A New Breed of Female Rappers Emerges at SXSW

For as long as there have been rappers, there have been female rappers, but it hasn't always seemed that way. While the greatness of artists like Salt N Pepa, Lauryn Hill, and Nikki Minaj can't be denied, women who rap confidently about their own lives without catering to the male-dominant hip-hop audience have historically been a rare breed.

Female rappers have been sharing their side of the story for decades, but there's a sense, especially after seeing some of the performances at this year's SXSW shows, that a new kind of lady emcee is emerging. Four rappers in particular captivated crowds with their earnest storytelling and down-to-earth lyrics. Instead of trying to prove that they're as hard as their male counterparts or staking their reputation in their abilities to seduce them, these ladies found a way to get in touch with their feminine sides in a way that's universally relatable and not-at-all-cheesy, even when they're rapping about a crush on Justin Bieber.

Below, meet the four new emcees you need to add to your Spotify playlist now.

1. Angel Haze

Vulnerability has long been anathema to male rappers—and even when rappers like Drake and Kanye show their softer sides, there's often a boastfulness to their angst, like rapping about how empty they feel after having sex with, like, a ton of hot ladies. For Angel Haze, however, vulnerability is a source of empowerment. Check out her reinterpretation of Eminem's "Cleaning Out My Closet," in which she recounts the experience of being molested as a child and exorcises some demons in the process.

"I think more about people without voices in the world," Haze tells Details before her set at the Spotify House at SXSW. "There aren't many who are willing to stand up for . . . the people who are too scared to do it for themselves. You have to make the victim feel just as involved as everyone. I think I speak for people who come from where I come from."

She's aware of the power of her platform. "All I ever wanted to do is help people," she says of her musical ambitions, recognizing that there's a chance for women to bring a much-needed perspective to hip-hop. "I really do think that there's a movement for women in hip-hop right now," she says. "I feel like the floodgates have opened and it's raining."

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2. Dessa

There's an immediate first-person identification that comes with listening to rap songs. No less an authority on the subject than Jay-Z wrote about it in his 2009 book, Decoded: "When people hear me telling my stories, or boasting in my songs, or whatever, they don't hear some rapper telling them how much better than them he is. They hear it as their own voices." Minnesota rapper Dessa, of the hip-hop collective Doomtree, has that ability to get listeners—even men—to identify with her words. There's something fascinating about her performances, too. You can spot big dudes in snapbacks throwing their hands in the air and rapping along with songs about glass ceilings and men who disrespect their girlfriends. But those stories don't alienate people. In fact, she says, they do the opposite.

"For me, the best feminism has been humanism—that is, to tell a true story about my life," Dessa says. "I'm trying to make rent. I'm trying to stay happy. I'm trying to find steady love. . . . And I think a lot of those themes are naturally sort of unisex. Like, 'Yeah, I'm trying to have good sex and feel okay about it in the morning too!' I think a lot of our biggest stories are very often human stories."

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3. Kitty

You'd be hard-pressed to find a male rapper comfortable dropping lyrics about a crush on Justin Bieber, but teenage Florida emcee Kitty (formerly Kitty Pryde) writes songs about loving the Biebs and other sources of youthful vulnerability most young male rappers often hide behind braggadocio. On her Daisy Rage EP, "#Unfollowed" might be the best breakup song of the past five years, with its vivid depiction of a crush gone bad, but you don't often get that kind of honesty from men in hip-hop.

Being a young white girl (Kitty's age is a well-guarded secret, but she's clearly a teenager) has made it hard for her to be taken seriously, but she's found the freedom to record songs that are more personal as a result of that. "I've kind of accepted the fact that I'm not going to be taken seriously," Kitty says. "But at least people know that I'm being honest. If they're not taking it seriously, at least they know that I'm not making anything up, which is different from every other rapper that I know, because most of the time—and I didn't even really know this until I started meeting them—rappers are totally making things up. A lot of rappers are definitely not even close to as rich as they say they are."

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4. Lil Debbie

In some ways it'd be easy to pigeonhole the current wave of female rappers as focused on breakups and trauma, but it's not as simple as that. Oakland rapper Lil Debbie's a good-times rapper. She likes to rap about weed and codeine, but her songs are still markedly different from what you'd expect from, say, Riff Raff. It's hard to imagine a dude picking out the beat she uses on "2 Cups" (and the much-fetishized "bad bitch" of hip-hop takes on a pretty different meaning when she's just hanging out and rolling up her weed).

"I like doing girly beats like that because I think it's out of the ordinary. A lot of people right now are trying to be really hard, and be, like, 'I'm the hard female emcee!'" Debbie says. "And I'm just like, I'm chilllllin', you know? I just want everyone to vibe with me. I'm kind of just a little weirdo."

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—Dan Solomon (@dansolomon)

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