags by way of sexual openness and a no fucks given attitude.
Check out the Coochie Conjure playlist on Spotify where new songs are added every week. Leave a comment below if anything in this post resonated (or struck a nerve lol) and check back next week for part 2!