Rapsody & MC Lyte Discuss Being a Woman of Color In Hip-Hop & Their First Encounters With Racism in America

Rapsody: Kevin Estrade; MC Lyte: D’Andre Michael
Rapsody and MC Lyte

Billboard moderates an enlightening discussion between North Carolina wordsmith Rapsody and hip-hop pioneer MC Lyte on their first instances with racism and the struggles of being a woman of color in hip-hop for Black History Month. Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity. 

Billboard: What was your first experience with racism?

MC Lyte: I used to work at a place called Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant at Kings Plaza at the far end of Brooklyn, going into Far Rockaway, Queens. I remember that section was really white but it called for other nationalities, other races to come into that area because Kings Plaza was a shopping mall. Most people of color knew to be gone by a certain hour. Because I worked at this restaurant, it stayed open later and it was a lot of us, a lot of black people that worked at the restaurant. So I just remember one day, literally being the target of rocks while we were waiting for the bus. It must’ve been about close to midnight. It wasn’t the first time I had seen it, of course -- seeing it on television, seeing the Civil Rights Movement and everything that people went through and the tyranny that was caused. However, it was the first time that I had experienced rocks coming at me from angry, white people due to me being a different color.

Rapsody: Wow. And you just trying to catch the bus to get home.

MC Lyte: Just trying to get the bus to get home. And then we had to run. We actually ran to the next bus stop.

Rapsody: My first experience wasn’t that intense. I was older, I was in college. It was a road rage thing where I was driving and I can’t remember still to this day what set [the other driver] off but I think I got in front of them and we came to a stop light and they pulled over, rolled down the window, and just yelled out, ‘You black n----r!’ It was that intense. I had that same thing happen about a month ago. I just remember being filled with so much rage. You don’t want to react because you don’t want to give them the power to have that over you and your emotions but just the history of [the word] and what it means -- I just remember getting out of the car. I just lost it. It didn’t turn into anything more than that but that was my first experience of it being blatant. 

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Billboard: As far as being a woman of color in hip-hop, what has changed and what could be done better?

MC Lyte: As it relates to now, this is not enough. Not enough voice, not enough variety exists. There used to be a time where female MCs sort of spoke for a sector of the female population and I don’t know that those on the front lines actually reflect all of us nor do they speak for all of us. I can only hope for more variety. I get the question all the time [talking about] there’s no female MCs and I’m like, ‘What? Are you kidding? There’s so many female MCs waiting for their opportunity to be heard by the masses.’ They do what it is they do anyway because of their love for the craft, the urgency to say the words that aren’t being said. However, there are very few opportunities where they’re able to be heard by a multitude of people that can carry that message and actually have change occur.

Rapsody: It was about camaraderie. I would go back and you would have “Ladies First” [with Queen Latifah and Monie Love] and see all these women working together. We don’t have that sisterhood today. I think being in this business, you get so frustrated because there is no balance. It seems like there can only be one [female MC] at a time now. Growing up, I remember seeing you, Latifah, Missy and everybody co-existed together. Everybody was different but everybody was dope because they had their own style. Now, it seems like we think we have to be so competitive with each other and I feel like that’s part of the main problem where they use that against us to divide us instead of bringing us together. This one female [artist] was ragging on female artists and I tried to have a talk with her. I was like, 'I understand the base of your argument as far as the quality of music but why do we have to attack each other to get that point across?' 

MC Lyte: I feel like there are gatekeepers, so to speak, to hip-hop and not so long ago, it was like, ‘All for one, one for all, here we go, we’re all in it, we’re all very different from one another. We pose no threat because you own your space in what it is that you do. Nobody is attempting to do what you do ‘cause you do it well and they leave you alone because they have respect.’

I think these days, there’s not room for just one -- it’s just the gatekeepers have decided to put their attention elsewhere and the bottom line is the gatekeepers only get to keep the gates so long as they make the money for the companies because that’s what it’s all about. It’s a business. When we started, there were probably a few in it who understood the game of ‘we’re going to make some records that will cross over and become extremely popular then we’ll make pop hits and we’ll make a lot of money.' But a lot of us were like, ‘We’re just talkin’. We just in here MCin’. We gettin’ down. It’s about the music, it’s about the craft. It’s about the community. What can we teach our people? What more can I show you [to prove] that I’m hot on this microphone?’

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But now that the business aspect has come into it, I think many more aim to sell records than to discover talent that may have something to say but may not sell a whole lot of units. We have surpassed just rocking for the block and now we are associated with companies that are investing a lot of money in the hopes of seeing a great return. They’re gonna bet on what has worked. And unfortunately for many female MCs, there are many more dollars that were spent than what was made. We’ve just come to an extraordinary place in hip-hop and all of the sub-genres that exist. I would just say for female MCs to just keep doing what it is that you do and I would challenge those that love hip-hop to continue to support women in hip-hop by talking about them, listening to their music. Spread the word like we did back in the days when we weren’t reliant on radios, magazines and all of the rest of media to promote and push.

Rapsody: When it comes to the business world, I tend to not like the term "female MC" but I found out what it really means when I did Black Girls Rock! with you, Jean [Grae] and Lauryn [Hill]. It feels like it means two different things in those worlds. I wanted to know your take on the term “female MC.”

MC Lyte: It doesn’t bother me. I know what I’m doing. I know that when it comes time for a bill for a hip-hop show and they’re bombarded with male entertainment, at that point, they’re looking for a female MC. I’m just born this way -- I’m a woman. I’ll take it. Really, for hip-hop, it was very male-dominated in the very beginning and it still is. If it helps them to categorize, it doesn’t have any control over me so I’m cool with it -- I’m an MC, I’m a female MC, hip-hop femme fatale, whatever. It’s me.

Rapsody: [Laughs] I get that. With me, it feels like today -- in the business world anyway -- when people call you a female rapper, it seems like they do it to separate you from the pack. I think I feel that way in part because this new generation didn’t grow up with the balance that I did. That idea of the level of a female’s skills -- like she’s only supposed to dress this way, talk about these subjects, I can’t relate to her and skill-wise, she’s only going to be this good because she’s a female -- that’s what I’ve come to notice just talking to the new generation. You’re boxed into a category of ‘I’m only gonna compare you to other females’ and not just in the grand scheme of things and where you’re at on the level with all artists. It feels like they do that to cheapen us. That’s the part in the business I didn’t like. Then I did Black Girls Rock! and representing for females as far as hip-hop goes, I feel like I was a part of a community and understood what it meant to be a female rapper and carry that name. I definitely understood what you’re saying as well.

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MC Lyte: I understand your take on it too ‘cause you’re coming from the perspective of the younger generation, understanding their understanding of what it means and it can be very different from mine. However, I do think an experience like Black Girls Rock! can put things into perspective and it’s like this whole back and forth with homeslice talking about there shouldn’t be a BET Awards? [Laughs] It’s like, what?

Rapsody: Exactly.

MC Lyte: Like what planet are we on? Come on. We understand why it was built. It was built so that African Americans could receive the accolades, acknowledgment, awards and respect for what it is they did for their past year’s work because there was nowhere else that would do that for them. Same reason how the Image Awards came into existence and very much so why Black Girls Rock! exists -- because it is a platform where not just the hottest female rapper or the hottest female R&B singer can be awarded on a show where it’s predominantly men but now you have a complete space where women are honored and it’s very necessary. I mean we used to have the Lady of Soul Awards and that was taken away. However, when it comes to women in this particular sector of business, we have got to just award ourselves so we acknowledge one another and I think that’s a good thing.