Welcome to Pop Culture Week! While you can always find us waxing poetic about the hefty overlap between fashion and pop culture, we're dedicating the next five days to the subject of our favorite music, movies, TV, celebrities, books and theater, and how that all intersects with the fashion industry.
Female rappers taught me more than school ever did. Sure, that sounds like a major exaggeration, but to an extent, it's true. Their statements of truth, self-care tips and bold, brilliant visuals gave me courage and showed me how to exist in a space and a country that's not exactly welcoming to young, black women. But more than influencing my sense of self and impacting my own coming of age, women in rap — particularly those of the '90s and early 2000s — also transformed and impacted the fashion world. Rappers and artists like Salt-N-Pepa (along with their supa fly DJ, Spinderella), Yo-Yo, Lauryn Hill, Trina and more recently, Junglepussy, blazed trails in fashion and set beauty trends that are still prominent today.
In my research for this story, I turned to my own mother and friends — and there was a specific reason for that. Middle- and lower-class people of color (much like the majority of the women discussed in this piece) have created their own trends for decades, and maybe even longer, so they themselves are primary sources in this slice of history.
Ahead, a look at these culture- and fashion-shifting legends.
Queens, New York-born divas Salt-N-Pepa have made their mark on culture many times over since their introduction in the mid-1980s. From an unforgettable dance routine for their 1986 hit "Push It," to their request for conversations about sex, the seasoned performers are well-known for their work as pioneers of hip-hop. They also put women across the country on to their unapologetically black, NYC style.
In the late 1980s, Pepa (accidentally) invented the asymmetrical hairstyle that subsequently became a trend in the black community. In an interview with Steve Harvey, Pepa described how a relaxer gone bad was the true cause behind the game-changing look. In an act of solidarity, her group mates decided to each shave one side of their heads and leave the other side long, too. The slip-up caught on, and soon enough, homegirls and aunties everywhere were rocking the 'do. The group also brought bamboo earrings, spandex body suits and eight-ball jackets along with them on their rise to immense success. In recent years, Beyoncé and her family, and Nicki Minaj (another influential Queens native), have taken cues from Salt-N-Pepa's important looks, literally dressing like them for Halloween.
Marc Jacobs also recently called upon Salt-N-Pepa (and a few other old-school rap heavyweights) for inspiration for his Fall 2017 "Respect" collection. Oversize jackets and larger-than-life gold chains were pieced together to pay homage to the early New York rap scene.
If you've ever watched the '90s sitcom "Martin," you're definitely familiar with the character Keylolo, Sheneneh's supportive homegirl. (And if you haven't watched it, you're missing out on some excellent throwback TV.) Keylolo was portrayed by a young actress and musician from the West Coast who went by the name Yo-Yo, and though she performed a quick rap skit alongside Sheneneh, her career as a lyricist went far beyond their empowering back-and-forth.
Supported by fellow Californian Ice Cube, Yo-Yo entered the game in 1990 with a feature on Cube's debut LP, "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted." Soon enough, she was making waves for her own recorded material and her first album, "Make Way for the Motherlode," shot to the top five of Billboard's R&B/Hip Hop albums in 1991. When she wasn't blazing the charts or spitting verses alongside other legendary rap queens, Yo-Yo spent her time advocating for women's rights.
My fashion-buff pal, Don, was born in the 1980s and is a bona-fide collector of throwback fashion. We discuss trends and their origins often. He filled me in on Yo-Yo's influence.
Her look was the everyday steez of women from her era (and area), according to Don. That she maintained autonomy over her look and never felt the need to align herself with what the rest of the world was doing was significant – especially given that rap is notorious for being particularly critical of women. With her lengthy, blonde braids and biker shorts, Yo-Yo's influence was more about being yourself, exuding confidence and being at ease in whatever you choose to step out in. It's also difficult to ignore the similarities between her loose, meticulously done braids and Beyoncé's more recent "Formation" extensions.
In addition to Lauryn Hill's educated flows, acting career and apparent sense of self, there's another, often-overlooked reason to celebrate her: She championed natural beauty for black women and did so subtly but with impact. My mother is a true '90s girl — she was blessed with the opportunity to spend the entirety of her 20s during the radically expressive decade. To hear her tell it, Hill's nod to natural beauty crept in real smooth.
Hill had been making waves for years as the sole feminine force of the Afrocentric rap trio, The Fugees, so it wasn't much of a shock when her career skyrocketed upon the release of her debut solo album in 1998. While never one to prioritize her fashion choices over her work, Hill set trends regardless. By the time "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" was released, her locks were touching her shoulders, she chose cute, yet usually minimalist makeup looks and her outfits were the perfect blend of sexy and comfortable.
The beliefs that black people are gods and goddesses and life is to be lived through a spiritual lens informed her Rasta-style wardrobe. Still, Hill had fun and played with the styles of the times, choosing to incorporate plenty of denim, brown lipstick and tank tops into her outfits for public appearances.
Today, in a period of yet another black awakening, we're seeing the rise of young women who — in their quest to connect with their higher selves — turn to the styles Hill made famous for inspiration. Long, yet fitted dresses and simple bracelets, rings and necklaces are among the tips that have been taken from her look book. Additionally, as fate would have it, Hill quite literally gave birth to the next generation of fashion — her daughter Selah Marley is a young model (signed to Next) who's worked with Rag & Bone, walked in Yeezy Season 4 and been shouted out by Vanity Fair.
Since mid-2015, I've noticed a trend that is clearly an ode to the late '90s/early-2000s rap-video model. While sneaker heels are dead (thank God), long, jet-black weaves, curve-hugging jersey dresses and glossy lips are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. A woman in rap who contributed to the original shaping of this aesthetic was Da Baddest Bitch, Trina. I believe the former first lady of Miami's Slip-N-Slide Records' no-nonsense messages and adoration for opulence have had a direct impact on the ghetto-fab fashion resurgence. I mean, who can forget her eye-catching bra and choker from her debut appearance?
While Trina's personal style has changed over the years, diamonds and glitter remain central to the raptress's wardrobe. Recognizing her role as a fashion goddess, she performed at Galore Magazine and Ed Hardy's gathering for New York Fashion Week last year and also showcased her talent during a fashion show in Philadelphia. All hail the Diamond Princess.
Junglepussy. The name lets you know from the jump that you're in for something unique, natural and sacred — and boy, does she deliver. The Brooklyn-based emcee burst onto the scene circa 2012 with anthems like "Cream Team," "Stitches" and "Feeling Myself." With cosigns from equally stylish music legends like Erykah Badu and Lil' Kim, Junglepussy is making her own way and proving that "there can be more than one without replica."
Her early publicized looks (including thick, blonde cornrows and cat prints) have evolved into other protective hairstyles and sunny patterns. While she still taps into the styles that made her stand out early on, it appears as if she's now going for a laid back (yet still in-your-face) style that blends early '90s carefree kiddo and ultra-refined superstar.
It's no surprise that Junglepussy is so fashion-oriented — she once worked at NYC's Patricia Field store and studied at The Fashion Institute of Technology. The rapper motivates women to embrace their hair as it is, allow their bodies to become art (she designed some of her own tattoos) and experiment with different textures, colors and moods.