5 Incredible Women in Korean HipHop – Score Global Music
Korean Hip-Hop is certainly coming into it’s own, with almost every K-pop band including a distinct rap line. Underground rappers like BTS’ RM and Yoongi have made it big (talk about an understatement!), bring the genre’s nuance, uniqueness and inimitable appeal to the forefront.
Naturally, for Score’s Women’s Day issue, the spotlight had to be on women trailblazing their way onto pedestals within Korean Hip-Hop. There’s certainly not as many as one would like, but these five women have taken space within a dominantly male space, by virtue of their personal grit and exceptional artistry.
Yoon Mi-Rae AKA Tasha AKA T is the Queen of Korean Hip-Hop. She is the first name that comes to mind for anytime someone mentions ‘women in Korean hip-hop’.
Mi-Rae was born to a Korean mother and an African-American father who served in the U.S. military in Uijeongbu. Her stunning voice was discovered early, as she was approached by a scout when singing outside an audition room (she went with a friend to their audition). Her first step into professional musicality was as part of the hip-hop group Uptown at age 16.
Uptown disbanded in 2000, and Mi-rae went on to form a hip hop and R&B duo Tashannie, released one album and finally debuted as a solo artist in 2001 under the stage name T.
In 2006, she joined her then-boyfriend Tiger JK’s label Jungle Entertainment. In 2013,she joined the hip-hop trio MFBTY (My Fans Are Better Than Yours), and changed Korean hip-hop for women forever.
Today, Mi-rae is one of the most celebrated female rappers in the country, and is also one of the most sought-after vocalists for Korean drama soundtracks. Her music is characterized not just by a stunning vocal timbre, but by deeply honest, candid and uninhibited songwriting.
Her solo album T3 – Yoon Mi Raereveals the discrimination she faces on account of her mixed-race heritage in Korea. For instance, her song Black Happiness is about combating this prejudice with the positivity of her music, and Angel is about the bond she shares with her family and long-time collaborator Bizzy.
In Korea, Yoon Mi-rae is the standard of excellence for every female rapper in the industry. With songs like Black Happiness and KawiBawiBo, it’s not hard to see why.
As the leader of one of K-pop’s pioneering girl groups 2NE1, CL (Lee Chae-rin) is one of the most recognizable female names in Korean rap. As part of 2NE1’s “fierce girl who gives no f***” persona”, CL’s swagger and rhyme placed her on a pillar of success and adoration. No one in mainstream K-pop could match The Baddest Female.
Despite being part of a massively popular and commercially successful pop act, CL also accrued significant artistic credibility by virtue of her artistry. This is made amply clear by her inclusion in Rosario from Epik High’s latest album Epik High is Here.
When the absolute icons of Korean hip-hop (who, by now, command both mainstream and underground respect) draw you into their musicality, no one is questioning how good you are.
Even after 2NE1’s disbanding, CL has released successful music in her own right. She has collaborated with Diplo, Psy, Kim Ximya, to name a few of the big titles.
Though her releases are not as frequent as fans would like, she continues to define a unique brand of sonic creativity that opened doors and minds in Korean with regard to women owning their power in hip-hop.
Even though Korean-American rapper Jessi passed an audition for S.M. Entertainment, one of South Korea’s largest entertainment agencies, she chose not to sign with them. Her reason was that their approach to music did not align with her own.
This particular brand of my-way-or-the-highway has become Jessi’s signature. Her swagger and candour have, by now, become legendary in Korean pop and hip-hop circles. Case in point: her open discussion of cosmetic surgery, an extremely taboo topic, on a Korean variety show Happy Together.
Even as a participant on Unpretty Rap Star, Korea’s popular competitive hip-hop show, Jessi took her criticism of other contestants to group settings and said what she had to say directly to people’s faces.
Jessi’s music reflects this in-your-face narrative. In Spirit Animal, she asks “They gave me second place, how am I still winning?” In Run It (Jay Park ft. Woo & Jessi), she raps “Winning is my vitamin yeah/Run this game I just get it/Once I got it I don’t lose it”.
Having moved from New Jersey to Korea at age 15, Jessi’s career took a while to escalate. Her refusal to surrender her musical integrity meant that Jessi had to carve her own path in a creative field that is still difficult for women to penetrate. Her inimitable style (a tad reminiscent of Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, in fact) also took some time to gain acceptance and capture it’s fandom.
While she had been tasting success ever since Unpretty Rapstar, the pinnacle of her excellence came when she was signed to P-Nation, the record label established by Gangnam style god Psy.
Under this label, songs like Who Dat B and Nunu Nana have seen meteoric rises on numerous Korean charts. She is also a regular on musical programmes and variety shows, having become one of the most well-known faces of Korean hip-hop at this point.
Jessi disses hard, owns her power, and refuses to be anyone but herself. She is best described by her own words in Who Dat B:
“I have no desire to adjust myself/To people I’m uncomfortable with, I’ll just be a bitch“
Hong Ye-eun, going by her stage name Jvcki Wai has just released one full length album and two EPs till date. Yet, she is already hailed for her particular sonic brand: Emo Trap meshed and spliced into Hip-Hop (Think Lil Uzi Vert). Within just a couple of years, Jvcki Wai has commanded respect and serious street cred in the scene.
She has been featured on tracks by scene heavy-hitters like Simon Dominic, ZICO and GIIRIBOY. Her full-length album “Enchanted Propaganda” was also nominated for Hip Hop Track of the Year at the 2019 Korean Hip-Hop Awards.
Jvcki Wai’s music reflects the layered, conflicted mind of someone between ingenue and fire: she studied jazz, won the female rapper competition #GALmighty at age 18, wanted to make rock music before becoming beholden to hip-hop and says that doubt and emptiness are fixtures in her mind.
Have a look at the lyrics from her track Anti- to get a sense of unconventionality.
From here to maturity/Praying for eternal peace/But there’s no eternity/After all we will let it be
Certainly not the kind of thing most rappers are enunciating, is it?
One of the youngest women on this list, Sandy AKA Ha Sun Ho became a quick favourite of viewers of the Korean competitive hip-hop show High School Rapper. Her voice carried a gravitas rarely seen in people her age, and her flow was unquestionably a thing of wonder.
She debuted in 2019, and is known for her down-to-earth persona. Despite that, she comes off as a bit of a superhuman – maintaining a rap career while studying and getting rather excellent grades in entrance exams and majoring in Japanese.
Her music is smooth, full of promise, and well on her way to marking out her territory in the scene.