Left to right: Akenya, Chimeka, Klevah and T.R.U.T.H. of Mother Nature, Psalm One, and Sisi Dior Credit: Photos by Samantha Fuehring, Optic Branch, Nicci Briann, Serene Supreme, and 10 Photos

On September 7, when Cardi B hurled her red stiletto at Nicki Minaj during a New York Fashion Week party hosted by Harper’s Bazaar, years of rumors suggesting a rivalry between the two artists were confirmed. Ever since Cardi broke out with “Bodak Yellow,” which became 2017’s song of the summer, she seemed immediately confined to the role of challenger to Nicki’s throne. The resulting “Cardi or Nicki?” debate implied that only one could reign—not both. Everyone apparently wants to squeeze the two women onto a single pedestal to fight it out. And the fact that they’re women definitely matters—this competition is gendered, and if you want proof, ask yourself why nobody’s arguing that there’s only enough room in rap for one man to be a star.

As in many other forms of art, women in music are primarily compared to other women and men primarily to other men. (Trans and nonbinary artists are only just starting to enter the mainstream discussion.) Look at awards ceremonies like the Oscars and the VMAs: Best Actor and Best Actress, Best Female Video and Best Male Video. Chicago-born rapper and R&B singer Akenya says this is one of her biggest complaints about her professional life:

“It doesn’t make any sense. If I’m a writer, if I’m an athlete, if I’m a singer—whatever. Whatever it is I do, what does my gender have to do with my ability to do it?” she explains. “When I see categories like ‘Best Male R&B’ versus ‘Best Female R&B’—OK, I guess the male and the female voice are different. There’s that. But it’s like, good singing is good singing. Why am I not your competition because I’m a woman? And it’s even more ridiculous with rapping, because it’s just talking—it’s just words! Gender should have absolutely nothing to do with that.”
Categorizing artists not just by genre but by gender unsurprisingly makes some of them feel limited. “The female this, the female that, is dehumanizing in and of itself,” Akenya says. The gender binary certainly isn’t a helpful tool to assess a musician’s artistry, but because that binary so thoroughly saturates the music industry, you can’t talk about the industry’s problems without invoking it.

Hip-hop has always been male dominated. Though the number of women has increased over the years, they remain a small minority. This creates the perception that female artists must engage in “survival of the fittest” competition in order to secure one of a disproportionately limited number of spots. Chicago rapper Sisi Dior sums it up: “There can only be one queen, but there can be a whole lot of kings.”
When Psalm One signed her first record deal in 2005, she was one of the only prominent women in Chicago hip-hop. In 2007, fellow Chicago rapper Kid Sister began to gain national attention with her single “Pro Nails” (thanks in part to a feature by Kanye West). Almost at once, Psalm started to see people trying to concoct some sort of tension between her and Kid Sister: “That was when the first kind of ‘What do you think of Kid Sister?’—you know, ‘How do you feel about her?’—people kind of like being in my ear about that,” she says. “But I just remember that was the first time that it was made clear to me that as far as females go, a lot of people like one—there’s not room for another, which is just ridiculous.”

Of course, comparisons (and even imaginary rivalries) are visited upon male and female artists in every genre. But as Psalm One explains, this hurts women more due to their underrepresentation: “This is an age-old thing—what you’re bringing up isn’t new,” she says. “There’s been a Biggie and a Pac argument forever—who’s better. There’s been a Jay-Z versus Nas argument forever—who’s better. There’s even a Chance, Vic Mensa—who’s better. I think it becomes a little different with females, because there’s so few of us in comparison to males that it seems like it’s hard for us to exist anyway—and then as soon as one gets too big, there’s always another chick around the corner trying to bite your head off, as opposed to exploring and accepting the narrative of females who do work together.”

T.R.U.T.H. of local duo Mother Nature agrees that competition in hip-hop expresses itself in different ways according to gender: “We still work with a lot of male artists too, so we definitely see both sides, and I think there’s more competition and competitive nature with the guys than the women. [But in male-to-male competition] it’ll be about the actual music. With women, it’s like, where’s the music?” Her duo partner, Klevah, says she wouldn’t even be bothered by the feud between Cardi and Nicki if it seemed to have anything to do with the actual content of their songs.

Chicago rapper Chimeka thinks part of the problem is that women in hip-hop are more likely to be judged on their image: “With male rappers, the audience is looking for a delivery, they’re looking for the content, they’re looking for a punch line and all these other kinds of stuff,” she says. “With a girl rapper, the audience is looking for the style—it’s more so built around the physical versus the idea.”
Akenya agrees with Mother Nature that there’s often more competition between male artists, just of a different kind. “I think men tend to be more competitive with each other in general. There’s way more male beefs than there are female beefs historically. I just think the drama between women is amplified because we live in a patriarchal society. I think that men also tend to be more sensitive and have more fragile egos when it comes to that, actually.”

A lot of people find feuds fun to watch, in a slowing-down-to-look-at-a-car-crash sort of way. Akenya thinks that men feuding is just as entertaining as women feuding (she mentions Drake and Meek Mill), but that feuds between women are often framed in an exploitive way: “People tend to trivialize, or it’s portrayed in a certain light, when it’s between two women,” she says. “It’s got this, ‘Oh, look at those silly bitches over there’ [aspect to it].”

Psalm One puts it more bluntly: “In a female-on-female feud, people get all excited because a titty might pop out.”

So where did this idea come from that there can be only one female rap star at a time? “It’s historically inaccurate,” Akenya says. “There’s a lot of historical, actual camaraderie and female empowerment in hip-hop. I don’t quite know what changed that.” She brings up the 1997 “Ladies Night” remix of Lil’ Kim’s “Not Tonight,” which also features Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, Da Brat, Angie Martinez, and Missy Elliott. “That’s 20 years ago. I mean, the past 20 years—all of a sudden now we can only have one reigning woman in hip-hop at a time? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Chimeka also feels this manufactured tension between female hip-hop artists: “Post-90s era, there was no space for it to be multiple girls,” she explains. “It went from being a multiwoman platform to it being only Nicki. By nature everyone was like, ‘That’s the competition.'”

T.R.U.T.H. agrees: “If you look back to the 90s, there was a plethora of women artists out there at the same time with different styles, enjoying each other, celebrating one another.”

By the time Nicki Minaj released her debut album, Pink Friday, in 2010, female representation in hip-hop had dropped sharply. The field may not have been exactly open for her, but it certainly wasn’t crowded. “I think that Nicki Minaj in particular has created this for herself,” says Klevah. “She does want to be the only one. She talks about it like ‘I’m the queen’—she wants to be that.”

Nicki’s latest album is titled Queen, after all. She’s included other women on every one of her albums (including Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, Jessie J, and Ciara), but they’re all vocalists rather than rappers and thus less likely to step on her spotlight. The only track where Nicki appears with another female rapper is Migos’ 2017 single “Motorsport,” where she’s preceded by a verse from Cardi B (surprise!). By contrast, Nicki has collaborated with nearly every male star in rap: Drake, Lil Wayne, Migos, Future, Meek Mill, Swae Lee, et cetera. Even that Migos appearance alongside Cardi was orchestrated by an all-male group.

“When I go back and listen to Missy Elliott’s albums, you’re also gonna hear men, but you’re gonna hear women more,” Klevah explains. Missy showcased guests such as Da Brat, Lil’ Kim, Lil’ Mo, M.I.A., Eve, and TLC. “She’s always trying to bring in new women, like that was damn near her goal.” Whether or not you believe Nicki Minaj has a responsibility to do something similar, there’s no question that mainstream hip-hop would look different if she did.

In the Chicago scene, Chimeka says, women tend to cooperate, using one another to grow. “I guess the competition exports us to growth,” she says. “We need competition, because if there wasn’t there wouldn’t be multiple girls trying to do it. We needed to see one another to make it, like, ‘Oh wow, we just created a world off each other.'”

Akenya agrees. “I think Chicago’s community is pretty positive,” she says. “Overall, there seems to be a lot of camaraderie. I can’t really speak to if it’s like that in other places, but it does feel rather unique [here]. And I would say that that translates between women in this community as well. There’s not a lot of cattiness that I’ve observed. There’s a lot of support.”

The sisterhood and mutual support that Chimeka, Akenya, Mother Nature, and Psalm One all describe doesn’t necessarily extend to the local hip-hop scene at large, though. Sisi Dior believes that Chicago’s male-dominated community is especially dismissive of women rappers.
“I hear all the time, as far as my music, when a male will be like, ‘I don’t listen to female rappers at all, but you I could listen to!'” she explains. “They say it all the time. So some females don’t even get a chance. A lot of guys won’t even press play on a female rapper that they never heard of.”

Chicago’s hip-hop community may not pit female artists against one another the way the national industry does, but patriarchal assumptions continue to distort the way it’s perceived. Chicago-born rapper Noname is rapidly becoming a national star, but media coverage seems insistent on placing her in the shadow of Chance the Rapper. “Like they cannot mention her name without mentioning this man,” says Akenya, who’s worked closely with Noname. “I think they believe that it’s a compliment. And I think subconsciously they find that to be a way to validate her. Like her talent won’t speak on its own.”

Given that her career has already passed the 15-year mark, Psalm One doesn’t expect change to happen quickly. “It still will take many many more female artists to break through to substantial places in the entertainment landscape,” she says. “We still have a very long way to go.” Akenya doesn’t disagree, but like most artists in Chicago, she has faith in the city’s community: “I think that a lot of us just support good music, period,” she says. “We don’t care what the subgenre is or what your gender is or any of that. It’s like, is the quality of your art good? And I think Chicago is just a city that has a very high standard when it comes to art.”