Empowered Sexual Agents: Black Female Rap and R&B Artists in the 1990s and early 2000s

By Daria Martin

In the 1990s and early 2000s, black female rappers and R&B artists reclaimed their sexual autonomy through their songs which celebrated black female sexuality. For modern consumers of music, looking back to this era creates a nostalgia and sense of pride in the women who molded an industry to accept women for daring to express their desire for sex.

In attempting to create a mix of three songs which encapsulated a theme present in the 1990s, I began to question in what ways have female artists challenged the categorization scheme where black male rappers dominated the genre through the use of misogynistic lyrics. This question propelled me to look at the iconic group known as Salt-N-Pepa, which are one of the most successful all female rap groups in history. Their clever lyrics and sexual honesty challenged the norm where black male rappers controlled the confines of the genre with their sexually explicit and objectifying lyrics about women. “Shoop” was one Salt-N-Pepa’s most successful singles, and was a precursor to songs by other black rap and R&B artists and groups who were unapologetic in creating music which put the artists in the position of sexual agents. Salt-N-Pepa paved the way for TLC and Missy Elliot, whose respective songs “No Scrubs” and “Work It” similarly employed lyrics that celebrated female sexuality. Salt-N-Pepa, TLC, and Missy Elliott are just a few examples of artists and groups that sought to create music that allowed women to represent themselves as empowered sexual agents rather than powerless objects of male desire.

Salt-N-Pepa:  “Shoop” (1993) ft Big Twan

“Shoop” challenged the categorization schemes of gender and sexual expression where women were excluded from being sexual agents. According to pop reviewer for the New York Times Ann Powers, “The trio balanced its amiable eroticism with a wholesome self-respect” (Powers, 1999). This is evidenced by the lyrics “I’m not shy so I ask for the digits- a ho, that don’t make me.” Cheryl aka “Salt” is unapologetic in her pursuit of men, and asserts that her forwardness doesn’t make her a “ho.” Additionally, Salt-N-Pepa flips the script by objectifying men: “You’re packed and you’re stacked ‘specially in the back, Brother, wanna thank your mother for a butt like that.” Salt also alludes to wanting to perform oral sex in the lyric “lick him like a lollipop should be licked.” Additionally, this song specifically highlights the appeal of black sexuality through the metaphor of food: “Chocolate dip, honey dip, can I get a scoop?” suggests that Pepa is wanting to get with men of color, either of a chocolate or honey complexion. This plays into a reversal of the categorization schemes because men are now the objects of consumption by women. “Shoop” was one of the group’s most successful singles, and was a precursor to songs by other black rap and R & B artists and groups who were unapologetic in creating music which put the artists in the position of sexual agents.

TLC: “No Scrubs” (1999) directed by Hype Williams

TLC’s “No Scrubs” is also representative of empowered black female sexuality. “No Scrubs” is a relatable anthem for women who were tired of the misogynistic efforts of men to exploit women for their financial success. The women of TLC, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas denounce the act of catcalling and the type of men who harass or try “to holler” at attractive women from the passenger side of their friend’s car. The women are proud of their sexual appeal, and assert within the song that they are unwilling to settle for men who they consider “scrubs.”  TLC explains that “A scrub is a guy that thinks he’s fly, He’s also known as a busta, Always talkin’ about what he wants, And just sits on his broke ass.” These women know they they’re “looking like class” compared to men who are “looking like trash” and are are unwilling to get with deadbeat men.

The music video for  “No Scrubs” won the 1999 MTV Video Music Award for Best Group Video (http://www.mtv.com/vma/1999). The video features the three group members in platform boots and metallic leather outfits, representing the futuristic aesthetic of the late 90s and early 2000s that was connected to styles associated with the new millennium. The video also suggests that modernity encompassed the agency of empowered women who were unafraid to assert themselves sexually. This was showcased by the use of sexual gestures in the video, including Chilli grabbing her behind as she sings that she wont get with a “deadbeat ass” as well as when T-Boz grabs her crotch while singing that scrubs wont get any “love” from her. The crotch grabbing gesture suggests that love in this sense is really sex, and that women will not let men have access to their bodies who do not meet their financial standards.

Missy Elliott: “Work It” (2002)

“Work It” was Missy Elliott’s most successful single, and according to critic John Bush, the song “turns the tables on male rappers, taking charge of the sex game, matching their lewdest, rudest rhymes, and also featuring the most notorious backmasked vocal of the year” (Bush, All Music.com). Missy Elliott does not shy away from sexually explicit lyrics in the song, as she says that she can “put the pussy on like [she] told ya” and asks her partner:  “Listen up close while I take it backwards, Watch the way Missy like to take it backwards, I’m not a prostitute, but I could give you what you want.” In alluding to her genitals and preferred sex position, Missy Elliott normalizes sexual desire, asserting that she does not need to be a prostitute in order to enjoy sex. Elliott also raps the lyrics “You think you can handle this badonkadonk-donk, Take my thong off and my ass go boom.” This lyric served to popularize the term “badonkadonk” to describe the sexual appeal of large butts, and further accentuated Elliott’s fearless expression of sexual autonomy. Missy Elliott’s “Work It” continued the legacy of other black female rappers and R&B artists as she sought further success in the early 2000s.

Works Cited:

1999 MTV Video Music Awards. http://www.mtv.com/vma/1999

Bush, John. “All Music Review of Missy Elliott’s album, Under Construction.” All Music.com. https://www.allmusic.com/album/under-construction-mw0000231192

Elliott, Missy. “Work It.” 2002. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UODX_pYpVxk

Powers, Ann. “POP REVIEW; Spice Girls: Salt-n-Pepa, Still Talking About Sex.” The New York Times. 19 March, 1999. http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/19/movies/pop-review-spice-girls-salt-n-pepa-still-talking-about-sex.html

Salt-N-Pepa ft Big Twan. “Shoop.” Produced by The Island Def Jam Music Group. 1993. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vaN01VLYSQ

TLC. “No Scrubs.” 1999. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrLequ6dUdM


America on October 12th, 1897 and October 12th, 1997: Assessing the Impact of Economic Development on Vulnerable Populations

By Daria Martin

Primary sources such as articles and editorials can offer insight into the common concerns, issues, and attitudes of the 1890s and 1990s in American culture. Thematic commonalities between the two decades exists when looking at the same month and day one hundred years apart. The major issues documented in both The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times on October 12, 1897 and October 12, 1997 differed in context, but shared similarities regarding concerns about economic development and technological innovation. Feature articles from each decade coupled with opinion pieces reveal the underlying fears and anxieties of Americans that transcended the century gap. While the hundred years which separate the article publications demonstrates the shifts in focus of the respective decades, drawing upon the commonalities illuminates certain trends in American culture. Conducting this comparison makes apparent the ways in which economic change and technological innovation produced a sense of fear in the American psyche surrounding the impact of such changes on vulnerable and impoverished populations.

The October 12, 1897 feature article, “Debs and His Scheme” offers a harsh critique of Eugene V. Debs as an agitator promoting the dangerous concept of socialism. The unnamed author of this piece from The Philadelphia Inquirer details the gathering of socialists in the city. The article tells of Debs’ characterization of the 1890s as “an age of invention and of rapidly changing conditions” as well as his “violent den[unciation] the competitive system” (Philadelphia Inquirer). The author is fearful of Debs’ “scheme” to exploit the vulnerability of the desperate working class peoples by giving them false hope of the possibility of an overhaul of the economic system. Debs’ “tirade against against the system” of capitalism was rooted in what he saw as an economic system which increasingly harmed the poor and working classes. Socialist ideas as well as direct labor action fit into what Jane Addams understood as “the proletariat [learning] to say in many languages that ‘the injury of one is the concern of all’” (Addams, p.9). Debs rallied railroad workers in collective action through the American Railway Union, where he believed that “their persistent strivings were toward the ultimate freedom” from bad working conditions (Addams, p. 9). Many people, including Debs and Addams, were attempting to find solutions to and understand the ways in which the rise of monopoly power and poor labor conditions had produced vulnerable populations who felt anger towards their impoverished conditions.


Rogers, William A. “King Debs.” Harper’s Weekly. 14 July 1894.
This political cartoon from Harper’s Weekly condemned Eugene V. Debs for his role in leading railroad workers during the Pullman Strike in 1894. “King Debs” portrays Debs as the leader of the American Railway Union and instigator of the nationwide Pullman Strikes. This image depicts Debs as responsible for preventing food cars from reaching their destination. Rather than showing Debs as a heroic labor leader, Rogers paints Debs and the American Railway Union as destructive to American society. Debs’ socialist ideas and support of mass labor movements incited fear because they “challenged the code of social ethics” where workers obeyed their bosses and capitalism was revered (Addams). American social ethics in the 1890s were reinforced by the capitalist market economy. As a socialist, Debs was critiqued because it was feared that he his rhetoric would prompt a rebellion against the capitalist system by the working classes.

In the 1997 article, “The New (Old) Politics of the Millennium,” Kevin Phillips reflects on the historical impact of economic downturn on the perceived legitimacy and success of political and governmental institutions. While the context differs from Debs’ concerns in the 1890s, Phillips cites how “economic booms and downturns have been associated with a number of political upheavals–most vividly in the 1890s and 1930s” (Phillips). America witnessed economic downturns with the Panic of 1893 and a recession in early 1990s. The supposed recovery of the 1990s was “weak and unfair to working class Americans” because the government partook in “Wall Street socialism” by bailing out negligent banks and offering corporate subsidies rather than providing welfare to impoverished Americans (Phillips).  Progressive reforms in the 1890s were made possible only because “The Panic of 1893 crystallize[d] public dismay with the Robber Barons, trusts, and Wall Street’s ‘Cross of Gold’” (Phillips). In the new millennium, Phillips ponders whether another so called “popping of [the] speculative bubble” will finally prompt “political reform and electoral realignment” (Phillips). Phillips warns that the “record bull market in stocks” does not reflect prosperity for average working class Americans. Economist Godfrey Hodgson argues that in the new economy of the 1990s, “the biggest winners of all were the top 1%” while “for under average and average earners the experience had been short of catastrophic” (Hodgson, p. 92). Phillips ends his piece by pushing his audience to pay attention to the corruption of money politics which enables those “riding the highest” to prosper while impoverished Americans suffer.

Opinion pieces from each decade also reflect the concern for vulnerable Americans following economic and technological changes. A letter to the editor of The New York Times written by Robert Peele and published on October 12, 1897 entitled “To Make Elevators Safe,” addresses the dangers associated with passenger elevators in New York’s new high rises. Peele cites the possible causes for the accidents: “1. Faulty design. 2. Poor workmanship or lack of care in erection. Breakage or temporary derangement of the apparatus. 4. Careless running by cheap or incompetent attendants” (Peele). Peele is suspicious of the argument that these accidents were not preventable. He compares the safety of his experience working in mine shafts where “although speed and loads are much greater, accidents of any kind [were] of rare occurrence” (Peele). Peele argues that “the owner owes it to the occupants to assure their safety in every way in his power” (Peele).  The owners of the buildings could have prevented accidents by hiring competent builders and attendants, as well as funding the “rigid inspect of machinery, guides and ropes (Peele). Those who died or were injured in elevator accidents almost always included the elevator attendant, who was vulnerable not only to low wages but also victim to incompetence of the builders and lack of oversight by the owner. Peele’s opinion piece reflects how engineering passenger elevators within high rise buildings in New York City was not without danger. This editorial thus serves as evidence that anxieties surrounding technological innovation and economic development were rooted in concerns for those who would be vulnerable to safety oversights.

In the 1990s, a piece from the Soapbox section of the New York Times featured an opinion from an everyday New Yorker, Marka Margolies, who was concerned about how the city’s economic development not only impacted her personally but also harmed the increasing homeless population who had not been the benefactors of the new economic opportunities. Marka Margolies’s sunset view from her NYC apartment was taken away when Donald Trump decided to develop the land between her building and the Hudson River in Riverside South. While Margolies was saddened by the new high rises ruining her view of the sunset, she was also “keenly aware that not long ago, a group of people who had no other place to live had set up homes for themselves…directly underneath where construction was about to begin. They were forcibly removed by the city from their makeshift home” (Margolies). Margolies wonders what happened to the homeless people who were forcibly removed, and was doubtful there would be any apartments for them in Riverside South (Margolies). For Margolies, the Trump development of Riverside South is representative of a larger issue where economic disparity results in increased subjugation of impoverished people. In the 1990s, the trend of economic prosperity for the top 1% coincided with President Clinton blaming poor Americans for their circumstances and making “a systematic overhaul of federal policy that led to the criminalization of the welfare poor.” (Nadasen, p. 3). This Soapbox article reveals how the subjugation of the welfare poor and homeless populations was occurring in tandem with expensive real estate development in the city.


Applewhite, Scott J. “Bill Clinton Signs Welfare Reform in 1996.” The Atlantic. 1 April 2016.
This photo shows President Bill Clinton smiling at the signing the The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which “ended traditional welfare by turning a federal entitlement, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), into block grant” (Nasadeen). Bill Clinton joined in a bipartisan effort to help reduce the supposed culture of poverty in America by limiting access to welfare all the while criminalizing the poor through acts such as the Crime Bill. The “culture of poverty” argument was “evidenced by [Clinton’s] racially coded language of dependency and people taking advantage of the system. Stereotypes about women were the foundation of the 1996 welfare reform debate” (Nasadeen). While the state increasingly participated in corporate welfare, or what writer Kevin Phillips describes as “Wall Street Socialism,” the most needy families were demonized and condemned for supposedly mooching off of the system (Phillips).

Works Cited:

Addams, Jane. “A Modern Lear,” Survey 29, no. 5 (November 2, 1912): 131-37.

Applewhite, Scott J. “Bill Clinton Signs Welfare Reform in 1996.”The Atlantic. 1 April 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/04/the-end-of-welfare-as-we-know-it/476322/

“Debs and His Scheme.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 12 Oct. 1897.

Hodgson, Godfrey. “New Economics,” in More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 87-111.

Peele, Robert. “To Make Elevator’s Safe.” The New York Times. 12 Oct. 1897.

Phillips, Kevin. “The New (Old) Politics of the Millenium: History Tells us Money and the Market Will Matter Most.” The New York Times. 12 Oct. 1997.

Nadasen, Premilla.  “How a Democrat Killed Welfare.” Jacobin. Feb 9, 2016.

Rogers, William A. “King Debs.” Harper’s Weekly. 1 July 1894.


Imperialism and White Supremacy: Justifications of State Violence in the 1890s

By Daria Martin

State violence in 1890s United States history can be understood through the framework of imperialism, where a belief in white supremacy over people of color, both in the continental U.S. and abroad, framed ideas about who had the ability to exercise sovereignty. Notions of white supremacy were implemented through American imperial projects within the historical events of the Massacre of Wounded Knee, the World’s Columbian Exposition, and the War of 1898. Three political cartoons from Puck Magazine, a satirical publication prominent in the 1890s, correlate to these events and reflect American attitudes toward imperialism and state violence during this decade.

These cartoons offer insight into the complex nature of state violence in the 1890s, where imperialist endeavors were justified through notions of white supremacy where Americans believed they possessed a superior capacity to act as a sovereign power. It is important to acknowledge the contradiction of white supremacy as being marshaled to both justify and critique imperialism depending on the source. This contradiction plays out through attempts to distinguish racial paternalism and racial violence, where white supremacy is tied to not only an excuse for sovereignty but for murder and subjugation. White supremacy as a justification for paternalism was utilized when convenient for the American government, as in the examples of forced assimilation of Natives, the hierarchy of racial displays at the World’s Fair, as well as through replacing Spain as the imperial master. White supremacy as a justification for violence worked in tandem with racial paternalism, as violence was deemed acceptable because of American understandings of racial difference. The following cartoons reflect how the state was engaged in these contradictions simultaneously, as white supremacy was employed throughout the imperial endeavors of the U.S. in the 1890s.


Joseph Keppler, “Consistency,” Puck Magazine, January 21, 1881.

The above cartoon, satirically entitled “Consistency,” draws upon the disparate treatment of Native Americans compared to Asians and Africans by the American government.  The artist depicts the Native Americans sympathetically at the Massacre at Wounded Knee, where the perpetrator of the violence, Uncle Sam, kills women and children indiscriminately. The image of the violence is juxtaposed with the supposed benevolence offered to caricatured versions of Asians and Africans. Keppler presents an image which demonstrates the power resting in Uncle Sam’s hands, representative of the larger concept of American sovereignty and influence over “uncivilized” peoples.

The historical context of this cartoon is settler colonialism, which is rooted in notions of white entitlement to the land and an ideology of cultural supremacy over the existing native cultural structure present before the arrival of Europeans. Historian David Grua explains that “with the reorganization of federal Indian policy in the decade, the American settler colonial project was fully implemented in Indian Country” (Grua, 15). Settler colonialism meant that white settlements resulted in the elimination of indigenous culture and sovereignty. State violence, such as what is depicted in the above cartoon at the Massacre of Wounded Knee, was precipitated by the forced relocation of the Lakota Sioux onto reservations along with aggressive assimilationist policies. This “assimilationist assault” entailed the white fear and condemnation of the Ghost Dance, which in part was used to frame the Lakota Sioux as the instigators of the violence at Wounded Knee (Grua, 15).

The Native Americans in this image appear less racialized in their depictions compared to their foreign counterparts. This is done to elevate the humanity of the Lakota compared to the Asians and Africans who are more foreign. Keppler, in titling the cartoon “Consistency,” intends to comment on the disparate treatment of natives through brutality compared to the generosity given to Asians and Africans. Keppler wants the U.S. government to be more consistent in their approach to non-white populations by being more paternalistic to the Natives and less generous to the Africans and Asians. 


Frederick Opper, “Uncle Sam’s Show,” Puck Magazine, October 30, 1893.

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago celebrated the four hundred year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. In hosting this celebration, the United States wanted to present itself on the global stage, both as a dominant technological and cultural power. Historian Curtis Hinsley confirms the idea that “as a collective phenomenon the industrial exposition celebrated the ascension of civilized power over nature and primitives” (Hinsley, 345). This was present in the midway plaisance, where people from around the world, such as Africans from the continent, “arrived to work on the Midway as representations of the world’s diversity as well as curiosities for the narrow minded” (Reed).

The Midway was intended to be a representation of  progress within human civilization, leading up to the White City which contained America’s showcase of innovation. “Uncle Sam’s Show” touts the “spectacular success” of the Fair, depicting a dancing Uncle Sam with eight other men, representing countries who participated in the exposition. The white European men are not presented as caricatures in the way that the Asian and African men are, just as white men were not the ones displayed as commodities within the exposition. The men of color in the cartoon are positioned farthest away from Uncle Sam, which may suggest that these men are also farthest away in terms of civilization. Additionally, Uncle Sam is physically much larger than the other men who are dancing, which also connects to American understanding of cultural supremacy over other racial groups.


Louis Dairymple, “It’s Got to be Sooner or Later, and it Looks like Sooner,” Puck Magazine, April 27, 1898.

In 1898, the U.S. went to war against Spain officially for their supposed attack on the U.S.S. Maine, but for the true purpose of extending their sovereignty over the Spanish possessions in the Caribbean and Pacific. This cartoon seeks to demonize the Spanish as they sail away from the Island of Cuba. After “400 years of misrule,” the cartoons celebrates Uncle Sam for extending his to hand to a Cuban woman, symbolically representing the U.S.’s reach over Cuban sovereignty. The image portrays Uncle Sam as a savior, freeing the Cubans rom oppressive rule. This fits into the narrative that the United States has been charged with civilizing the uncivilized, and must dominate over people such as the Cubans who are deemed unfit to rule due to incapacities tied to race.

This cartoon raises the issue that “the denial of imperialism still fuels a vision of America as an exceptional nation, one interested in spreading universal values, not domination” (Kaplan, 832). In creating an American Empire, the United States expressed a moral justification based on the American capacity to spread ideals of freedom abroad. Entitlement to the land is understood through the title of the cartoon, where America, “sooner or later,” is destined to become the new colonial master. Because Spain has failed in its duty as a white imperial master, the U.S. deems it their obligation to take on the paternal charge of extending its sovereignty over the Cuban people. This racial paternalism was rooted in notions of white supremacy, where the shifting of responsibility was put onto the United States to control the Cuban population.