Rap battles are as much a part of hip-hop history as DJs, graffiti and breakdancing. Generally speaking, they feature two duelling performers taking it in turns to rap punchlines and disses at each other. These can be pre-written or improvised ‘freestyle’. Depending on the league, the battles are broadcast online or take place in front of a live audience. The rappers know beforehand who they will be up against and prepare themselves accordingly. The battle opponents set their boundaries amongst themselves, and these are usually universally respected. In German-speaking countries, there are numerous leagues from which successful rappers regularly emerge.
Cologne plays host to the first ever rap battle league in Germany to feature predominantly women. It is called F.R.E.S.H. – which stands for Female Rap Extreme Savage Hitting – and is run by a man, Sebastian, who was active as a battle rapper himself until 2017.
However, he was fed up of men dominating these events and also sick of hearing the often misogynistic punchlines in the battle raps. At the end of February 2020, he organised the first F.R.E.S.H. event with some 60 guests, having sought out the female rappers firstly through his personal network and later on Instagram too. As Sebastian explains: “The aim is for everyone to feel at ease and to have fun.” Mission accomplished, it would seem. For this article, we spoke to three female rappers who have taken to the stage at his event and all three describe F.R.E.S.H. as “a safe space”.
Liser is one of them. She works as a freelance editor, production manager and content creator at Cologne Custom Studios, where she is the only woman on the team. But at least her male colleagues take care to use gender-neutral language, or at least when she is in the room, she tells us. Liser originally wanted to be an event manager but that never happened. One rejection letter inspired her to write her first song and when she heard a few pals rapping, she thought to herself: “That’s cool, I can do that too!” While some of these friends helped her to produce beats, others tried to keep her ‘in her lane’ with disparaging comments but “there was always someone who understood me and had my back”. And because she wasn’t familiar with the female perspective in rap, she wrote her first texts from a male point of view: “The first three songs I wrote were awful, but then they started to get better.”
Liser has entered the ring at F.R.E.S.H. a few times – and last year, she made her debut at DLTLLY, currently the largest German-language battle rap league of them all. Her performance garnered plaudits in the form of whistling and cheering from the predominantly male crowd.
Dascha, on the other hand, came to battle rap via poetry slams and jam sessions. Before her first battle, she didn’t know what to expect so she just wrote a text and learnt it off by heart. When her (male) opponent began to insult her on stage, she was taken aback, but still kept coming back for more: “I really overdid it back then – you could find me on stage four times a week.” In recent years, she has taught herself production, mixing and video editing. Her time at poetry slams helped to school her in writing and emphasis, skills that she passes on to others in workshops.
During her first F.R.E.S.H. battle, Dascha forgot her text and resorted to freestyling instead. Although, as she explains, this is seen as being disrespectful in the scene, she is still made to feel welcome. She has also performed in the nationwide battle rap league, but feels most at home at F.R.E.S.H. “These days, there are more women in battle rap”, she says – a welcome change from the earlier days. Dascha encourages other female rappers to come to battles but many of them can’t seem to muster up the courage. So how does she manage to hold her own on stage in such a male-dominated scene? “I come from a family of very strong women”, she says. Her father also encouraged his daughters to go into male-dominated sectors and help to restore the balance themselves.
Leenjay was one of the first rappers at F.R.E.S.H. She says that she always enjoyed listening to German rap, especially with smart, humorous lyrics. When watching video battle tournament VBT on YouTube, she felt it was something she would like to do too. And now she is. In another league, she battled against a male rapper and had fun having a pop at ‘male clichés’: “After all, I don’t want to diss my own people.” In her view, “guys deserve to get dissed by girls more than the other way around”.
Leenjay sees battle rap as a kind of sport, but the verbal punches aren’t meant personally: “It’s like when two boxers step into the ring.” Battle rapping boosts her creativity and – at least as rapper Leenjay – her self-confidence: “My rap persona has a lot more guts than I do!”. On the whole, her family and friends support her in this pursuit. Others have tried to ridicule her but “they don’t know shit anyway”. In her writing process, she notices that she sometimes doesn’t allow herself to be “too sentimental”. Raps like this are all too easily dismissed as “kitschy” and Leenjay has no wish to reinforce the stereotype that female rappers only concern themselves with emotional matters. In rap, credibility is everything, which means that rappers – regardless of their gender – should write and rap what is on their mind. She would like for the lines to be more blurred between ‘female rap’ and rap – or ‘male rap’, as it should be called – and for “more women to take the plunge”. She is currently working on an EP with her friend KDY, with one song also featuring Liser. They may sling barbed rhymes at each other on stage at F.R.E.S.H., but off the stage, the battle rap queens are joining forces to take the Cologne female rap scene to the next level.
(by Carla H. Bartels)