In my downtime, I look up reader reviews of the books I’ve written. I lie back on the couch and type the titles into Naver. Not too long ago, I looked through the feedback for The Birth of Million Dollar Hip-Hop, a collection of conversations I had with 12 Korean rappers. I was reading through the reviews—the positive, the disappointed, the thankful—when a line from one blogger caught my eye: “Of the 12 rappers in this book, not one is a woman. The author might be an authority on hip-hop but he’s clueless on the flow of culture.”
It’s true I didn’t include any women rappers in the book. But that was the result of the clear criteria I’d set. And I was upfront about this in the preface. “The process of selecting the 12 rappers was quite painful but the criteria were clear: they must be a veteran, must have worked hard at their career, must have their own perspectives and philosophy, must have made an accomplishment that will go down in the history of Korean hip-hop, and above all, they must have ‘lived’ hip-hop.”
I’ve read over the criteria again and it is still clear that not one woman rapper in Korea meets these criteria. I simply couldn’t have included any women in the book. Had that blogger known more about Korean hip-hop or read the preface of my book, he might not have written what he did. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s not a problem. And it is unfortunate. But the book had to reflect reality. We have to ask ourselves two questions: how did it come to be like this, and is this reality right or fair? This is the path to an intelligent and sensible conversation about this issue.
The answer is simple. Hip-hop has long been a man’s game. And it’s not because women do not have the talent. It’s because the environment doesn’t allow women to thrive. Of course, improving the environment wouldn’t make all women rappers successful. However, there is no doubt that women would have had greater success in greater numbers had the conditions been better. While writing this book, I felt deeply and uncomfortably conflicted as I tried to figure out the causes that led to this reality.
In such a reality, Yoon Mirae has been the lone bright star for some time now. She is the representative Korean woman rapper and a household name. Nobody questions her talent. I still remember what Gaeko of Dynamic Duo once said: “I don’t think she’s just the best woman rapper. I think she’s the best rapper. Period.” Had she garnered more achievements or kept her career going, I probably would have emailed her for an interview for The Birth of Million Dollar Hip-Hop. She was the only woman rapper I considered for my book.
Yoon has long been a legendary figure among Korea’s female rappers. No woman rapper is considered more talented. In other words, Yoon has been the role model and ceiling for subsequent generations. If a woman wants to be a rapper she has to start by learning to imitate Yoon and new rappers are continually compared to her. The recurring online comments are good examples of this. “Come on, she doesn’t even compare to Yoon Mirae.” “When will we get a woman rapper better than Yoon Mirae?” It may be pre-existing reputation and word-of-mouth that propagate her legend, not the judgments of people who have actually listened to her music for themselves. But the creative force behind this phenomenon is Yoon Mirae herself. And in any case, she has established herself as the only great figure in Korean female rap.
Then I ask myself, what did the women rappers after Yoon Mirae go through before they sank or swam? Ahn Seungbae, a content marketer at Kakao, says there are two career paths for rappers: the “pretty rap star” and the “underground rapper”. To be the former you first have to audition for a girl group, as a singer who can rap too. So you need rap training and take applied lessons from first generation rappers. You practice to Yoon’s “Black Happiness”. You debut as a member of a girl group and eventually get the chance to go solo. You appear in an audition program and release a rap album. You take part in a rap feud and show the world your rapper side.
To be an “underground rapper”, rather than audition for a girl group you instead knock on the doors of underground hip-hop crews and labels. Once you get your foot in the door, you have to prove yourself in a completely male environment. You not only have to demonstrate that you’re as skilled as the men, you have to distinguish yourself from “pretty rap stars” in terms of attitude too. So you have to look tough and aggressive. Sometimes excessively so.
Both of these paths have long had limits. And regardless of which they took women rappers were influenced by the conditions and criteria laid down by Yoon. In other words, all women rappers had to step into Yoon’s domain in order to prove themselves by mastering the technique of crystal clear diction over a boom bap beat, a prominent feature of 1990s tight rap flow.
At the end of the path stood Yoon Mirae, all but impossible to pass. No sooner would a woman rapper set foot on this path than she be labeled a Yoon imitator, no matter her talent. And ever since Yoon showed that women rappers can equal or even surpass men, every woman who enters the hip-hop scene has been immediately compared to both Yoon and every male rapper. No woman rapper has found a way to overcome comments like “She’s good but she’s no Yoon Mirae” or “She’s good but I’d rather listen to a guy rapper, they’re better”.
But trends have recently changed. No, I’m not saying that a superior woman rapper has appeared. I’m saying women are gaining prominence and achieving success without having to walk in Yoon’s footsteps. I say this with caution, and I do not mean to disparage the previous generations. I’m just saying that times have changed.
The change has occurred in a few ways. First, the standards for judging rap have become more relaxed. To be considered true artists, rappers no longer need the clearest diction and the tightest flow. Instead, there are now several styles of rap. “Singing” rap and “mumble” rap are the most prominent of the new styles. We cannot forget the use of auto-tune, either. For these reasons, female rappers no longer have to imitate the “hard” rap of the male counterparts. Just listen to Lil Cherry’s Motorola as an example. Had this song been released in the past, it wouldn’t have even been classified as rap. No one would have even thought of attempting this style. But it is possible now.
It’s not just the standards of judging rap that have changed—everything has become flexible. Take fashion. It used to be that there were set hip-hop “looks”. Baggy jeans were in at one point, skinny jeans at another. Each generation had its own fixed look from which women rappers were not exempt. These days, however, rappers wear whatever they want, women included. Jvcki Wai has her own style and Swervy has hers. We can be certain that neither of their styles would have been accepted in years past.
And we shouldn’t overlook the rise of feminism. Everyone’s attitude about and interpretation of feminism differs, of course. But feminism has clearly made the lives of women rappers easier over the past few years. What’s the significance of Jvcki Wai’s success? Is it that a woman non-idol rapper has received such a positive response? For me, it’s more that she found success in using what she has as a weapon. Ultimately, she claimed her position as a rapper, not as a female rapper. In her song Anarchy, Wai says, “What dichotomy? I’m a human being. Not a whore, not a saint.”
Wai bears similarity to the Japanese rapper Elle Teresa. Known for changing the perspective of Japanese women rappers, Teresa said this in an interview with Vice.com: “I feel like Japanese female rappers are all like, ‘Hey yo!’ or ‘Screw you!’ Watching them makes me wonder, ‘Do we really need to use such phrases?’ I’m a woman, can’t I just be a woman and use my womanhood as a weapon?” Also impressive: “I’m not that cute, or sexy, but I think I am cool. And I think that maybe if I keep saying it, everyone else will also eventually think that I’m cool.”
In other words, this is not an issue of personal talent or taste. Times have changed. No longer do women rappers have to act tough only for it to backfire, and they don’t have to attempt to outdo Yoon Mirae in talent. They can do what they like. They can project whatever culture they like in their music and wear whatever they want. Women rappers can just keep being themselves as they pursue hip-hop. They can keep being themselves and find success.
Yoon Mirae is an icon. Of that there is no question. But she is an icon of the past. Wouldn’t she be happy that a new generation is here?