If you pay so much as passing attention to the movements of the rap universe, you’ll know that Nicki Minaj recently scooped the BET award for the Best Female Hip Hop Artist for the fifth year in a row. You’ll also know that she made a lengthy, seemingly unfiltered speech immediately after her victory, in which she fired barely-concealed shots at certain artists who don’t write their own songs; namely, the Internet quickly decided, her co-nominee, Iggy Azalea. Minaj’s speech never mentioned Azalea by name and she explicitly said she wasn’t insulting anybody in particular, but if one thing’s for sure, it’s that when you say, “No, no, no shade. No, no, no shade,” immediately after you make a lip-curling, hair-swinging, hip-swaying announcement that you write your own verses, you are definitely throwing (quite hilarious) shade, and Minaj’s subsequent clarification about the incident seems to do more to confirm rather than deny that it was indeed Azalea in the crosshairs.
Of all the reasons Nicki Minaj might have fired shots at Azalea, her rumored use of ghostwriters — in particular, her mentor and collaborator T.I. — was an interesting one to highlight. There are plenty of grounds upon which one might object to Azalea as an artist, chief among them her steady stream of homophobic and racist views. Her anti-black racism is particularly galling, given that her entire shtick involves the wholesale incorporation of the dress, slang, movements and accents most closely associated with black rappers, a culture she dabbles in at her leisure given that she’s a white model from Australia. Minaj seemed to hint at this dynamic in the parting words of her speech (“I hope and pray that BET continues to honor authenticity, and that’s all I’m gonna say about that”). But the bulk of her shade was focused on Azalea’s alleged lack of songwriting skills.
Female rappers have a long and thorny history about the issue of ghostwriting. Rap is a genre suffused with a particular internal disdain for artists who don’t write their own material, and it would be dishonest to say male rappers escape scrutiny for using ghostwriters, because they don’t. But accusations of ghostwriting are used as a cudgel against female rappers in particular; frequently to question their agency and test the worthiness of their place in the male-dominated rap sphere. Throughout her career, Lil Kim was frequently dismissed as owing her success to Biggie’s behind-the-scenes songwriting; Foxy Brown was accused of flourishing on the back of Jay-Z’s borrowed lyrical ability; and Minaj herself has been forced to vehemently defend charges that other people wrote her songs. The reigning queen of rap at any given time tends to face rigorous scrutiny about why she’s “really” there; a reflection of our general cultural reluctance to wholeheartedly support and believe in female talent. Unfortunately, women in rap police one another’s songwriting abilities, but often the discussion consists of hand-wringing male pontification about women “cheating” their way into the game; overtly gendered gate-keeping of a male-dominated genre.
Here’s the thing: Female rappers do use ghostwriters. We know that Kool G Rap wrote material for Salt-N-Pepa; Cassidy for Eve; Jay-Z and Nas for Foxy Brown; and Biggie and Cam’ron for Lil Kim (although it’s worth noting that Cam’ron intended his songs for male rapper Lil’ Cease). But we also know that Snoop Dogg wrote for Dr. Dre, GZA for ODB, and every man and his dog penned verses for Diddy. Plenty of rappers, both male and female, employ ghostwriters, and writing for more established rappers is frequently an aspiring rapper’s path to a solo career. It’s not unusual for rap to be a collaborative effort, and for studio and songwriting sessions to be collective affairs, which blurs the line between small-scale borrowing and full-on ghostwriting. But in a genre that prizes lyrical dexterity, songwriting skills matter, and it’s a serious blow to an artist’s credibility to publicly question their mettle. The stubborn myth that female rappers employ ghostwriters to a uniquely widespread extent reveals a sexist undercurrent: Who are these women who think they can rap, and who are the real male talents behind them?
It’s no wonder, then, that Minaj speaks passionately about the ability of women to write and swiftly shuts down charges of ghostwriting; once rumors are out of the bottle, they tend to stick. Minaj, more than any other active rapper, knows the sting of ghostwriting accusations, which adds gravity to her shot at Azalea. It’s always dispiriting to watch female rappers slinging shit at one another — especially given the backlog of men frothing at the mouth to help them do just that — but it’s worth pausing before rushing to Azalea’s defense. When it comes to the Aussie-born rap star, accusations of ghostwriting are a bit more complicated and nuanced than usual, especially when they’re leveled by a black rapper who has fought tooth and nail to secure her place in hip-hop. There is a cogent argument to be made that Azalea didn’t entirely earn her swift rise to the upper echelons of rap: that she arrived there largely by virtue of white privilege; that she lacks the talent possessed in abundance by plenty of black women afforded a mere fraction of her shine; and that racist double standards propelled her rise. An inability to write her own verses would clearly form a valid and important component of that critique, and so it would be a mistake to dismiss Minaj’s comments as nothing but prissy, patriarchy-condoned infighting. Minaj discussed race in her speech (“This is so big. At one time black people was getting blacked out on the TV, now they own their own network”) and her dig at Azalea’s songwriting abilities came in the context of a competition for a Black Entertainment Television award. This isn’t just a gendered issue, but a racial one: It raises wider questions about whose talent is noticed or ignored, whose is inflated or diminished, and why.
Ghostwriting in rap is an endlessly compelling topic, not least because of the elements of secrecy and competition, the questions about authenticity it raises, and the complicated, gendered way that accusations of its use are doled out. But in the case of Nicki Minaj’s speech at the BET Awards, we should pause before dismissing Minaj’s jab at Azalea as a petty instance of jealousy or evidence of internalized misogyny. Minaj is a Boss Ass Bitch with feminist leanings, and her words deserve more careful consideration than that.