6 Empowering Backstories Behind The Most Powerful Women In Hip-Hop & R&B

14 June 2018, 17:04 | Updated: 19 October 2018, 11:36

Rihanna, Cardi B and Beyoncé.
Rihanna, Cardi B and Beyoncé. Picture: Getty

Who run the world?

From humble beginnings to record-breaking highs, female artists have been dominating the music industry for years, and it's pretty amazing to see.

Women like Beyoncé, Rihanna and co are not only topping charts and selling out tours; they're business women. They're entrepreneurs. They're mothers. And they're inspiring generations of young girls and women around them.

But, like all of us, these trailblazing ladies have tackled bumps in the road along their journey to superstardom. Each has a unique story to tell. Without it, they arguably wouldn't have become the women we know and respect today.

We've teamed up with Smirnoff to shine light on these incredible women. Through their Equalising Music campaign, Smirnoff aim to double the amount of female and female-identifying headliners and escalate gender parity in the music industry.

So, if you're prepared to feel motivated and get hustling, read on.

  1. Cardi B

    Cardi B performs onstage during the Warner Music Group Pre-Grammy Party.
    Cardi B performs onstage during the Warner Music Group Pre-Grammy Party. Picture: Getty

    Growing up in The Bronx, Cardi B - real name Belcalis Almanzar - had a strained relationship with her parents, who separated during her pre-teens. She was a gang member of the Bloods since the age of 16, and three years later, she was fired from her supermarket job and turned to stripping. Cardi says stripping saved her life, as it helped her escape poverty and a physically abusive relationship.

    She soon became financially dependant, leaving her partner and amassing hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers thanks to her larger-than-life personality and empowering, hilarious videos. At 22, she was able to live off club hosting appearances before making her debut on VH1's 'Love & Hip-Hop: New York', where she became the breakout star. But, all the while, music was her dream.

    Releasing various remixes and freestyles lead to three successful mixtapes and the attention of Atlantics Records, and in February 2017, she signed her first solo recording contract. Enter: 'Bodak Yellow', the song that would change Cardi's life forever. It hit number one, and she became the first solo female rapper to do so with a debut single since Lauryn Hill in 1998.

    Two Grammy nods later, she released her hotly anticipated debut album, which continues to sit atop the charts with a bevy of catchy hit singles. Cardi, the lovable Bronx princess, has come a long way - and something tells us she's got more in her yet.

  2. Rihanna

    Rihanna attends the World Premiere of 'Oceans 8' in New York.
    Rihanna attends the World Premiere of 'Oceans 8' in New York. Picture: Getty

    Rihanna's childhood was deeply affected by her father's addictions to crack cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol. The stress from her parents' strained marriage caused her to suffer from excruciating headaches, which stopped when they separated.

    The star, who grew up in Barbados, recalled how her fellow high school pupils "hated" her because of her fairer complexion, and used to call her white. Nevertheless, she persisted and landed an audition as part of a girl group with veteran music producer Evan Rogers, who was vacationing in Barbados at the time. Rihanna stood out - Evans said she "carried herself like a star" aged just 15 - and soon relocated to the US to record her first ever demos.

    Fast-forward 13 years, and Rihanna is one of the most successful and renowned female musicians in the world. Her multi-million dollar empire isn't limited to her discography, either - it also encompasses fashion, cosmetics, film, philanthropy and more.

    By overcoming her childhood trauma, as well as a case of domestic abuse during her musical early career, the 'Diamonds' singers has proven herself time and time again as a powerful, influential figure, and her thick skin and unstoppable attitude is to be admired.

  3. Alicia Keys

    Alicia Keys performs in Times Square.
    Alicia Keys performs in Times Square. Picture: Getty

    Alicia hails from the Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood of Manhattan, and from an early age was exposed to street violence, prostitution, drugs and crime. She credits music for keeping her out of trouble and driving her, but recalls carrying a homemade knife around with her as protection and building up a tough exterior to avoid unwanted sexual advances.

    Her tenacious mother, whom Alicia praises for keeping her on the right path, raised her alone after her father left the family who Alicia was two. She has no contact with him. Her mother worked multiple jobs to support her and encouraged her pursue activities like music and dance, before sending her to performing arts school aged 12. There, Alicia flourished.

    One year later, a classically trained Alicia spotted performing her own songs at a gig by a music manager who considered her to be the "total package". Demos soon followed, and she signed her first contract. This would mark the beginning of a shining career - which features fifteen Grammys, five number one albums and a unparalleled legacy.

  4. Beyoncé

    Beyonce Knowles performs onstage during Coachella 2018.
    Beyonce Knowles performs onstage during Coachella 2018. Picture: Getty

    Before Beyoncé was making history at Coachella or headlining stadiums, she was attending dance classes and honing her vocal talent as a dedicated, driven child in Houston, Texas. She performed countless talent shows and beauty pageants, and aged 8, she teamed up with childhood friend Kelly Rowland to form a group called Girl's Tyme with four other girls.

    After appearing on - but failing to win - popular TV show Star Search, Beyonce's father Matthew Knowles quit his job and took over as their manager. This split the family's income by half and, after the group were cut from their record label, lead to Bey's parents' separation. Matthew wouldn't hold back in his criticism, and was widely reported to be a harsh, "pushy" manager.

    However, the group sprang back, and with a new name of Destiny's Child, began dominating R&B. Bey's family reunited (although her parents would later divorce after her father was found to have a mistress and a secret child) and the group, first a quartet, then a trio, went on to achieve major success. But, as we all know, this was only the beginning for Bey.

    After the group split in '01, Beyonce's solo career sky-rocketed and she quickly became music's leading lady. And, taking into account her film career, fashion endeavours, beauty and more, it's clear Bey's family troubles have never held her back.

  5. Nicki Minaj

    Nicki Minaj attends the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards.
    Nicki Minaj attends the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards. Picture: Getty

    Extroverted, optimistic and honest - Nicki Minaj is nothing short of a true Sagittarius. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Minaj lived in Saint James until the age of five, before moving to live with her mother in Queens, New York. Her father suffered from alcohol and drug addictions, and had a violent temper - he burnt down the family's house down when Nicki was a child.

    She grew up in a household that lacked discipline, and throughout her youth she struggled to keep down part-time jobs due to her attitude towards customers. She said she was fired from "at least 15 jobs" following her time at performing arts school, including waitressing, customer services and office management.

    Initially, the future Hip-Hop queen wanted to become an actress, but after her acting career struggled to take off, she turned to rapping. She soon inked her first contract and made a name for herself in a quartet called 'The Hood$tars'. After going solo, she adopted the surname 'Minaj', and her mixtapes picked up traction.

    But 2009 was when things really took off - a signing from Lil Wayne's Young Money Entertainment catapulted the 'Pink Friday' rapstress into superstardom. Failure wasn't an option for Nicki, and her impressive musical track record is case in point.

  6. Missy Elliott

    Missy Elliott performs onstage during day 1 of FYF Fest 2017.
    Missy Elliott performs onstage during day 1 of FYF Fest 2017. Picture: Getty

    Missy Elliott moved between Virginia and Carolina as her father was in the US marines. She was a class clown and keen performer, and loved school - she was so bright, she was accelerated two grades above her own in high school. But her friendships were important to her, and she purposely failed classes to go back to be with her friends.

    Missy grew up in extreme poverty whilst residing in Virginia, and her father was domestically abusive, making her scared to come home for fear of finding her mother harmed. Aged eight, Missy was molested by her cousin, and more violence followed before her mother left with her to live in a refuge centre. She credits her mother for making her strong.

    Before graduation high school, Missy formed an all-female R&B group called Fayze, and recruited a neighbourhood friend to produce their beats - that friend was none other than Timbaland. Their music garnered attention, and soon enough Missy was mixing with some of the brightest stars in Hip-Hop.

    She would go on to score the highest-charting debut for a female rapper at the time, and remains one of the most iconic voices in female rap. She's cited as an inspiration for many of today's artists, and it's clear to see why.

To find out all about the SMIRNOFF Equalising Music global initiative to double female DJ headliners, click here.