Plot twist: The following article does not actually answer this question. Because this question is deceiving. Female grime artists aren’t hiding, they aren’t non-existent, they will never and have never disappeared. Recognition and a lack of appreciation within the music industry are the main factors in inhibiting their progress.
It’s 2017. According to a survey done in 2016 by Music UK, women make up a mere 30% of senior executive roles in the music industry. The number of female record producers has remained pretty stagnant, at under 10% since 2010 according to most research. 86% of all performers at UK music festivals in the year of 2015 were men. And whilst these figures may seem bleak, the grime landscape is seemingly worse. No female grime artist has won a major music industry award. And at Rinse’s Born n Bread festival last summer (one of the pirate radio stations which was instrumental in the development of grime), there were less than ten female artists over the entire weekend’s line up. Skepta and Stormzy have become household names whilst their female counterparts are only just beginning to gain mainstream popularity.
Are these statistics reflective of a lack of female talent in the genre? Or do they suggest that sexism is more rife in grime as opposed to, say, pop music? It’s pretty safe to say a categorical ‘no’ to both questions.
Turning to the birth of grime, to its roots and origins goes some way to explaining the numbers. Born out of the bowels of East London – the poor borough of Bow to be more specific, in the early 2000s, when Ruff Sqwad formed, Wiley released Eskimo and Roll Deep began putting out music – it came about at a time when the economic, political and social landscape for urban youths was particularly depressing. It was during the early Noughties, under New Labour and the years of Blair rule that Operation Trident was in full swing, the term ASBO was created and black youths – particularly young black men were stereotyped as hoody wearing, knife wielding juveniles who were constantly plugged in to their new i-pod Classics. Disillusionment, institutionalised racism and lack of opportunity were rife. This claustrophobic landscape created a breeding ground for the unapologetic sound of grime. Grime became then, an outlet for the oppressed. A genre committed to conveying the realities of a distinctly British upbringing, grime embodied the feelings of those who were left behind at the turn of the century.
It was against this backdrop that male dominated groups began working together, battling against each other and creating music. In Jammer’s basement and in pirate radio stations, MC’s would meet up and make music, bouncing sounds off of one another. Yet these kinds of environments rarely involved women. Studios were predominantly made up of groups of guys fiercely clashing and expressing themselves in a tension filled space. As Mizz Beats recalls in “This is Grime“, she was “terrified” of going to the studio, as it was full of “guys there smoking”. Male braggadocio and bravado seeped through the walls of these underground spaces – a sweat pouring through the pirate radio stations and basements which saw the early days of grime come to life. If grime is music’s underdog, then female grime artists are the underdog’s underdog. Watch any of the Lord of the Mic’s DVD’s and you’ll get the picture.
Whilst millennial grime was undeniably dominated by men, there were of course female grime MC’s making waves. Shystie erupted onto the scene in 2003 with her version of Dizzee’s ‘I Love You’. Female Allstars was created, bringing some of the best females in the game together. Lady Fury, Nolay and Queenie and Lady Leshurr were all part of the group. Female Allstars were spitting as hard and fast (140 bpm to be precise) as the guys on the scene, yet they were never given the same recognition. And thus the longevity of many of their careers pales in comparison. Often, their biggest tracks were refixes or remixes of male tracks; such as Lioness’ ‘Sing for Me’ which takes on Ghett’s ‘Sing for Him’ as opposed to their stand alone creations.
Narratives of Oppression
The discourse surrounding the scene further perpetuates this male dominance. In the same way that U.S. hip-hop of the 90s sexualised and objectified women through both lyrics and the visuals, U.K grime often reduces women to signifiers of sex, reinforcing perceived male entitlement and superiority. Dizzee’s ‘Freaky Freaky’ illustrates this point rather aptly: “I had this pretty little girl in Sweden / Yeah, she was kind of short, but she was easy, I like that kind of girl / You didn’t even need to ask her name / Can you believe it? / She was sucking my dick, you should have seen it”. Misogynistic language is expressed not only in the lyrics themselves but it is rampant in interviews and social media – take Wileys‘ infamous Twitter rampage in which he savagely attacks a girl claiming to be pregnant with his child.
The female bond
Ultimately, we need to stop asking “where” all these women are, and instead start asking ourselves why they are still no being recognised. The problem isn’t that it’s “more difficult” for women, if anything it’s easier as there is a gap in the market for female MCs. Having more female producers can no doubt help in this enterprise. A trickle down effect will be produced in which women can help women up. What we have to establish is a grime culture which does not put women down, which does not reduce them to sexual objects and which creates wholly inclusive spaces where women can network, unite and help each other up.
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