On the 2004 song “What Can I Do?” Chicago rapper Shawnna spits the following:
“Ya’ll don’t understand me, I don’t want a Grammy
Just hand me a handful of goddamn whammys
Fluffed out and fancy, pack where they can’t see
Ridin’, bumpin’ ‘How High’ in da Camry.”
In retrospect, this lyric might seem odd: A female rapper at the height of her career who had two critically-acclaimed, successful collaborations with hip-hop heavyweight Ludacris was on the radio explicitly stating she wasn’t interested in winning a Grammy? Though the award is considered to be the highest honor for musicians, instead, Shawnna says she’d prefer a handful of drugs.
When placed within its context alongside a feature from Missy Elliott — who at the time was herself a three-time Grammy-winning artist — the lyric tells a different kind of tale: One of a female rapper redefining what winning looks like for herself and other female rappers, as well as what the state of success looked like at that time for female rappers in general.
To favor a “handful of whammys,” and a car ride bumping Method Man and Redman over a Grammy was Shawnna’s way of portraying her own pessimism about the state of the music industry she wanted to thrive in. It was a way of asserting her belief that the awards weren’t made for her in the first place, and predicted an abruptly tumultuous future for female rappers that was to come.
Earlier this year, Billboard rightfully described hip-hop’s relationship to the Grammys as both “complicated” and “contentious,” and given this is the starting point for the Grammys relationship to hip-hop in general, their connection to female artists in that realm is far worse than whatever “complicated” alludes to. Remember, the mere inclusion of hip-hop as its own genre worthy of standalone categories was an uphill battle, and looking at the history of female rappers within the institution, close analysis reveals the hip-hop categories were never designed to recognize women who rap at all.
However, during the 1990s and the very beginning of the 2000s, female rappers did well enough in hip-hop that the Recording Academy was unable to ignore them. There was Lady Of Rage rapping on Snoop Dogg songs, Queen Latifah pushing political discourse over jazzy samples, Da Brat going quick as hell over Jermaine Dupri-produced beats, and Yo-Yo teaming up with Jamaican rap queen Patra to give us diaspora-connecting bops.
Foxy Brown was everywhere, out-rapping Nas on his own song by doing math, and Lauryn Hill made everyone forget the names of the other Fugees members, as her poetic flow dominated the soul-touching verses. This momentum carried through to the 1995 Grammys, where Queen Latifah won the award for Best Rap Solo Performance with her viral political hit “U.N.I.T.Y,” and Salt-N-Pepa won for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. Then the following year, rapper Lisa Lopes, aka Left Eye, helped lead R&B girl-group TLC to two Grammy wins.