At every Rico Nasty show, there’s a point when the snarling guitars of her raucous track “Rage” transfix the crowd, signaling that it’s time for a mosh pit. Her DJ, Miles, jumps down from the booth and orders the revved-up audience to wait for the beat to drop. Then, as Nasty puts it, “He goes left, and I go to the right, and we just jump around the whole stage.” The women in the crowd, meanwhile, huddle toward the front or just jump up and down in place, shaking their hair, throwing up their hands, and shouting out the sugar trap queen’s lyrics with vigor. This moment is for them.
Rico’s mosh pits quickly became one of her trademarks because they provide a rare safe space for women, especially black women, to release their pent-up anger. Particularly in light of her recent mixtape Anger Management, Rico Nasty leads a new generation of female hip-hop artists who are crafting catharsis from rage. She’s joined by the likes of Princess Nokia, known for calling women of color to the front at her shows, comparing herself to the Mortal Kombat assassin Kitana, and taking physical action against sexist, racist people invading her space; and Tokyo Jetz, who re-enacted an iconic black woman rage moment—Angela Bassett setting her cheating husband’s car on fire in Waiting to Exhale—in one of her videos and has been shutting down “angry black woman” accusations from radio DJs ever since. These rappers, among others, are part of a lineage of black women who’ve dared to imagine a future where their outspokenness isn’t policed by harmful stereotypes.
The idea of the “angry black woman” is an old and insidious one, with roots in post-Civil War portrayals of black women as callous, easily agitated, and full of attitude. This harmful typecasting gaslights black women and dismisses the understandable anger they feel as they move through a sexist, racist world. It makes embracing your own right to rage, after being taught to suppress anger for the sake of other people’s comfort, that much more difficult. (Like Solange says on A Seat at the Table, “Man, this shit is draining, but I’m not really allowed to be mad.”) The irony is, when black women use their anger productively, it can fuel movements that change the world: Where would we be without Ida B. Wells and Fannie Lou Hamer?
The same could be said of the visionary black women in music who dared to rage. Their anger oftentimes came at a cost to their careers and lives, however. Nina Simone flourished among highbrow jazz types until she started releasing pointed protest anthems like “Mississippi Goddam,” a heart-wrenching ode to two racist tragedies from 1963 (the assassination of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and the 16th Street church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama). Some white audiences were uncomfortable with Simone’s radical becoming; she has said that her career was never the same after that song. After years of internalizing rage, feeling isolated from society and suffering through an abusive marriage, Simone’s mental health deteriorated, as chronicled in 2015’s What Happened, Miss Simone?
Black female artists kept owning their fury anyway, especially once hip-hop emerged. Early women rappers reaffirmed new forms of feminine power and aired out grievances with street harassment, abusive relationships, and their own foes, in a way no one else was doing at the time. Akiba Solomon, senior editorial director of Colorlines and co-author of How We Fight White Supremacy: A Field Guide to Black Resistance, tells me that her anger was validated in the ’80s and ’90s through rap songs: MC Lyte’s “10% Diss” or “Shut the Eff Up! (Hoe),” a series of 1988 diss tracks aimed at fellow rapper Antoinette, and Queen Latifah’s assertive anthem about women’s autonomy around men, “U.N.I.T.Y.,” gave her a much-needed refuge for her emotions. “Young black women talked about things that were happening to us, and they weren’t worried about whether black men would get mad or call them crazy,” Solomon says. These women also notably described their use of physical force—behavior that was considered normal for black men in hip-hop, though not in wider culture.
Rap’s future queens followed this blueprint, too. In She Begat This, writer Joan Morgan points to “Lost Ones,” a furious breakup anthem from 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, as a “rare opportunity for the cathartic release hip-hop is known for, but one usually associated with testosterone.” In 2004, on “Knuck if You Buck,” Crime Mob members Diamond and Princess proved that Memphis crunk wasn’t exclusively a boys’ thing. During my college house party days, my friends and I would anticipate Princess’s verse—“Yeah, we knucking and bucking and ready to fight....”—and shout those lines with no shame and all conviction. On easily her most notable verse, Nicki Minaj played the role of cartoon villain and effectively crashed the boys’ club vibe of Kanye West’s “Monster.” “Before Nicki, there was a void,” Solomon says. “Nobody could eat off this. Now I think there’s more opportunity. That Rico Nasty can do stages like Coachella—that’s a big deal.”
On Anger Management, Rico acknowledges her fury as a source of empowerment. She’s in conversation with it on “Sell Out,” asserting that “the expression of anger is a form of rejuvenation.” On the EP’s cover, there is an image of a mouth yelling out from its perch on Nasty’s forehead, which brings to mind another crucial lyric from “Sell Out”: “I’m screaming inside of my head in hopes that I’m easing the pain.” With “Cheat Code,” she’s aware but not apologizing for her more disgruntled moment, offering a typically roaring delivery over anxious, hardcore bass. “I get in the booth and the guys are like, ‘If you don’t go hard you’re going to sound like a fucking chipmunk,’” Nasty tells me. “It’s the tone that gets people lit.”
At just 22, Rico’s understanding of positive rage release seems wise beyond her years. Her journey with it began in middle school, when she moved from a more suburban part of Prince George’s County, Maryland, to Baltimore to attend a boarding school populated mostly by black inner-city kids. She quickly learned that, to her peers, she “talked white.” Meanwhile, her mostly white teachers lacked the cultural context to relate to her perspective (“They don’t know what the fuck you’re living like,” she adds). During this time, she discovered that she could channel her uneasy emotions into creativity. It started with writing skits then poetry, eventually evolving into rhymes. “Learning how to dress myself and do my hair helped me feel better, but there wasn’t necessarily an outlet at that point that I could rely on,” she says. “Once I found art, it was a wrap.”
Now seven projects into her career, the rapper is confident about advocating for girls like her, who need to know that it’s okay to let go of anger—that it’s what makes them human, in fact. “I don’t want to be that stereotypical black girl that’s mad all the time,” she says. “But if that’s what you need to be to get your point across, just be that bitch. At the end of the day, you have a side of the story that needs to be heard, too.”
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork