If there was any doubt left, this year’s Grammy awards finally proved that female hip hop has arrived at the forefront of the music industry. Rappers like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion are showing a whole new side of US rap that is causing as much an enthusiastic frenzy as scandalized dislike among listeners. Above all, however, this music contributes to the great debate currently raging in the United States. In what some are already calling a culture war, it is all about identity and feminism, conservatism and sexuality, gender and cancel culture. Only 21 years old and yet already some successful singles released, the young rapper Pretty Shy is part of that movement of female hip hop on the rise in the US. A conversation with her paints a picture of a self-confident, young rapper generation that may polarize – but above all inspires respect.
Thursday morning in Tennessee. Pretty Shy is sitting in front of the screen, dressed fashionable and form-fitting. It seems hard to believe that this confident young lady celebrating the success of her latest singles is still going to college. Not long ago her single “Gettin` Ratchet“ was released, produced by no one less than super-producer Tay Keith who counts Drake, Beyoncé and Eminem to his clients. The song is Shy´s most successful so far and stands out especially because it is in no way behind Cardi B´s “WAP“.
Shy has been rapping since she was twelve and once was a member of the formation Pretty Ambition. “What inspired me to start rapping is that my mum was a rapper for a very long time. So as a kid I have always been around it. She was pretty hands-on when I became interested.“ “Gettin` Ratchet” has reached more than 100,000 streams on Spotify in a short period of time, and with its explicitly sexual content and popular twerk dancing, Shy has struck a chord. “It is definitely a career-changing song for me. For the short time it is out, it has achieved tremendous results. That’s my step, the impression I go into the music industry with. The song is very different from what I did before. It’s the party and dance type of single with a lot of twerking, but I am also very lyrical. We were having so much fun with it – people getting ratchet in the very sense“, Shy says and laughs. While many artists in the U.S. are suffering from the Covid-19 pandemic and have been pushed to the brink of their existence, Shy sees the positive sides of the lockdown. “Of course I would love to do shows and parties. But I could use this quiet , closed-down situation of the lockdown to concentrate on my writing. it is forcing you in a space of focus. As an artist, as a writer you can turn the negative things into positive outcome.“
Shy also takes this positive aura into her music. It’s the self-confidence of the female gender that rappers like her celebrate in their songs. “Gettin` Ratchet” places itself in a tradition with songs by Cardi B, Nicki Minaj and Megan Thee Stallion, who, it seems, have ushered in a new musical era in recent years. Cardi B’s “WAP,” an acronym for Wet-Ass Pussy, has sparked an all-out controversy, and not just in the United States. Fans see the song, in which the women describe their sexual preferences and illustrate their enjoyment of sex and, above all, of themselves, as a milestone for women’s sexual self-determination, body positivity and the end of general uptightness. In the conservative ranks, however, a storm of indignation has erupted over such “obscenities,” with Republican politician James P. Bradley saying he wanted to wash his ears with consecrated water after listening to it.
Shy’s “Gettin` Ratchet” hasn’t received as much media attention as its big sister, but it embodies just as much the ideal of sexual openness, female pride in their body and sex drive. “I feel like I’m part of a movement of female rap that’s on the rise here. It feels great. Finally, male and female rap are balanced out. And we’re being respected, you can tell,” Shy says. She, too, has thought a lot about how people perceive her, whether maybe they only pay attention to her body, her movements, her looks, instead of listening to her words. “That’s a concern with a lot of artists. What if people are more engaged in my image than in my talent? The visual part and the music are too strongly linked to part them. If people would not see the visual images, the attention would be different because the sexual content plays a big part in making the record what it is. I used to think about that a lot. What people see and what people hear is all you. As an artist, you come as a whole.“
She, too, is aware of the dialectic that prevails in US hip hop in particular. More than any other genre, it is characterized by the display of a male gangsta lifestyle, crime, drugs, and life in ghettos and on the streets on the one hand, and the sexual, body-emphasizing, lustful self-expression of femininity on the other. While much of pop and other mainstream music tends to stay within the boundaries of what is socially acceptable and rather emphasizes individual eccentricity, hip hop is much more likely to bring social and cultural extremes to life. The genre thrives on breaking taboos and feeds on everything that is rejected or unknown in cultural elites and conservative circles. “Music gives anyone the opportunity to to enter another lifestyle, see things from another person´s perspective. Music takes you to another place. I think this dialectic of hip hop comes from the fact that both this gangsta life and our sexuality are just what people want to hear.“
With her music, Shy has essentially arrived at the center of the American debate that is being waged between conservatives and liberals, feminists and skeptics. It is part of the great question of identity politics that hovers like a sword of Damocles over all social and cultural affairs. At this year’s Grammys, Megan Thee Stallion was named “best new artist,” and the best rap performance and rap song was “Savage” by Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion. It was sensational that Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion performed “WAP” and it once again triggered a flood of reactions.
On Fox News, the conservative anchor Tucker Carlson attacked the two female rappers and their style quite fundamentally. He made clear that according to him this was not art and called the performance “filthy.” He received support from the right-wing conservative commentator Candace Owens, who became known for her criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement and spoke out about the rappers on Fox News: “This seems like an attack on American values and traditions. It seems like they are actively trying to make children aspire to things that are grotesque. This is a weakening of American society. It feels like we are looking at corrosion, like we are about to see the end of an empire. It is not about diversity, we are celebrating perversity in America.“
Shy faces this only with incomprehension. She has heard such criticism for “Gettin` Ratchet”, too. “You`re not forcing anyone to listen to it. I sometimes don’t really get the point of the debate. People who love it listen to it and people who don’t do not listen to it. Where is the problem? There is always people out there telling you what to do and how to deliver your craft. You don’t do it for the people who don’t like it.“ Above all, Shy doesn’t want to make political music at all, and actually doesn’t want to be part of this debate. However, she has a clear standpoint on the issue of feminism. While many see female rap as an empowerment of women in society, some, on the other hand, criticize that their songs are nothing but sexism either, and that women are degraded to sexual objects. Some are convinced that as feminists, they cannot listen to such music. “That’s so hurtful because I am a feminist also. Songs like Gettin` Ratchet and WAP are pro-feminist. Be yourself, do your thing. It gives women power. It wants you to escape the conservative frame of imperatives that tells you what to do and who to be. Feminism promotes women to be happy. If women want to be prosexual, then let them be. That is pro-feminist for me. If you want to express your sexuality, and this is the way you express your feminism, do it. There is no right or wrong way to be feminist.“ The fact that this is about more than just gender also resonates. “As a black female artist particularly, sexuality and sexualism is expected. The majority of black female artists do sexual music, it is what it is. But they don’t have to. We are not being forced.“
Pretty Shy has become thoughtful. While songs like hers have become a political issue in the US, all she really wants to do is to make music. She has big plans. “In five years, I really see myself at the top of the game, performing at the Grammys, topping on billboard, on my third world tour. Right now I am in my prime, I am just getting started. And the game is treating me so well. I can only imagine what five years from now of work and consistency look like.“ However, she reveals, we will soon get a taste of the future. “I have an EP on the way, which is my first big project. It is going to be my first body of work as a solo artist. I put lot of work into it and the catalogue of music shows so many different sides of me. There will be the club bangers everyone wants to hear, but also an emotional side of me which I have never shown before. So I am a bit nervous and it took some courage to show so much of myself, but I also got great feedback.“ She already has a reputation among her rap colleagues: The album will feature Yelawolf, the well-known rapper from Alabama, and Gangsta Boo, notable – and first female – member of the rap formation Three 6 Mafia.
Shy stands for a next generation of female hip hop in the USA. She embodies a self-confidence, artistically and sexually, that can make feminists nothing but optimistic. Because her music is more than just banal twerking. It is an expression of the dawn of a new femininity that will give conservatives like Tucker Carlson something to complain about. But above all it is music, and it should remain so. Although Shy is also slowly becoming aware of the political statement inherent in her music. “I am going to think about that in the future.“
By Katharina Moser